At 2:00 a.m. on Saturday—about eight hours before he allegedly killed six people and wounded 14, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), in Tucson—Jared Lee Loughner phoned an old and close friend with whom he had gone to high school and college. The friend, Bryce Tierney, was up late watching TV, but he didn’t answer the call. When he later checked his voice mail, he heard a simple message from Loughner: “Hey man, it’s Jared. Me and you had good times. Peace out. Later.”
That was it. But later in the day, when Tierney first heard about the Tucson massacre, he had a sickening feeling: “They hadn’t released the name, but I said, ‘Holy shit, I think it’s Jared that did it.'” Tierney tells Mother Jones in an exclusive interview that Loughner held a years-long grudge against Giffords and had repeatedly derided her as a “fake.” Loughner’s animus toward Giffords intensified after he attended one of her campaign events and she did not, in his view, sufficiently answer a question he had posed, Tierney says. He also describes Loughner as being obsessed with “lucid dreaming”—that is, the idea that conscious dreams are an alternative reality that a person can inhabit and control—and says Loughner became “more interested in this world than our reality.” Tierney adds, “I saw his dream journal once. That’s the golden piece of evidence. You want to know what goes on in Jared Loughner’s mind, there’s a dream journal that will tell you everything.”
On Sunday, federal prosecutors charged 22-year-old Loughner with one count of attempting to assassinate a member of Congress, two counts of unlawfully killing a federal employee, and two counts of attempting to kill a federal employee. Giffords was the target of Loughner’s rampage, prosecutors say, and the sworn affidavit accompanying the charges mentions that Loughner attended a Giffords “Congress in Your Corner” event in 2007. The affidavit also mentions that police searching a safe in Loughner’s home found a letter from Giffords’ office thanking the alleged shooter for attending an August 25, 2007 event.*
Tierney, who’s also 22, recalls Loughner complaining about a Giffords event he attended during that period. He’s unsure whether it was the same one mentioned in the charges—Loughner “might have gone to some other rallies,” he says—but Tierney notes it was a significant moment for Loughner: “He told me that she opened up the floor for questions and he asked a question. The question was, ‘What is government if words have no meaning?'”
Giffords’ answer, whatever it was, didn’t satisfy Loughner. “He said, ‘Can you believe it, they wouldn’t answer my question,’ and I told him, ‘Dude, no one’s going to answer that,'” Tierney recalls. “Ever since that, he thought she was fake, he had something against her.”
Tierney says he has “no clue” why Loughner might have “shot all those other people.” But, he notes, “when I heard Gabrielle Giffords has been shot, I was like ‘Oh my God…’ For some reason I felt like I knew…I felt like if anyone was going to shoot her, it would be Jared.”
Loughner would occasionally mention Giffords, according to Tierney: “It wasn’t a day-in, day-out thing, but maybe once in a while, if Giffords did something that was ridiculous or passed some stupid law or did something stupid, he related that to people. But the thing I remember most is just that question. I don’t remember him stalking her or anything.” Tierney notes that Loughner did not display any specific political or ideological bent: “It wasn’t like he was in a certain party or went to rallies…It’s not like he’d go on political rants.” But Loughner did, according to Tierney, believe that government is “fucking us over.” He never heard Loughner vent about the perils of “currency,” as Loughner did on one YouTube video he created.
Tierney, who first met Loughner in middle school, recalls that Loughner started to act strange around his junior or senior year of high school. Before that, Loughner was just a “normal kid,” says Tierney. When the two friends started hanging out in sophomore year of high school, “there was nothing really dark about Jared,” Tierney says. “He was playing drums, doing band things, playing sax. He was raised on writing and reading music.” Loughner also did a lot of creative writing in his high school days, Tierney says, and he used to carry around a copy of a short story he wrote involving a character named Angel; he’d ask people if they would like to read it. “It had a lot of hidden metaphors in it,” Tierney says.
As Loughner and Tierney grew closer, Tierney got used to spending the first ten minutes or so of every day together arguing with Loughner’s “nihilist” view of the world. “By the time he was 19 or 20, he was really fascinated with semantics and how the world is really nothing—illusion,” Tierney says.
Once, Tierney recalls, Loughner told him, “I’m pretty sure I’ve come to the conclusion that words mean nothing.” Loughner would also tell Tierney and his friends that life “means nothing,” and they’d reply, “If it means nothing, what you’re saying means nothing.” Other times, Tierney says, Loughner acted like any teen: “We’d go to concerts, play music, get into trouble.”
