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Sunday, 28 April, 2002, 12:56 GMT 13:56 UK
Profile of a teenage killer
Bouquets of flowers with inscription 'why'?
'Why?' is the question many Germans are asking
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By Nick Caistor
BBC News Online
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'Why?' asks a card laid with candles and flowers outside a school in Erfurt, Germany.

Many people in Germany are asking what makes a 19-year-old boy take two guns, return to the school he was expelled from and shoot 13 teachers, two fellow pupils, and a police officer, in the space of 10 minutes.

Students who knew him recalled Robert Steinhaeuser as introverted, though intelligent and well-liked.

"Some say he was picked on, but if he was, it wasn't much," said classmate Thomas Rethfeldt.

"He was reserved. I never thought he was a person capable of violence."

Teddy bear and photograph of shot art teacher
Art teacher Birgit Dettke was a victim
Other fellow students could only point to his love of heavy metal music and a taste for violent video games as possible indications of darker traits behind a normal exterior.

Another former schoolmate, Isabell Hartung, recalled that he once told her: "One day, I want everyone to know my name and I want to be famous."

Nonplussed

Teachers at the Johannes Gutenberg secondary school where Steinhaeuser burst in wearing a mask and black clothes were also at a loss to explain what provoked his killing spree.

Biology teacher Andreas Foerster said: "I see him before my eyes and I just cannot fathom that he would be capable of a crime like this."

There is little doubt that the killings were a well-planned revenge attack.

Steinhaeuser had failed his final school exam in 2001, and was not allowed to sit it again this year because he faked excuse notes when he missed classes.

Exams

He went to the school at 11am on Friday, knowing his former schoolmates would be sitting the exam he had been barred from.

Robert Steinhaeuser (pic from Thueringer Allgemeine)
Robert Steinhaeuser was seen as a normal adolescent
The magazine Der Spiegel suggests the failure to obtain his final school diploma was the trigger for his rampage.

"It was a disgrace which he kept secret from everyone, even his own family.

"That was what led him to seek revenge on Friday with the executions and punishment."

Family

Steinhaeuser lived with his mother - a nurse - and his grandfather in a well-maintained apartment only a few hundred metres from the school.

Questioned by the police, Steinhaeuser's mother could only say she had noticed nothing unusual in her son's behaviour prior to the Friday massacre.

Bouquets of flowers piled outside the Erfurt school
Flowers express a nation's grief
Neighbour Lisa Englehardt agreed with the others who found the youth and his family unexceptional.

"The Steinhaeusers were always friendly people. He seemed very normal," she said.

Gun clubs

Steinhaeuser had been a member of two gun clubs for more than a year, and was given a gun licence shortly before he went on his killing spree.

"He seemed to have devoted a lot of time and energy to weapons," said Rainer Gruge, the detective in charge of the investigation into the shootings.

"He was a very good marksman."

Faced with this inability to explain Robert Steinhaeuser's individual psychology, it was left to Interior Minister Otto Schily to pose the wider question:

"We must also ask ourselves the deeper question of what actually is going on in our society when a young person causes such disaster in such a way."

See also:

27 Apr 02 | Media reports
German press agonises over massacre
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