GRAFTON, Australia — On the road into this small city, a sign is evidence of a community in shock: “He does not represent us,” it says, referring to the alleged killer few here will even name.
But nowhere was the shock more evident than among the relatives of 28-year-old Brenton Harrison Tarrant, who has been accused of a hate-fueled massacre that left 50 people dead in two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch on Friday.
“We’re all gobsmacked. We don’t know what to think,” Marie Fitzgerald, Tarrant’s 81-year-old grandmother, told Australia’s 9News in an interview. “The media is saying he’s planned it for a long time, so he’s obviously not of sound mind, I don’t think.”
In Australian media, a picture began to emerge of a young man who grew up with computers as his best friends, lost in a world of violent video games, uncomfortable around girls.
Tarrant’s mother and sister have been moved to a safe house by police, relatives told 9News.
His father, Rodney Tarrant, died at the age of 49 while suffering mesothelioma, a cancer of the lung, the Daily Telegraph newspaper reported.
Clarence Valley Deputy Mayor Jason Kingsley, 41, said the community is in shock.
“The individual who carried out the attacks does not represent us, nor does he represent the values and beliefs of our wider community,” Kingsley said. “This is an act of an individual, and our hearts go out to our brothers and sisters in Christchurch.”
Grafton is home to about 11,000 people and the economic epicenter of the Clarence Valley, which is less than 400 miles north of Sydney and home to about 50,000 people. The town has struggled in the past two decades after many dairy farms went bankrupt and the area’s sugar industry and cattle farms were hit hard by shrinking agricultural subsidies.
But Kingsley, the descendant of Indian migrants who has spent his whole life in the Clarence Valley, said he has never heard of any white supremacist, anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant groups operating in the area and has never experienced racism.
“There is no tension between new Australians and long-term residents of the Clarence Valley,” he said. “This is a quiet place, a great place to raise a family. We are a welcoming and inclusive community.”
Tarrant spent his high school years in Grafton and was often on his computer, said Fitzgerald, his grandmother.
“He spent most of his time on computers, and learning the in and outs of computers, and playing games on computers,” she told 9News.
“I don’t think girlfriends were on the agenda — he said getting married was too hard.”
Fitzgerald said Tarrant’s father’s death in 2010 took its toll.
She said Tarrant may have been more fundamentally changed by a trip to Europe at a time when attacks by Islamist extremists were on the rise. But even when he returned to Grafton a year ago for his sister’s birthday, she noticed nothing out of the ordinary, 9News reported.
“He was just his normal self, you know. We all chatted . . . and had a meal together to celebrate that occasion, and now everybody’s just devastated,” she told 9News.
“It’s just so much for everything to take in, that somebody in our family would do anything like this,” Fitzgerald said, calling it “unrepairable.”
Tarrant’s uncle, Terry Fitzgerald, apologized to the families of the dead and injured in New Zealand. “We can’t think nothing else, just want to go home and hide,” he told 9News.
The shootings come as an influx of money has begun to transform Grafton, Kingsley said.
A new jail is being built that will house 1,700 inmates and employ 600 locals, while three bridges are being built over the Clarence River, all four projects bringing in investment of 1 billion Australian dollars (about $710 million). Attracted by cheap housing, people are also moving to the town from Sydney and other cities, he said.
But the changes have not papered over some deep-seated problems.
Timothy McManus, 23, a religious teacher at South Grafton High School, said the town is struggling with high rates of teen suicide, prompting the government to open a mental health facility.
“The kids are struggling with a range of mental issues surrounding the family,” said McManus, who also works as a youth pastor at the Hub Baptist Church in Grafton.
“Then there is a lack of employment opportunities for those aged 18 to 25.”
Trent Shacklock, 25, a rigger who puts up steel structures, has been in Grafton six weeks.
He is helping to construct the jail but says he plans to find work in another place in four months.
“It’s a quiet town but there is riffraff in the pubs who try to start fights,” said Shacklock, who grew up in Brisbane, a city of more than 2 million people 200 miles north of Grafton.
Aaron Patrick in Sydney contributed to this report.