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NH roots: The untold story of Adam Lanza's mom

The Hartford Courant

February 18. 2013 9:38PM

Shortly after her move from New Hampshire to Newtown, Conn., in 1998, Nancy Lanza had good news about her troubled son.

"Adam is doing well here, and seems to be enjoying the new school," Lanza wrote to a friend back in Kingston, N.H., in a Feb. 9, 1999, email.

But Adam, 6, then diagnosed with a condition that made it difficult for him to manage and respond to sights, touch and smell, eventually struggled in the first grade at his new school - Sandy Hook Elementary.

His mother would respond, touching off a 10-year educational shuffle with moves in and out of schools and programs that addressed his sensory integration disorder and another diagnosis that would come by middle school: Asperger's syndrome.

Adam would attend public school, take lessons at home, try private school for a couple of months, return to public school and attend Newtown High School, although he left after his sophomore year. He went to college at 16 and earned A's and B's - but it didn't last. He was out in a year. He then went to a community college, and dropped out in the first semester.

A series of significant life changes followed for Adam as the number of people with whom he had contact began to shrink.

His parents divorced. He abruptly cut off contact with his father, Peter, in 2010, and grew estranged from his older brother. He spent more time alone at home. His mother, who loved to travel, told friends she was grooming him to be independent someday. There were even plans to leave New England - their lifelong home - so Adam could study history and possibly earn a college degree.

Portrait of a mother

But mother and son never left. Adam, now 20, had a plan of his own. He returned to Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.

There he would join the lexicon of suicidal mass killers, leaving many to ponder the question of what led a 20-year-old to commit the second-deadliest school shooting in American history. A final police report has yet to be released.

In the weeks after the Newtown massacre, The Hartford Courant, in partnership with the PBS investigative news program "Frontline," contacted family members and friends on both Nancy Lanza's and Peter Lanza's side. Some who were interviewed agreed to be named while others shared information and recollections on the condition that they not be named.

Reporters also reviewed messages and emails spanning the 10 years in which Nancy Lanza wrote to close friends. In the notes, she chronicled portions of her own life, from her mysterious potentially fatal illness, to comments about her marriage, to progress reports on a young Adam.

What emerges in this exploration of a still unfolding story is a portrait of a mother, apparently devoted but perhaps misguided, struggling to find her son a place in society, and a boy, exceptionally smart in some areas, profoundly deficient in others, who never found a place in the world.

Although he had played musical instruments, studied foreign languages and had a part-time job at a computer shop, Adam remained isolated and distant.

Dec. 14, 2012

On Dec. 14, Adam Lanza, 20, wearing a utility vest with pockets stuffed with ammunition and carrying three of his mother's firearms, blasted his way into Sandy Hook Elementary.

In a six-minute rampage, armed with a Glock, a SIG Sauer and a Bushmaster rifle, he killed six women, 20 first-graders and, eventually, himself.

Before he drove to the school, he killed his mother, shooting her in the head at close range four times as she lay in bed at their home.

A stunned state and confounded nation mourned. Memorial after memorial recalled the lives of precious little ones taken too soon, and the courageous acts of their educators on that horrific school day.

There was sympathy from around the world for grieving loved ones, including an emotional visit to Newtown from President Barack Obama just days after the massacre.

There, as the nation listened, the President remembered the slain educators and children during a service at Newtown High School, saying each of the names of those who were murdered.

But there was one name the President never mentioned - Nancy Lanza.

Throughout the town, there were memorials: 26 candles, 26 angels, 26 handprints like leaves on a tree.

But the question of his first victim that day was far more complicated.

In some quarters, Nancy Lanza, 52 at the time of her death, is viewed as a villain, a gun-obsessed mother who allowed her disturbed son access to firearms and let him fester in the basement playing violent video games while she traveled and enjoyed night life.

But close friends said that picture is unfair and that, in their eyes, Nancy was trying to do right by Adam.

"Her life revolved around caring for Adam. She loved to hang out with her friends at the bar and she loved to travel and she took time out for herself but her children and her family came first," said a friend from Newtown, John Bergquist.

Life in Sandy Hook

Nancy Lanza would settle in quickly at her new home in Newtown's Sandy Hook section.

Her elder son, Ryan, 10 at the time, found niches early in Newtown. He joined the basketball, karate and debate teams. And there was good news about her younger son, Adam, who had been diagnosed with the sensory disorder before she left New Hampshire. Adam had a birthday party, with 26 "new friends."

By May of that year, Adam was even performing in plays.

"Adam has taken it very seriously, even practicing facial expressions in the mirror!" Lanza wrote in an email to Kingston friend Marvin LaFontaine, who met Lanza through Cub Scouts.

In spite of those activities, Adam Lanza had difficulty relating to others, even as a young child.

In kindergarten in Kingston, he had been "coded," or identified, as needing an "individual education plan" and extra attention, both in the classroom and at home, LaFontaine said.

"There was a shyness and a learning thing and they were trying to unravel it," he said of Adam, whom Nancy Lanza would bring along to Ryan's Cub Scout meetings.

"Adam was a quiet kid. He never said a word," LaFontaine said. "There was a weirdness about him and Nancy warned me once at one of the Scout meetings ... 'Don't touch Adam.' She said he just can't stand that. ... He'd become teary-eyed and I think he would run to his mother."

Connected to school

At Sandy Hook Elementary in 1999, Lanza expressed concerns about Adam's interaction in class, said Wendy Wipprecht of Newtown, a writer and editor who met Nancy that year.

Wipprecht's autistic son, Miles, and Adam were in the first grade together at Sandy Hook Elementary. The two mothers would share stories about their sons, Wipprecht said, and Miles was one of more than 20 classmates who attended Adam's sixth birthday party at a duckpin bowling center in Danbury.

"I guess she was worried that he had ... some kind of neurobiological condition," Wipprecht recalled.She said Lanza told her she was considering taking Adam out of Sandy Hook and enrolling him in a local parochial school.

But Adam never actually left the Newtown school district. He remained enrolled, entering a special program in which he did prepared lessons at home, according to a family member of Nancy Lanza who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Lanza would take Adam back to Sandy Hooky after hours to do the work he could not do at home. In this manner, Adam stayed connected to Sandy Hook, and was one of the students who signed a school T-shirt in 2003 as a fifth-grader.

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