Raising Adam Lanza: Devoted mother was his first victimShortly after her move from New Hampshire to Newtown, Conn., in 1998, Nancy Lanza had good news about her troubled son.
By: Alaine Griffin and Josh Kovner, Hartford (Conn.) Courant
Shortly after her move from New Hampshire to Newtown, Conn., in 1998, Nancy Lanza had good news about her troubled son.
“Adam is doing well here, and seems to be enjoying the new school,” Lanza wrote to a friend back in Kingston, N.H., in a Feb. 9, 1999, e-mail.
But Adam, 6, then diagnosed with a condition that made it difficult for him to manage and respond to sights, touch and smell, eventually struggled in the first grade at his new school — Sandy Hook Elementary.
His mother would respond, touching off a 10-year educational shuffle with moves in and out of schools and programs that addressed his sensory integration disorder and another diagnosis that would come by middle school: Asperger’s syndrome.
Adam would attend public school, take lessons at home, try private school for a couple of months, return to public school and attend Newtown High School, although he left after his sophomore year. He went to college at 16 and earned A’s and B’s — but it didn’t last. He was out in a year. He then went to a community college, and dropped out in the first semester.
A series of significant life changes followed for Adam as the number of people with whom he had contact began to shrink.
His parents divorced.
He abruptly cut off contact with his father, Peter, in 2010, and grew estranged from his older brother. He spent more time alone at home.
His mother, who loved to travel, told friends she was grooming him to be independent someday. There were even plans to leave New England — their lifelong home — so Adam could study history and possibly earn a college degree.
But mother and son never left. Adam, now 20, had a plan of his own. He returned to Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.
There he would join the lexicon of suicidal mass killers, leaving many to ponder the question of what led a 20-year-old to commit the second-deadliest school shooting in American history. A final police report has yet to be released.
No place in the world
In the weeks after the Newtown massacre, the Hartford Courant, in partnership with the PBS investigative news program “Frontline,” contacted family members and friends on both Nancy Lanza’s and Peter Lanza’s side. Some who were interviewed agreed to be named while others shared information and recollections on the condition that they not be named.
Reporters also reviewed messages and e-mails spanning the 10 years in which Nancy Lanza wrote to close friends. In the notes, she chronicled portions of her own life, from her mysterious potentially fatal illness, to comments about her marriage, to progress reports on a young Adam.
What emerges in this exploration of a still unfolding story is a portrait of a mother, apparently devoted but perhaps misguided, struggling to find her son a place in society, and a boy, exceptionally smart in some areas, profoundly deficient in others, who never found a place in the world.
Although he had played musical instruments, studied foreign languages and had a part-time job at a computer shop, Adam remained isolated and distant.
On Dec. 14, Adam Lanza, 20, wearing a utility vest with pockets stuffed with ammunition and carrying three of his mother’s firearms, blasted his way into Sandy Hook Elementary.
In a six-minute rampage, armed with a Glock, a SIG Sauer and a Bushmaster rifle, he killed six women, 20 first-graders and, eventually, himself.
Before he drove to the school, he killed his mother, shooting her in the head at close range four times as she lay in bed at their home.
A stunned state and confounded nation mourned. Memorial after memorial recalled the lives of precious little ones taken too soon, and the courageous acts of their educators on that horrific school day.
There was sympathy from around the world for grieving loved ones, including an emotional visit to Newtown from President Obama just days after the massacre.
There, as the nation listened, the president remembered the slain educators and children during a service at Newtown High School, saying each of the names of those who were murdered.
But there was one name the president never mentioned — Nancy Lanza.
Throughout the town, there were memorials: 26 candles, 26 angels, 26 handprints like leaves on a tree.
But the question of his first victim that day was far more complicated.
In some quarters, Nancy Lanza, 52 at the time of her death, is viewed as a villain, a gun-obsessed mother who allowed her disturbed son access to firearms and let him fester in the basement playing violent video games while she traveled and enjoyed night life.
But close friends said that picture is unfair and that, in their eyes, Nancy was trying to do right by Adam.
“Her life revolved around caring for Adam. She loved to hang out with her friends at the bar and she loved to travel and she took time out for herself, but her children and her family came first,” said a friend from Newtown, John Bergquist.
Nancy Jean Champion was born in Salem, Mass., on Sept. 6, 1960. Together with her sister and two brothers, she grew up on the family’s farm in Kingston, N.H. — a homestead that dates to the 1700s — tending animals and working the soil.
She would later meet Peter Lanza; the two married on June, 6, 1981.
The newlyweds built their own home on the family’s Kingston farmland. While Peter went to college to become an accountant, Nancy was the breadwinner, working in the new accounts division of John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Boston’s financial district, an hour’s drive away.
