The Enigma of the Mormon School Shooter

Emilio Hoffman
Emilio Hoffman, 14

I am uncomfortable broaching the topic of the LDS youth who entered a Portland area high school a little more than a week ago, killing Emilio Hoffman (14), a classmate who, it appears, was  in the wrong place at the wrong time. The topic is sensitive, particularly for Emilio’s family. The gunman, Jared Michael Padgett, committed suicide after killing Hoffman, wounding a PE teacher, and exchanging gunfire with area police. What I know of the incident I’ve culled from online news stories, but one aspect of the story that is making headlines is Padgett’s active participation in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is what brings me to the story.

In the comment section of one news report, a reader (presumably LDS) writes: “So why is the shooter’s religion included in the title of the article? Would it be if he were Baptist or Catholic? I think not, you need to stop highlighting the Mormon religion in your articles.”

I’ve heard this type of complaint often. It stems from the Mormon sensitivity to persecution and obsessive desire for good publicity. But if Mormons send out missionaries to preach that LDS beliefs are the way to happiness, its fair game when evidence arises that seems contradictory to the claim. Reactions like this make Mormons look afraid of transparency and self-examination, which, of course, many are.

But beyond that, the fact that this school shooter was an active Mormon, a “straight-arrow” teen, and one who apparently showed no outward signs of maladaptive behavior is an important part of the story. It reminds us that no universal answer can be applied to the question of why these things happen.

Jared Michael Padgett, by all accounts, was a religious kid, one who participated fully in his LDS congregation. Mormons spend 3 hours in church each Sunday, attending a Sacrament meeting, Sunday School class, and finally (for the boys) a priesthood class. In addition, young men who serve as quorum presidents (as Padgett apparently did) have additional planning meetings with adult leaders. Then there are weekly youth activities, Boy Scout activities and camps, service projects, and Seminary (an hour long scripture study class that meets before each school day). Families are encouraged to hold a family devotional, known as Family Home Evening, and to conduct daily family scripture study and prayer.

Obviously, I can’t know if the Padgett family does each of these things, or if Jared participated as fully as is reported, but regardless, being an “active” Mormon keeps a person busy. It takes devotion to live the lifestyle. But religious training and participation will not ward off mental illness. And that is the point. Faith may inoculate an individual against the desire to perpetrate evil, but it cannot eradicate the practice of evil from all followers. We’ve seen this throughout history, in our own era, and in the lives of individual like Padgett.  What troubles me, assuming news reports are accurate, is that the people around Padgett seemed to have no clue how troubled he was.

In a recent Huffington Post article, psychologist Gregory Jantz, Ph.D., writes of  the shooter who stormed Seattle Pacific University the week before: “Since 2010 [Aaron] Ybarra was known to the local police and county mental-health professionals, having been hospitalized twice for claiming he heard the voice of one of the Columbine killers in his head, urging him to hurt people. In 2011 he was referred again for involuntary treatment but was considered ‘not detainable.’” Likewise, of the Columbine shooters it is known that “Their behavior became increasingly hostile and maladapted, until it finally escalated in the high school shootout.”

Jared Michael Padgett, on the other hand, seemed to have fit in. Outside of occasional flares in temper, he seemed not only “normal,” but to some, a “spiritual” Mormon teen.

Is the fact he was religious relevant? Yes, it is. Not because LDS doctrine or culture can be blamed. Not because some imagine a far-fetched association between Padgett’s actions and the historic concept of blood atonement in early Mormonism, as I’ve read proposed in some news comment sections. Rather, it is relevant because it demonstrates that human beings can grow serious mental and emotional impairments in any environment, including one that is deeply entrenched in love, service, and sacrifice.

With other school shootings, we’ve been able to comfortably distance ourselves by reports of observable, odd behavior in the perpetrators which pre-dated their crimes. Those who knew Padgett told reporters that yes, they’d seen him lose his temper, and that he was a firearm enthusiast with military ambition. But his friends also considered Padgett “dependable” and “willing to help others.” One classmate called him “a really nice kid, like somebody you’d want to have on your side.” Family friend, Earl Milliron, said in a New York Daily News article that Padgett was “highly regarded for his spirituality,” adding (in the Salt Lake Tribune), “I refuse in my mind to believe that Jared Michael who did the shooting is the same Jared Michael I knew.” This is very different from the stories of social alienation and anti-social or sociopathic behavior we learned marked the lives of other school shooters.  Of course, news reports could be lacking pertinent information, and maybe a 15 year old might not yet show symptoms of mental illness.

