'We don't understand why this happened,' parents say

By Dana Hedgpeth and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; A01

TUCSON - Three days after their son allegedly killed six people and left a congresswoman critically wounded, Jared Lee Loughner's parents issued their first public comments Tuesday night, saying that they, too, cannot comprehend what had motivated the shootings.

"There are no words that can possibly express how we feel. We wish that there were, so we could make you feel better. We don't understand why this happened," said their statement, signed "the Loughner family." The parents made no mention of their son.

Hours after the statement's release, two law enforcement sources said that FBI agents had found a 2007 letter from Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) to the shooting suspect, with the words "Die, bitch" and "Die, cops" scrawled on it.

The letter, which thanked Loughner for attending an event of hers, was found in a safe in his Tucson home, the sources said.

On Tuesday, this grief-stricken city began to turn its attention away from the shock and frenzy of the crime toward healing the wounded and burying the dead. President Obama plans to fly in Wednesday and deliver remarks at an evening memorial service, one of at least half a dozen such events planned over the next several days.

The president is expected to focus on the victims and what he has learned about them from family members over the past few days, White House officials said.

The president will also pay special tribute to Giffords, who doctors said Tuesday was showing signs of improvement.

"She has no right to look this good. We're hopeful," said Michael Lemole, chief of neurosurgery at University Medical Center.

Giffords is still heavily sedated, the doctors said, and has not completely opened her eyes. She is able to breathe on her own, though she remains on a breathing tube. And she has been able to follow commands: squeezing a hand, wiggling toes, giving a thumbs-up sign.

Her congressional office released photos Tuesday night that showed Giffords holding her husband's hand.

Even the simple act of scratching her nose, doctors said, was encouraging. To a neurosurgeon, that is an indication of brain function: the ability to sense an itch, process that signal and respond with movement.

Peter Rhee, chief of the hospital's trauma division, said he thinks Giffords has a "101 percent chance" of surviving. But there are difficulties ahead: the risks of infection and pneumonia, and new tests to determine the damage to her brain.

"I can't tell you whether she will be in a vegetative state," Rhee said. "I hope not."

Giffords, who represents the Tucson area, was shot in the head Saturday at close range while meeting constituents outside a local Safeway. The gunman then sprayed the crowd around her with bullets, killing six people and wounding 13 others.

Among those injured was Susan Heilman, who had taken 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green to meet Giffords at the event. In the gunfire, the girl was killed - the rampage's youngest victim.

Heilman suffered a fractured hip. Her husband said she appeared to be having flashbacks to the shooting, as she came in and out of consciousness in the hospital. He said he heard her screaming: "Christina! Christina, let's get out of here!"

On Thursday, the 9-year-old is scheduled to be buried, an act that, in a media-saturated country, can no longer guarantee its own peace. Members of Westboro Baptist Church, known for picketing U.S. troops' funerals with signs decrying homosexuality, plan to protest at her service, the Associated Press reported. Church members said that the gunman was "sent . . . to deal with idolatrous America."

But on Tuesday, the Arizona legislature approved and Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed new legislation designed to keep them at a distance. It bars any protests within 300 feet of funeral sites.

On Capitol Hill, congressional staffers were helping Giffords's staff answer e-mails and record the names of well-wishers. There will be a prayer service for members of Congress at 1 p.m. Wednesday in the Capitol Visitors Center.

Obama will speak Wednesday evening at a memorial service at the University of Arizona's basketball arena.

White House officials gave few details about Obama's planned statement, except that it would probably be succinct.

In Tucson, people were waiting for Obama's words - and wondering if he could say anything that would help calm the nation's political argument.

"There is just so much hatred in this country, I don't know what to do," said Elaine Reznick, 78, who on Tuesday was visiting the shopping center where the shootings took place.

She said she wanted Obama to say something about tightening gun laws - but would accept anything that called on Americans to work together. "The healing of the nation is so much more important. It's so divided," Reznick said.

In their brief statement, the Loughners sought to express their concern for those affected by the rampage, most especially the victims of it.

"It may not make any difference, but we wish that we could change the heinous events Saturday," their statement said. "We care very deeply about the victims and their families. We are so very sorry for their loss."

hedgpethd@washpost.com fahrenthold@washpost.com

Fahrenthold reported from Washington. Staff writers Amy Gardner and Clarence Williams in Tucson and Anne E. Kornblut and Jerry Markon in Washington contributed to this report.

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