Oregon shooter a lonely youth with grudge against religion
As the horrific details of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., slowly came together on Thursday evening like a grisly jigsaw puzzle, one crucial piece remained missing.
A portrait of the shooter.
Federal law enforcement officials identified the gunman, who was killed by police, as 26-year-old Chris Harper Mercer of the nearby town of Winchester.
But information about Mercer remained fragmented as of Friday morning, much of it scattered online like a shredded photograph.
His family has so far declined to comment. His father, Ian Harper, told reporters simply that he was “shocked” by the news of his son's acts.
Many of the scraps of information about Mercer uncovered so far by the media did not fit together easily and there was no immediate way to be sure that the various social media and Internet utterances and postings that appeared to come from him actually did.
Mercer was mixed race, according to an Internet dating profile that appeared to come from him, yet his e-mail address referenced an iron cross, a symbol often associated with Nazis. He described himself as a “lover,” but posed with guns and posted photos glorifying violence.
But two things are increasingly clear. Mercer was a quiet, withdrawn young man who struggled to connect with other people, instead seeking attention online or, ultimately, through violence.
“Seems the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight,” he wrote in a blog expressing admiration for Roanoke, Va., shooter Vester Flanagan, according to the Daily Beast.
And for reasons unknown, he apparently bore a deadly grudge against organized religion.
“Not Religious, Not Religious, but Spiritual” he wrote on one dating Web site, also listing membership in a group called “Doesn't Like Organized Religion.”
On Thursday morning, those two aspects of his personality apparently drove Mercer to go on a rampage, shooting at least 16 people at Umpqua Community College, killing nine and injuring seven.
According to survivors, Mercer asked his hostages if they were Christians.
“The shooter was lining people up and asking if they were Christian. If they said yes, then they were shot in the head. If they said no or didn't answer, they were shot in the legs,” a witness said in a text message to the Roseburg Beacon News, according to its publisher.
Yet, the picture of Mercer remains murky.
Some of the confusion is deliberate. During a press briefing Thursday evening, Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin refused to name Mercer, saying that doing so would “give him credit for this horrific act of cowardice.”
Hanlin appeared to be referencing a growing movement that argues against naming mass shooters. Survivors and victims' family members believe naming the culprits only encourages copycats.
Little is known about Mercer, who records show moved to the Roseburg area with his mother in 2013.
He was born in the United Kingdom and came to the United States as a young boy, his stepsister Carmen Nesnick, told CBS Los Angeles. Mercer moved to California, where he attended the Switzer Center. The school in Torrance serves “students from 3rd grade to 22 years of age who have moderate to severe learning disabilities, emotional issues, attention problems and behavioral disorders,” according to the Switzer Center's Web site.
A graduation ad printed in the Daily Breeze, the local newspaper for Los Angeles County's South Bay region, lists a “Chris Harper-Mercer” as a member of the Switzer Center's class of 2009.
Rick Rada, a classmate who graduated from the school the same year as Mercer, spoke to The Washington Post over the phone late Thursday evening.
“To me Chris was just an ordinary guy, really,” Rada said.
Rada would not say if Mercer had a learning disability or behavioral disorder, but he said his classmate “was one of the silent types, like me.”
“Everyone in the school knew who each other was,” said Rada, who, with Mercer, was part of a graduating class of just five people. “Some made fun of others, others made fun of others. You know?”
Despite being a silent kid, Mercer could be coaxed into opening up, Rada said.
“He opened up with the teachers, talked to them, had fun,” he said.
Mercer was “smart” and could be “cheerful” at times, Rada said. But Mercer also had a harder streak.
“He actually broke up a couple of fights back in those days,” Rada said. “A certain female student would have a problem with a male student. He would step in and defend them.”
Rada occasionally saw Mercer at Switzer's annual reunions. The last time they spoke was at a reunion several years ago, where Rada noticed nothing out of the ordinary.
“I saw him and said ‘Hey what's up?' And he said ‘Oh, good.' After that we just went on with the event and went our separate ways,” Rada told The Post. “I don't really know why he did what he did.”
That portrait of Mercer as a quiet guy capable of violence is backed up by online profiles that appear to belong to the gunman. They sketch out an image of a young man who struggled to connect with people in real life, so he reached out online.
“Looking for someone who shares my beliefs, and is similar to me,” he wrote on a dating profile on a Web site called Spiritual Passions. The profile hints at Mercer's social anxiety.
“Shy at first, but warm up quickly, better in small groups,” he wrote. Under “personality,” he wrote: “lover, conservative, professional, intellectual, introvert.”
Mercer wrote that he was looking for “romance, soulmate, conversation, miss right now, the yin to my yang, dating, penpal, friends only, relationship, miss right.”
The profile, apparently created while he was living in California, listed his musical interests as “Industrial, Punk, Rock” and said that he didn't drink or do drugs.
But that same profile also hinted at darker interests. He favored horror movies along with other cinematic genres, it said. And under hobbies, Mercer wrote “killing zombies” along with “internet” and other pursuits. Under food, he added “Always Dieting, BRAINS!!!”
And in the clearest foreshadowing of Thursday's attack, the profile stated that Mercer was “Not Religious, Not Religious, but Spiritual” and belonged to a group called “Doesn't Like Organized Religion.”
Another account, also linked to his e-mail account, showed similar interests.
“I'm 20 years old, in college, I like to listen to music, mostly goth/punk/industrial/electronic, and I love to watch movies,” he wrote on a Web site called Morgue Penpals. “Horror movies are the best, but i also like some action films, depending on the type, and I like crime dramas as well.”