Still, the idea that an unassuming, friendly and helpful teenage boy could turn school shooter is unsettling and blows away our previous expectation that warning signs will tip us off to those who pose a danger. I want to think that Padgett was particularly adept at hiding his mental illness. But there is a part of me that wonders if, in this case, the shooter was not chronically mentally ill in the way of Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, Adam Lanza, Aaron Ybarra and others.

I don’t mean to suggest Padgett was rational, nor am I saying the crime he committed was anything but evil. But I have raised teenagers. The emotional angst they can suffer, the irrational self-loathing they can feel, can be extremely debilitating and painful. It can come on suddenly, with great passion and without clarity or perspective. I know families — mine included — who have had a young member crave suicide as a release from the stress of  growing up, only to have their depression, anxiety, and anger ease with treatment and time. Several news outlets report that Padgett indicated in his journal a desire to kill “sinners.” That is, indeed, reminiscent of previous killers, but the presence of seemingly well-adjusted social skills—neither his family, friends or fellow congregants suspected him to be troubled—nudges my mind toward another possibility.

So with the full admission that I am thoroughly unqualified, even as an arm chair psychologist, I note this: There were two deaths at Reynolds High School. First, innocent Emilio Hoffman was murdered, followed by the suicide of the teen who murdered him, a teen who had written that sinners should die. Is it possible that, by killing Emilio, Padgett put a public exclamation mark on his own perceived state of sinfulness? In Padgett’s mind, did the murder of Emilio not only justify, but demand, the teen take his own life? Is it possible Padgett saw murder as a force that would compel him, a sinner, to commit suicide, or be killed by police, because death was the penalty he wanted and believed he deserved?

Sometime soon, we may get news that, in Padgett’s journal, he, like other school shooters, longed for fame as well as revenge. But so far, that is not what is being reported. And so I cannot help but wonder these things. I recognize it may be reckless for me to cast these suppositions into the wind, but my concern is strong that we might begin seeing copycat suicide-after-murder events from young people who are seen as “normal,” but are suffering from transitory depression and anxiety rather than deep-seeded mental illness. Will murder become a way for a young person to publicly prove that he is of no value? I hope not.

Although I can judge Padgett’s crime evil, I can’t know the state of his mental health or of his soul.  I look forward to analyses of Padgett by psychologists and, if any readers are, or become, aware of information pertaining to this story, please share it. The reality may be that this case is so unusual, so unexpected, that it compels us to re-think what we think we know about school shootings.

There is no peace that can come from an event as tragic as this, no resolution that can bring restitution. People will chatter about furthering gun control and how to better diagnose mental health problems. In the meantime, two families suffer over those few unexpected, heinous moments that shattered rational thought, snatched their loved ones away, and turned the world upside down. The take-away for me is not just that life is fragile, but that the control we pretend to have over our lives is an illusion.

I don’t know what broke in Jared Padgett’s head, heart, or soul. I don’t know how to measure “normal,” or “spiritual,” or any other human trait. But I know how deep pain can feel. And I know how long confusion and remorse and sorrow can last. I know we can’t change the horror that sometimes attends human existence. Often all we can do is hold hands, hold vigil, and hold on to our faith that somehow God will rectify and redeem.

 And again, blessed are all they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. (3 Ne. 12:4)



One thought on “The Enigma of the Mormon School Shooter

  1. Liz

    As a psychologist-in-training, your points seemed pretty spot-on to me. I think it’s easy for us to put distance between ourselves and “those people” who do terrible things, because it makes it easy for us to keep things the way they are rather than question and make changes. If you never have, you might be interested in reading Jackson Katz’s thoughts on mass shootings and men and violence. I also think it’s entirely possible that this was a case of impulsivity; poor problem solving, planning, and coping skills; and problematic social and cultural messages.


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