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The more we know,
the less we understand

Mr. Stingl is a writer for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and His article, originally published March 15, is reprinted here by permission. © 2005 The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. All rights reserved.

By Jim Stingl

MILWAUKEE, Wis.--The more I read and hear about Terry Ratzmann, the less I think I know him.

Even the motives for his crime come and go, and none of them comes close to explaining why he gunned down a roomful of people at a worship service.

The "why" of Wisconsin's worst mass murder since the days of World War I remains elusive.

So does the "who."

We know Mr. Ratzmann was 44 and lived in New Berlin with his mother and sister. He grew up but never moved out.

He was either quiet and religiously devout, or he was angry and intimidating, depending on whom you ask.

He was a drinker, said one neighbor. Never touched the stuff, said another.

He was the "nicest guy in the world," but there was that "weird gaze" he gave people.

He kept to himself and was standoffish. But, no, he went to church regularly, had a job that involved human contact, was good at small talk and generous to a fault.

He was calm, mellow, not aggressive or dark, someone said. He was lonely and volatile, a fish out of water, a man desperately seeking a mate, someone else said.

He raised carnivorous plants, which is a bit weird, and kept trout in his basement, also weird. But it's a huge leap from there to mass murderer, especially for a guy with no apparent criminal record.

He was depressed and bottled up with anger, some people suggest when asked for their amateur psychiatric opinions about Mr. Ratzmann. On the contrary, there is no hard evidence he was depressed or otherwise mentally ill, Brookfield police said after talking to his family.

He was upset about a job he lost three years ago, a church friend says. No, that was a layoff related to the economy and he took it well, we're also told. His current job placement, which was coming to a natural end in March, was "certainly something on his mind," the district attorney said at first. No, the job outlook was not really an issue, police later concluded.

He left early from a previous church service, possibly because he was upset at the message. This is the biggest motive we have at the moment, and, when you think about it, it's not much. I often feel like leaving church early, and occasionally the sermon hits me the wrong way. His quick departure--and it's not even clear if he went away mad--is an unsatisfying explanation for why he opened fire 14 days later, shooting people who had befriended him at their church, including children.

He belonged to a church on the fringe. No law against that. We're free to believe what we want, even the notion that the world is ending sooner rather than later. Doesn't necessarily make you a wacko. The church is in defensive mode now, saying it preaches nonviolence and that Mr. Ratzmann had somehow missed that point.

He was taken over by Satan, some surviving church members are saying. Demon possession is an easy answer, but that can't be the final explanation here.

I asked Dan Blinka, a law professor at Marquette University and a former prosecutor, about our need to know the motive even if Mr. Ratzmann's suicide means there's no trial.

We're trying to make sense of the senseless, he said. And we want to assure ourselves Terry Ratzmann and his victims could never, ever be us.

"The sad thing is that this guy was in a moment where everything he did made sense to him. He clearly behaved in a purposeful fashion," fueled by the horrible confluence of the ideas, emotions and frustrations in his head, Professor Blinka said.

But it may never make sense to us.

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