Thomas J. Sheeran
and Ann Sanner

CHARDON: The teenager suspected of shooting his classmates struggled with a broken family and did poorly in school, then appeared to turn himself around once he was taken in by grandparents and began to attend an alternative school, longtime neighbors and friends said Wednesday.

To a person, they expressed disbelief at how T.J. Lane, a quiet but friendly boy, could become a suspect in a shooting that left three people dead and appears to have involved a gun that disappeared from his grandfather’s barn.

“T.J. was a very fine person,” Carl Henderson, a longtime neighbor of the suspect’s grandparents, Thomas and Michelle Lane, said Wednesday. “Nice-looking man, very friendly, spoke to you, carried a conversation with you.”

The gun, a .22-caliber revolver, was noticed as missing after Monday’s shootings and fits the description of the pistol that reportedly was used to kill three students and wound two others at Chardon High School, said Henderson, a retired police officer and former Geauga County sheriff. He said he has spoken to Thomas Lane about the gun.

Lane, 17, admitted taking a pistol and a knife to the 1,100-student Chardon High and firing 10 shots at a group of students sitting at a cafeteria table, Prosecutor David Joyce said.

The grandparents feel terrible about what happened and have no explanation for the teen’s alleged role in the shootings, Henderson said.

T.J. Lane came from a broken family but seemed to heal over time, said Henderson, who added that the boy began living with his grandparents off and on several years ago.

Lane’s father, Thomas Lane, 40, served seven months in prison in 2003 on charges of disrupting public service and felonious assault, according to state prison records. Messages were left Wednesday at numbers listed for him. Neighbors said he visited his son often, sometimes taking him and his sister camping.

Another neighbor on Wednesday described T.J. Lane as a normal boy who excelled in school and played outside often with his sister, building snow hills and skateboarding.

Steve Sawczak said he never would have allowed his own grandchildren to play nearby if he thought anything was wrong with the teenager. Sawczak lives next door to Lane’s other grandfather, Jack Nolan, who has familial custody of the suspect and attended his court hearing Tuesday.

“We’re all absolutely stunned,” Sawczak said. “He’s an average kind of kid.”

Sawczak, 58, a pastor who has worked with troubled children, said he never saw hints of what was coming. A next-door neighbor of Lane’s grandparents for almost 25 years, he said the couple, who have custody of the teen, gave Lane a healthy place to live. They often took them to school events.

“They are in shock,” Sawczak said. “They are absolutely devastated.”

At Chardon High, the faculty parking lot was jammed Wednesday as teachers returned to the school for the first time since Monday’s shooting, with grief counselors on hand, if needed. Parents and students are encouraged to return to the school today, and classes resume Friday.

Students planned to march together to the school today from the main square about three-quarters of a mile away, along a street where red ribbons were tied to all the trees.

Prosecutors have until today to bring charges and are expected to ask that Lane be tried as an adult.

He probably will be charged with three counts of aggravated murder and other offenses, Joyce said.

Both sides in the legal case are under a gag order imposed by the judge at the prosecutor’s request.

Juvenile Judge Timothy Grendell earlier barred media outlets from taking photos of the suspect’s face but reversed himself Wednesday and said Lane may be photographed at a pending a hearing Tuesday.