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."
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.