October 05, 2006 12:00 PM

A red-haired little girl who liked gardening and reading, 8-year-old Rachel Ann Stoltzfus was blissfully unaware of most of the evils of the outside world. But when Charlie Roberts, 32, a troubled local truck driver, barged into her one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa., on the morning of Oct. 2, armed to the teeth and with a heart full of hate, young Rachel didn’t flinch. Speaking in an even tone, Roberts ordered the children to lie down. He then began to tie up the 10 girls, ages 6 to 13, and ordered the 15 boys and four adults to leave. Rachel Ann’s brothers John, 12, and Samuel, 6, who were among those who fled, were struck by their little sister’s courage and composure. As their brother Melvin told PEOPLE, “Rachel Ann stayed very calm.”

And the unimaginable happened. Forty-five minutes after entering the school, Roberts shot the 10 girls as they stood facing the chalkboard – a horrific act that left five of the girls dead and five others critically wounded – before turning his gun on himself. The senseless killings were only the latest in a rash of school shootings around the country.

"It was a horrific crime scene," says Lancaster District Attorney Donald Totaro of the carnage.

Still, the cold brutality in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania, in a community dedicated to simplicity and peace, seemed to take shock to a new, numbing level. “In my career I’ve never seen anything like this,” Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Jeffrey Miller said in an emotional news conference. “We all look at this and see innocent victims and it could easily be our children.” As one Amish shopkeeper in the community put it the day of the tragedy, “Everybody’s over at the firehouse, and they don’t even realize they’re in shock, but they are in shock.”

"I never saw him angry," says a neighbor of gunman Roberts.

There could be, of course, no rational explanation for the horror. But in the day after the massacre authorities began to get a clearer idea of what might have triggered Roberts’s rampage. In a suicide note to his wife, Marie, 28, Roberts described his anguish over the death of their daughter Elise, minutes after her premature birthin 1997. (The couple had three other children, ages 7, 5 and 2.) He said he was angry at God and wrote mysteriously of repeating something he had done 20 years ago. “I am filled with so much hate, hate toward myself, hate towards God,” he wrote. He went on to say that in recent years he had been tormented because his dreams had led him to believe he wanted “to do those things again,” according to commissioner Miller of the state police. Later, in a phone call to his wife shortly before he began shooting, he was more explicit, claiming that he had molested two young relatives in his family.

If true, the incident would have occurred when Roberts was roughly 12 years old. But state police commissioner Miller said that investigators had so far turned up no evidence that any such molestation had ever taken place. Whatever the truth, neighbors and acquaintances describe Roberts, who lived with his family in a modest one-story home about five minutes from the Amish schoolhouse, as slightly aloof but not unfriendly.

"They seem closed," says Dwilyn Beiler, a Mennonite neighbor. "But to those who know them, they're very open and friendly."

As far as anyone could tell, he had no grudge against the Amish. One Amish merchant recalls that Roberts often came into his store with his children. “He was a nice guy, very nice,” says the man. “He never said no when the kids would ask him for something.” He was, in fact, to all outward appearances a doting father who generally was the one to pick up his children at the school bus stop in the afternoon. “He would play ball with the kids in the yard,” says neighbor Mary Miller. “It seemed like he was an active participant as a father.”

In the weeks leading up to the killing, there had been a pronounced change in Roberts’s demeanor. His coworkers told police Roberts had become more reserved, as if he were brooding. Then, in the days just before the murders, he suddenly seemed relaxed and at peace. Said state police commissioner Miller: “A few days before the shooting, a weight was lifted.” On the morning of the attack he took the unusual step of seeing his two older children off at the bus. Paula Derby was also there for her daughter and witnessed a telling scene. As the Roberts kids started to climb on the bus he suddenly called them back. “He knelt down and gave them each a big hug,” recalls Derby, “and said, ‘Remember Daddy loves you.’ Then they got back on the bus.”

Given the timing, several experts speculate that a school shooting in Colorado the week before might have played a role in stirring Roberts to action. “I suspect he had gone through his plans in his mind many times,” says school-violence expert Jared Lewis, “and all it took was the shooting in Colorado to push him over the edge.”

"Things like this, you just can't comprehend," said one of the Amish, awaiting word on the victims Oct. 2.

Police soon discovered Roberts’s attack had been carefully planned: There was evidence that he had purchased some of the items used in the attack a few days before, and investigators later discovered a checklist in his vehicle. He arrived at the schoolhouse driving a borrowed pickup truck and armed with a 9mm handgun, a shotgun and a bolt-action rifle. He walked in and showed the children his handgun and asked, “Have you ever seen one of these?” (Though the Amish are avid hunters, handguns are less common in their culture, and one of the children guessed the weapon was a horseshoe.) He then began the process of binding the feet of the girls with flex-cuffs and wire. One teacher who was released raced off to get help because there was no phone at the school, in keeping with Amish custom, which shuns most modern conveniences.

Meanwhile, Roberts was busy nailing lumber that he had brought with him across the doors as a barricade. Various items he carried in a bucket, including personal lubricant, suggested he had planned to molest the girls, as had happened in the Colorado attack. Police surrounded the building and tried to initiate negotiations. Roberts called his wife, who told police she could hear no sounds in the background. “We believe at this point that the kids were just quietly standing there,” said Commissioner Miller.

Roberts called Lancaster county 911, demanding the police back off. A moment later police heard shots and stormed the school, but it was too late. The wounded girls ranged in age from 6 to 13; the dead were 7 to 13. “He had no intention of coming out of there alive,” said Miller. “He planned this out meticulously.”

State Police Commissioner Jeffrey Miller displayed Roberts's checklist of supplies for the attack.

The attack shattered the tranquility of the Amish community, where many of the men work in farming or the making of small crafts. Because of the lack of television and telephones inside homes it took authorities hours to track down the parents of students in the school. But when many of the Amish elders heard the news, their normal reserve broke down. “They are stoic,” says Dwilyn Beiler, a local resident with close ties to the Amish who visited the family of two of the victims with his wife. “But we fell into each other’s arms and cried. They’re as human as anyone else.”

And they are also generous of spirit. At an evening vigil on Oct. 2 the pastor for the Roberts family appeared and told how one Amish neighbor had already gone to the killer’s parents and offered forgiveness for the shooting. In a statement, the parents, Chuck and Terry Roberts, declared, “Our hearts are torn and anguished at the tragedy and loss we have experienced as a family and in the Amish community.”

Outside the home of Rachel Ann Stoltzfus, her brother Raymond, 14, attired in traditional overalls and wide-brimmed straw hat, watched over two of their younger siblings, Emma, 4, and David, 2. His parents, Daniel and Annie, were at the hospital watching over Rachel Ann. Raymond was pulling for his sister, who, he explained, “likes to play dolls and stuff.” Now she was struggling to pull through, with a shattered jaw and wounds in her shoulder and side. Looking out over the fields, Raymond could still not comprehend how little children could be shot in cold blood. “I just can’t see why that man thought he had to do this,” he says. “Did he know what he was doing, or what?”

• By Bill Hewitt. Nina Burleigh, Kathy Ehrich Dowd, Nicole Weisensee Egan, Mary Green and Sean Scully in Pennsylvania, Steve Erwin in New York City and Kelly Williams in Chicago

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