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Emotional struggles detailed in essays

Juvenile DelinquencySchoolsSocial ServicesSocietyFamily

Well before his murderous rampage at Northern Illinois University, Steven Kazmierczak described himself as a victim who had overcome hard times.

In graduate school applications, reviewed exclusively by the Chicago Tribune, Kazmierczak wrote that his own mental-health struggles would one day enable him to help others -- a vision that tragically imploded Feb. 14 in one of the deadliest campus shootings in U.S. history."For as long as I can remember, I have always been an extremely sensitive individual, and feel as though I am able to empathize with other people's emotional and social needs," he wrote. "However, some of my peers were not very understanding or accepting, and I feel as though I was victimized to a certain degree during my adolescent years."

The essays offer unprecedented and chilling insight into the mental-health troubles of the 27-year-old graduate student who two months ago fatally shot five students at Northern Illinois University, wounded 16 others and then killed himself.

Before doing so, Kazmierczak went to great lengths to hide his past. He removed the hard drive from his computer, tossed out his cell phone's memory card and left no suicide note.

And so the voice of the killer has been absent as people have tried to understand what happened.

But in four personal statements he submitted to NIU and University of Illinois graduate schools, Kazmierczak lays out in his own words the history of his emotional troubles.

The records, accessed under the Freedom of Information Act, show an intelligent man determined to reinvent himself after a troubled adolescence. They relate the alienation he felt as a high school student, his parents' decision to place him in a group home and the help he got from an inspirational social worker.

His father, Robert, in his first in-depth interview since the shooting rampage, told the Tribune Friday that the essays are both accurate and sincere.

He said the family sought help for his son's mental illness by putting him in the group home, though Robert Kazmierczak would not talk about a specific diagnosis or any treatments.

"We did everything we could to help him. My wife and I worked very hard to help my son. I thought he was doing well," Kazmierczak said Friday. "He still had a lot of support. He knew I would help him if he was in trouble."

Kazmierczak's father said he thinks his son was sincere when he wrote, in his application to the U. of I. School of Social Work, that he hoped to use the graduate degree to help others conquer the types of problems he thought were behind him.

"I aspire to work with the mentally ill within the criminal justice system, a group home setting, or for a non-profit organization that caters to the needs of those in society who need guidance and direction, like I did so many year [sic] ago," the younger Kazmierczak wrote.

Problems surfaced early

Kazmierczak's troubles began before he was 11. By middle school in Elk Grove Village, he already had begun meeting with social workers to discuss his problems adjusting to school and the social pressures that often overwhelmed him.

"In hindsight, I feel that this was largely a result of the sensitivity that I often exhibited toward other classmates, which was not necessarily accepted by others," he wrote in his personal statement to U. of I., the essay in which he most thoroughly writes about his troubled past.

Kazmierczak wasn't without friends, though. In high school, he often hung out with the "anti-clique," a group whose members wanted to show they didn't care if they weren't popular.

"He felt lost and disconnected in spite of his friends," former classmate Justin Hammang said.

Kazmierczak wrote that he learned techniques for dealing with stress during counseling sessions with social workers, but he still "felt profoundly lost."

"I perceived that I had no where [sic] to turn," he wrote.

Kazmierczak's parents arranged for a multitude of social services, but Kazmierczak wrote he couldn't open up in therapy.

After his high school graduation in 1998, his parents made the "heartbreaking" decision, he wrote, to place him in a group home that treats mostly young adults with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, behavioral problems and other mental illnesses.

While Kazmierczak did not identify his specific mental illness in his writings, Hammang said Kazmierczak had confided he was taking lithium, a drug primarily used to treat people with bipolar disorder.

Kazmierczak's father said that although the family sent Steven to a Chicago psychiatric treatment center -- Thresholds-Mary Hill House -- to deal with his mental illness, they also wanted to get him away from one of his closet friends, who had been arrested several times for dealing drugs. He said his son never had a drug problem, but he worried associating with a bad crowd could lead to trouble.

"The fact is we wanted to make sure he was away from that kid," he said.

'A sense of direction'

Kazmierczak lived in Thresholds for about a year, house manager Louise Gbadamashi said. When Kazmierczak first arrived at the home, he continued his anti-social behavior, frequently ran away and resisted taking his psychotropic medications. He also began intentionally cutting himself.

Social workers persuaded him to change by pointing out the stress it caused his mother, Gail, who was in the early stages of Lou Gehrig's disease.

Kazmierczak wrote that much of his improvement took place under the watchful eye of an unnamed Thresholds social worker.

"A caring public servant with a background in sociology helped me to gain a sense of direction and helped me to better myself through education by showing me how to navigate through a bureaucracy," Kazmierczak wrote in his NIU graduate school application in 2005. "It was then that I realized the impact that one person working with a social service agency could have on a person's life."

As part of his rehabilitation, Kazmierczak moved into his own apartment after about a year in the group home, Gbadamashi said. He had a job at a computer repair store and seemed to be coping, but he eventually found single living too stressful and moved in with his parents.

