January 12, 2011 in Nation/World

Tucson prepares for Obama’s visit

Family of alleged gunman expresses sorrow over tragedy
Seema Mehta, Sam Quinones And Scott Gold Los Angeles Times
Chris Carlson photo

Workers place shirts on chairs before a memorial service for the victims of Saturday’s shootings at McKale Memorial Center on the University of Arizona campus Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011, in Tucson, Ariz. Searching for unity out of tragedy, President Barack Obama will honor the victims of the Arizona mass shooting in personal terms and remind those in grief that an entire nation is with them. The president is again stepping into his role as national consoler, a test of leadership that comes with the job.
(Full-size photo)

TUCSON, Ariz. – As Tucson scrambled to prepare for President Barack Obama’s scheduled appearance at a memorial service for the victims of the weekend’s mass shooting, the parents of the alleged gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, offered their first public statement Tuesday, insisting that the attack left them as perplexed as anyone else.

From the home they shared with their son in a working-class neighborhood, Randy and Amy Loughner released a statement calling it “a very difficult time” and spoke of their deep sorrow.

“There are no words that can possibly express how we feel. We wish that there were, so that we could make you feel better,” the Loughners said. “We don’t understand why this happened. It may not make any difference but we wish that we could change the heinous events of Saturday. We care very deeply about the victims and their families. We are so very sorry for their loss.”

The alleged gunman’s motives for shooting Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and 18 others remain unclear, though he had grown increasingly paranoid, friends said. One told the Los Angeles Times that Loughner was influenced by films alleging that the collection of income tax is illegal and that the terrorist attacks of 2001 were staged by the government.

A law enforcement official said Tuesday that a note was found in Loughner’s safe that said: “Die, Bitch.”

Later Tuesday, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department corrected its tally of the wounded. Nineteen people were shot, the department said, not 20 as had been reported. Six died, and 13 were wounded.

Giffords’ congressional office released photos of Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, holding hands in her hospital room. The photos were taken Sunday, Giffords’ office said.

The photos added a poignancy to Arizona’s latest turn in the national stage.

Some critics, angered by the state’s aggressive anti-immigration stand and hard-right politics, have pointed to the mass shooting as evidence that Arizona is a place of intolerance and Tombstone justice.

But there was also a rising sentiment and determination here that Arizona’s latest turn in the spotlight will be not another black eye, but a chance for a recalibration of the state’s image.

The state has mustered an immediate and unified response, for instance, to reports that a church is planning to picket the funerals of shooting victims.

Tucson’s Democratic and Republican parties joined together to organize a blockade of counter-protesters, and Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill restricting the church’s activities – a bill that sailed through the normally rancorous state Legislature with ease.

Bill Hileman, at a public appearance Tuesday at the hospital where his wife is recovering from bullet wounds, delivered an impromptu elegy not just to the shooting victims, but to his adopted state.

Hileman said he and his wife, Susan, recently retired and spent two years searching the nation for the perfect community to make their home. They picked Tucson.

Susan Hileman had taken a young neighbor who had been elected to her elementary school council to meet their congresswoman. Minutes later, the gunman opened fire. Susan Hileman, 58, was hit three times but survived. Her young friend, 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, was shot in the chest and killed.

Hileman noted that he was sitting in the waiting room of the hospital at one point when a minister wandered in from the street to offer him comfort. “That’s my Tucson,” he said.

Obama is scheduled to arrive in the city today for a public memorial. The president’s visit will come two days after Loughner appeared in federal court, charged with five federal crimes, including the attempted assassination of Giffords and the murder of John M. Roll, Arizona’s chief federal judge who was caught in the spray of bullets. Additional state charges are expected; Loughner could be executed.

The memorial service at the University of Arizona’s McKale Center is open to the public, although security will be tight. A protester brought an assault rifle to one of the president’s previous visits to Arizona, and a pastor here once prayed publicly for Obama’s death.

A crowd of as many as 14,000 was expected to join Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, U.S. Sen. John McCain, university President Robert N. Shelton and others.

Amid the efforts to heal, there were also new fragments that emerged about Loughner’s life.

He lived with his parents near Interstate 10, north of downtown Tucson. The home, more than any other on Soledad Avenue, was decorated with plants native to the nearby Sonoran Desert.

Loughner’s mother, Amy, appears to have been the family’s primary breadwinner.

Jared Loughner was periodically seen walking his dog, Hannah, around the neighborhood. But neighbors said the family had grown increasingly reclusive. George Gayan, 82, a retired copper mine mechanic who lives next door, said Loughner’s father once refurbished old cars, giving them something to talk about.

But in more recent years, he said, “it got so there was less and less interaction.” Randy Loughner eventually built a wall around his house, indicating to Gayan that he wanted privacy.

Jared Loughner, meanwhile, had repeatedly exhibited unusual behavior. George Osler, 45, whose son Zachary was friends with Loughner, said it was clear that Loughner, who was picked on in high school and devastated by a breakup with a girlfriend, had distanced himself from reality and was abusing drugs.

“He was a little odd,” Osler said. “You just have a suspicion – keep a close eye on this guy in case he’s up to something.”

Osler said Loughner had become drawn to movies that delved into fringe political conspiracies, such as “America: Freedom to Fascism,” which claimed that the income tax system was illegitimate, and “Loose Change,” which claimed that the federal government had a role in the terrorist attacks of 2001.

“It was like part of him wanted to create an alternate reality,” Osler said.

Near the end of 2008, hoping to join the military, Loughner swore off cigarettes, drugs and alcohol, cut his hair, started dressing more conservatively and working out, Osler said. But the military rejected his application; Loughner was “devastated,” Osler said.

“He just slowly spiraled into madness,” Osler said.

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