'I knew Saari . . . he was a happy, normal, young guy'

 

FINLAND:Responsible for 10 killings and his own death, Saari's spree may have copied a massacre last November, writes Jamie Smythin Kauhajoki, Finland

ALL DAY long they came to pay their respects at the catering school in Kauhajoki. Some fought back tears, others knelt quietly to light a candle to the memories of their friends or neighbours who got caught up in Finland's single worst shooting atrocity.

During a 90-minute spree on Tuesday, trainee chef Matti Saari shot dead nine of his fellow students and a teacher while they sat an exam. The 22-year-old, who was dressed in black and wore a ski mask during the attack, later set fire to the classroom and the bodies of the victims before turning the gun on himself. He died later in hospital.

"I thought it was a dream until I came down here to see for myself," said Susanna Keranen (19), a former student at Kauhajoki college where the attacks happened.

"I knew Saari when I was at school. We would talk sometimes. He was a happy, normal, young guy. There was nothing special about him. When I heard it was him, I was terrified."

However, a quick glance at Saari's internet postings on YouTube or popular Finnish social networking site IRC-Gallery, highlights his dangerous obsession with guns. Prior to the attacks he posted video clips of him shooting his .22 calibre Walther automatic pistol at a rifle range just a few kilometres outside the town.

"You will die next," he calls as he fires the first few shots on the YouTube video. A message posted alongside the clip says: "Whole life is war and whole life is pain. And you will fight alone in your personal war."

He listed "guns, computers, sex and beer" as his hobbies. He liked horror movies and listened to heavy metal music. Among the favourite videos listed on his profile were clips of the 1999 Columbine school shooting in Colorado when 13 people were shot dead.

Police yesterday branded Saari a "copycat", drawing links between this week's tragedy and a high school shooting in southern Finland last November where an 18-year-old student killed eight people.

"There is a pattern in the way he imitated very precisely the manners and ways the shooter did it almost a year ago," Kaj Engstrom, a vicar who specialises in counselling with the National Bureau of Investigations in Finland told The Irish Times. "He [ Saari] even bought the gun from the same shop as that shooter."

He said Saari had a similar profile to Pekka-Eric Auvinen, the gunman in last year's attack. He was also a quiet, almost invisible, person who used the internet a lot and posted YouTube videos.

Auvinen posted messages to be found online after his attack, while Saari left two handwritten messages in his apartment for the police to find. They said Saari hated the human race and had been planning the attack since 2002.

Most locals in Kauhajoki expressed disbelief that this sleepy town in western Finland with a population of just 15,000 could be the site of such a massacre or harbour such a disturbed mind.

One elderly man whose daughter had been working in the college as a librarian on the day of the attack said she was still in a total state of shock. "She cried a lot last night," said Matti Nevanen. "It will take time for our town to recover from this tragedy."

Grief counsellors from the Red Cross roamed the streets offering to help anyone who wanted to talk. Ministers from the Lutheran church, which held a service on the night of the murders that attracted 700 people, continued to offer people spiritual advice.

But some locals were also beginning to ask hard questions about the police's failure to confiscate Saari's pistol after they were tipped off about his YouTube video postings last Friday by a fellow student.

That same day, the police called at the gunman's apartment, which overlooks the catering school, but could not find him. When they finally caught up with Saari and interviewed him on Monday, an officer with 30 years of experience decided that legally they could not confiscate his weapon.

Locals said the school was not told about the interrogation.

"They made a mistake. His friends were worried about him but the teachers were not even told that the police interrogated him," said Hilda Hakamaa, wiping a tear from her eye as she studied the police surrounding the school.

"I am also against guns," she added.

Finnish interior minister Anne Holmlund yesterday ordered the chief prosecutor to investigate the police response. The officer in charge of the interview with Saari has gone on leave of absence.

Prime minister Matti Vanhanen, who met local schoolchildren and town officials in Kauhajoki, also announced a new crackdown on Finland's lax gun laws.

There are estimated to be 1.8 million guns for a population of just 5.3 million, making Finland the third-ranked country in the world in terms of gun ownership. Only people in the US and Yemen own more guns than the Finns, who enjoy hunting and sports shooting as hobbies. However, similar promises of crackdowns were made after last November's shooting and few are confident these latest will be acted on.