Nancy and Peter’s first son, Ryan John Lanza, was born on April 10, 1988. The new mom continued to work, dropping off her son at day care before taking the ride to Boston each day.
But the balancing act grew tough through the summer of 1991, when Nancy became pregnant again, this time with Adam. She suffered severe morning sickness, and by November 1991, she had taken a medical leave of absence after developing hypoglycemia, a blood sugar disorder.
On April 22, 1992, Adam Peter Lanza was born.
She confided in Marvin LaFontaine, a close friend and leader of Ryan’s Cub Scout pack, that she was suffering from a potentially fatal autoimmune deficiency, an unspecified disease that seemed to come and go. She told LaFontaine that she hadn’t even revealed her illness to family members.
Move to Newtown
When her husband landed a job with General Electric in Connecticut in 1998, Lanza agreed to the move because she believed it would be good for the boys.
Nancy Lanza would settle in quickly at her new home in Newtown’s Sandy Hook section.
Her elder son, Ryan, 10 at the time, found niches early in Newtown. He joined the basketball, karate and debate teams. And there was good news about her younger son, Adam, who had been diagnosed with the sensory disorder before she left New Hampshire. Adam had a birthday party, with 26 “new friends.”
By May of that year, Adam was even performing in plays.
“Adam has taken it very seriously, even practicing facial expressions in the mirror!” Lanza wrote in an e-mail to LaFontaine.
In spite of those activities, Adam Lanza had difficulty relating to others, even as a young child.
In kindergarten in Kingston, he had been “coded,” or identified, as needing an “individual education plan” and extra attention, both in the classroom and at home, LaFontaine said.
“There was a shyness and a learning thing and they were trying to unravel it,” he said of Adam, whom Nancy Lanza would bring along to Ryan’s Cub Scout meetings.
“Adam was a quiet kid. He never said a word,” LaFontaine said. “There was a weirdness about him and Nancy warned me once at one of the Scout meetings ... ‘Don’t touch Adam.’ She said he just can’t stand that. ... He’d become teary-eyed and I think he would run to his mother.”
At Sandy Hook Elementary in 1999, Lanza expressed concerns about Adam’s interaction in class, said Wendy Wipprecht of Newtown, a writer and editor who met Nancy that year.
Wipprecht’s autistic son, Miles, and Adam were in the first grade together at Sandy Hook Elementary. The two mothers would share stories about their sons, Wipprecht said, and Miles was one of more than 20 classmates who attended Adam’s sixth birthday party at a duckpin bowling center in Danbury.
“I guess she was worried that he had ... some kind of neurobiological condition,” Wipprecht recalled. “I thought it was his shyness and uncomfortableness ... in large social situations. I mean, a class of 20 people is a lot for a 6-year-old to handle.”
She said Lanza told her she was considering taking Adam out of Sandy Hook and enrolling him in a local parochial school “because classes were smaller and she thought he might do better there.”
When she did not see Adam at Sandy Hook the following school year, Wipprecht said, she assumed he went to the parochial school.
But Adam never actually left the Newtown school district. He remained enrolled, entering a special program in which he did prepared lessons at home, according to a family member of Nancy Lanza who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Lanza would take Adam back to Sandy Hook Elementary after hours to do the work he could not do at home.
Adam’s problems with social interaction and communicating with others began to escalate in middle school, when the chaos and noise of students changing classes upset him. Nancy Lanza’s response was to withdraw Adam from the middle school.
But when Lanza again raised the possibility of moving to a smaller town with smaller schools, a professional in the Newtown system told her that Adam needed stability and that moving would be the worst thing she could do, the family member said.
She took that advice and stayed put, but she wasn’t always accepting of help for Adam.
“There’s a lot of counseling help available and not all of it’s good,” LaFontaine said. “She was very particular about who she would bring him to.”
Asperger’s not linked to violence
Asperger’s is a disorder that is part of the autism spectrum. It is marked by difficulty with social interaction. Many with Asperger’s are otherwise high-functioning people. There is no predisposition toward violence among those with Asperger’s, experts say.
“It’s very important for people to know that there is absolutely no correlation between the diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome and a predilection toward violent behavior,” said Dr. Harold Schwartz, chief psychiatrist at the Institute of Living in Hartford.
In 2006, Adam entered Newtown High School. More than 1,700 students enjoy such amenities as newly renovated athletic fields, a cutting-edge library and the state’s largest school auditorium.
When Adam Lanza entered the school, he began to spend time with Richard Novia, a former corporate security director and licensed private investigator who was security chief for Newtown schools.
