MENOMONIE, Wis. – Friends of suspected mailbox bomber Luke Helder say they noticed profound changes in his mental state in recent years, leading many to suspect that he suffers from psychiatric problems.
"The Luke that I knew and the Luke that is now are two different people," said Jason Rossow, who went to high school with Helder and played on the golf team with him in their Minnesota hometown.
Law enforcement officials have called Helder polite but also say he told them he was trying to distribute the bombs in a "smiley face" pattern across the central United States.
A federal magistrate said Wednesday that Helder seems to suffer from "some apparent mental problems."
Rossow said he didn't even recognize Helder at first when he saw him wandering aimlessly — with long hair dyed light blond — at an annual festival last June in Pine Island, Minn.
"He used to be a normal kid in the crowd," Rossow said. "Last summer, he looked lost."
Now some friends and relatives worry that Helder may not fully understand the ramifications of the charges he's facing.
During a phone conversation with his parents, he asked, "Mom, do you think I'll go to jail for this?" said the Rev. Dennis Kampa, the family's priest in Pine Island. Helder could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted in the bombing spree.
Friends of the 21-year-old art student say he cut his shoulder-length blond hair and carried around a stack of $20 bills last week before he took off in his gray Honda from Menomonie, where he attended the University of Wisconsin-Stout.
"Whether he was on drugs or his mind flipped, we don't know," said Kampa, who spent time with Helder's parents before they flew to Nevada, where their son was arrested Tuesday.
Like many, Rossow remembers Helder as someone who had strong opinions and ideas. But they weren't the anti-government, anti-authority ravings that characterized letters left with pipe bombs from Illinois to Texas.
Adam Stowitts, a senior at UW-Stout, said Helder could be "overbearing" in class but also had trouble explaining what he wanted to say.
"He didn't have the social aspects to have a two-sided discussion," he said. "He had his views and he was talking, not listening."
Sarah Brown, an ex-girlfriend whose relationship with Helder ended nine months ago, told The Capital Times in Madison that he was fascinated with astral projection, or out-of-body experiences, and tried unsuccessfully to achieve one several times.
Jeremy Johnson, a fellow art student at the UW-Stout who shared a locker with Helder for three years, said he was a "nice guy" but not one Johnson chose to hang out with.
"He was into marijuana and partying and stuff and I didn't want to get into it," Johnson said. In October, Menomonie police fined Helder $151 for possession of marijuana paraphernalia.
Johnson, like many people who know Helder, seemed particularly puzzled by images they've seen of him smirking as he was arrested.
"Why the smile?" asked Johnson.
Johnson was one of the few students at the school who knew much about Helder, who never lived in student housing and often drove 200 miles to Madison to hang out with friends there.
Helder was known for his love of the grunge band Nirvana and played in his own band called Apathy — once leading The Badger Herald student newspaper in Madison to run a headline that asked, "Studious Midwestern farm boy or rock-band anarchist?"
That was the same newspaper that received a lengthy, rambling letter from Helder, postmarked May 3 in Omaha.
"Wake up people!" he said in the letter. "I am taking very drastic measures in attempt to provide information to you."
In the letter, he criticized everything from government control and technology to the unequal distribution of wealth and laws against marijuana, which he said gives "mental stimulation."
He also wrote, "There is no such thing as death and fear is not necessary."
While spreading pipe bombs is reason enough for psychiatric evaluation, experts said the letter further indicates a potentially troubled mind.
"It's as if there is a distortion about how important he is to the rest of society," said Richard Gallagher, a psychologist and director of the Parenting Institute at the NYU Child Study Center.
Helder also wrote a letter to his parents — one that troubled them enough to tip off authorities. But Kampa, their priest, said that until then, the Helders had "no inkling" that he might do something violent.
"We're trying to find out what went wrong, who influenced him, what he was reading," Kampa said.
Rossow, his hometown friend, says he feels bad for Helder.
"But I feel worse for his family," he said. "They raised him better than that."