Jared Lee Loughner, The Twisted Murderer Behind The 2011 Tucson Shooting

Published August 16, 2023
Updated August 17, 2023

In 2011, a 22-year-old conspiracy theorist named Jared Lee Loughner set out to assassinate Rep. Gabby Giffords — and ended up shooting 19 innocent people, leaving six dead.

On Jan. 8, 2011, U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords was holding a meeting called “Congress on Your Corner” in the parking lot of a grocery store in Tucson, Arizona when suddenly, a shot rang out. Giffords was hit in the head by a flying bullet.

The man who shot Giffords was Jared Lee Loughner, a 22-year-old Tucson resident with a deep mistrust of the government and a particular hatred for Giffords.

Jared Lee Loughner

Wikimedia CommonsJared Lee Loughner was taken into police custody after shooting 19 people in Tucson, Arizona.

But he didn’t stop there.

Loughner opened fire on the crowd, hitting innocent bystanders and claiming the lives of six individuals, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl. In total, Loughner shot 19 people.

Loughner was arrested on-site and taken in for questioning by the FBI. When he was asked about his motive for the shooting, he refused to speak to anyone and immediately invoked his Fifth Amendment right: the right to remain silent.

Over the course of the investigation into the shooting, police would discover not only that Loughner been planning the shooting for weeks, but that he had become increasingly obsessed with a number of alarming conspiracy theories in the years leading up to that fateful day.

This is the story of Jared Lee Loughner, the man behind the tragic 2011 Tucson shooting.

Who Was Jared Lee Loughner?

Born on Sept. 10, 1988, Jared Lee Loughner grew up in Tucson, Arizona. He was the only child in a family of “loners,” the Guardian reports.

As a young boy, he seemed awkward but friendly — just a normal kid. By the time he was in high school, he’d made a group of friends with whom he’d smoke marijuana and drink on the weekends. He enjoyed a number of innocent, creative hobbies, including reading, writing, and playing the drums and saxophone.

“Back then he was completely different of a person,” said Kelsey Hawkes, who dated Loughner briefly in high school. “Very caring, very gentle, very sweet, kind, a little quiet, but altogether pretty great guy.”

Jared Loughner In School

Mountain View High SchoolShortly before the shooting, Jared Loughner began acting erratically and obsessing over conspiracy theories.

But as he grew older, concerned friends and family members observed a significant change in his demeanor. TIME reports he dropped out of high school before his senior year and started drinking heavily and using hallucinogenic drugs. But it seemed there may have been more to his behavior change than substance use.

“He seemed out of it, like he was somewhere else,” one friend later said. “I could tell he wasn’t just drunk and he wasn’t just high.”

An Obsession With Conspiracy Theories

Eventually, Loughner started taking classes at Pima Community College, where he became increasingly disruptive and often seemed detached from reality. Former classmates report that he regularly had loud, startling outbursts in class in which he’d laugh hysterically at inappropriate times or run around the room.

Then, there was his social media presence. At one point, Loughner uploaded a picture on his Myspace page of a United States history textbook with a handgun placed on top of it. He also created a series of internet videos that were filled with incoherent statements on subjects like mind control, terrorism, and illiteracy.

Loughner was also a member of an online message board called Above Top Secret, a platform known for discussing controversial topics. His posts on the site were not well-received by other members.

He espoused a number of disturbing conspiracy theories, including that 9/11 was an inside job, that the government was controlling citizens’ minds by controlling their grammar, that the 2012 apocalypse predicted by the Maya calendar was imminent, and that a group of powerful elites was trying to take over the world with a central banking system.

His strange behavior eventually led to his suspension from Pima Community College in September 2010, and he was fired from multiple jobs for the same reason.