Novia was an adviser to the tech club, which he had started in the 1990s with three students. It had grown to 40 students by the time Adam arrived.
The students produced Channel 17, an award-winning, townwide cable access channel on which they showed filmed football and basketball games, parades, graduations, and other school events. The kids programmed robots and rebuilt computers. Some of them run tech companies now.
The club also became a family of sorts, bonding during overnight romps in the school, with Novia presiding over a slate of events that included capture the flag and video-game marathons.
One of the mainstays of the club was Ryan Lanza, four years older than his little brother. Ryan often served as kind of a caretaker when Adam was away from Nancy Lanza.
Novia tagged the skinny, withdrawn Adam right away as someone who could be bullied, and immediately reached out to Adam’s mother.
“I interacted with his parent early on to find out as much as I could,” Novia said. “As a staff member, and certainly a person who’s going to be overseeing your child, I need to know what I’m dealing with ... so my interaction with Nancy Lanza was really, ‘Tell me about Adam. Tell me what, how you deal with Adam.’”
Novia said that there was a climate of caring in the school, and that children such as Adam had administrators, teachers, cafeteria workers and custodians watching out for them. Adam Lanza was enrolled in a special-education program geared for children with social-interaction deficiencies. Novia said Adam had a school psychologist and attended mainstream classes in his core subjects.
But he also had serious difficulties. An image has emerged in the media of a scared child, hugging the wall and clinging to his briefcase in the din of the hallways between class bells.
But it went beyond that. A change in routine or unwanted excitement, such as his friends suddenly queuing up for a game of capture the flag, could lead to what Novia described as a complete shutdown.
“Adam had episodes, it was the best way I can describe them to you, where he would completely withdraw. Again, he would go backwards ... he would pull back within himself entirely. And getting him to come back out of that required my attention.”
Novia called Nancy Lanza only once to come to the school, but other administrators frequently requested her presence. She could be at the high school as many as two or three times a week dealing with Adam’s behavior issues, Novia said.
But as Adam entered his sophomore year at Newtown High School, Novia thought the boy was making progress.
Adam “would master (technical tasks) very quickly. But still to get him to speak one or two words, it was very, very hard,” Novia said. “But over time I was able to get closer and closer to him, to a point where I felt that I could sit next to him and he wouldn’t pull away.”
He said Nancy Lanza recognized the progress and acknowledged it.
“Yes, she did. She saw it working,” he said. “Not just her. Administrators, teachers, all the students that were around him would report that slowly, but surely, he was coming out.”
During a search of the Lanza home after the school shootings, police found thousands of dollars worth of graphically violent video games.
And detectives working the scene of the massacre are exploring whether Adam Lanza might have been emulating the shooting range or a video-game scenario as he moved from room to room at Sandy Hook, spewing bullets, law enforcement sources have told the Courant.
Before he killed his mother and set off for Sandy Hook Elementary, Adam Lanza destroyed the hard drive on his computer.
Adam’s life after high school was marked by change. His parents divorced in the fall of 2009 after a separation that — according to those close to both sides of the Lanza family — started in 2001. In divorce records on file in Superior Court in Stamford, the couple cited irreconcilable differences. Peter Lanza remarried in 2011.
According to records, Peter Lanza paid Nancy yearly alimony totaling $240,000 in 2010; $265,000 in 2011; and $289,800 in 2012. Peter Lanza was solely responsible for the cost of college for Adam and brother Ryan. He also was responsible for buying Adam a car.
The Lanzas had joint custody of Adam, who was 17 in 2009, although he lived with his mother.
After the divorce, Peter Lanza continued to see his sons weekly, taking them skiing, hiking, rock climbing, to coin shows and on overnights at his Stamford apartment, the person who has recently been in touch with Peter Lanza said.
Peter Lanza often would help Adam with his math and science homework and described his son as “highly intelligent” and a “voracious reader,” the person said.
But during the following year, 2010, Adam severed all contact with his father.
“Something happened with Adam,” the person in touch with Lanza said. “Given the amount of time they were spending with each other, it was a sudden shift.”
During this period, Adam also cut contacts with his brother, Ryan, who lived in Hoboken, N.J., and worked at a New York City financial firm.
After the divorce, Nancy Lanza traveled more, leaving Adam alone for days at a time, something, she told friends, she was doing to encourage Adam to be more independent.
She went to fine restaurants in Connecticut and Boston and traveled to England, New Orleans and San Francisco on occasion, her friends said. In an e-mail to LaFontaine after her divorce in the fall of 2009, she said she was in Boston “on a regular basis,” and usually stayed at the Fairmont, the Four Seasons or the Ritz-Carlton.
