By Mitch Smith, Jack Healy, Frances Robles and Shaila Dewan, The New York Times Company
HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — Days after a gunman opened fire at a Fourth of July parade here, Alberto Fuentes arrived at a downtown memorial for the victims, asking himself a question now haunting many in this shattered Chicago suburb: Could the 21-year-old suspect’s parents have prevented any of this?
“The kid had a problem,” Fuentes, 40, said. “I have kids, too, and if I see something, I have a responsibility. The parents had a responsibility to do something.”
Millions of American parents now worry about their children becoming victims of a mass shooting. But a different nightmare exists for the tiny but growing cluster of parents whose children, nearly always sons, pull the trigger.
Some had spent months or years before attacks worrying about their sons’ mental health and seeking help in vain. But most do not alert authorities before an attack, researchers say, and those parents can face scorn and accusations they ignored warning signs or even enabled attacks by allowing their sons to get hold of deadly weapons.
Afterward, some parents change their names and leave town. A handful tell their stories to prevent future attacks. Others try to vanish through their silence.
“It’s terrifying enough to think you might be the victim of some random piece of violence,” said Andrew Solomon, an author who interviewed parents of the gunmen who attacked Columbine High School in Colorado and Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. “But to think you might be called out for not knowing, that your child had caused this, is also a terrible fate.”
The parents of the man who is accused in the Highland Park shooting have come under scrutiny in the wake of the attack that killed seven people and left many more wounded. Law enforcement officials released records detailing that the father sponsored his son for a firearms license in 2019 despite incidents in which his son was said to have attempted suicide with a machete and drew police to his home because, officers were told, he threatened to “kill everyone.” The father has said he did not do anything wrong and was shocked by what had taken place.
As more of the country’s deadliest mass shootings are carried out by killers in their teens and early 20s, prosecutors and researchers are focusing on parents to unravel how their sons are radicalized, what interventions might have stopped them and whether parents who disregard obvious warnings or provide guns to their children should be held criminally responsible. According to data from the Violence Project, more than 50 people under the age of 25 have killed at least four people in a public setting since 1966. That data excludes mass killings that are attributed to gang activity, robberies or other underlying crimes.
Parents are sometimes charged with negligence or manslaughter after a child accidentally shoots themselves or someone else with an improperly stored gun. It is far rarer for parents to be charged after their children carry out a shooting spree.
But a handful of recent cases suggests that may be changing, as law enforcement looks for new ways to combat a surge in mass shootings.
“It’s some uncharted territory of how much responsibility parents are going to be held for their kids’ behavior,” said Frank Kaminski, police chief in Park Ridge, Illinois, another Chicago suburb. He added: “I’m all for holding everyone accountable for guns.”
When a 15-year-old in Michigan was accused of slaughtering four classmates last year, his parents were charged with involuntary manslaughter; they have pleaded not guilty. And after a 29-year-old man went on a killing spree at a Waffle House in Nashville, Tennessee, in 2018, the man’s father, an Illinois resident, was charged in that state with illegally providing the gun used at the restaurant.
Officials said the Waffle House gunman had been treated for mental health problems and later lost his authorization to own guns in Illinois. When that happened, they said, he transferred possession of the guns to his father. When the son moved away, authorities said, the father returned a rifle to him, which they said was a crime.
But Michael Doubet, a lawyer for Jeffrey Reinking, father of the Waffle House gunman, said a distinction must be drawn between the responsibilities of the parents of a juvenile offender and of the parents of someone who carries out a mass shooting as a legal adult. Reinking was convicted of unlawful delivery of a firearm and is awaiting sentencing.
“When people are over the age of 18, they’re beyond their parents’ control,” Doubet said.
Kevin Johnson, a prosecutor in that case, said that family members and friends need “to have the courage and common sense to follow through and make the appropriate report to the authorities” if they fear someone they know is heading toward violence.
He added: “Unless and until they are willing to do that, there is no way that authorities can step in and assist and perhaps prevent a tragedy.”
Researchers say some parents of troubled children do not always know where to turn for help. They hesitate to call police about their sons’ private mental health struggles, before they turn violent, for fear of the lasting effect on their child’s record.
Investigators found deep denial in a case like the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012. A detailed state report found the 20-year-old gunman’s mother did not heed medical experts’ calls to get mental health treatment for him in the years before the shooting and did not restrict his access to guns as his mental health condition deteriorated. The mother, Nancy Lanza, was one of 27 people her son killed.
