He was the quiet kid on the school bus. He was the lunchroom pal who sometimes said weird things about guns. He was the excited gunman who blazed his way through the morning high-school crowd, shooting and turning, shooting and turning, scattering schoolmates with bullets and blood.
T.J. Solomon, 15, accused of wounding six students Thursday at Heritage High School in this middle-class Atlanta suburb, is now the shooting suspect no one ever imagined--despite what seem in retrospect to be clear signs he might be planning something big.
"He came up to me one day a couple of weeks ago and said, 'I've got a gun. You go in the bathroom and hide. I'm going to shoot up the school,' " said Trey Carver, 15, a Heritage freshman who ate lunch with Solomon every day. "Then he said, 'Just kidding.' . . . I just thought he was full of it."
But Carver already knew of Solomon's interest in firearms, and he already had reported him, he said, to the school office because of a gun incident. About a month ago, he said, Solomon showed him a handgun he had brought to Heritage, because, Solomon told him, he was planning to sell it to someone after school, saying he stood to make a $100 profit. School officials have confirmed the report that Solomon allegedly had brought a gun to school, but no gun was found, and it is not known what disciplinary action, if any, was taken.
After that, Carver said, he "backed off" a little from their casual friendship, although they still ate lunch together almost every day with a group of friends, even Wednesday, the day before the shooting.
The mystery of what motivated Thomas J. Solomon Jr. to come to school and open fire--on what was the one-month anniversary of the deadly Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colo.--remains just that, according to Rockdale County Sheriff Jeff Wigington, who with a team of federal, state and local investigators is sifting through interviews with more than 300 people.
Several Atlanta television stations reported Friday night that police found bomb recipes and a threatening handwritten note when they searched Solomon's home, in a pricey subdivision near the school. Investigators have found no bombs at the school or elsewhere.
Although reports have run rampant that Solomon was upset over a breakup with a longtime girlfriend, investigators seemed unimpressed with that theory. Trey Carver discounted it as nonsense.
"That stuff about his girlfriend, he's making that up," Carver said. "He was going with her one week at most. I was there when she asked him out. . . . I think he must've just flipped out."
Only one of the six wounded students remained hospitalized today. All six were shot below the waist, mostly in the feet, legs and buttocks, giving weight to witness accounts that Solomon allegedly held the gun at his side, aiming at no one, perhaps not intending to kill.
But in interviews since their hospital release, several students have noted Solomon's almost-elated demeanor as he fired the .22-caliber rifle with the shortened stock that he had smuggled into school Thursday morning in the leg of his baggy blue jeans. Wigington said Solomon obtained the rifle and a .357 magnum by breaking into his parents' locked gun cabinet.
"He was holding it down by his side," said Jason Cheek, 17, a star linebacker on the Heritage High Patriots football team, who was shot twice in the buttocks. Cheek, who spoke at a news conference as he was released from a local hospital, said he did not know Solomon.
"He was in there laughing, jumping up and down. He kind of had a natural high from pulling the trigger," Cheek said.
Sophomore Brian Barnhardt, who also spoke at the news conference, said he was doing his math homework in the school commons when he realized the shooting sounds were no joke and began running. "That's when I got hit," said Barnhardt, a pitcher on the Heritage baseball team who also was wounded in the buttocks and did not know Solomon. "I don't forgive him. He shouldn't have done something like this."
Carver said he also was idling in the commons area before school when his lunchtime friend, dressed in a white T-shirt and the baggy jeans, came in and started shooting.
"He did look like he enjoyed doing it," Carver said. "He was jumping around. He would stand and turn and shoot, and turn and shoot, like a video game, or like it was from a movie. I didn't see anyone get shot. I couldn't take my eyes off of him."
Several of the students who witnessed the shootings reported similar reactions. Some said they have had bad dreams in which they, too, are wounded. As several hundred of them returned to Heritage today to retrieve backpacks and other items dropped in the panic, they said they are glad the school year is almost over and they will have the summer to recover. School officials announced that students will not have to take final exams, which were slated for next week, if they are satisfied with the grades they have received.
"I felt very empty," sophomore Susan Dunn, 16, said today after she had been inside the school for the first time since the incident.
"There was an eeriness," added Alexis Diamond, also a 16-year-old sophomore. "What happened definitely takes away your security."
CAPTION: Two unidentified students of Heritage High School in Conyers, Ga., leave school after being allowed to return for their belongings following Thursday's shooting.