When she went away, she would leave prepared meals in the refrigerator for Adam. She spent this past Thanksgiving in northern New England with family, one in a series of trips she took without her son.
Adam eventually earned his high school diploma, according to a person close to Peter Lanza. He also worked part time at a computer-repair shop in Newtown until it went out of business.
In the summer of 2008, when he was 16, Adam enrolled in classes at Western Connecticut State University. He did well, earning a 3.26 grade-point average. He received an A in a computer class, an A-minus in an American history class and a B in a macroeconomics class. He was given a C in philosophy, and he dropped out of a German language class.
His mother told friends that Adam embraced a more adult environment in college, but it didn’t last. He was out in a year. In 2010, he enrolled in classes at Norwalk Community College but dropped out in the first semester.
After that, there was no more school for the 19-year-old. He sprouted to about 5 feet 10 and got his driver’s license in 2010. He played the saxophone and a stringed instrument, and was studying Mandarin Chinese.
During this period, friends and family members said, Nancy Lanza disclosed little about her struggles with Adam. But on one recent occasion, she confided in Rich Collins, another friend in Newtown and father of a boy with autism. Something was bothering her, she told Collins.
“He was very sensitive to touch and didn’t want to be touched,” Collins said of Adam. “That used to hurt her. She would get upset about that.”
Asked about the Asperger’s experience, the person close to Peter Lanza said Adam’s father found it challenging.
Guns at home
Adam was exposed to guns at an early age and he continued to shoot at target ranges with his mother through his late teens, friends and other sources said. Shooting weapons was something Peter and Nancy Lanza did with their children dating to the early days in Kingston.
But after the killings, investigators would focus on Adam Lanza’s involvement with firearms and his immersion in the video-game culture as they tried to unravel the riddle of Lanza’s last two years.
Nancy Lanza purchased four firearms between 2010 and 2012, according to law enforcement sources. During that time, she told a friend, landscaper Dan Holmes of Newtown, that she took both sons target shooting at a gun range.
“She said she took her kids target shooting, that they bonded over that,” said Holmes, who planted flower beds and tended the two acres surrounding Nancy and Peter Lanza’s $500,000 home.
After the massacre at Sandy Hook, friends said, Nancy Lanza has been unfairly portrayed as a “gun nut” when, in fact, she enjoyed shooting firearms as a hobby and used the activity to bond with her sons.
“She’s been described as some sort of survivalist, or a prepper who was preparing for the government and the economy crumbling, which was simply not the case,” Bergquist said.
Lots of time alone
The amount of time Adam Lanza spent in the basement alone, playing video games, also has become a subject of police scrutiny, law-enforcement sources told the Courant. Police investigators scoured the house after the rampage and found Lanza’s collection of video games in the basement game room.
Nancy Lanza described renovations to the basement in a Feb. 12, 1999, e-mail to LaFontaine, She said the basement included “a gameroom for the boys. ... It will actually be two rooms and a bathroom. In addition, I will have a laundry room/exercise room for myself and perhaps a small shop area for my newest hobby (refinishing antiques).”
A contractor who did extensive work inside the Lanza home in 2011 said he frequently saw Adam Lanza going in and out of his upstairs bedroom.
Bergquist said Adam Lanza slept in the basement game room during the renovations in 2011. He said his mother spent her days at the house during the construction and slept at night at an inn in Newtown “because she didn’t want to sleep around a big mess. She would go home during the day and be with Adam.”
But there were stretches when he was alone in the house for days at a time.
During the week leading up to the shooting rampage, Nancy Lanza spent at least one night away in an upscale New Hampshire hotel, while Adam stayed home alone.
It was Wednesday night, Dec. 12, 2012, 36 hours before Adam’s rampage. She sent a Facebook message from the fancy dining room to Bergquist. In it, Lanza describes how she is dining next to a finely dressed couple — with tattoos poking out of their evening wear.
“A shimmery evening dress looks less formal with daggers and skulls peeking out,” Lanza wrote to Bergquist. “Be forewarned,” she added as a joke, “tattoo girl has talked me into a dragon tattoo.”
Earlier in 2012, Nancy Lanza had once again begun to talk with friends and family members about a big change: moving to Washington state or North Carolina so Adam could once again attend college and pursue a degree in history.
To friends and family, Nancy was again looking for the right educational fit for her now adult son — even if it meant leaving New England, where she had lived her entire life.
But she never got the chance.
Adam Lanza had plans of his own.
Dave Altimari and Edmund H. Mahony contributed to this report. Reporting from “Frontline” also is included. The “Frontline” program based on this reporting airs at 9 p.m. today on WDSE-TV Channel 8.