Oregon District shooter’s life was improving. So why did he turn violent?

Mass shooters often show contrast between outward appearances and inner turmoil, experts say.

Connor Betts’ life appeared to be improving in recent months. His drunken driving troubles were behind him. He’d passed the basic math classes that stymied his earlier college attempts. He went to counseling and registered for classes for the upcoming fall semester at Sinclair.

But in April, the Oregon District gunman started taking steps toward what would end on Aug. 4 with the death of nine other people, including his sister, as well as himself.

He bought a pistol. To keep his parents in the dark, federal authorities allege he enlisted an unwitting friend to acquire body armor, the upper receiver of an AR-15 to modify his weapon to act like a rifle, and a 100-round double drum magazine.

The Dayton Daily News interviewed experts and people who knew Betts, as well as examined research and hundreds of public records to illuminate the contrast between the Oregon District gunman's ostensibly improving life circumstances and his descent toward extreme violence.

“He was acting weird,” said Will El-Fakir, a former friend of the gunman. “At the same time, it seemed like he was getting his life together.”

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Betts’ parents described him as “funny, articulate and intelligent,” in a death notice they later apologized for and said in a statement, “presented the son that they knew, which in no way reduces the horror of his last act.”

This paradox — improving outside, crumbling inside — isn’t unique to Betts, which makes identifying potential killers difficult. Even a disregard for life, on its own, doesn’t necessarily lead to homicide, said Peter Langman, a psychologist and expert on mass shootings.

“If it were only that, you might think it would lead to suicide,” Langman said. “Why that leads to homicide forces us to look to other things.”

What shooters have in common

Researchers say there are some factors shooters usually have in common. Adam Lankford, a University of Alabama criminologist, maintains three of these are: suicidal motives and an indifference to life, perceived victimization, and desires for attention and fame.

An ex-girlfriend has said Betts told her he had twice held a gun to himself.

Lankford, in a 2017 journal, argued that an evidence-based approach to prevention “could help save both the lives of many potential victims and the lives of the would-be attackers themselves.”

“Public mass shootings almost always end with the offender committing suicide, being killed by police, or being arrested and facing life imprisonment,” Lankford wrote.

Police killed Betts outside the Oregon District bar he was trying to enter.

“Not surprisingly, many who choose this path have suicidal motives and actively want to die, or are ‘life indifferent’ and do not care about their self-preservation, survival, or future,” Lankford wrote. “These are typically human beings in turmoil — which means they exhibit certain predictable tendencies and warning signs.”

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Detecting these signs have perplexed the medical community, law enforcement and parents for decades, with tragic results. Often, a person in chaos can seem otherwise fine. Days before the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, one of the killers picked out a University of Arizona dorm room and told his mom how great a time he’d had at prom.

“Those who are suffering can appear for all the world to be doing well, their private pain masked by accomplishments and triumphs,” said Sue Klebold, the mother of Columbine co-killer Dylan Klebold, in her book “A Mother’s Reckoning.”

“If anyone close to Dylan had been able to grasp that he was experiencing a health crisis that impaired his judgment, compelled him to fixate on violence, mislead him to dehumanize others, and enable him to kill his school mates and a teacher before killing himself, we could have intervened and gotten him the help he needed to move beyond the period of crisis,” Klebold wrote.

Warning signs interspersed with stability

The Dayton Daily News reported on many of these warning signs in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, including an incident in the past half-year when a friend said Betts bragged about the damage he could do with a gun at Timothy’s Pub and Grill near the University of Dayton campus.

The FBI has opened an investigation into the gunman’s past and his interest in violent ideologies, though authorities haven’t said which ideologies he might have engaged.

High school classmates have told the Dayton Daily News about Betts' turbulent early years in high school, and the newspaper has sued his school district to gain access to disciplinary records that might shed light on how an alleged hit-list was handled.

But Betts’ life — at least on paper — occasionally seemed more stable.

The summer before senior year at Bellbrook High School, in 2012, he appeared in a Centerville church’s production of “Willy Wonka” with his friend Chace Beard, one of the injured victims in the Oregon District shooting. That August, he joined the high school’s drama club.

His interest in music continued into Wright State, where the chorus director had requested the low-pitched singer be placed in the school’s men’s ensemble. It was the only class he passed. In January 2014 he was placed on academic probation and withdrew that month.

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“I write to inform you that I must withdraw from Wright State, as I do not yet have the maturity to handle college,” Betts wrote to the school.

Over the next two years, he’d take on three jobs: a gas station clerk, a retail freight handler and a landscaper.

Federal investigators allege it was around this time that Betts and friend Ethan Kollie began doing unspecified "hard drugs," marijuana and acid together four to five times a week. The FBI alleges Kollie legally purchased the armor, receiver and magazine for Betts before the 2019 shooting, but didn't know his friend intended to execute a massacre. Kollie was arrested on unrelated weapons charges and has pleaded not guilty.

Betts turned 21 in October 2015. In December 2015, Betts drove his car off the road shortly before 4 a.m. on a rainy Sunday. The traffic crash report completed by Sugarcreek Twp. police said Betts had been drinking, but was “not impaired.” No alcohol test was given. EMS took him to Miami Valley Hospital South for non-incapacitating injuries.

Five months later, in May 2016, Betts was back behind the wheel after drinking. Court records say he was driving Kollie’s car, with Kollie as a passenger, when Bellbrook police pulled him over at 3 a.m. on a Thursday. Kollie wasn’t charged; Betts claimed his difficulty standing was from injuries in a previous crash. Police took him to the station, where he blew a .091% on a breath test.

Betts was released to his friend Beard. His OVI charge was pleaded down to failure to maintain physical control. He was ordered to go to a three-day weekend intervention program in lieu of jail time.

New start in school

Betts applied to Sinclair Community College in April 2017. The Betts family took a vacation that summer to Wilmington, North Carolina.

“This may be my most favorite picture ever!” Moira Betts captioned on a Facebook photo of her two kids about two years before her son killed her daughter, Megan Betts.

Sinclair’s math requirements presented a challenge for Connor Betts, but he was now able to take the psychology classes he’d been interested in. After completing the fall semester he returned for the spring 2018 semester, then again for fall 2018.

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That fall, on Oct. 27 — a day before Connor Betts’ 24th birthday — a gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Months later, on a first date in March 2019, he showed video of that shooting to a woman he met in a Sinclair psychology course.

“Even then, I did realize that was a weird thing for a first date, but not too weird given the context of our class,” Adelia Johnson wrote in a letter after the shooting.

In May, Johnson broke up with Connor Betts after an incident in which, she said, Connor Betts wanted to deliver a note to an ex-girlfriend who moved back to town. Johnson recalled the note said something to the effect of: “Welcome to the neighborhood. You can’t outrun your past. Signed, Your Neighbor.”

He met with his Sinclair adviser in May and scheduled courses for the fall. Autopsy photos show he died with the adviser’s business card in his wallet.

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