Her troubled son had been up for two nights straight, inconsolable over a breakup, when she pulled him into her bed to soothe him. She never meant to doze, but woke with a start at 4:26 a.m.
The 17-year-old was gone — and so were the car keys she had hidden under her pillow.
She darted through her Northern Virginia home, calling his name, before reaching out to his ex-girlfriend’s mother. The texted reply sent waves of dread through her: “He is here. We are calling police.”
The mother expected to see a single officer as she drove toward the ex-girlfriend’s home. Instead, she found dozens of police cruisers, a gurney on the front lawn and an officer yelling at her to get to a nearby hospital.
At the emergency room, the news hit her with the force of a punch. “Your son has a serious head injury,” a doctor said. “He shot himself, and he shot two other people.”
Through a pair of doors, she found him in a bed. The bullet had bored a hole between her son’s eyebrows.
When she asked about the victims, an officer said quietly of the ex-girlfriend’s parents, “They’re deceased, ma’am.”
She loved her son, but as doctors prepped him for surgery she blurted out a dark question she still has trouble believing any mother could utter: “Why are we saving him because he killed two people?”
The teen’s mother agreed to speak publicly for the first time since the December shootings of Scott Fricker, 48, and Buckley Kuhn-Fricker, 43, because she says she is profoundly regretful and blames herself. It is a story of a growing darkness, a tangled teen relationship and missed chances to intervene.
She knows, perhaps better than anyone, how her son struggled with mental-health issues for much of his life. But it was only after the killings, she said, that she learned the full extent of his deepening interest in white supremacy, including a Twitter account he appeared to maintain that espoused hatred of Jews and gays, praised Adolf Hitler and endorsed a neo-Nazi group linked to multiple murders.
It was those beliefs that pushed the Frickers to force an end to the relationship between the teen and their daughter. Just days before the Dec. 22 shootings, Buckley Kuhn-Fricker had written an email to the administrator of the teen’s school, calling him an “outspoken Neo Nazi.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the teen an “alt-right killer,” listing him alongside Dylann Roof and others as perpetrators of a new wave of violence by angry young white men, often steeped in hatred on social media and Internet groups.
The teen has recovered enough to be transferred to the juvenile detention center in Fairfax County, and hearings are being held to determine whether he is competent to stand trial.
The Washington Post generally does not name juveniles charged with crimes, unless they are charged as adults. The Post is not naming his mother or family members, because it would indirectly identify him.
On a recent day, the mother sat in her Lorton home, next to photo albums of the family vacationing in Guam and pictures of the teen with his elementary school class. She sifted the details of his life, trying to square the son she knew with the vile acts police said he committed.
“I wish it would have been us, not them,” the teen’s mother said of the Frickers. “They truly didn’t deserve it. It comes back on me.”
Before tragedy, there was hope.
The administrator at the Dominion School, a private academy for teens with emotional and behavioral problems in Virginia, approached the mother at a school picnic last June. “You need to meet Buckley,” the administrator told her. “Your son and her daughter are very fond of each other.”
The mother said she was equally ecstatic and relieved. “Oh my God!” she recalled thinking. “He’s turning normal.”
In the previous year, she said, the teen had made his first friend, after passing through elementary, middle and much of high school without one. He held down a job at Papa John’s and now appeared to be coming out of his shell in a way she thought he might not ever do: He had a girlfriend.
The mother called it an “awakening.”
A blissful summer followed. The teens took selfies and excursions to Kings Dominion, even a trip to the Outer Banks.
Such experiences were foreign for him.
By second grade, he was struggling socially and academically. On a play date, his mother said, he talked of blowing up his Virginia school with bombs.
The mother said she thought the comments were just kids playing soldiers, but the playmate’s mother and the school took it more seriously. “They asked me — at 7 — if he had access to bombmaking materials,” the mother said.
He was transferred to a new school, one of five he would attend in eight years. He soon became mute in many social settings, anxiously staring as people waited for him to utter a word.
Rounds of expensive tests and a battery of psychologists and psychiatrists followed. School records show he was diagnosed with depression and was autistic. His mother said he also had an anxiety disorder. She took to calling him by the catchall: special needs.
The mother and other family members said he was bullied at school and the strained relationship between his estranged parents caused more stress.
There were trips to Guam and the Grand Canyon, golf and saxophone lessons, but it was difficult to overcome his isolation. Eventually, the mother said, she noticed a hardening in him.
The teen called himself a “freak” and “retarded,” and his moods reached black depths at times.
“At 15 or 16, he said, ‘You love me because you have to.’ How does it get to a point where a person says their mother doesn’t like them?” the mother asked.
In the summer of 2016, the teen was charged in juvenile court. Those case files are secret, and the mother declined to discuss the details. But she said the judge barred her son from going online.
The case was still pending by last summer, but the mother said it seemed to be receding in the distance as the teen began his relationship with the Frickers’ daughter. Even so, Buckley Kuhn-Fricker noticed a fresh sign of trouble.
“Almost on day one of them dating this summer [my daughter] told me that [the teen] is very good at history and she said, ‘Did you know that the Jews are partly to blame for WWII?” Kuhn-Fricker wrote in the email to the school administrator the week she was killed. “I thought it was a mistake and corrected her. Little did I know it is [the teen’s] obsession.”
With the start of school, tensions began to mount.
In an email in mid-September, the school administrator wrote that the teen was struggling with mental-health issues, failing grades and the juvenile court charges, as well as being “consumed” by problems the girlfriend was having.
