The little boy cocooned in the blue and white snow suit shuffles slowly toward a tree in the home movies shot in Kingston, NH, in 1996. He is four and a half and out of focus. In another sense, he will remain out of focus well beyond the morning of Dec. 14, 2012, when he shot his way through the front door of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 children and six adults before taking his own life.
The vintage footage of Adam Lanza is only one of several memorable scenes in “Raising Adam Lanza,” a “Frontline” special report airing at 10 p.m. today on PBS as part of the public TV network’s weeklong exploration of the killings at Sandy Hook and many of the issues surrounding the horrific event.
Working in partnership with the Hartford Courant, “Frontline” fills in a bit more of the picture of who Adam Lanza was. At the same time, it is unlikely that we’ll ever get complete picture of Lanza because the one person who might provide even more clues, other than Lanza himself, was the 27th victim that morning: His mother, Nancy Lanza, who was shot four times in her bed. The .22-caliber rifle used to kill her was the weapon Adam Lanza had first learned to shoot with.
“Frontline” follows Courant reporters Alwaine Griffin and Josh Kovner as they track down people who knew the Lanzas, beginning in Kingston, N.H.,, where the family lived before father Peter Lanza was offered a high-paying job at G.E. and the Lanzas moved to Connecticut. Repeated efforts to interview Peter Lanza, who was divorced from Nancy, were unsuccessful. But other sources, including an unnamed Lanza relative who would only communicate via e-mail, help flesh out the story to some extent, moving it forward by significant inches.
Marvin Lafontaine, who knew the family in New Hampshire through the scouting program, says there was a “weirdness” about Adam even then and that Nancy had warned him that Adam didn’t like to be touched.
“Don’t do an ‘atta-boy’ thing or shake his hand or go ‘way to go, brother,”’ Lafontaine quotes Nancy as advising him, adding that Adam would get angry if other kids touched him as well.
Nancy seemed hopeful the move had been good for her younger son, noting in emails that he had 26 new friends and “was doing well at Sandy Hook” where he was in the first grade. But she also told Lafontaine that Adam had been diagnosed with Sensory Integration Disorder, a “not widely accepted diagnosis,” according to “Frontline,” involving difficulty in processing and reacting to stimuli. In middle school, Adam was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome.
The unidentified Lanza relative is quoted as saying the noise and chaos of middle school were too much for Adam and marked the start of efforts by Nancy to find a school where Adam would feel comfortable. She placed him in St. Rose of Lima Catholic School, and then in Newtown High School where the technology club’s adviser, Richard Novia, identified him as a student very likely to be bullied. Novia, interviewed at length in the film, began interacting with Nancy who, he says, was “failing at bringing him out of his little world.” Novia recalls “episodes” where Adam would completely withdraw. The rest of the time, Adam avoided the halls, which were typically crowded and chaotic.
Novia encouraged Adam to join the technology club and believes he was making progress with the boy. The fact that Adam showed up to be photographed with the other members of the club “proves there was success,” Novia says.
Novia thinks Nancy shouldn’t have pulled Adam out of Newtown High in 2008 because he was getting support at the school and becoming a little more comfortable being around other people. He believes the abrupt change essentially undid whatever progress Adam had been making at Newtown.
Novia says that Adam was playing “violent video games” at the time – World of Warcraft, in particular – and implies a link between the games and the subsequent massacre. The one deficiency of the “Frontline” special is that while interview subjects like Novia offer credible anecdotal information, the film lacks the context that could be provided by any one of a number of experts on the probability of a link between the video games and the school shooting. Courant reporters say they learned from unidentified investigators that Adam carried out the shootings at Sandy Hook consistent with the way you play video games: changing his ammunition magazines frequently, even when they were not yet empty.
Perhaps even more significant to what led Adam to the school on Dec. 14 were the number of changes in his brief life, beginning with the family’s move to Connecticut and continuing with the various schools he was in and out of until he quit taking classes at Western Connecticut State University in 2009, the year his mother and father divorced. By 2010, he’d cut off all contact with Peter Lanza. The same year, Nancy began buying guns that Adam would later use at Sandy Hook.
After all the school changes of his past, Adam may have been getting ready for an even bigger change. According to Mark Tambascio, the owner of a Newton restaurant called My Place, Nancy was planning to move away from Newtown to enroll Adam in college. No one has been able to verify that he’d been accepted anywhere, but Tambascio says the move was “in the advance stages” and that Nancy had even sold her cherished season tickets to the Boston Red Sox.
The Courant interviews John Berquist, a friend of Nancy’s who often hung out with her and some other friends at My Place. He describes her as “always very positive.” He adds that Adam was never violent to his knowledge and that Nancy never feared him. The shooting range outings were a way for her to connect with Adam, he says.
“It was an activity they both enjoyed,” he says.