You drive up a twisting, rutted, gravel road lined with rhododendron to get to the cabin of Robert Lewis Dear Jr., who is in custody in connection with the Friday shooting at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic that left three people dead and nine others wounded.
It’s a quiet community, neighbors say, but a friendly one.
Except for Dear. One neighbor described him as a solitary man who never waved back.
Kara McNerney, a Montessori preschool teacher who was splitting wood Saturday afternoon, said: “He was always up here by himself. ... It’s unnerving to think that someone who spent time so close to our house had weapons like he had and the inclination and ability to cause so much destruction. ... We’re very peaceful. We’re anti-gun violence.”
According to police, Dear engaged police in a five-hour gunbattle Friday with police at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs.
Dear told the officers who arrested him “no more baby parts,” after being taken into custody, according to a law enforcement official, the Washington Post reported.
The attack on the clinic was “definitely politically motivated,” the official told the Post.
A Saturday night vigil was planned for slain officer Garrett Swasey, 44, a six-year veteran of the force. The other two victims had not been identified as of Saturday evening.
In response to the latest mass shooting, President Barack Obama said, “If we’re going to offer up our thoughts and prayers again, for God knows how many times, with a truly clean conscience – then we have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets to people who have no business wielding them.”
Across the Carolinas, in towns where Dear, 57, had lived up until a year ago when he moved to Colorado, a picture emerged of an angry loner.
Dear’s problems with the law date to at least 1997, when his then-wife reported to police that Dear had assaulted her, according to reports filed with the sheriff’s office in Colleton County in the S.C. Lowcountry near Charleston, where Dear lived at the time, the Washington Post reported. She declined to file charges against him but told police she reported it because she “wanted something on record of this incident occurring.”
We’d be nice and wave when he went by. But he wouldn’t acknowledge you.
Mallory Nicoletti, a neighbor of Dear’s
Colleton County police released reports of at least seven other incidents where Dear had disputes or physical altercations with neighbors or other residents, the Post said. In 2003, he was charged with cruelty to animals, but found not guilty.
The South Carolina neighbors of Dear said he hid food in the woods and liked to skinny dip, according to the Associated Press.
John Hood said that Dear rarely talked to him and other neighbors, and when he did, he offered unsolicited advice, including recommending that Hood put a metal roof on his home so the U.S. government couldn’t spy on him.
Dear moved to a single-wide trailer in Swannanoa in 2006 and bought a cabin in Black Mountain a year later. Both areas are just outside of Asheville.
Saturday, a for-sale sign was in front of the trailer.
Robert Adams, a neighbor of Dear’s in Swannanoa, told the Observer that Dear stayed to himself. “If there’s such a thing as a good neighbor, he was a good neighbor, because he was quiet. You never saw him,” Adams said.
Dear would mow his grass by dragging his mower behind his four-wheeler, Adams said.
“It was kind of rednecky, but there’s no law against that,” he said.
About a year ago, Dear quietly moved out, and Adams never saw him again.
In Black Mountain, Dear used his tiny wood-frame yellow cabin perched on a bank as a retreat where he stayed occasionally for a few days at a time, neighbors said. Saturday the porch was covered with leaves. There was a hand-made wooden table on the deck with a Sierra Nevada beer bottle, a paint brush and two cowbells. On the front of the house was a “no trespassing” sign.
Neighbors said they sometimes saw Dear riding his four-wheeler, and that he often left his dogs alone outside for days. The community is made up of mostly working people – teachers, a nurse, an engineer – and retirees living in modest wood-frame houses.
One neighbor said the only time Dear spoke to her was after another neighbor had called animal control about the way he treated his dogs. Be careful with your dogs, he said, or people will “turn you in.”
Mallory Nicoletti and her family were deep frying a turkey in a nearby backyard, celebrating a late Thanksgiving dinner Saturday. She said she never got to know Dear, and that was the way he seemed to want it.
“Everyone knew he was strange without having to talk to him,” she said. “He wouldn’t talk to anybody, wave at anybody, nothing. We’d be nice and wave when he went by. But he wouldn’t acknowledge you.”
Authorities say Dear was armed with a long gun and also brought into the building several “items” that could have been explosive devices, the Post reported.
He is being held without bond and is scheduled to make his first appearance in court on Monday, where he is expected to be receive state murder charges.
Swasey, who was killed during the siege, was married and had a son and daughter, according to the website of his church, Hope Chapel in Colorado Springs.
No details were immediately available about the two civilians who died. Five other officers and four people were hospitalized in good condition. At least four of those victims were later released. Planned Parenthood said all its staff members at the clinic were safe.
“Certainly it could have been much, much worse if it were not for the heroism of our police officers to corner the person in the building,” Colorado Springs Fire Chief Chris Riley told the Associated Press.
“It’s just too devastating, it’s just something you can’t fathom happening,” Pamela Ross, who was married to Dear nearly 20 years ago, said in a brief interview Saturday with the Post. She declined to comment further.
The Post reported that Dear moved to Colorado last year, when he bought a five-acre plot of land in Hartsel, about 40 miles west of Colorado Springs, according to Jim Anderson, the real estate agent who brokered the deal. The previous owner said Dear paid $6,000 for the vacant land.
“He said he wanted a cheap piece of land to put a camper on,” Anderson told the Post.
The Realtor said Dear arrived with a small pickup truck and paid $4,000 for a “pull-behind” camper that Anderson’s friend was selling. Anderson said Dear set up the camper on the flat land, which has no trees, and lived there.
Dear also asked Anderson if he could have his mail delivered to Anderson’s address. He came by a couple of times in the past year to pick up letters, which were mainly from the local county.
Dear did nothing that seemed unusual to Anderson, and while he didn’t see Dear with a gun, many people in the area own weapons.
“Out here everybody has a gun,” Anderson said. “There are bears and mountain lions.”
Anderson said he was shaken by the news that Dear was the alleged Colorado Springs shooter. He said Dear’s mug shot on TV looked far more wild-eyed than the average man he met.
“Man. Wow. A shocker,” Anderson told the Washington Post. “He seemed OK to me. Just like anybody who wanted to buy a piece of land in this one-horse town.”
Colorado records show that Dear was registered to vote in Hartsel since at least October 2014. His party was listed as “unaffiliated.”
The Post reported that Anderson said Dear arrived with a woman, but he did not know her name. Colorado records show that Stephanie Michelle Bragg, also registered to vote, listed the same address earlier this year.
Her ex-husband, Michael Bragg, said she moved to Colorado with Dear about a year ago. Michael Bragg said he had two daughters, ages 19 and 15, with Stephanie Bragg, who had worked as a waitress in a Waffle House. Bragg said he believed that his ex-wife met Dear online.
Observer staff writer Joe Marusak, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Associated Press contributed.