The question of parental responsibility is especially complicated for gunmen who occupy a hazy space between childhood and adulthood. They are often still tethered to home but legally adults, and they are often able to pass background checks and buy powerful firearms.
In online messages that appear to have been written by the 18-year-old charged with killing 10 people in a racist massacre at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket in May, the writer fretted that his mother would find the guns he had stashed inside his bedroom at his parents’ house. The same month, the gunman in Uvalde, Texas, also 18, had been living with his grandparents and shot his grandmother in the face before driving to the elementary school where he killed 19 children and two adults.
The suspect in the Highland Park massacre, Robert E. Crimo III, had lived with his father, Robert Crimo Jr., for the past six months, and with his mother, Denise Pesina, before that, a family lawyer said. After the attack, police said, he fled town in his mother’s car before being arrested. He was charged with murder and ordered held without bail.
Neither of the accused gunman’s parents has been charged with any crime. Authorities have given noncommittal answers to questions about whether they are investigating the father, saying that “everything is on the table.” A public defender representing the son declined to comment about the case against his client or about whether the parents had any culpability. George Gomez, a lawyer representing the parents, said that they declined to be interviewed for this article.
In recent media interviews, the elder Crimo said he had no involvement in the shooting and no idea what his son might have been planning.
He defended his decision to sponsor his son’s application for a gun owner’s license in 2019, saying he was following the legal process Illinois had created for anyone under 21 to acquire a Firearm Owner’s Identification Card. Given the father’s sponsorship, state police said they had no legal basis to deny the son’s application.
“I filled out the consent form to allow my son to go through the process — they do background checks, whatever that entails,” Crimo said in an interview with ABC News.
State police said that the document that the elder Crimo signed included a provision that said he “shall be liable for any damages resulting from the minor applicant’s use of firearms or firearm ammunition.”
The younger Crimo bought the high-powered rifle that police said he used in the parade attack before his 21st birthday, when he would have become able to apply for a license without a sponsorship. He was 21 at the time of the shooting, which police said he carried out after he climbed to a rooftop in downtown Highland Park during the parade and sprayed more than 80 bullets into the crowd.
Before the attack, Robert Crimo Jr. was well-known in the community, operating delis in town and running unsuccessfully for mayor. His wife, Pesina, ran a natural-healing business.
The Crimo family’s home life could be chaotic. In August 2002, just before the suspect’s second birthday, police officers found the toddler alone in a car in a Toys “R” Us parking lot. Prosecutors charged his mother, Pesina, whom they said left him alone for about 27 minutes with the windows rolled up while it was 79 degrees outside. Court records show that Pesina reached an agreement and spent a year on court supervision, which she completed. No judgment was entered in the misdemeanor child endangerment case, records show.
The suspect’s parents sometimes argued loudly, and officers made several visits to the home during a turbulent period about a decade ago to intercede in minor disputes, police records show.
Along the way, there were signs that their son was struggling. He dropped out of Highland Park High School in 2016, shortly before the start of his sophomore year, officials said, and never graduated from that school.
“It was like he was invisible,” said Kate Kramer, 21, who knew him in high school.
Some 80% of gunmen in mass shootings show a marked change in behavior before they attack, such as depression, isolation or quitting school or work, said Jillian Peterson, a co-founder of the Violence Project, a national database of mass shootings.
“They did know something was wrong,” she said of many gunmen’s parents. “But we don’t think that a person in our lives could be a person who could do this.”
Researchers say that friends, classmates and online contacts of gunmen often first notice a looming threat. Even if they report it, that is no guarantee of stopping an attack. Before a 19-year-old gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida, there were multiple tips to law enforcement agencies warning that he was armed and might shoot up a school.
In April 2014, a California mother raised warnings that brought sheriff’s deputies to the apartment of her 22-year-old son, who was living in Isla Vista, California. Authorities interviewed him, but he did not meet the strict requirements for involuntary hospitalization, said Jeffrey W. Swanson, a sociologist at Duke University who studies gun violence prevention.
The following month, the 22-year-old killed six people and himself. In the aftermath, the gunman’s father, Peter Rodger, sat down with Richard Martinez, whose son Christopher was among the victims. Martinez said he loaded up his car with artwork, trophies, writings and other keepsakes of his athletic son, who loved driving with the sunroof open and wind blowing.
Martinez, who has since become an outspoken supporter of stricter gun laws, said he believed some parents of gunmen should be held criminally responsible if they did not try to prevent an attack or made it possible for their children to arm themselves.
“They just wanted me to tell them about Chris. And that’s what I did,” Martinez said, recalling the meeting with the other father. “We never talked about his son.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.