On Sept. 7, 2001, he enlisted in the Army, according to the Pentagon.

Kazmierczak told friends he was kicked out of the Army after military officials discovered his past psychiatric problems. He received an administrative discharge on Feb. 13, 2002.

On his undergraduate application to NIU, dated Feb. 21, Kazmierczak listed himself as a veteran. However, when he applied to the U. of I. four years later, he wrote that he had never been in the military. It was an equivocation perhaps done to avoid answering the next question: "If yes, did you receive a less than honorable discharge?"

Again, Kazmierczak answered, "No."

A reinvention

Kazmierczak seemed to successfully reinvent himself at NIU.

He later wrote in his graduate school applications that he was grateful that NIU was willing to admit him despite his past.

"Over the last several years, I have become increasingly aware of the fact that I was fortunate enough to attend college, given the fact that I used to be a resident in a state group home," he wrote.

A dual major in political science and sociology, Kazmierczak's NIU transcript shows he earned straight A's in every class he took in those departments and A's and B's in his other liberal arts classes. He graduated summa cum laude with a 3.88 grade-point average in May 2006, winning the sociology department's Dean's Award.

He began graduate school in sociology at NIU the next month, and his academic accomplishments continued.

The exceptions to his success came when, as a graduate student, he inexplicably took three undergraduate psychology courses: disturbing behaviors in children, social psychology and psychopathology, the study of mental illness. He got two F's and an incomplete after he stopped going to the classes.

Though it's unusual for a graduate student to enroll in undergraduate courses, Kazmierczak's psychopathology professor, Phillip Krasula, said some students take his courses to learn more about themselves. "People will have issues and that is why they will take the class -- to learn something about themselves or because they have had mental health problems themselves," he said.

Perhaps he stopped going to class because he learned, in a letter dated Feb. 28, 2007, that he had been admitted to the U. of I. He was awarded an achievement grant that covered one semester of tuition.

Before leaving for the U. of I., Kazmierczak told his professor and mentor, Jim Thomas, that he had overcome his anti-social tendencies at NIU.

"When I came to NIU ... I was practically a recluse, and was somewhat anti-social," Kazmierczak wrote in an e-mail to Thomas. "I have grown throughout the years due to your influence."

He rarely mentioned his troubled past to his classmates, but fellow graduate student Will Mingus said Kazmierczak had mentioned his stay in the group home.

"To me it was the quintessential success story," Mingus said. "He'd had a tough time, but went to college, did really well and achieved."

Desire to make difference

That was the story Kazmierczak told in his application to the U. of I. School of Social Work, in which he wrote that he wanted to specialize in community mental health. He conveyed an image of someone who had overcome adversity.

"I truly do feel as though I would be an altruistic social worker, mainly due to my past experiences, because I view myself as being able to relate to those segments of society that are in need of direction," he wrote.

Despite the essays' sincere tone, admissions officers and mental-health experts can glean little from such statements, said Jerald Kay, chair of the American Psychiatric Association's committee on college mental health.

Most applicants, Kay said, paint themselves in a positive light, and unless the writings are incoherent or threatening, they do not have enough depth to raise red flags.

"You have to give the student the benefit of the doubt," Kay said.

Kazmierczak's father confirmed his son's desire to "make a difference in the lives of those of whom I am able to connect with."

"My son always wanted to help people," he said. "He had a lot of support growing up. He wanted to make sure others had that same kind of support."

Kazmierczak wrote about the importance of that support in his personal statement -- acknowledging that he had the "familial and emotional support structure" he needed to survive the rigors of graduate school.

He appeared on a path toward success at the U. of I., earning three A's and an A-minus in the social work classes he took last summer and fall. He had enrolled in four classes this spring, which are still listed as "IN PROGRESS" on his transcript.

But early this semester, on Feb. 8, Kazmierczak added to his two-gun collection by purchasing a Remington shotgun and a Glock 9 mm handgun from a small store in Champaign. He had already purchased two ammunition magazines.

On Feb. 14, Kazmierczak carried his guns onto an auditorium stage in Cole Hall, the building where he had taught a sociology class. The man who once described himself as "extremely sensitive" opened fire on a geology class, injuring 16 students and killing Daniel Parmenter, Ryanne Mace, Julianna Gehant, Catalina Garcia and Gayle Dubowski.

He then shot himself.

Police said Kazmierczak had been acting erratically and had stopped taking his mood-stabilizing medication. An autopsy showed he had trace amounts of an anti-anxiety drug, nicotine and cold medicine in his system.

There's still no known motive for his killing spree, and it is unknown why he chose his alma mater, a campus he wrote about with such gratitude. His final, brutal act couldn't have been further from the goals he espoused in his applications.

"I feel as though I needed to genuinely express myself so that those who read this statement can understand my strong desire to give back [sic] those in need of guidance and a helping hand," he wrote. "Everyone, regardless of where they come from, may need someone to rely on in their time of need."

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jscohen@tribune.com

sstclair@tribune.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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