If Jared Lee Loughner suffers from mental illness, there was probably no single moment when things went wrong, when something snapped. The precise inception of the pathology would not have been discernible; rather, psychoses (and most other serious mental illnesses) tend to grow and evolve, noticeable only in freeze-frames of a person's life. Indeed, the image of Loughner perceived by friends and associates would vary depending on the moment in time they came in contact with him.
Kylie Smith is one of the few people in Tucson, Ariz., to see the arc of Loughner's life, from preschool to prison. The two became friends at the age of 4, when they would sit in the police cruiser her father drove (he was a sheriff's deputy) and play with all the buttons: the radio, the flashing lights, even the siren. Smith, now 22 and working at Sears, says she lost touch with Loughner after he dropped out of high school in 2006. But they reconnected at a party in 2008, and she was stunned by how much he had changed. "He seemed out of it, like he was somewhere else," she recalls. "I could tell he wasn't just drunk, and he wasn't just high."
"The Jared that I know is the most kindhearted, well-behaved human being who just seems to have gotten lost," Smith tells TIME. "I don't know who he is anymore. I saw his mug shot today, and I don't know who that person is."
Smith and Loughner met as children, and she says she found him to be "very quiet," adding, "He kept to himself and didn't have very many friends. But he seemed pretty normal." He joined the band, playing saxophone, something he would do in elementary and junior high school and for his first two years at Mountain View High School. "He was still this nice, quiet kid until then," Smith says. "He kept to himself, but when you'd talk to him, he was really funny and normal. He was a really smart kid we all thought he was the nerdy guy."
Loughner was social in a big school the graduating class at Mountain View had more than 500 students, although Loughner wouldn't be in it where most kids were "either popular or not," says Ashley Beager, 21, another classmate. Loughner was one of the few who fell in between those two cohorts, neither popular nor a loner. He ate with the same knot of male friends during lunch. "He was always really nice to me," Beager says. "We would always joke around and laugh he never came off negative at all."
But things took a turn, Smith remembers, when their sophomore year came to an end and his circle of friends seemed to change. "He used to hang out with the band geeks, or whatever you want to call them," she says. "Then all of a sudden, he's hanging out with the potheads at our school inside the tunnel at Mountain View." The tunnel was an outdoor corridor off the main courtyard where the local goth kids would gather whenever they had a chance. "We called them the goth kids because a lot of them wore black," she says, adding that Loughner became "borderline goth."
In fact, even though he and his pals wore baggy pants and T-shirts to class, he never did go fully goth. "He was like gothic, but not completely, because he didn't wear the black makeup," Beager says. "And he'd participate in class he wasn't quiet, just sitting in the corner." But there were mood swings. "There were times when he would just hang out by himself, and you could tell he didn't want to be bothered by people," she says. And one more thing: "He never talked about his family life, at all."
Smith noticed more changes. "He got involved with marijuana, and he was really into psychedelics hard drugs like mushrooms, acid probably at the end of his junior year," she remembers. Then one day he simply stopped going to school, allegedly after drinking himself into a stupor. "He had gotten into the party scene, and I remember he got alcohol poisoning," she says. "I don't know if he was partying or if he was drinking by himself I just remember one day he wasn't at school, and I never saw him again in high school." That was in 2006. The changes in Loughner didn't especially spook Smith. "I thought it was a normal part of growing up," she says. "I mean, everybody was changing at the time. Everybody was trying to find their little niche." Beager agrees. "He'd always talk about South Park, and about smoking weed and partying and getting drunk," she says. "But in high school, that was kind of what everyone talked about."