Killer was ‘a quiet, smarter kid’

Stephen Kazmierczak
Stephen Kazmierczak

Before Thursday, the words “brilliant” and “quiet,” not “mass murderer,” were used to describe Steven Kazmierczak by people who knew him.

The Kazmierczak described by university officials – a respected, intelligent student who never ran afoul of the law – sounds like the one that people who knew him remember. But that same Kazmierczak walked into a Northern Illinois University lecture hall Thursday, killed five students and wounded 16 other people before committing suicide.

Jason Rojek of Lake in the Hills, who grew up with Kazmierczak in Elk Grove Village, said he was a quiet child who stuck to the sidelines. Kazmierczak graduated from Elk Grove High School in 1998.

“He definitely was a quiet, smarter kid who didn’t have a lot of friends,” Rojek said. “We knew he was a little lost growing up. He didn’t have a lot of friends.”

Rojek said Kazmierczak was a target of teasing and was rumored to be mentally ill.

Kazmierczak spent more than a year at the Thresholds-Mary Hill House, an inpatient psychiatric rehabilitation center, where his parents placed him after high school because he had become “unruly” at home, former house manager Louise Gbadamashi told The Associated Press.

Kazmierczak was very complex, at times even engaging and obviously very intelligent, she said. But he also could be passive-aggressive and had to be encouraged to socialize because he preferred to stay in his room and work on his computer.

“He never wanted to identify with being mentally ill,” she said. “That was part of the problem.”

Gbadamashi said Kazmierczak often resisted taking his medications and would lose privileges, such as passes to spend time at home. But, she said, Kazmierczak eventually became “compliant.”

She said he was a “cutter,” inflicting small cuts on his arms, in an effort to gain attention. She said the wounds were minor and she thought they were done because he saw how the staff responded to another person at the home with a more serious cutting problem.

Gbadamashi said she couldn’t remember any instances of Kazmierczak being violent, saying that he preferred to avoid conflict.

“He wasn’t that kind of guy who would fight,” she said. “He would run.”

Friends said what Kazmierczak lacked in social graces, he more than made up for in the classroom. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sociology from NIU, and University Police Chief Donald Grady said he was well-respected among faculty, staff and students.

Grady said Kazmierczak had stopped taking medication for an unnamed illness several weeks ago, which made his behavior “erratic.”

Kurt Garcia, 23, had Kazmierczak in two of his classes and had him as a lab assistant in a third. Garcia graduated in 2006 with a sociology degree.

“He was really smart,” said Garcia, who grew up in Chicago and still lives in DeKalb. “He was always helping students. He sat in front of the class, always raising his hand, always helping.”

Other details of his life emerged Friday, including short-lived stints as a prison guard and service in the military. Kazmierczak enlisted in the Army in September 2001, but was discharged in February 2002 for an “unspecified” reason, Army spokesman Paul Boyce said.

When 23-year-old Jarrod Rice first heard Kazmierczak’s name as that of the shooter Friday afternoon, it rang a bell. But Rice, a copy editor at the Northwest Herald, didn’t immediately connect the name with that of a former next-door neighbor.

During the 2003-04 school year, Rice and his roommate, photographer Ben Woloszyn, lived on the 10th floor of Tower C in Stevenson Hall. They shared a living-room wall with the single dorm room that Kazmierczak called home.

The former roommates described the shooter as a quiet man who mostly stayed to himself. On weekends, if their music got too loud, Kazmierczak would knock on the door and ask them to keep it down, Rice said.

“I never really saw him with a lot of people, but other than that he was pretty normal,” said Woloszyn, now a news photographer in Colorado. “He seemed like a bookworm.

“He was in his room a lot and was not very social.”

But both men said that if Kazmierczak seemed disconnected from the other students, it could have been because he was an older student living alongside underclassmen.

“I guess he was polite,” Rice said. “He was just really quiet. I wouldn’t have guessed he would do anything.”

Kazmierczak often would play the video game Counter Strike, a first-person shooting game, the roommates said, but they were quick to add that the game was nothing unusual for dormitory halls.

And Rice remembered Kazmierczak having a gracious public face in the sociology classroom and student laboratories.

“He was helpful,” Rice said. “He seemed nice, there.”

It’s that same timidness that makes Kazmierczak’s shooting spree all the more difficult for his acquaintances to understand.

“My jaw just dropped,” Garcia said.

Exactly what sort of career he planned for himself was unclear. But he wrote papers on self-injury in prison and the role of religion in the creation of early U.S. prisons. The research paper on self-injury in prison said his interests also included political violence and peace and social justice.

Speaking Friday in Lakeland, Fla., Kazmierczak’s distraught father did not immediately provide any clues to what led to the bloodshed.

“Please leave me alone; ... this is a very hard time for me,” Robert Kazmierczak told reporters, throwing his arms up and weeping after emerging briefly from his house. He declined to further comment about his son and went back inside his house.

• Sycamore Journals reporter Benjamin Steckler and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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