"They wanted to know why I did what I did. Well, sir, guess there's
just a meanness in this world."
--Bruce Springsteen, "Nebraska" (1982)
How do you explain the kind of meanness, confusion and rage that would compel a 19-year-old to walk into a mall in the middle of the day and kill eight people and then himself with a semiautomatic assault rifle? What happened to Robert Hawkins, or Robbie, as he was known, that would make him break down and inflict such terrible damage?
Dozens of reporters and producers descended on Omaha this week, fanning out across snowbound Omaha and surrounding suburbs like Papillion, La Vista and Bellevue, searching for answers. As we knocked on doors, listened to hastily-called news conferences by the mayor, police chief and state officials, and arranged interviews with friends, acquaintances, neighbors and school officials, it became clear that answers would be hard to come by, but that no one wanted to take much responsibility for Robbie's killing spree with an SKS he'd reportedly stolen from his stepfather.
We soon were told by state officials that Nebraska had spent more than a quarter million dollars on services for Hawkins, who had been in the foster care system from 2002, when he was 13, until last year, when he turned 18. He spent four years in a series of treatment centers, group homes and foster care after threatening to kill his stepmother. The treatment included psychotherapy, family therapy, drug counseling, and just about everything else the overstressed foster care system can provide a troubled youth.
"All appropriate services were provided when needed for as long as needed," said Todd Landry, Nebraska's director of children and family programs for the Department of Health and Human Services.
He hadn't slipped through the cracks, but the supports that were offered just couldn't make Robbie whole again. Sometimes, troubled kids don't thrive in the kind of cookie-cutter services many foster care systems provide. In 2006, the state terminated its custody of Robbie, saying he was "nonamenable to further services." He had reportedly refused to participate in drug treatment. But Nebraska officials could have ordered him to continue treatment.
Landry said that records do not show exactly why Hawkins was released from foster care, but if he should not have been set free, someone would have raised a red flag. He didn't explain how he could have known that.
It was clear that Hawkins was a complicated kid, increasingly lost and lonely. "A lost puppy that nobody wanted," is how his landlady, Debora Maruca-Kovac, a nurse, described him.
He was living with Maruca-Kovac when he went on his killing spree, no longer able to stay with his mother or father, who had divorced and remarried years ago. He had recently broken up with a girlfriend and lost his job at a local McDonald's. Just recently, he threatened a young woman, saying he would kill her and her family.
Yet friends said that wasn't the Robbie they knew. Although he had been in trouble with the law for drugs and seemed interested in guns, neither seemed a sure signal someone was going to go on a killing spree.
His handwritten suicide note, released by police Friday, seemed to highlight Hawkins' dual nature.
On the one hand, he seemed plaintive, almost pleading.