A clearer glimpse into Mercer's mindset ahead of Thursday's attack comes from his MySpace account.
An account associated with the same e-mail address features photographs of him holding a rifle alongside posters for the Irish Republican Army (IRA). One of the images is a magazine cover from an Irish newspaper with the headline “British army could not defeat IRA.” Another poster, depicting black-and-white armed figures wearing balaclavas, quotes hunger-striker Bobby Sands: “They have nothing in their whole imperial arsenal that can break the spirit of one Irishman who doesn't want to be broken.”
But the starkest sign that something was wrong appeared in a blog that praised Roanoke shooter Vester Flanagan. According to the Daily Beast, the blog was linked to Mercer's e-mail address.
“I have to say, anyone who knew him could have seen this coming,” the blogger, identified by the Daily Beast as Mercer, wrote. “People like him have nothing left to live for, and the only thing left to do is lash out at a society that has abandoned him.”
“On an interesting note,” the blog continues ominously, “I have noticed that so many people like him are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. . . A man who was known by no one, is now known by everyone. His face splashed across every screen, his name across the lips of every person on the planet, all in the course of one day. Seems the more people you kill, the more you're in the limelight.”
Neighbors in both California and Oregon said they saw signs of a militaristic bent and angry attitude from Mercer.
His head was shaved and he wore military-style green pants with black boots, neighbors told the Los Angeles Times and New York Times.
Several neighbors said they had seen Mercer and his mother carrying black cases that appeared to hold firearms while living in Torrance. When neighbors asked him about the weapons at a community BBQ, Mercer didn't respond but said he enjoyed going target shooting, neighbor David Westly told the Los Angeles Times.
Torrance residents told the newspaper that Mercer and his mother, a nurse, were quiet people who kept to themselves.
“She would go around knocking on neighbor's doors,” Rosario Lucumi told the Times. “She would call him ‘baby' all the time. I thought it was strange because he was an adult.”
“He was always moving around” as if unsettled, Lucumi said.
“It's like he was always anxious or nervous,” added her daughter, Rosario Espinoza.
On one occasion, Mercer's mother went door-to-door with a petition to get the landlord to exterminate cockroaches.
“She said, ‘My son is dealing with some mental issues, and the roaches are really irritating him,'” Julia Winstead told the New York Times.
“I never saw him with friends or a girlfriend,” another neighbor, Derrick McClendon, told the Los Angeles Times. “He was bashful and timid.”
Neighbors in Winchester described a similarly agitated young man, but angrier.
“He yelled at us, me and my husband,” Bronte Hart, told the New York Times. “He was not a friendly type of guy. He did not want anything to do with anyone.”
She told the Associated Press that Mercer would “sit by himself in the dark in the balcony with this little light.” Hart said that a woman she believed to be Mercer's mother lived with him and was “crying her eyes out” Thursday.
Steven Fisher, another Winchester neighbor, described Mercer as “skittish.”
“His demeanor, the way he moved, always looking around,” Fisher told CNN. “I got a bad vibe from him.”
“He was a little odd, like sensitive to things,” Rebecca Miles, who took a theater class at UCC with Mercer, told CNN.
It's still unclear how those elements - anxiety, loneliness, a distaste for religion and a taste for guns - added up to an alleged killer.
A hint could lie on the anonymous Web forum 4chan.
A message was posted on Wednesday night warning: “Don't go to school tomorrow if you are in the northwest.”
“Some of you guys are alright,” the anonymous user wrote. “so long space robots.”
On Thursday afternoon, the thread was flooded with responses.
“THE MADMAN ACTUALLY DID IT,” one wrote.
Authorities are now investigating the threat, according to the New York Times.
It's unclear if the anonymous warning actually came from Mercer, a young man who apparently felt more comfortable sharing online than he did in real life. But Mercer's actions matched the carnage predicted on the message board.
On Thursday morning, the misfit interrupted a class at UCC's Snyder Hall, wearing a dark shirt and jeans and spewing bullets from multiple guns.
Students told of hiding between desks and huddling in darkness as the shooter methodically sought out victims.
“There's a shooter! Run! Run! Get out of there!” groups of students screamed as they ran out of the building. Some hid under cars or tried to hold shut classroom doors.
Witnesses told Roseburg's local paper, the News-Review, and CNN that Mercer asked students in the classroom he entered to stand up and state their religion.
According to CNN, victim Anastasia Boylan told her father before she went into surgery that Mercer said to the students who identified as Christian, “'Good, because you're a Christian, you're going to see God in just about one second.'” Mercer was killed in a shootout with police.
Four guns were recovered from the crime scene, including three pistols and a type of semiautomatic rifle, people familiar with the investigation told The Post. A law enforcement official told CNN that the shooter had body armor with him and had enough ammunition for a prolonged gunfight.
Mercer's family has so far been tight-lipped about the atrocity.
Ian Harper, the suspect's father, briefly stepped outside of his Los Angeles home Thursday night and spoke with the Los Angeles Times. He said he couldn't answer any questions about his son or the shooting.
“Shocked is all I can say,” he said. “It's been a devastating day.”
If mystery remains over Mercer's life, however, he will largely be remembered for his bloody death. If the blog post attributed to him and praising other mass shooters is any indication, Mercer was hoping that would be the case.
“He appears to be an angry young man who was very filled with hate,” law enforcement officials told the New York Times.