Jacob Roberts: a perplexing path from big dreamer to mall shooter

What prompted Jacob Roberts, outwardly a young man with a happy personality and big dreams, to go on a shooting rampage at a mall in suburban Portland, Ore.? As police investigate, many who knew him scratch their heads.

Greg Wahl-Stephens/AP
Photos of shooting victims, Cindy Yuille (l.) and Steven Forsyth (c.), are posted on a police mall diagram along with a photo of gunman Jacob Tyler Roberts, at a press conference Wednesday, Dec. 12, about the multiple shooting on Tuesday at Clackamas Town Center Mall in Portland, Oregon.

Something apparently happened to Jacob Tyler Roberts, a big-dreaming, fun-loving 22-year-old, before he pulled a semiautomatic rifle out of a guitar case and opened fire inside a packed Portland, Ore., mall in the middle of the Christmas rush – but what?

Friends and relatives of the man identified as the masked gunman who injured a teenager and killed two people – Cindy Ann Yuille and Steven Forsyth – say it's impossible to reconcile the senseless violence at the Clackamas Town Center late Tuesday with their image of Roberts – a young man who had told everyone he was ready to embark on an adventurous future.

But outward appearances, even in mass shootings in which the perpetrators had no history of mental instability, are often deceptive, criminologists say. As more information becomes known about Roberts's past and his family situation, the puzzling portrait of him that has emerged so far may start to become clearer, says Scott Belshaw, a criminal justice professor at the University of North Texas, in Denton.

"With guys like this, there's a lot going on that's cooking inside them way before the incident happens," says Mr. Belshaw. "The most that can be said at this point is that younger people like Jake Roberts tend to be in transition, and when they lose something it can come down pretty hard."

Police said Wednesday they have uncovered no motive for the shooting, which appeared to be aimed at random shoppers. Roberts pulled up to the mall in a green Volkswagen Jetta, ran into the food court, and started firing after calling out, "I am the shooter," according to police statements. After his gun jammed, he ran down a set of stairs and shot himself. An entry dated Monday on an Internet message board thread urged others to "watch the news" on Tuesday for something about Clackamas Town Center. Police said they're aware of that thread, but could not comment on its authenticity.

Roberts's friends have speculated to media outlets that the young man, who had nothing on his record but a few traffic tickets and a suspended driver's license, was heartbroken after a breakup with a girlfriend and had recently either quit or lost his job. They say he had dreamed of becoming a firefighter, had talked about buying a sandwich shop, and had said he'd received a large inheritance that would allow him to move to Hawaii and bum around the islands.

Tami Roberts, identified by news media as an aunt who raised Roberts, sent a note written on her behalf to a local TV station, which stated that she "has no understanding or explanation" for her nephew's behavior and that she "is very sad and wants everyone to know that she is so sorry [for] what Jake did. It's so out of his character."

One older male friend told reporters that Roberts seemed "numb" in the days before the shooting. Roberts had sold most of his belongings pending the Hawaii trip, but then is reported to have told different friends he had gotten drunk and missed his plane.

According to media reports, friends are perplexed by the turn of events, saying the shooting didn't fit with Roberts's character, which they described as neighborly, gentle, and fun-loving. One friend characterized him as the kind of guy who does backflips at the pool to show off. One of Roberts's high school classmates, Audrey Rook, told the Oregonian newspaper that all Roberts cared about was "making people laugh."

But some of Roberts's social media activities suggest an interest in the macabre and disturbing. On the top of his Facebook page, the words "Follow Your Dreams" are stamped over with the word "cancelled." His TV preferences ran to edgy shows such as "Breaking Bad," about a terminally ill drug dealer, and "Dexter," about a socially upstanding serial killer. Among Facebook "likes," Roberts had included "sleeping," but also "shooting." His tastes in music ran to heavy rap, metalcore, and The Beatles.

Chuck Williams, a youth psychologist at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, says a "brief psychotic break" can stem from social and emotional problems, or even hidden mental problems. And he sees some possible red flags in Roberts's preferences and history. 

"His [Facebook account] statement, 'I have lived a crazy life,' what does that mean? That could be indicative of a deeper story," says Mr. Williams. "He lived with his aunt, he seems to be of ethnic descent, no one's talking about where he came from – was he adopted, did he grow up in the child welfare system? There's so much here, that we can't say this is an outlier. Instead, I see signs pointing to what we would normally see in these instances: a troubled young man who hid that away from people." Such an individual may be putting on a game face while "there's a war raging inside," says Williams.

Roberts no longer lived with his aunt. Police have searched the house near the Clackamas Town Center where Roberts was staying, and investigators may reveal more clues about the motive as the investigation continues. For now, friends and relatives are stuck puzzling over why a young man described by an ex-girlfriend as "not the violent type" would steal an AR-15 and unleash mayhem on 10,000 Christmas shoppers.

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