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Friends, teachers tell of Loughner's descent into world of fantasy

In the hours before the assassination attempt against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, Jared Loughner went to Walmart, was pulled over for running a red light and ran from his father after an angry confrontation.

From his elementary years through middle school, Jared Loughner lived a life that his friends saw as little different from their own. There was something awkward about him, and he was teased more than most, but he had friends and they were often among the smarter kids in his grade. There were sleepovers and hikes and long games of Starcraft and Earth Empires.

Mick Burton, a friend who played with Loughner in the Tortolita Middle School band and on the basketball team, recalled that he "sort of got picked on a little bit. He had a sort of bowl cut of curly hair. He wore glasses. I just remember people on the basketball team calling him Harry Potter."

"It was pretty messed up," said Nasser Rey, 21, a friend from elementary and middle school. "Somebody taped a sticker on his back and it said, 'Kick me,' and people started kicking him. They just started trying to trip him. But he wasn't being bullied. He didn't start crying or nothing."

Rey remembered Loughner as quiet and not popular in high school, but not a recluse, either. They would work on assignments together and hang out, talking about hip-hop songs. "We would get into conversations about regular stuff," Rey said. "He was a normal dude."

In those years, Loughner's music was at the center of his life. "His parents spent thousands on musical instruments for him," said Alex Montanaro, one of Loughner's best friends from seventh through 10th grades.

Loughner started on the saxophone around the fifth grade. By late middle school, he was a serious jazz buff, keeping lots of John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker on his iPod.

Burton, who played gigs with Loughner at restaurants, recalled that Loughner beat him out in the eighth grade for first chair in the band's tenor saxophone section. "He was a really good player," Burton said. "I feel that he could have gone pretty far if he'd stuck with it."

Loughner took lessons at the Arizona Jazz Academy, a now-defunct school that his mother took him to each week, a 10-mile drive that impressed one teacher as a sign of commitment.

The teacher, Doug Tidaback, recalled Loughner as a good student, though at the time, Tidaback thought the boy was using drugs. Still, the teacher sensed that Amy Loughner was eager for her son to have a "good, positive experience."

"She was quiet, but she was very clear in stating what she wanted for her son," Tidaback said. "I definitely got the impression that she cared."

Teachers and students who knew Loughner in middle school recall a boy with long, curly hair who was by no means part of the cool crowd but was an interesting kid. He could talk current events. He wanted to be a writer.

Montanaro went with the Loughners to New Mexico for a New Year's vacation one year and remembers everyone getting along well. "All I saw was a normal, loving relationship," he said. "They'd have us over for sleepovers where they'd order too much pizza. We even went to concerts together as a family."

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