HARTSEL, COLORADO — Neighbors describe Robert Lewis Dear as the “guy who never smiled.”
“He was polite, he would say hello if you said hello to him first, but he wouldn’t smile or anything. It was weird but nothing to make you think, ‘Oh, this is a guy who is going to go out and shoot a bunch of people,’” said Zigmond Post, 45, a neighbor who saw Dear just days before the 57-year-old allegedly went on a shooting spree. “I bumped into him at the Post office on Wednesday. I asked how he was doing and he said, ‘Great.’ That was it.”
Just 48 hours later, Dear would go on to kill three people and injure nine in a five-hour shootout with officers at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, according to police.
“What makes a person like that drive all that way to go out and kill people?” asked Post, a question that neither neighbors nor authorities appeared to be able to answer Saturday.
A local law enforcement official, who declined to give his name to BuzzFeed News, said police were still trying to piece together a psychological profile of Dear. “We don’t know if he drove to that facility with the intention of attacking a Planned Parenthood, or if he was looking for a place to attack and chanced upon it,” said the officer, who didn’t give his name as he was not authorized to speak to press.
On Saturday morning, the officer was one of dozens of police to comb through the dilapidated RV and shack that neighbors say Dear shared with a woman. Local records show that a woman named as Stephanie Michelle Bragg was registered to vote at the same address as Dear earlier this year. Her ex-husband, Michael Bragg, told the Washington Post that she had moved to Colorado with Dear approximately a year ago, after the two met online.
“He showed up here in May 2014 with his RV,” said Post, who recalled the date as he was frustrated that local authorities had not cracked down on a number of RVs permanently parked on Hartsel land against local laws, which limit their residency terms to eight months.
Post said that his only real interaction with Dear came around the last week of May, when he helped a friend track two dogs that had escaped near Dear’s property, which sits closest to the highway. Post remembers thinking it was nice that Dear had fenced them in, so that they wouldn’t get run over.
“We went into the house, a real shit-hole, and within a few minutes he just gave us these pamphlets and said, ‘Hey, if you ever want to talk, take a look at this stuff,’” said Post. The pamphlets, he remembers, called for President Obama’s impeachment and had “all sorts of crap against Obama.”
“I just thought it was weird that he would throw this political shit at me within a couple minutes of coming into his door,” said Post. “I didn’t keep them or anything, I think I threw them into the fire that night.”
Neither Post nor two other neighbors interviewed by BuzzFeed News remember seeing Dear at church or leaving the house regularly enough to indicate that he had a job. They recall thinking it odd that the woman he lived with almost never left the house.
When asked if Dear owned a gun, all the neighbors said they weren't certain but believed most people in the community had a weapon.
“Shit, everyone out here has a gun. Every single neighbor. I never saw him shooting it or anything like that,” said Post.
“The people who live out here, in the boonies, they are the sort of people who are trying to get away from other people, to live their lives in quiet,” said Post. “Everyone is weirdo. Nobody knows why he went out to kill all those people.”
The picture painted by Dear’s neighbors in Hartsel of a quiet man seeking solitude stands in direct contrast to the volatile and often aggressive man that Dear’s former neighbors in Anderson Acres, North Carolina remember.
“He was just always saying, ‘I know the U.S. is trying to kill everybody’ and do this and do that,” one resident in North Carolina told the Washington Post. “He [said he] was an undercover [agent]. Just craziness. Just pure, right-out craziness all the time.”
Neighbors there say that he had not been back to his home in at least a year, though photos from the site show piles of junk both inside the home and strewn across the front yard. A small, weathered cross hangs outside the home.
Police records reviewed by BuzzFeed News show that over several decades of living in North and South Carolina Dear was involved in a series of altercations with neighbors.
In 2002, in Walterboro, South Carolina, Dear was arrested on charges of being a “Peeping Tom” after a neighbor told police that he was hiding in her bushes and attempting to look into her home. Another neighbor had a restraining order issued against him after telling police that Dear was “making unwanted advancements.”
Neighbors in North Carolina told the Washington Post that his behavior appeared to get more aggressive in the year before he left, though those who interacted with him in Colorado said he was not known as a troublemaker or as an aggressive person in their community.
“There are weirder people out here, believe me,” said Gary Murr, 63, who lived about a mile up the road from Dear. “But they are the sort of weird that want to be left alone.”
Even among the small hamlets that dot this snowy patch of the Rocky Mountain, Hartsel is known as a lonely town.
“People come here to get away from other people, from government, from everything. They come here to be forgotten about,” said Murr, who ran into Dear along with Post on the Wednesday before the shooting. The men all own homes on a small stretch of flat land where five acre plots are sold for $3000-$6000 a lot with the promise that “you can’t hear your neighbors.”
“People come here for the quiet. They come here so that people don’t get into their business,” said Leslie Lewis, a 47-year-old mother of one who lives in the nearby town of Fairplay. “Even for those of us in the bigger town, like Fairplay, there is a joke about the folks in Hartsel being a little weird.”
At the Highline Café and Salon, where locals often gather for a beer and some burgers, a waiter said that Dear came in regularly for lunch.
“He always had tea, and he would order food, usually a sandwich. He was always polite. Never aggressive or anything like that. But he was also not really social, just ate by himself and left,” said the waiter, who asked not to be named as he said he wasn’t comfortable with the media attention that had descended upon the small town in recent days. “We aren’t used to so much activity. Everyone wants to know what we know. But we don’t know much. He was really just a dude that kept to himself. He could have been anyone.”
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
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