Tierney believes that Loughner was very interested in pushing people’s buttons—and that may have been why he listed Hitler’s Mein Kampf as one of his favorite books on his YouTube page. (Loughner’s mom is Jewish, according to Tierney.**) Loughner sometimes approached strangers and would say “weird” things, Tierney recalls. “He would do it because he thought people were below him and he knew they wouldn’t know what he was talking about.”
In college, Loughner became increasingly intrigued with “lucid dreaming,” and he grew convinced that he could control his dreams, according to Tierney. In a series of rambling videos posted to his YouTube page, dreams are a frequent topic. In a video posted on December 15, Loughner writes, “My favorite activity is conscience dreaming: the greatest inspiration for my political business information. Some of you don’t dream—sadly.” In another video, he writes, “The population of dreamers in the United States of America is less than 5%!” Later in the same video he says, “I’m a sleepwalker—who turns off the alarm clock.”
Loughner believed that dreams could be a sort of alternative, Matrix-style reality, and “that when you realize you’re dreaming, you can do anything, you can create anything,” Tierney says. Loughner started his “dream journal” in an attempt to take more control of his dreams, his friend notes, and he kept this journal for over a year.
In October 2008, Tierney was living in Phoenix, and Loughner came to visit. They went to see a Mars Volta concert with friends, and Tierney was surprised when Loughner said he had quit partying “completely.” Loughner, according to Tierney, said, “I’m going to lead a more healthy lifestyle, not smoke cigarettes or pot anymore, and I’m going to start working out.” Tierney was happy for his friend: “I said, ‘Dude, that’s awesome.’ And the next time I saw him he was 10 pounds lighter.” Tierney never saw Loughner smoke marijuana again, and he was surprised at media reports that Loughner had been rejected from the military in 2009 for failing a drug test: “He was clean, clean. I saw him after that continuously. He would not do it.”
After Loughner apparently gave up drugs and booze, “his theories got worse,” Tierney says. “After he quit, he was just off the wall.” And Loughner started to drift away from his group of friends about a year ago. By early 2010, dreaming had become Loughner’s “waking life, his reality,” Tierney says. “He sort of drifted off, didn’t really care about hanging out with friends. He’d be sleeping a lot.” Loughner’s alternate reality was attractive, Tierney says. “He figured out he could fly.” Loughner, according to Tierney, told his friends, “I’m so into it because I can create things and fly. I’m everything I’m not in this world.”
But in this world, Loughner seemed ticked off by what he believed to be a pervasive authoritarianism. “The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling grammar,” he wrote in one YouTube video. In another, Loughner complains that when he tried to join the military, he was handed a “mini-Bible.” That upset him: “I didn’t write a belief on my Army application and the recruiter wrote on the application: None,” he wrote on YouTube. In messages on MySpace last month, Loughner declared, “I’ll see you on National T.v.! This is foreshadow.” He also noted on the website, “I don’t feel good: I’m ready to kill a police officer! I can say it.”
One of the last times Loughner and Tierney saw each other, a mutual friend had recently purchased a .22-caliber rifle. Until then, Loughner had never shown much interest in guns, Tierney says. “My friend had just gotten a .22, and Jared kept saying we should go shooting together.” But Tierney and the friend who had bought the .22 demurred. “We were sketched out,” Tierney says, “and we were like, ‘I don’t think Jared’s a good person to go shooting with.'” That was in February or March 2010. After that, Tierney didn’t hear much from Loughner.
Since hearing of the rampage, Tierney has been trying to figure out why Loughner did what he allegedly did. “More chaos, maybe,” he says. “I think the reason he did it was mainly to just promote chaos. He wanted the media to freak out about this whole thing. He wanted exactly what’s happening. He wants all of that.” Tierney thinks that Loughner’s mindset was like the Joker in the most recent Batman movie: “He fucks things up to fuck shit up, there’s no rhyme or reason, he wants to watch the world burn. He probably wanted to take everyone out of their monotonous lives: ‘Another Saturday, going to go get groceries’—to take people out of these norms that he thought society had trapped us in.”
Tierney dwells on the phone call he missed early Saturday morning. But it was late, and the TV show Tierney was watching was creeping him out. So he didn’t pick up. “I sort of wish I would have,” he says. “I wonder what would have happened if I answered it.”
*This sentence has been corrected to reflect that August 30, 2007 was the date of the letter, not the date of the event itself. The event was on August 25.
**Tierney says Loughner’s mom is Jewish. But a columnist who researched the subject doesn’t think that holds up. Tierney also said that Loughner himself was definitely not religious.
MoJo’s full coverage of the shooting and its aftermath is here.