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Blurry portrait of a mass murderer

Times Staff Writers

The gunman who killed five students and then himself at Northern Illinois University on Thursday was an award-winning graduate student, described by professors as friendly and respectful.

Stephen Kazmierczak, 27, donned a dark coat and black ski cap before he began firing into a crowded lecture hall. But that was an image in sharp contrast to the well-adjusted man who was attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“He looked like every other middle-class, clean-cut college kid,” said Christopher R. Larrison, a professor of social work who hired Kazmierczak last fall to help record research project data. “He was a personable young man, very earnest.”

But Kazmierczak’s life also appeared to be turbulent. According to police and people who knew him, he bounced around in side jobs and had stopped taking medication, leaving his behavior “erratic.” He also may have been in a romantic relationship that recently ended.

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Kazmierczak bought one gun in December and two more in February, all purchased legally, that he carried during the rampage, police said.

After attending Northern Illinois as an undergraduate, where he won a dean’s award, Kazmierczak was accepted last year into the school of social work at the University of Illinois.

His days at the Urbana-Champaign campus appeared to be going well. He was earning good grades, and his graduate advisor, Janet Carter-Black, describes him as having been engaging and flexible.

However, acquaintances told police that Kazmierczak’s behavior appeared to change after he stopped taking his medication.

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That was not the only change Kazmierczak made in the last few months.

He began working 10 to 20 hours a week for Larrison in September, earning about $12 an hour. “His work was very good,” Larrison said. “He seemed like a very solid person.” But Kazmierczak quit a few weeks later, when he got a job as a prison guard at Rockville Correctional Facility in western Indiana.

Acquaintances said Kazmierczak wanted a career in the prison system, and the job seemed like a good match with his studies. But he quit before training ended, working only from Sept. 24 to Oct. 9, said Indiana Department of Corrections spokesman Doug Garrison.

Kazmierczak went back to work for Larrison, once again entering data from surveys. He abruptly quit again a few weeks later.

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“I asked him if he needed the money, but he said he didn’t,” Larrison said.

Faculty members at the University of Illinois and Northern Illinois said Friday that they were stunned by Kazmierczak’s rampage and their own failure to see any signs of a troubled individual.

“There was nothing on the surface that I saw that was indicative of the kind of behavior we saw,” Larrison said. “I was astounded when I learned what happened. It was like being hit by a meteorite.”

Northern Illinois professor Charles Cappell said Kazmierczak was one of the stars of his 2005 sociology classes who helped fellow students through the material. Cappell recruited him as a tutor for three semesters at the research laboratory he runs, and later wrote Kazmierczak a letter of recommendation.

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“He was searching for what his calling was going to be,” Cappell said. “The last I heard from Steve was in an e-mail in September. He was upbeat about the program, but [said] he missed all of us in the lab.”

On Friday, Cappell and nearly two dozen graduate students -- many of whom knew Kazmierczak -- gathered at the lab with grief counselors. “We’re feeling lost, anguish, anger,” Cappell said. “This wasn’t the Stephen we knew.”

Police were looking for a woman with whom Kazmierczak may have had a relationship, according to several news organizations. But Northern Illinois campus Police Chief Donald Grady said Friday at a news conference that the shooting was not the result of a failed love affair.

Kazmierczak drove a white Honda Civic to the DeKalb campus and parked in a lot near Cole Hall. He walked up a snowy path, entered the building and then kicked in an exit door to enter the lecture hall, Grady said.

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Police said Friday that they found 48 handgun shell casings and six shotgun shells on the stage in the bloodied lecture hall. Kazmierczak carried a Remington 12-gauge shotgun, which he had hidden in a guitar case, Glock and Sig Sauer 9-millimeter handguns and a Hi-Point 380 pistol, according to agents for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

On Friday, hundreds of grieving students and red-eyed DeKalb residents -- many clad in the school colors of red and black -- silently streamed up the snowy walkway leading to the Christ the Teacher University Parish for a noon Mass and community vigil. The mourners clutched hands and crumpled tissues -- and, for the most part, tried to ignore the media that had descended on campus.

“I still can’t think about it without reliving it, and that’s horrible,” said George Gaynor, 23, a senior who was in the lecture hall when Kazmierczak opened fire. “I haven’t slept. I’m feeling so much. It’s overwhelming. I’m just exhausted.”

On the bitterly cold day, the mourners crammed into the wooden pews for comfort and warmth. Latecomers mingled in a hallway, peering through the open glass doors, straining to hear.

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“When I first got the calls yesterday, all I could hear was: ‘My God, my kids,’ ” Monsignor Glenn Nelson said. “It will probably happen again, and that frightens us. We live in a world that is dangerous.”

The victims were identified as Ryanne Mace, 19, of Carpentersville, Ill., a psychology major whose last words online were a Valentine’s Day wish to friends; Catalina Garcia, 20, of Cicero, Ill., who dreamed of becoming a teacher; Gayle Dubowski, 20, of Carol Stream, Ill., who had a penchant for musical theater; Daniel Parmenter, 20, of Westchester, Ill., a rugby player who helped fraternity brothers organize bingo games at nursing homes; and Julianna Gehant, 32, who spent 12 years with the Army Corps of Engineers, building schools in Laos and barracks in Bosnia.

The geology class at Cole Hall was an elective Gehant had taken for fun, said friend Josh Becvar, a fellow member of the university’s Veterans Club.

“It’s not ever going to make sense to me,” Becvar said. “She served her country overseas. But she died here in a classroom.”

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

ralph.vartabedian@ latimes.com

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Huffstutter reported from DeKalb and Vartabedian from Los Angeles.


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