Accused school shooter’s path marked by violence, mental illness

Bookkeeper talks about coming face-to-face with gunman

Michael Brandon Hill got so upset when his family took in a boarder that he set the house on fire.

Later, when other youths at a psychiatric facility teased him, Hill lashed out with such ferocity that it took four or five counselors to restrain him.

Last New Year’s Eve, Hill’s anger and hostility erupted on Facebook. In a post that would lead to criminal charges, Hill threatened to shoot his brother in the head “and not think twice about it.”

A day after the police said Hill carried an assault rifle and 498 rounds of ammunition into a DeKalb County elementary school and fired on approaching officers, a portrait emerged of a troubled young man with a history of violent outbursts, trouble with the law, and mental illness that received, at best, sporadic treatment.

Hill, 20, is being held without bond on numerous charges stemming from the incident Tuesday at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy. The episode capped a chaotic period in Hill’s life, acquaintances said Wednesday, and may have been averted if he had not stopped taking medication for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“He hasn’t been on his meds for quite a while,” said Natasha Knotts, of Lithonia, whose family informally adopted Hill a few years ago. “He talked about hearing voices talk to him. He just couldn’t fight it anymore.”

But Knotts, 40, who calls Hill “my son,” said nothing had hinted at an attack that, if not interrupted, might have rivaled the scope of the nation’s deadliest school shootings. Instead, no one was injured.

“In the time that I knew Mike, he never seemed to have any kind of violent tendencies,” Knotts said Wednesday. “I never thought he would hurt anyone, including himself.”

Hill, though, grew up amid violence and dysfunction, said one of his two older brothers, Tim.

Their mother was twice convicted for burglary, in 2006 and 2009, and was serving five years’ probation when she died in 2010, according to court records in Henry County. Their father, Tim Hill said, had long been out of the picture.

Tim Hill said he realized that his brother – whom he calls by his middle name – had a dangerous side in June 2009, when Brandon got into an argument with a woman who was boarding in his family’s house.

“His revenge was to go up to the attic and set her stuff on fire,” Tim Hill said. “When he was raging, he said he wished me and my older brother had died in the fire.”

The younger boy was 16 at the time.

Tim Hill said his brother spiraled out of control as a young teen. At first, he shoplifted from Dollar Stores and CVS drug stores, then began burglarizing churches. Authorities sent the boy to juvenile detention facilities several times, Tim Hill said, where he would take psychiatric medications that stabilized his moods. Upon release, he drifted off the medications, and on a few occasions attempted suicide by cutting his wrists.

“After he started the house on fire,” Tim Hill said, “my stepdad asked the district attorney whether it was going to take him killing someone before they got him the help he needed.”

Michael Hill wound up at Youth Villages, a juvenile justice and psychiatric treatment facility in Douglas County.

Hill followed rules and behaved well as long as he stayed on his medication, said Jamie Stephenson, a former Youth Villages counselor who worked with the boy. But when he sometimes refused the daily pills, Stephenson said, Hill became “intimidating and violent.”

Other residents stoked Hill’s rage, Stephenson said, by teasing him about his missing teeth or his intellectual limits. At times, Stephenson said, four or five staff members had to pull Hill out of fights.

And yet, Stephenson said, Hill could charm other residents and counselors, and he made it known he would be happy to remain at the facility, even at an age when most residents are moving toward independent living.

“I feel kind of sorry for him,” Stephenson said. “He seemed like a good kid. He just seemed like he had a rough past.”

It is unclear when Hill left Youth Villages.

Hill lived in a group home for a time before showing up in his late teens at the Prophetical Word Church in Decatur, said Knotts, an assistant pastor. Hill shared virtually nothing about past troubles, Knotts said, but she invited him to stay with her family, anyway.

“He wasn’t in contact with his family at all,” Knotts said. “That’s the reason we took him in without questions – he didn’t have anyone to look after him.”

Now she considers him her adopted son.

“I spoiled him,” Knotts said, by washing his clothes, making his bed, cooking his meals, making sure he took baths. “He was very spoiled.”

Hill often kept to himself, Knotts said, and didn’t like discussing his mental health problems, especially with people outside her family. He stayed on his medications until he lost Medicaid benefits and could not afford the prescriptions, she said. Knotts could not identify the medications.

Early this year, Hill decided he wanted to live in a place of his own, even though he did not have a job. With help from Knotts’ church, he rented a one-bedroom townhouse at the Kingstown Apartments near Decatur.

“He seemed like he was a little slow, just talking to him,” said Brenda Gresham, the property manager. “But he seemed like a very nice person. I never had a problem with him.”

In early April, however, a fire broke out in the downstairs living room of Hill’s townhouse. Hill, trapped upstairs for a time, suffered smoke inhalation and had to be rescued by firefighters. Authorities never determined the cause of the fire, Gresham said.

Hill spent weeks at Grady Memorial Hospital, Knotts said, then came back to her home to recuperate.

“He was on his meds then,” she said. “He was stable, he was happy. He was Mike.”

Soon he approached other church members about moving into their home – a house just a short walk from McNair elementary.

At the time, he was facing a criminal charge in Henry County for allegedly threatening on Facebook to kill his brother. He avoided jail time by pleading guilty in July to a charge of making a terroristic threat. A judge placed Hill on probation for three years and ordered him to attend anger management classes. Court records do not indicate whether he attended the classes.

During the past month, Knotts said, she sensed from Hill’s text messages and from their telephone conversations that his mental state was slipping.

But “his demeanor hadn’t changed,” she said. “There weren’t any telltale signs.”

Knotts said she never knew Hill to own guns or even to talk about weapons.

Indeed, how Hill, a convicted felon with mental illness, ended up with an assault rifle and a cache of ammunition remains a mystery. DeKalb County police said Wednesday he may have “obtained” the rifle from the home of an acquaintance.

Hill’s attempted assault on the school left Knotts baffled. She had hoped to talk with him Wednesday, but he was being held in isolation in the DeKalb County jail and was not allowed to receive visitors.

She wants to get a message to a young man who was so troubled, but so reticent about asking for help: “That I love him and I will always love him, that I’m still here for him, and he’s not alone.”