“I think we have a potential Romeo and Juliet situation that we need to be alert to,” the school administrator wrote. “These two kids are in my estimation — high risk — for any number of things.”
The administrator declined to comment. In the wake of the killings, the Dominion School merged with another in Fairfax County. It was unclear whether the move was linked to the slayings.
The teen, his mother would later learn, had been sneaking online despite the court order.
On Twitter, under an assumed name and with an avatar that was a ghoulish and skeletal Nazi, he appeared to be pushing hatred and violence against Jews, gays and other minorities. The account has since been suspended.
The vitriol seemed to grow in intensity in the fall, with the account retweeting posts calling Martin Luther King Jr. “a low IQ pervert and sex abuser,” images of Nazis saluting, another claiming Hitler was not a racist, and a fourth featuring an illustration of a girl drawing a swastika and the message “I miss u Hitler.”
Other tweets embraced the Atomwaffen Division, a paramilitary neo-Nazi group whose members have been linked to a handful of killings and who consider Charles Manson a hero.
The full extent of the teen’s involvement in the far right remains unclear, but the mother said she was unaware of the Twitter account before the killings. She said that white-supremacist ideology, which emphasizes that whites are superior to nonwhites, is abhorrent to the family and that she thinks the teen might have been exposed to such ideas online. She thinks her son, unable to find a place at school, sought out a place among others on the fringes.
“I use ironic memes as a way to cover up the fact how badly i want to blow my brains out,” the teen wrote in a note the mother discovered in his bedroom after the killings.
But by October, the teen’s Nazi leanings were spilling offline. Neighbors said the teen mowed a roughly 40-foot swastika into the grass in a common area near his home.
Penny Potter, a neighbor, said in December that other neighbors had brought the swastika to the attention of the teen’s parents, but in recent days she said she was mistaken. Neighbors never told the teen’s family or the police, and the teen’s family said they never saw it.
Potter said in retrospect it was a failed chance to intervene.
On Sunday, Dec. 17, Buckley Kuhn-Fricker emailed the school administrator, saying she had discovered the teen’s Twitter account while looking at her daughter’s phone.
“I would feel a little bad reporting him if his online access was to basically be a normal teen, but he is a monster, and I have no pity for people like that,” the email read. “He is spreading hate.”
The next day the teen’s mother said she met with the administrator, who told her that her son had been wearing an Iron Cross. The mother said the school administrator explained the symbol was used by the Nazis and also called the teen a “Nazi.”
“That’s just ridiculous,” the mother recalled saying. “He’s just obsessed with reading about history.”
Janet Kuhn, Buckley Kuhn-Fricker’s mother, said that on Wednesday, Dec. 20, the family staged an intervention with her granddaughter, telling her not to see her boyfriend anymore, because of his views.
The mother of the teen said Buckley Kuhn-Fricker also called her son that day, worried about his trips to their home late at night. “I know you’ve been coming in my house,” the mother recalled Kuhn-Fricker telling her son. “Don’t see her again.”
The mother said the teen was devastated.
“I’ve given up on trying to be happy,” the teen wrote in an entry in a therapy workbook that day. “Everything I care about leaves or is taken away.”
By that Thursday, the mother said, she was growing increasingly alarmed. She reached out to a probation officer and called a psychiatrist to possibly get her son committed, but it was too late in the day to get help.
As the family strung up Christmas decorations that night, the mother said, her son was disconsolate. He said he was worried about problems the girl claimed she was having with her family. “He was telling me something is going to happen to the [girlfriend] and that I didn’t understand,” the mother said.
The teen and mother talked through the night. He slipped out around 4 a.m. after she fell asleep.
The mother said the teen took his father’s gun, which was left unsecured in the home. He was also armed with a knife and hammer, the mother said, and was messaging an online acquaintance about what he planned to do.
The family later discovered the messages on a Kindle, and the teen’s 15-year-old sister reviewed them before the device was seized by police.
“If you do this, it’s eternity in hell,” the sister said the acquaintance wrote in one message. The teen replied: “That doesn’t really matter if [the girl] and I are together.” In another, the teen said he was “saving” his girlfriend. One of the last messages came from when he was on the Frickers’ front lawn.
Once inside the home, the teen waited in the girl’s bedroom.
When Scott Fricker entered, detectives told Janet Kuhn, the teen opened fire. He then shot Buckley Kuhn-Fricker, who was trailing her husband, Kuhn said. The daughter then called 911, according to a recording of police radio traffic.
Police burst into the home as shots and screams could be heard. Officers shouted that the shooter was down. Janet Kuhn declined to comment for this report.
The bullet skimmed across the teen’s brain, and he remains confused about what happened that night, the mother said. She also said it has become all too clear what she didn’t do:
She should have been better educated about his mental-health issues. She should have safeguarded him from going online. She should not have allowed a gun in a home with someone with mental illness. She should have listened to her instinct that something was off about him this time.
But she said she does not believe her son is a Nazi. Instead, she thinks he is someone broken by years of isolation, bullying and mental illness. She said the things he wrote online were intended to get a rise out of people, the kind of impact he didn’t have in the real world.
The teen’s 15-year-old sister takes a grimmer view. After the police searched the home, the sister recalled walking into her brother’s bedroom and noticing for the first time he had punched hole after hole in the walls, down to the studs. She read his Twitter account and was sickened.
“I think the world hated him, so he hated the world,” she said.