Omaha Wonders: Why Did 'Lost Puppy' Kill?

People left searching for answers after Nebraska teen "just snapped."

February 18, 2009, 4:52 PM

OMAHA, Neb, Dec. 8, 2007 — -- "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.

"I've just snapped. I can't take this meaningless existence anymore. I've been a constant disappointment and that trend would have only continued," he wrote. "I know everyone will remember me as some sort of monster, but please understand that I just don't want to be a burden on the ones that I care for my entire life.

"I love you mommy. I love you dad," he wrote.

He left his car to his mom, though he'd had little contact with her over the years. His parents divorced when he was three, and he then lived with his father, Ronald Hawkins, who was in the Air Force.

But what kind of burden did Hawkins believe he was? Was this late adolescent self-pity, or a deeply tortured soul who had been through everything the state's foster care system had to offer, only to lose all hope he could ever succeed? Did he crave fame and recognition, the kind he never thought he could achieve without a spree of violence that would land him in the headlines? His suicide note contains clear signs of his desire for fame, his rage and indifference.

"Just think tho I'm gonna be (expletive) famous." And this: "I just want to take a few peices (sic) of (expletive) with me."

On Thursday evening, as the snow was letting up, I drove to Papillion-La Vista High School, looking for a few answers. Principal Jim Glover said Hawkins entered the school in 10th grade, was a sporadic student with no interest in extra-curricular activities, and did not attend in 11th grade, when foster care moved him to another community. Robbie returned as a senior, but withdrew from school in 2006, and never graduated.

Glover said he seemed deeply pained that one of his former students could have inflicted so much damage, could have been beyond help. Robbie was a troubled kid, he said, but did not seem violent.

"We never saw a side of Robbie that would show great disrespect, that there were any violent tendencies at all," Glover said.

Glover seemed to be among the long line of officials left wondering what happened, how more could have done, yet not wanting to blame anyone, except perhaps the young man with the assault rifle. Few openly questioned the ease with which Hawkins got hold of the weapon, which he used to spray dozens of shots in a matter of minutes at the largest mall in the state, on the western outskirts of Omaha just off I-680.

It was the deadliest attack in this state since Charles Starkweather went on his infamous rampage 50 years ago, killing 10 people, and inspiring the movie "Badlands" and Bruce Springsteen's haunting song, "Nebraska."

"When you look at the people that tried to help Robbie throughout the years," Glover said, "whether it's his parents, whether it's us, or HHS, I think there were a lot of people in Robbie's court, to try to help him do better, and to get him to do better. I think in the end you always look back and think, 'What is it that we could have done to maybe, to make that a better situation for him?' The commitment from Robbie was never there."

Glover spoke to Robbie's father the day after the shooting, partly to figure out what to do with Robbie's two younger half-siblings, who are in the school system.

"It was a tough conversation," he said. "'Dad, I think tried everything he could for Robbie,' and I think he's like us. He feels like, at some point, was there anything else that he could have done that would have made a difference?"

The next morning, a couple of fellow producers and I went on a round ofobligatory door-knockings, at his father and mother's house, where therewas no answer -- just a flurry of business cards from various networkand cable news producers stuck in the closed doors, their Christmaswreaths now serving as a barrier against the outside world. Then, wemoved on to the northern outskirts of Omaha, to the foster home whereRobbie had lived for more than a year.

There, we met a young man who'd been Robbie's older foster brother for a year. He told us his mother had raised 10 children of her own on these flat plains, and had also taken in several foster kids over the years. There was nothing particularly memorable about Robbie, he said, but looking around, one wondered what it must have been like to suddenly to be plunked down in this alien place, to start a new school and try to make a new life, leaving behind his bad habits and violent outbursts.

Maruca-Kovac told the Omaha World-Herald that the night before the shooting, Hawkins and her sons showed her a semi-automatic rifle. She said she thought the gun looked too old to work. She turned out to be wrong about that. About an hour before the shootings, Robbie called Maruca-Kovac and told her he had written a suicide note.

As we made our way along the snowy interstate highways that crisscross Omaha, we carried the reminder that a dear colleague, veteran cameraman Ralph Binder, had died in a car crash on his way from Denver to cover the story. Ralph had driven the flat landscape of I-80 hundreds of times, in all kinds of conditions, including Thursday's sudden snowstorm. His death felt as random and senseless as those of eight people who happened to be working or shopping at the Von Maur department store Wednesday afternoon, when the thin young man could be seen on the surveillance footage the store, tentatively surveying the scene.

Mall security trained their cameras on him, at first fearing he might bea holiday season shoplifter. But he left, returning six minutes laterwith a gun hidden in a balled-up sweatshirt. The choice of the mall andthe victims appeared to be random, police said. Hawkins chose to takeout his rage by firing more than 30 rounds at strangers, not family or those he might have felt let him down.

By Thursday evening, the chain restaurants across from Von Maur's had reopened, the diners at the Cheesecake Factory perhaps a little quieter than usual. The mall opened Saturday.

All that visibly remained of the tragedy before the mall's reopening was a small memorial outside Von Maur's, which will stay closed indefinitely. One handwritten sign on the store's front steps read, "I walked out of here on Wednesday. Pray for those who didn't."

This weekend there will be wakes and funerals, and endless grief -- and no good answers.

As Robbie himself wrote, something snapped. All the schools, treatment centers, foster homes and counselors couldn't help put him back together, and make him whole.

Now, his lasting image will be him taking aim against the world. The name Robert Hawkins is etched into the spreading national landscape of mall and school shootings, another bitter reminder, as if one is needed, that lost souls with weapons and a will to kill can make a name for themselves, at least for a few days, as the rest of us traverse the frozen plains, knocking on doors, looking for answers to a cold, hard piece of meanness in this world.

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