DEKALB, Ill. – Steven Kazmierczak had the look of a boyish graduate student – except for the disturbing tattoos that covered his arms.
Professors and students knew him as a bright, helpful scholar, but his past included a stint in a mental health center.
Many saw him as happy and stable, but he had developed a recent interest in guns and was involved in a troubled – possibly abusive – on-again, off-again relationship.
What people initially told police about the Northern Illinois University shooter didn’t add up, and now investigators are searching for answers to what triggered Thursday’s bloody attack, in which five students were killed and several more injured before Kazmierczak committed suicide.
While searching for a motive, authorities questioned family and friends and tried to determine whether he had recently broken up with his longtime girlfriend.
One person who knew the couple, who spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity, said the couple’s relationship was on-again, off-again and “really rocky.” Kazmierczak was controlling, she said.
“He was abusive, had a temper,” she said. “He didn’t actually hit her; he would push her around.”
The 27-year-old Kazmierczak also had a history of mental illness and had become erratic in the past two weeks after he stopped taking his medication, said university Police Chief Donald Grady.
A former employee at a Chicago psychiatric treatment center said Kazmierczak had been placed there after high school by his parents. He used to cut himself and had resisted taking his medications, she said.
Kazmierczak spent more than a year at the Thresholds-Mary Hill House in the late 1990s, said former house manager Louise Gbadamashi. His parents placed him there because he had become “unruly” at home, she said.
Gbadamashi couldn’t remember any instances of him being violent, she said.
“He never wanted to identify with being mentally ill,” she said. “That was part of the problem.”
Jason Dunavan, a tattoo artist in Champaign, said he spent hours as recently as last month creating tattoos for Kazmierczak. His work included an image of the macabre doll from the horror movie “Saw” riding a tricycle through a pool of blood with images of several bleeding cuts in the background.
Dunavan said he was so proud of the tattoo that he enlarged a photo of it and placed it on a wall in his shop – a move he is now rethinking.
“I don’t know if I still want that picture on my wall,” said Dunavan, who also described Kazmierczak as timid and apologetic.
“He was really, really mousy.”
On Friday, police went through belongings Kazmierczak left at a DeKalb motel, in search of clues.
Kazmierczak paid cash for his room at the Travelodge three days before the shootings, signing his name only as “Steven” on a slip of paper, according to the hotel manager. Items later found in his room included empty cartons of cigarettes and discarded containers of energy drinks and cold medicine. The refrigerator was stocked with more energy drinks.
Kazmierczak also left behind a laptop computer, which was seized by investigators, said Jay Patel, manager at the Travelodge.
The discoveries added to the puzzles surrounding Kazmierczak, a graduate student who had once studied at Northern Illinois University but transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
He also had a short-lived stint as a prison guard that ended abruptly when he didn’t show up for work. He was in the Army for about six months in 2001-02, but he told a friend he’d gotten a psychological discharge.
Aaron Funsfinn, who knew Kazmierczak at NIU, noted that Kazmierczak had become interested in guns in recent years, but said he wasn’t alarmed by his friend’s outspoken support for gun ownership.
“He was very rational and reasoned,” said Funsfinn, 23.
Others who knew him also were baffled by the attacks, in which Kazmierczak stepped from behind a screen on the lecture hall’s stage and opened fire on a geology class.
Kazmierczak’s godfather, Richard Grafer, said Saturday that his godson was in good spirits when they spoke Tuesday about playing chess sometime soon.
Kazmierczak told his godfather he would call him again Saturday. “He seemed fine, great. We were laughing and talking and telling jokes,” said Grafer, who added that he knew nothing about Kazmierczak being on or off medication.
Kristen Myers, an associate professor of sociology who knew Kazmierczak, also said he didn’t fit the image of a loner or outcast.
“Profiling would not have worked with Steve. People would let him into their home,” she said. “People feel so bad that we didn’t know he was suffering like this.”
Seven people remained hospitalized Saturday after the attack, with three in serious condition, one of them upgraded from critical. The other four are in fair condition.
Officials at NIU said classes will resume on Feb. 25, though Cole Hall – where the shootings happened – will remained closed until the end of the semester.
NIU President John Peters promised a strong police presence and ample counseling for students and instructors.
“We need to take care of ourselves and each other, reaching out to those of us who are struggling,” Peters said in a statement.
“An act of violence does not define us.”