Jared Lee Loughner’s Obsession With Gabby Giffords

Driving many of Loughner’s conspiracy theories was a deep mistrust of the government — and he seemed to have a particular hated for Rep. Gabby Giffords. According to Mother Jones, Loughner had attended an event hosted by Giffords on August 25, 2007, where he’d been unsatisfied with her response to his question, “What is government if words have no meaning?”

Afterwards, Loughner would often talk about his personal belief that women should not be in positions of power. He constantly complained about Gabby Giffords, calling her dishonest and “fake.”

Gabrielle Giffords

Wikimedia CommonsU.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was Jared Lee Loughner’s intended target.

Later, after the shooting, when police searched Loughner’s apartment, they found a letter Loughner had received from Giffords in which she thanked him for attending the 2007 event. Along with the letter, CNN reports, he also kept an envelope containing phrases like “die b—-” and “assassination plans have been made.”

In November 2011, Lougher legally purchased a Glock pistol from a Sportsman’s Warehouse store.

Leaving Eerie Hints At What He’s Planning

The night before the shooting, Jared Lee Loughner left a cryptic message on a friend’s voicemail saying, “Hey man, it’s Jared. Me and you had good times. Peace out. Later.”

That morning, he also made a chilling post on his MySpace account.

“Goodbye friends. Please don’t be mad at me,” he wrote. “The literacy rate is below 5%. I haven’t talked to one person who is literate. I want to make it out alive. The longest war in the history of the United States. Goodbye. I’m saddened with the current currency and job employment. I had a bully at school. Thank you. P.S. — plead the fifth!”

Then, Jared Loughner took a taxi to a Safeway supermarket, where Representative Giffords was conducting a constituents meeting. At approximately 10 a.m., shots rang out, and the crowd began running for their lives.

Loughner killed six innocent people that day: 63-year-old Chief U.S. District Court Judge John Roll; 30-year-old community outreach director Gabe Zimmerman; 76-year-old retired secretary Dorothy “Dot” Morris; 79-year-old homemaker Phyllis Schneck; 76-year-old retired construction worker Dorwan Stoddard; and 9-year-old Christina-Taylor Green.

Thirteen more people were injured, including Loughner’s original target, Giffords, who suffered a critical head injury but narrowly escaped death.

Police swiftly arrested the shooter. As they placed him the back seat of a police car, the New York Times reports, Loughner said: “I plead the Fifth.”

2011 Tucson Shooting

Wikimedia CommonsThe scene of the 2011 Tucson shooting.

Jared Lee Loughner’s Sentencing

While in custody, Jared Lee Loughner underwent two medical evaluations in which doctors determined he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and would be unfit to stand trial.

During an initial competency hearing, Loughner disrupted the court with a loud outburst and had to be escorted out of the courtroom. Loughner had been under the impression that he had succeeded in killing Giffords, and he exploded when his lawyer informed him that the congresswoman had miraculously survived.

However, CBS reports that in August 2012, after Loughner had undergone psychiatric treatment, a judge declared him competent to stand trial.

Loughner pleaded guilty to 19 counts for the murder of six people and the attempted murder of 13 others, including the attempted assassination of Gabby Giffords. By pleading guilty, he spared himself from receiving the death penalty.

In November 2012, Jared Lee Loughner received a sentence of life imprisonment plus an additional 140 years in federal prison. He is housed at the Federal Medical Center in Rochester, Minnesota. He will live out the rest of his life under the thumb of the one institution that he despised the most: the U.S. government.

After reading about 2011 Tucson shooter Jared Lee Loughner, discover the story of Yoo Young-chul, South Korea’s terrifying ‘Raincoat Killer’. Then, learn about Harold Shipman, the British doctor who killed his patients for his own pleasure.

Rivy Lyon
True crime expert Rivy Lyon holds a Bachelor's degree in criminology, psychology, and sociology. A former private investigator, she has also worked with CrimeStoppers, the Innocence Project, and disaster response agencies across the U.S. She transitioned into investigative journalism in 2020, focusing primarily on unsolved homicides and missing persons.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.