NEWTOWN, Conn. — When he was a student at Newtown High, Adam Lanza would sometimes have what a school employee referred to as "an episode."
No one knew what might bring it on. The shy teenager "would just shut down," said Richard Novia, a former advisor to the school tech club. He said Lanza would get together with other technology-minded students to play fantasy role-playing video games and for sleepovers at school. The thin, gangly boy would take part with enjoyment.
At school, Lanza would shuffle through the halls, clutching his briefcase to his chest and avoiding eye contact. At times, no one could predict when, he would simply shut down. He'd sit staring at the ground, refusing to talk to anyone.
"It would be total emotional withdrawal," Novia said. "He wouldn't hurt anyone or yell. He wouldn't speak or talk; he would walk away. Not in a defiant way, but in a scared way. Like, 'Leave me alone.'"
Acquaintances of the family on Sunday drew a sharper picture of Lanza, 20, as investigators attempted to retrace his path last week from the 4,000-square-foot home where he shot his mother multiple times to a nearby elementary school. There, he fatally shot 26 students and staff members and then killed himself.
When Lanza would have one of his episodes, Novia said, he would telephone Nancy Lanza. She was "a great parent," he said, and would often come within minutes, sitting with her son and making him feel better.
"She could pull him back in line," Novia said.
Lanza appears to have left high school early, and at age 16 began taking classes at Western Connecticut State University in nearby Danbury, where he earned a B average.
He dropped out of German as he was about to fail the class, but earned an A-minus in American history and a B in macroeconomics. He took his last class at the university in summer 2009, the year before he would have been a senior in high school.
Starting college at 16 would have been jarring, Novia said, especially as Lanza's older brother left for college and later for a job in Manhattan, and their parents separated, leaving Lanza at home with his mother. The couple divorced in 2009.
"If I was to read the situation, he found himself so far disconnected from the world with no possibility of interaction. I'm sure he did not make friends well in a college setting," Novia said.
Lanza, at least in high school, was fond of joining "LAN parties" — short for Local Area Network — in which students would gather at someone's house and hook up their computers into a small network. They played not hard-core shooter games but strategy games such as "World of Warcraft" and "Mario Party."
"We were not in favor of first-person shooter games," said one of those who played with Lanza, Joshua Milas.
Lanza's older brother, Ryan Lanza, 24, was also a member of the tech club.
"There was a clear disconnect. Ryan was outgoing, energetic, well-respected, recognized for his talents," Novia said. Ryan took care of his brother, but Novia said he heard they had become estranged in recent years.
"There's obviously dysfunction between the siblings," Novia said. "I could very easily see Ryan saying, 'Enough is enough. I've been your caregiver when I was supposed to be a teenager. I've got a life to live.'"
Nancy Lanza struggled to take care of her son and live a life of her own, friends said.
John Bergquist, who got to know Nancy Lanza at a neighborhood bar where both were regulars, described her as a New Hampshire farm girl turned sophisticate, a Red Sox fan with season tickets who traveled to ride hot air balloons, attend jazz concerts in New Orleans, and visit friends in London, New York and San Francisco, sometimes taking her older son Ryan along.
She drove a silver BMW. She also hunted with falcons.
Bergquist remembered going with Nancy Lanza to see another friend from the bar who was having trouble getting a turkey back into its coop. After watching the struggle, he said, Lanza — who was elegantly dressed — "lifted the gate, walked in, grabbed the turkey by the feet and said, 'This is how you do it.'"
Lanza had a soft side when it came to her younger son, he said.
"She always spoke very lovingly about him. She was devoted to him, catering to him and his limitations," he said. "He wasn't troubled or violent in any way — he was a normal kid with a disability. … He had trouble being with people."
Nancy Lanza appeared to have made the decision to move so that Adam could attend college in another state. She started looking at schools in Washington state and North Carolina.
"She was willing to uproot her life," Bergquist said. "Nancy pretty much made it clear that she needed to be with him because he couldn't handle being on his own."
At Western Connecticut, Adam Lanza did not work toward any major or degree, said college official Paul Steinmetz, and was still on the rolls at the time of the shooting, though not actively enrolled.
Few remember him.
German professor Renate Ludanyi said her records showed she gave him a "repeat" at the end of his time there — just short of failing. "I must have had some hope that he was smart and could do it again, instead of really flunking him," she said.
"Probably he didn't come to class very often," she said. "You get so many students, they come and go. Some speak with you, some are outstanding, some … you barely remember when the semester's over."
Lanza fit into that last category, she said. "He never talked to me. He came in, sat down and left. He was just there."
Bengali and Hennessy-Fiske reported from Newtown, Conn., and Murphy from Seattle.