On February 14, 2008, a lone gunman made his way into an oceanography class at Northern Illinois University (NIU) and began shooting. The killer, Steven Kazmierczak, had completed an undergraduate degree and taken graduate courses in sociology from NIU. On the day of the shooting, the 27-year-old killed five students and wounded 16 others before killing himself. The Valentine’s Day tragedy at NIU is considered to be one of the deadliest university shootings in U.S. history, ranking behind only the Virginia Tech massacre, the University of Texas Clock Tower shooting, and the library massacre at California State University, Fullerton. As in other cases of mass murder, authorities soon learned that the perpetrator had a long history of mental illness.
According to many accounts, Steven Kazmierczak’s mental problems began long before his involvement in the NIU shootings. In fact, these problems can be traced as far back as his days as a high school student. As a teenager, Steven’s mental illness was so extreme that his parents placed him in a psychiatric treatment center. Years later, a former employee of the treatment center recalled that Kazmierczak refused to take his medication and engaged in self-mutilation while at the facility. Ironically, as a graduate student at NIU, Kazmierczak would one day coauthor an academic paper related to self-mutilation. In spite of having a history of mental problems that required hospitalization, he avoided identifying himself with being mentally ill. Some believe, in retrospect, that Kazmierczak’s failure to acknowledge his mental illness may have been a significant part of the problem.
While it is true that Kazmierczak had been treated for various mental illnesses, he was successful and even “revered” by some faculty members during his time as a student at NIU. Many faculty members and fellow students found him to be very easy to converse with and affable. He even earned the prestigious Dean’s award while pursuing his degree in sociology. Despite Kazmierczak’s success at NIU, however, he did possess at least a few idiosyncrasies. In hindsight, these quirks may have been red flags that he had a dark side that was not displayed to his professors. According to one source, for example, Kazmierczak had an infatuation with notorious figures, such as Adolph Hitler and Jeffrey Dahmer. When he was not studying, Kazmierczak also spent much of his free time playing violent video games and watching horror films. Nevertheless, Kazmierczak was an exceptional student while at NIU. He excelled in his classes, tutored other students, and was even able to find a girlfriend.
One can only wonder why Kazmierczak decided to stage his attack at NIU. By many accounts, he was able to thrive during his time at the university, despite his severe psychological problems. In fact, it is widely believed that Kazmierczak was able to function without any type of psychiatric drugs while he was a student at NIU. It was only after he transferred to another school, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, that he began to unravel. Perhaps the stress of a new place was simply too much for him. Kazmierczak, after all, was described by many as being extremely anxious and obsessive-compulsive. Shortly after moving, he developed an obsession with guns and made frequent trips to the firing range. Also, in 2007, after the horrific Virginia Tech shootings, Kazmierczak is reported to have stated that he admired the manner in which the attack was conducted. He also spoke admiringly about the teenagers responsible for the Columbine High School shootings.
Kazmierczak had a brief stint as a correctional officer after leaving NIU, though it proved to be a very short-lived occupational endeavor. In less than three weeks, he simply quit reporting to work and effectively ended his employment with the prison agency. His personal life also began to suffer. Even though he was living with his on-and-off-again girlfriend, evidence indicates that Kazmierczak began having promiscuous sexual relationships with women he met off the Internet. To cope with his problems, Kazmierczak eventually sought out the services of a mental health professional and was prescribed Prozac. He later quit taking the drug because he was afraid it might make him overweight or give him acne. His discontinuation of his medication did little to help his bizarre behavior and may have exacerbated the problems. Kazmierczak began to act strangely toward his family members. For example, on the Christmas before the NIU shooting, Steven gave his older sister a box of coal as a gift.
In spite of the many warning signs, Kazmierczak’s behavior went largely ignored. He was able to obtain a state police-issued firearms owner’s card and purchased three pistols and one shotgun; he would later use these weapons during the NIU shootings. In a bizarre coincidence, Kazmierczak also bought handgun accessories from the same online gun dealer who sold a weapon to the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho. Days before the attack, Kazmierczak began to act especially mysteriously. Although he did not leave behind a suicide note, he sent goodbye presents, including expensive jewelry, to his girlfriend. He also deleted his email accounts and removed both the SIM card from his cell phone and the hard drive from his computer. In retrospect, it was clear that the killer was making his final preparations before the attack.
At approximately three o’clock in the afternoon on Valentine’s Day, Kazmierczak entered a large lecture hall at NIU. He is said to have paused briefly before opening fire with a sawed-off shotgun on students sitting in the first row. Kazmierczak emptied the chamber of his shotgun and then reloaded. In total, he fired six shots from his shotgun and 48 shots from three pistols. Many of the victims were killed at point-blank range. Kazmierczak’s last bullet was for himself. He committed suicide immediately after his attack on the large group of students. In this respect, his behavior was not unusual, as some mass murderers kill themselves after completing their attacks. Also, Kazmierczak, like many mass murderers, had a severe mental disorder. While he may not have been legally insane, Kazmierczak nevertheless had a long history of anxiety and personality disorders.
Following the NIU attacks, students assembled six white crosses outside of the crime scene. Each of five crosses had the name of a student who had died in the NIU shootings. The final cross bore no name: Kazmierczak’s.
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