OMAHA, Neb. – The young man who killed eight people and committed suicide in a shooting rampage at a department store spent four years in a series of treatment centers, group homes and foster care after threatening to kill his stepmother in 2002.
Finally, in August 2006, social workers, the courts and his father all agreed: It was time for Robert Hawkins to be released — nine months before he turned 19 and would have been required to leave anyway.
The group homes and treatment centers were for youths with substance abuse, mental or behavioral problems.
Altogether, the state spent about $265,000 on Hawkins, officials said.
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On Thursday, while some of those who knew Hawkins called the massacre Wednesday at a busy Omaha mall unexpected, not everyone was surprised.
"He should have gotten help, but I think he needed someone to help him and needed someone to be there when in the past he's said he wanted to kill himself," said Karissa Fox, who said she knew Hawkins through a friend. "Someone should have listened to him."
Todd Landry, state director of children and family services, said court records do not show precisely why Hawkins was released. But he said that if Hawkins should not have been set free, someone would have raised a red flag.
"It is my opinion, it was not a failure of the system to provide appropriate services," Landry said. "If that was an issue, any of the participants in the case would have brought that forward."
After reviewing surveillance tape, a suicide note and Hawkins' last conversations with those close to him, police said they don't know — and may never know — exactly why Hawkins went to the Von Maur store at Westroads Mall and shot more than a dozen people.
But he clearly planned ahead, walking through the store, exiting, then returning a few minutes later with a gun concealed in a balled-up sweat shirt he was carrying, authorities said.
Debora Maruca-Kovac, a woman who with her husband took Hawkins into their home because he had no other place to live, told the Omaha World-Herald that the night before the shooting, Hawkins and her sons showed her a semiautomatic rifle. She said she thought the gun looked too old to work.
Police believe Hawkins was using that AK-47 when he stormed off a third-floor elevator at the store and started shooting.
Police said they have found no connections between the 19-year-old and the six employees and two shoppers he killed.
"The shooting victims were randomly selected," as was the location of the shooting, Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren said.
Acquaintances said that Hawkins was a drug user and that he had a history of depression. In 2005 and 2006, according to court records, he underwent psychiatric evaluations, the reasons for which Landry would not disclose, citing privacy rules.
In May 2002, he was sent to a treatment center in Waynesville, Mo., after threatening his stepmother. Four months later, a Nebraska court decided Hawkins' problems were serious enough that he should be under state supervision and made him a ward of the state.
He went through a series of institutions in Nebraska as he progressed through the system: months at a treatment center and group home in Omaha in 2003; time in a foster care program and treatment center in 2004 and 2005; then a felony drug-possession charge later in 2005. Landry said the court records do not identify the drug.
The drug charge was eventually dropped, but he was jailed in 2006 for not performing community service as required.
On Aug. 21, 2006, he was released from state custody.
Under state law, Landry said, wards are released when all sides — parents, courts, social workers — agree it is time for them to go. Once Hawkins was set free, he was entirely on his own. He was no longer under state supervision, and was not released into anyone's custody.
"When our role is ended, we try to step out," said Chris Peterson, director of the state Department of Health and Human Services.
About an hour before the shootings, Hawkins called Maruca-Kovac and told her he had written a suicide note, Maruca-Kovac said. In the note, Hawkins wrote that he was "sorry for everything" and would not be a burden on his family anymore. More ominously, he wrote: "Now I'll be famous."
"He had said how much he loved his family and all his friends and how he was sorry he was a burden to everybody and his whole life he was a piece of (expletive) and now he'll be famous," Maruca-Kovac said on CBS' "The Early Show," describing the note. "I was fearful that he was going to try to commit suicide, but I had no idea that he would involve so many other families."
Bellevue police on Thursday arrested a 17-year-old friend of Hawkins who they said threatened to kill a teenage girl. The girl had made remarks about Hawkins that offended his friend, Chief John Stacey said.
The teen was being held in a juvenile detention center on suspicion of making terroristic threats, Stacey said. Police found a rifle and two shotguns at the teen's house, weapons he had access to, the chief said.
The shoppers that Hawkins killed were Gary Scharf, 48, of Lincoln, and John McDonald, 65, of Council Bluffs, Iowa. The employees killed were Angie Schuster, 36; Maggie Webb, 24; Janet Jorgensen, 66; Diane Trent, 53; Gary Joy, 56; and Beverly Flynn, 47, all of Omaha.