A high school dropout with a criminal past, Robert A. Hawkins had struggled to overcome depression. But friends thought he was making strides.

Then, about two weeks ago, he lost his girlfriend. A week later, it was his job. His friends worried he would regress.

"He was a very helpful young man, but he was quiet," said Debora Maruca-Kovac, a surgical nurse whose family took in Hawkins after her 17- and 19-year-old sons befriended him.

"He didn't cause a lot of trouble. He tried to help out all the time," Maruca-Kovac said. "He was very thankful for everything. He wasn't a violent person at all."

But police said it was Hawkins who went into an Omaha shopping mall on Wednesday and began a shooting rampage that killed eight people. It ended when he turned his high-powered rifle on himself. The rampage was as troubling as it was puzzling for those who knew him.

Hawkins, 19, had been in trouble before. There was a felony drug conviction in March 2005 and the disorderly conduct charge seven months later. He was due in court later this month on charges he contributed to the delinquency of a minor.

But Maruca-Kovac said she saw nothing foreshadowing the horror Hawkins would inflict during his last moments alive. She remembered a gentle young man who loved animals. She regarded him so benignly that when he showed her an SKS semiautomatic rifle the night before his attack, she thought little of it, the Omaha World-Herald reported.

But she had a feeling of despair soon after she learned about Wednesday shootings. By then, she had learned of a suicide note that Hawkins had left behind.

"I had a feeling it could be him," she said.

She said she and her husband let Hawkins stay with them after he left or was kicked out of his family's house. Court records show that at least once he was termed a ward of the state, which legally removed him from his parents' custody.

With Hawkins living in her home, Maruca-Kovac could see he had a drinking problem and was an occasional marijuana smoker. He enjoyed music and video games — "normal teenager stuff," she said.

"He was depressed, and he had always been depressed," Maruca-Kovac said. "But he looked like he was getting better."

Hawkins had earned a GED after dropping out of Papillion-La Vista High School. He got a driver's license after moving in with the Maruca-Kovacs and five months ago started working at a McDonald's restaurant near their raised ranch-style home in a middle-class neighborhood in Bellevue, Maruca-Kovac said.

He was fired from that job this week, Maruca-Kovac said. Two employees of the McDonald's who were eating there Wednesday said they had been told not to talk to anyone about Hawkins.

Hawkins was not on any medication for mental illness, but he had been treated in the past for depression and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, Maruca-Kovac said.

Hawkins lived with several friends for a couple days at a time before landing at Maruca-Kovac's house last year, she said.

"He was like a lost pound puppy that nobody wanted," she said. "I felt sorry for him. I let him stay, and we tried to get him on his feet."

Maruca-Kovac, who works at Nebraska Medical Center, said she was getting ready for work Wednesday when Hawkins phoned her at about 1 p.m., telling her he had left a note. She tried to get him to explain.

"He said, 'It's too late,"' and hung up, she told CNN. She then called Hawkins' mother.

In the note, which was turned over to authorities, Hawkins wrote that he was "sorry for everything" and would not be a burden on his family anymore.

"Now I'll be famous," he wrote.

Maruca-Kovac went to the medical center, where victims of the shooting soon began to arrive.