It was planned: A deadly deliberate attempted assassination of a Democrat politician that spiralled into a murderous rampage, killing six and wounding 14, including the original target, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived being shot through the head.
The words "I planned ahead," "Giffords" and "My Assassination" were scrawled on papers recovered from Jared Loughner's home in Tucson, authorities said. The 22-year-old college dropout, whose angry but often inchoate Internet postings paint a disturbing picture, is charged with attempted assassination of a member of Congress and multiple counts of killing federal employees. He will also certainly face state murder and other charges.
Officials were working to appoint an attorney for Mr. Loughner. Heather Williams, the first assistant federal public defender in Arizona, said they're asking that San Diego attorney Judy Clarke be appointed.
Ms. Clarke, a former federal public defender in San Diego and Spokane, Washington, served on teams that defended Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Timothy McVeigh and "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski, al-Qaeda operative Zacarias Moussaoui, and Susan Smith, a woman from South Carolina who drowned her two sons in 1994. He was in the custody of the FBI, but had invoked his Fifth Amendment rights to avoid self-incrimination and refused to co-operate with investigators, authorities said.
Saturday's murderous rampage at a Tucson shopping centre stunned the nation, igniting a firestorm over whether the assassin was a disturbed but solitary killer, or the consequence of a deeper, societal schism where partisan extremism triggers political violence.
From the political "meet and greet" turned into terrifying chaos, came tales of improbable heroism, life-saving first aid and the wrenching tragedy of innocent lives cut short.
Ms. Giffords, 40, a centrist Democrat from conservative Arizona - where Republicans hold sway and a bitter, divisive debate over illegal immigration through the porous border with neighbouring Mexico has poisoned politics - was shot in the back of the head. The bullet tore through the left side of her brain, exiting through her forehead.
Prompt first aid by an intern was credited with saving the congresswoman's life. Although she remained in critical condition in a drug-induced coma Sunday after hours of brain surgery, doctors spoke of a possible recovery.
She apparently had interacted with Mr. Loughner before. Federal investigators found a note from the congresswoman to the college dropout, suggesting he had attended a previous "meet and greet."
On Saturday, at about 10 a.m., he was back, this time armed and ready to kill. After shooting Ms. Gifford, the shabbily clad gunman rapidly fired off another 30 bullets, randomly killing and maiming a crowd frantically diving for cover and seeking to escape.
Except 61-year-old Patricia Maisch, who lunged at Mr. Loughner as he tried to snap a fresh magazine into the Glock handgun. In what Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik called "one of the most heroic acts I've ever seen," she grabbed the magazine. After Mr. Loughner wrenched it away, it jammed and he was tackled by two men.
Mr. Loughner is to appear in federal court Monday but a trial could be months, even years, away.
Discoveries at Mr. Loughner's home in southern Arizona, where he lived with his parents in a middle-class neighbourhood lined with desert landscaping and palm trees, have provided few answers to what motivated him.
Comments from friends and and former classmates bolstered by Mr. Loughner's own Internet postings have painted a picture of a social outcast with almost indecipherable beliefs steeped in mistrust and paranoia.
Two high school friends said they had fallen out of touch with Loughner and last spoke to him around March, when one of them was going to set up some bottles in the desert for target practice and Mr. Loughner suggested he might come along. It was unusual - Mr. Loughner hadn't expressed an interest in guns before - and his increasingly confrontational behaviour was pushing them apart. He would send bizarre text messages, but also break off contact for weeks on end.
Police said he purchased the Glock pistol used in the attack at Sportsman's Warehouse in Tucson in November.
Neighbours said Mr. Loughner kept to himself and was often seen walking his dog, almost always wearing a hooded sweat shirt and listening to his iPod.
The U.S. Army confirmed that Loughner attempted to enlist in December 2008 but was rejected for unspecified reasons.
"If you call me a terrorist then the argument to call me a terrorist is Ad hominem," he wrote Dec. 15 in a wide-ranging posting.
An official familiar with the shooting investigation said Sunday that local authorities were looking at a possible connection between Mr. Loughner and an online group known for white supremacist, anti-immigrant rhetoric.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation, said local authorities were examining the American Renaissance website for possible motives.
The group's leaders said in a posting on their website that Mr. Loughner never subscribed to their magazine, registered for any of the group's conferences or visited their Internet site.
As pundits pored over the disturbing publicly posted ranting and ramblings left by Mr. Loughner on MySpace and YouTube and other Internet sites, a debate erupted over the role - if any - of America's polarized political landscape.
Sarah Palin, who "targeted" vulnerable Democrats with a map festooned with crosshairs that resembled gun sights last fall - including one aimed at Ms. Giffords's shaky seat in Tucson - was fingered by some.
"Hey, Sarah Palin, hows that hatey, killy, reloady, crosshairsy thing working out for ya?" tweeted comedian Frank Conniff, in a nasty echo of the former governor's caustic "hopey, changey" attack on President Barack Obama and frequent calls for her supporters to "reload" to achieve their political aims.
Ms. Palin, who was quick to remove the map and offer condolences, dispatched aides to mount a defence. "We have nothing whatsoever to do with this," Rebecca Mansour said, speaking for Ms. Palin.
Still, from Mr. Obama to ordinary Americans, soul-searching and, sometimes, recriminations marked the beginning of what may be a long aftermath.
"The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous" Sheriff Dupnik said. "Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital. We have become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry."
In Washington, flags will fly at half-mast this week in honour of the killed congressional aide. The House of Representatives has postponed sitting for a week. Candlelight vigils in Tucson and other cities reflect a shaken and sombre nation.
With files from AP