One man is in custody and authorities are looking for another the day after a mass shooting at a Tucson, Ariz., grocery store left six dead and 13 gravely injured, including the apparent target of the attack, US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
With the local sheriff’s office and the FBI investigating, suspicions that the suspected gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, had an accomplice would complicate the thesis that the shooting was the work of a lone and mentally unbalanced young man lashing out at the government. The existence of a co-conspirator could point to a more calculated plot, and perhaps shed more light on the motive for the attack.
"We are not convinced that [the man in custody] acted alone. There is some reason to believe he came to this location with another individual, and that individual is involved," said Clarence Dupnik, Pima County sheriff, at a press conference Saturday.
Congresswoman Giffords, who underwent surgery Saturday after a bullet struck her in the head during a political “meet and greet” event at a Tucson supermarket, remained in critical condition early Sunday.
Killed in the attack were:
• US district Judge John Roll, who stopped by the event to say hello to Giffords. He had been the chief judge for the District of Arizona since 2006 and a federal judge since 1991, appointed by Republican President George H.W. Bush. He had been the target of threats several years ago, after he ruled that a civil rights lawsuit filed by illegal immigrants could proceed against an Arizona rancher, according to a CNN report.
• Gabriel Zimmerman, one of Giffords’s aides. Engaged to be married, Mr. Zimmerman, who like Gifford was Jewish, was the congresswoman’s director of community outreach and a Tucson native.
• Dorwin Stoddard, a retired construction worker. Mr. Stoddard’s wife was also injured, but witnesses told CNN that he tried to shield her from gunshots. She is expected to recover.
• Christina Greene, a 9-year-old who had recently been elected to serve on the student council at her school. She went to the event with a neighbor to meet Giffords.
The portrait emerging of the suspected gunman was of a troubled young man described variously by public officials as “deranged,” “mentally unstable,” and as having “a troubled past.” Mr. Loughner is believed to have dropped out of high school, and he was ousted from Pima Community College in September until he underwent a mental health evaluation and was cleared to return. In 2008, the US Army rejected him as a recruit, but did not reveal why. He’d been cited in Pima County in 2007 for possession of drug paraphernalia, according to a report in The Guardian.
Authorities on Sunday released a photo of a man, estimated to be between 40 and 50, who they said was near Loughner at the scene prior to the shooting. The image is from a store surveillance camera, and the sheriff’s office asked the public for help identifying the unknown man.
The tragedy led House leaders on Sunday to order flags to be flown at half-staff to honor Mr. Zimmerman, and they canceled plans to hold a floor vote this week on repealing the controversial health-care reform law of 2010. Health-care reform was a hot-button issue in the midterm election, and several members of Congress, including Giffords, said they’d received unusually strident and angry phone calls and mail after the legislation passed in March. Her Tucson office was also vandalized at the time. Giffords voted in favor of the law.
It’s not clear, though, whether the shooter targeted Giffords because of her vote on any specific issue, or even for her political views. Arizona has been through wrenching debates lately over several issues, among them state laws to crack down on illegal immigration, ending organ transplants as a Medicaid benefit, and how to curtail services amid a large budget deficit. The three-term congresswoman barely defeated a tea party-backed candidate in November, in which the health-care law was a major point of contention.
Regardless, the shooting set off an intense debate on talk shows and in the blogosphere over the level of “vitriol” in public discourse – and whether those who engage in rhetorical flame-throwing bear any responsibility for inciting violence in others, especially those deemed to be mentally unstable.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik suggested Saturday, in the aftermath of the shooting, that those exercising their rights to free speech would do well to consider the effects of their words.
"When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous," said Sheriff Dupnik. "And unfortunately, Arizona I think has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."