Rolling Stone on Rob Hawkins

Please note, the following quote is fairly graphic. It may upset some readers:

On an overcast Wednesday afternoon last December, a skinny white teenager shuffled into the Westroads Mall in Omaha, Nebraska, with an assault rifle hidden under his black hoodie. A cheery holiday atmosphere filled the aisles. Christmas trees twinkled, holiday music played softly. Nobody paid attention to the slouching teen as he got on the elevator in the Von Maur department store and rode it to Level 3. He came out with his gun raised: an effeminate-looking, almost pretty boy with alabaster skin and cherry-red lips, holding the rifle like a pro — stock to cheek, elbow high. Harry Potter with an AK-47. He crossed the hall to the girls 7-16 section, where, among the rows of dresses and frilly tops, he came across two women and shot and killed them both. The high-decibel blasts ricocheted through the store and sent the remaining shoppers into a panicky, screaming dash for cover, and as they ran, crying out in confusion, the teen squeezed off two more rounds, hitting the arm of a man lunging into a side door — then aiming at a man fleeing down an escalator, killing him before he reached the last step. The boy leaned over a balcony overlooking a central atrium, squinted down 40 feet to Level 1, where a janitor was scrambling to find a safe zone, and shot and killed him. Swiveling back to Level 3, he saw a woman ducking into an employee locker room, and he shot and killed her.

In the midst of the carnage, the boy changed magazines, loading in 30 fresh bullets. He walked over to the customer-service counter, behind which four workers were huddled. One of them, Dianne Trent, 53, had hastily called 911 and was describing a “young boy with glasses” coming toward her when the teen shot her at point-blank range, killing her instantly. He then shot the remaining three people behind the counter, wounding a man and two women. They collapsed in a squirming, bloody tangle. Then he turned around and shot and killed a 65-year-old man hiding behind a chair with his wife.

Barely five minutes had passed since the boy started shooting. Seven were now slain, four more badly wounded, bleeding into the thick-pile carpet. Behind the customer-service counter, one of the boy’s victims was crying out, “I need oxygen, I need oxygen.” She bled to death before help arrived. Police and ambulance sirens could now be heard approaching from the distance. The teen shot a stuffed teddy bear. Then he turned the gun on himself: one shot, under the chin.

This is the opening to an article in the latest issue of Rolling Stone. It re-examines the life that a young killer had, and explores the environment he grew up in. There are several parts in the article that really hit home and show what this kid had to deal with growing up.

Infants are imitative: They learn by copying what they see. And by the time he was four years old, Rob had grown into an attack machine. He was a menace on the playground, punching other kids or kicking them in the groin whenever he got upset. When teachers disciplined him, he bit their hands. And he held grudges; he once came up to a teacher he disliked and slammed her head in a door. He did this when he was a preschooler, only three and a half feet tall and 34 pounds.

In 1992, after Ronald was posted to an Air Force base in Omaha, he brought his four-year-old son to the Methodist Richard Young Hospital and asked the psychiatrists what to do with the violent boy. The doctors asked Robbie why he kept hurting other kids. He lowered his eyes to the floor.

“Because I’m stupid and bad,” he mumbled.

This kid grew up in an extremely unhealthy, abusive environement. It deeply saddens me to see such violent tendencies in a child so young.

Growing up on a steady diet of psychiatric medication and corporal punishment, Rob became more violent and withdrawn. When he was 13, his ongoing battle with Candace went nuclear. She searched his backpack for cigarettes, and Rob flipped out on her. In response, she slapped him across the face so hard that her ring cut his forehead. He balled up his fist and said quietly, “I’m going to kill you.”

Rob’s step-mother and father wanted nothing to do with him. They did not want to have to face the byproduct of the environment they created for their son. They wanted him gone. In a brisk 8-minute long court session, they were able to get Rob sent off to foster care. He spent a lot of his time there, undergoing therapy and observation. He became very close with his room mate, Dallas.

One day, when Dallas turned 17, Rob was given permission to go to a dollar store, where he got heaps of candy and all the soda bottles he could carry. That night, he invited the other patients on his hall over and threw Dallas a surprise birthday party. It touched his friend deeply. “Rob could be great when he loved you,” Dallas says.

This really hits me hard, as even though the kid has had such an awful, abusive life, there’s obviously still someone in there that’s loving and caring. Someone that can come out and display themselves when they feel safe.

The two worked the system to the point that the staff allowed them to have guitars and video games in their room, just like regular kids, and to stay up late playing chess and drawing and talking. It was during these late-night bull sessions that Rob admitted to Dallas that he missed his mother terribly. “He talked about her a lot,” Dallas recalls. “He wanted to be with her.”

After a while, Rob deeply wanted to connect with his biological mother.

It was around that time that Rob, who now had access to a telephone after years in group homes, finally connected with his mother. One day, after convincing his sister to give him the number, he picked up the phone and called his stepfather.

“Do you remember someone named Robert Hawkins?” he asked.

“Of course I do,” his stepfather said. Then he handed the phone to Molly, who was over for a visit. She didn’t recognize the voice on the other end of the line.

“Mommy, it’s me, Robbie.”

His own mother didn’t recognize his voice. What does that say? However, after this she jumped back into his life. Things went great for a while, and she offered encouragement. She bought him a green jeep and said that if he finished high school, he would get it. After a while, Rob wanted to move back home. His own mother rejected him, feeling that it would still be unsafe for her new family. Rob still got in trouble with the law too often for her liking. She wanted to be the fun aunt, not a mother. This rejection crushed Rob.

