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As hundreds stand outside St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, which was filled to capacity, a couple embrace during a healing service held in for victims of an elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. A gunman opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, killing 26 people, including 20 children.

While many details of Friday's killings remain cloudy, an image has begun to emerge of the fractured family at the centre of one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.

Police have identified 20-year-old Adam Lanza as the suspect behind the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. His mother Nancy Lanza, who may have taught at the school, is dead – reportedly at her son's hand in her home. His older brother Ryan was questioned by police for hours that afternoon after being erroneously identified as the shooter earlier that day. Father Peter Lanza, who lives in Stamford, Conn., about 70 kilometres away, heard the news from a reporter waiting for him outside his house.

Adam Lanza's high school classmates, quoted in the New York Times, recalled a quiet and introverted teenager too camera shy for a yearbook photo. Several said he had Asperger syndrome.

Police cordoned off the streets in front of Ryan Lanza's Hoboken apartment as a crowd of reporters and neighbours gathered outside, alongside emergency-services vehicles and bomb-squad trucks. FBI agents and local police filed in and out of the apartment. A screen-capture from local station WCBS-TV shows a man identified as Ryan Lanza being escorted by police. He is wearing a peacoat and striped scarf.

Police spent about half an hour outside Peter Lanza's house Friday afternoon; when he drove up shortly after they left, he was nonplussed to find a reporter waiting for him.

He took the revelation "as a blow," the Stamford Advocate reported. "His face turning from patient to surprised and horrified. He promptly rolled up the window of his car, declined to comment, and pulled his vehicle into the right door of the two-car garage, before closing it behind him."

Kathleen Heide, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida, Tampa, has written several books about children who kill their parents. She said often the violence stems from a long history of abuse, severe mental illness or extreme anti-social behaviour. It can also erupt from young people whose brains and judgment aren't fully developed yet.

"If one of these individuals is very angry, it's very hard for them to stop, put the brakes on and really think, 'What am I doing here? This is a stupid thing to do. This is immoral. This is wrong,'" Dr. Heide said.

The combination of a parent killing and a mass shooting is extremely rare, Dr. Heide noted. She said the spillover to murdering innocent children suggests an individual who is "totally out of control."

"When you have massive shootings like this, they're really acting out their rage on a worldwide stage and often times they see themselves as the victim," Dr. Heide said. "In hurting innocent people, they're trying to draw attention to themselves, so it's kind of an act of someone who feels powerless exerting power."

With reports from Reuters, Bloomberg and Associated Press