By Kari Lydersen and William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 7, 2007
OMAHA, Dec. 6 -- A troubled teenager who opened fire on holiday shoppers and employees in a crowded mall had a history of mental health problems and had been a ward of the state in Nebraska for four years after threatening the life of his stepmother, authorities said Thursday.
Armed with an AK-47 assault rifle and dressed in black, Robert A. Hawkins, 19, turned the Westroads Mall into a scene of carnage and terror Wednesday, gunning down victims at random, police said. He killed eight people and wounded five others, two of them critically, before turning the weapon on himself.
Hawkins, a high school dropout who had recently lost his job at a fast-food restaurant and broken up with his girlfriend, attracted the attention of mall security guards when he initially entered the mall briefly and then returned carrying something wrapped in a hooded sweatshirt, Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren told reporters.
But Hawkins took an elevator to the third floor and began shooting before the unarmed security guards could intervene, Warren said, and the rampage was over by the time police arrived about six minutes later. He said Hawkins fired more than 30 rounds from the AK-47, which police believe he stole from his stepfather's residence.
Among the dead were five women and three men between the ages of 24 and 66. Two were shoppers, and six were employees of Von Maur, a department store popular with holiday shoppers. Of the five people injured, three were treated and released, and two remained hospitalized Thursday in critical condition, authorities said.
One man was apparently trying to call 911 near an escalator in an atrium on the mall's second floor when Hawkins aimed his weapon over a railing and shot him in the head from the third floor, witnesses said. The other victims were shot on the store's third floor.
"It appeared that the shooting victims were randomly selected," Warren said. "It didn't appear that any were specifically targeted."
In a news conference in Lincoln, officials of Nebraska's Department of Health and Human Services said Hawkins had been a ward of the state from 2002 to 2006 after spending time in a private mental health and substance abuse treatment facility for threatening the life of his stepmother. They also cited drug-related offenses and a fight with another youth. Hawkins's parents divorced when he was 3 years old.
As recently as two weeks ago, Hawkins also had threatened to kill a 16-year-old girl and her family after accusing her of stealing things from his car, the Omaha World-Herald reported.
The director of the health department's Division of Children and Family Services, Todd Landry, said Hawkins initially was placed in the private Piney Ridge Center in Waynesville, Mo., in May 2002 "due to homicidal threats toward his stepmother." He was diagnosed at the time with attention-deficit disorder and mental health disorders, including one that made him extremely defiant, Landry said.
The state intervened after the family's health-care program refused to continue paying for Hawkins's treatment at Piney Ridge, Landry said. But the health department terminated its care in August 2006 after Hawkins failed to comply with a community service requirement and a court declared him "nonamenable to further services," he said.
Landry said the department acted properly in closing Hawkins's case, which did not represent "a failure of the system to provide . . . appropriate services." He said he did not think the state could have done anything more and that "all appropriate services were provided when needed for as long as needed." He added: "It would be nice to have had a crystal ball. . . . Certainly, if we had known this was going to happen . . . we would have stopped it."
Hawkins left a suicide note in which he denigrated himself and said he would no longer be a burden to anyone, adding ominously that he was "going to be famous now."
Omaha police said Thursday that they are investigating that note as well as other "correspondence," such as cellphone text messages between Hawkins and his former girlfriend and records on his computer hard drive, that might illuminate his motives and planning.
In television interviews, Debora Maruca-Kovac, a nurse whose family took Hawkins in a year ago, likened the troubled teenager to "a lost pound puppy that nobody wanted." She said Hawkins had called her before the shooting to thank her and tell her about the note he had left.
He said he was "sorry he was a burden to everybody and his whole life was a piece of [expletive] and now he'll be famous," Maruca-Kovac told CBS's "Early Show." She said she feared he was going to commit suicide, "but I had no idea that he would involve so many other families."
Branigin reported from Washington. Staff writer Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.