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Raising Adam Lanza

Who Was Adam Lanza, And What Was The Nature Of His Relationship With His Mother?
Watch The FRONTLINE Special Tues., Feb. 19 at 10 p.m. (Link to courant article)

February 17, 2013|By ALAINE GRIFFIN,, and JOSH KOVNER,, The Hartford Courant

Shortly after her move from New Hampshire to Newtown 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.
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, in a murderous rampage, 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 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.

A Stunned Nation

On Dec. 14, Adam Lanza, 20, dressed in black, 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.

A Family Begins

Nancy Jean Champion was born in Salem, Mass., on Sept. 6, 1960. She was the daughter of Donald Champion, an airline pilot and his wife, Dorothy, who worked many years as a nurse at a local elementary school. Together with her sister and two brothers, she grew up on the family's farm in Kingston, N.H. — a homestead that dates to the 1700s — tending animals and working the soil. "She told me that as a farm girl, she learned how to butcher animals," said Marvin LaFontaine, a Kingston resident who met Nancy Lanza when their sons were in the Cub Scouts. "She was comfortable with raising livestock and then butchering them. Not that it was fun, but that's what they ate. It wasn't for sport, it wasn't fun; it was their food." She would later meet Peter Lanza; the two married on June, 6, 1981.

The newlyweds built their own home on the family's Kingston farmland. While Peter went to college to become an accountant, Nancy was the breadwinner, working in the new accounts division of John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Boston's financial district, an hour's drive away.

Nancy Lanza would later tell a New Hampshire law enforcement official, who spoke to The Courant on the condition of anonymity, that in the early 1980s she had been assaulted on the Boston Common, a daytime attack in front of onlookers. The official said that some time later, Nancy went to the Kingston Police Department to notify them that she was afraid her attacker would victimize her at her home. The law enforcement official could not recall the name of the assailant and The Courant and "Frontline" were not able to locate court records related to the case.

Nancy and Peter's first son, Ryan John Lanza, was born on April 10, 1988. The new mom continued to work, dropping off her son at day care before taking the ride to Boston each day. But the balancing act grew tough through the summer of 1991, when Nancy became pregnant again, this time with Adam. She suffered severe morning sickness, and by November 1991, she had taken a medical leave of absence after developing hypoglycemia, a blood sugar disorder. On April 22, 1992, after a cesarean section at Exeter Hospital in New Hampshire, Adam Peter Lanza was born, "a healthy baby boy," Nancy Lanza would later call her second-born, according to court documents. Those documents stemmed from a lawsuit she filed against John Hancock, alleging that the company discriminated against her after she became pregnant with Adam.

For eight years, Lanza said, she had consistently won high marks from her bosses on job evaluations. But after she became pregnant with Adam, Lanza said, her work was more harshly criticized. Before she took her leave, the company told Lanza there would be restructuring in her department and that although her position might be eliminated, she would still have a job.
But as she was about to return from maternity leave, Lanza received a letter from John Hancock informing her she would be laid off, court documents show.

She blamed the firing on her pregnancy, charging in the lawsuit that she began to experience "episodes of physical pain, distress, headaches, insomnia, crying spells, nausea and increased nervousness." The case eventually was settled.
She later confided in LaFontaine that she also was suffering from a potentially fatal autoimmune deficiency, an unspecified disease that seemed to come and go. She told LaFontaine that she hadn't even revealed her illness to family members
When her husband landed a job with General Electric in Connecticut in 1998, Lanza agreed to the move because she believed it would be good for the boys.

"I was shocked when they were going to Connecticut," LaFontaine said. "It was her husband's idea and she didn't want to go at first. She didn't want to leave because her baby brother lived right next to her in town here and she was close to him."
In the end, she made the move because of the educational opportunity it afforded the boys, LaFontaine said. "She thought the schools in Connecticut were better, and I'm sure I'm going to have to agree with that."

Doing Well In School

Nancy Lanza would settle in quickly at her new address, 36 Yogananda St., a spacious 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 LaFontaine. In spite of those activities, Adam Lanza had difficulty relating to others, even as a young child. In kindergarten back 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." LaFontaine recalled that at one of the Scout meetings in Kingston, Adam, a slight child with a mop of curly brownish-red hair, became immersed in a crafts assignment but still exhibited the signs that would define his life: He was withdrawn, said next to nothing, was resistant to touch, and tended to exist in his own world.

On that day, LaFontaine watched Nancy Lanza approach Adam. LaFontaine knew virtually no one could touch Adam without the boy recoiling. His mother leaned down and whispered something in the boy's ear. Then she kissed him gently on the back of his head. The boy did not say anything, or move or acknowledge the kiss in any way. But he did not draw back.
"He didn't seem to mind that," LaFontaine recalled thinking.

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 6th birthday party at a duckpin bowling center in Danbury. "I guess she was worried that he had … some kind of neurobiological condition," Wipprecht recalled. "I thought it was his shyness and uncomfortableness … in large social situations. I mean, a class of 20 people is a lot for a 6-year-old to handle."

She said Lanza told her she was considering taking Adam out of Sandy Hook and enrolling him in a local parochial school "because classes were smaller and she thought he might do better there." When she did not see Adam at Sandy Hook the following school year, Wipprecht said, she assumed he went to the parochial school.

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Courant staff writers Dave Altimari and Edmund H. Mahony contributed to this story.
Reporting from
 Frank Koughan, FRONTLINE included.

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