For a second time in his life, Rob had been rejected by his own mother. He was so angry that he didn’t speak to her for two years.

Four years cocooned in the state system had left him with little education and no marketable talents, and he lacked even basic life skills — such as knowing how to drive a car. Still, he wasn’t stupid, and he was willing to learn.

But he soon discovered that Nebraska had become an unforgiving place for kids like him. Globalization and mechanization had winnowed away the decent jobs working in corn and soybeans, and by the time Rob went looking for work, there were 20,000 fewer farm jobs in Nebraska than there had been when he was born. The loss left an entire generation out in the cold — some 10,000 high school dropouts in the state are currently unemployed, roaming the plains with nothing to do. After looking for a while with no success, Rob gave up the job hunt. He started bumming around in a haze of marijuana smoke, got busted and was put under house arrest. Eventually, he persuaded the judge to release him from the state’s supervision. The county prosecutor argued against it, but by then the state had already spent $265,000 on Rob, and, as his caseworker put it, “I’m not sure that we’re benefiting him anymore.”

The kid was stuck in homes and wasn’t forced to get an education. He still felt that he could contribute to society. This was what convinced them to let him leave care. They didn’t feel that with his mental state, anything they would do would help him. He gets out in the real world, and realizes that without an education, without the skills of living in the real world, he can’t get a job. What jobs he did get he wasn’t able to keep, which is his fault.

Everything Rob tried to do to make money failed miserably. Whenever he looked for jobs online, all he could find were minimum-wage gigs — nothing with a future. He enlisted in the Army, announcing to his friends one night that he was going to make it to general, but the recruiter rejected him on account of his record and mental-health issues. Spiraling down into depression and drinking, he tried drug dealing in earnest. He borrowed $400 worth of pot in what was supposed to be his big move, but he ended up smoking it all. “It was just so moist,” he told a friend with a laugh.

This kid is going downhill. He can’t get anything more than minimum wage, can’t even serve his country, and heck, he can’t even deal drugs right. The kid is living a meaningless existence. He isn’t contributing to anything, and he constantly feels like an underachieving throwaway.

Even Dallas, his friend from the group home who had managed to get a job at Target and a fiancee, couldn’t convince Rob to straighten up. “There was a side of Rob that didn’t want to go the quiet route,” Dallas recalls. “He was getting pretty heavy into his drugs. He wanted to deal like crazy for a few years and then retire.” But when Rob tried a second stab at dealing, plunking all his cash into a cocaine buy, he ended up getting robbed, losing every gram and every dollar he had invested. “He came over to my house and was really upset,” says Dallas. “He cried a lot. He owed some pretty serious people money, and he wanted to kill himself.”

…he sat down and wrote another suicide note.

“I’ve been a piece of shit my entire life,” he wrote. “It seems this is my only option. 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 just want to take a few pieces of shit with me.”

Rob left the note next to his bed and drove over to see his friend Dallas. When he arrived, he slumped down on the big leather couch, flicked on the Xbox and began to play in wordless concentration. But before long, he tossed the controller on the couch and started talking, then crying.

Tears ran down his face. Everything was wrong — everything. The Marucas were going to kick him out and he’d be homeless. He’d fucked up with Kaci, the one girl he could see marrying. She hated him, and maybe rightly so. He was looking at jail time — over Christmas — for drinking beer in the Jeep, and he didn’t even have the money to pay the fine, let alone a lawyer.

When his mother found out about the gun, she was likely to take back the Jeep, and then how the hell was he going to get around? Where was he going to sleep? What were they going to do to him in prison? Through tear-stained eyes, he looked up at his old friend. “I’m fucked, dude.”

This deeply saddens me. Here is a kid who’s been battling depression his whole life, lived in abusive relationships, been abandoned multiple times by the only people who are supposed to always be there for him, and he’s got absolutely nothing to look forward to. Putting myself in his shoes, I can completely understand why he would think that absolutely everything in life was heading into a pit he couldn’t get out of. Molly (his mother), was trying to find him, as she had noticed he had taken an AK-47 from her home.

As she raced to find her son, Molly looked down at her cellphone and noticed that there was a missed call. When she pressed the phone to her ear, she heard Rob’s high-pitched, reedy voice.

“Hi, Mom,” he said. “It’s me. I just wanted to let you know that I love you. I’m sorry for everything. See you later.”

His last words to his mother.

Now, I don’t want to seem too empathetic to this kid. What he did was completely disgusting. There are absolutely no circumstances where what this person did could be deemed reasonable. However, I am deeply moved by somebody willing to look into this kid’s life, and why anyone would do such a thing. I feel for this guy. I hate that anybody has to live the life that he lived. I hate that people could be so abusive and dismissive of their own children. I hate that love could be so absent from somebody’s life. I hate almost everything that this kid had to endure. I hate, most of all, that when he showed signs of caring, of kindness, of being a normal person, that nobody seemed to latch onto that and encourage it and nurture it. Not even the people who were supposed to be taking care of him.

Never before have I felt so empathetic towards, yet so appalled at, a single individual. I hate what this person did, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel pity and empathy towards someone who had such a deficient upbringing. This story has deeply moved me. I’m not sure in what way, or to what conclusion, but it has made me think. I know I feel bad for Rob. I can’t imagine living a childhood like his. It doesn’t justify his actions, though. *sigh* I’ll definitely ponder this one a lot more. A lot more.

I highly recommend you read the full article. It’ll take you probably a little over a half hour, and it’s a really interesting read. You can find it at Rolling Stone.