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Smith reconnected with Loughner at a not-terribly-wild house party in 2008. "The music wasn't too loud we were trying to keep the cops away because we were all underage," says Smith. "I was so surprised to see him, so I went up to him and gave him a hug. I asked him how he'd been just small talk. But he seemed really out of it. He said he was trying to get his life back on track, but from the way he looked and the way he acted, it really didn't seem that he was." She recalls thinking that there was something else going on. "He was really thinking about something else he wouldn't really look at me, and when he did, it was maybe for a couple of seconds, and then he'd look somewhere else," she says. "It looked like he was always thinking about something."
She saw him several more times after the party, including at their local YMCA gym. "It was really weird to see him at the gym," Smith says. "He'd be on the treadmill, running forever. I just figured he wanted to be fit to join the military." Smith last spoke with Loughner last summer. She knew he had been trying to join the Army (and she was interested in his experience because she wants to become a combat medic), so she asked him about the enlistment process. "He told me he couldn't get in," she says, "because his eyes were really bad." Loughner, in fact, had been rejected in December 2008 after admitting to marijuana use.
The fall of 2010 saw a dramatic downturn in Loughner's behavior. He was enrolled in Pima Community College but was no longer a quiet presence in class. Mathematics professor Ben McGahee says Loughner was the strangest student he ever taught. "It was the first time I ever had a student like Jared in the classroom," McGahee tells TIME. "It shocked me. On the surface, at first, he seemed like a normal guy, until he started making some disruptive comments that were pretty random and senseless he'd talk about denying math instead of accepting it. But he started making students feel uncomfortable from the first day. He had this hysterical kind of laugh, laughing to himself, and had this bright red complexion and kind of shaking and trembling, as if he was under the influence of drugs."
Loughner's actions unnerved up to a third of McGahee's 15 to 20 students, so much so that they complained to the professor following the opening class in basic algebra. "The students were very concerned after the first day," he says. "I must have had three to five students come up to me after class saying, 'Jared concerns me a lot.' One lady in the back of the classroom said she was scared for her life, literally."
Loughner attended 10 or 11 of the first 12 class meetings, McGahee says. "About the fourth week, he was officially kicked out," he says. "The straw that broke the camel's back was him talking about the First Amendment rights: 'Hey you see that thing on the wall?' " McGahee quotes Loughner as saying in one outburst. " 'That's the U.S. Constitution, and you've broken my First Amendment rights.' He felt very offended because of that." But that gave McGahee a legitimate reason to throw Loughner out of class. "Rules are rules, and they are listed on my syllabus. I told him he wasn't allowed to talk about anything outside of math. Since it was a math class, I told him, 'You cannot do your inane ramblings here.' "
It wouldn't be too long before he left the college completely. Says McGahee: "I wish the timeline had been a little bit earlier that he had gotten kicked out earlier but policy is policy, and since he didn't violate any rules, didn't bring any weapons to class, he didn't hurt anybody, nor himself, that meant [school administrators] couldn't take any further action to kick him out." But Loughner's actions had become so troublesome combined with an online video in which he described the school as illegal that, on Sept. 29, a pair of police officers delivered a letter suspending him to the home he shared with his parents. Instead of fighting the suspension, the school says, Loughner simply dropped out.
In November, he legally bought a Glock 19 9mm. And on Jan. 8, he took a taxi to the Safeway at La Toscana mall, where Representative Gabrielle Giffords was holding a town-hall meeting. Ashley Buysman, 22, who was a classmate of Loughner's from the first grade until he dropped out of Mountain View, heard about the shooting when she got a phone call from her mother about noon on Jan. 8. "She told me that [the shooter] was my age, and told me his name, and asked me if I knew him," Buysman says quietly at the recollection. "I said, 'Yes we went to school together since elementary school,' and it just blew my mind."
Loughner's rise and fall has upset Smith. "It's a lot to take in when you grow up with somebody and you find out that they're a mass murderer it's really scary," she says. "I never would have thought, sitting in my dad's cop car with him playing with the siren, that he'd try to kill somebody."