The young man who has confessed to killing seven people at a Fourth of July parade in a Chicago suburb on Monday was “an extremely online creature” and crafted a confounding digital footprint that experts say he wanted everyone to analyze.
Besides his YouTube videos, social media profiles, and Spotify playlists, Robert E. Crimo III hung out in some of the darkest corners of the internet, areas where graphic violence and mass shooters, in particular, are romanticized. He left behind cryptic clues that researchers, journalists, and the general public have been poring over in recent days—and experts say that’s exactly what the suspect wanted.
“The intention for this attack is exactly what is happening now, which is that people are going through all his digital history,” Emmi Conley, an extremism researcher at Logically, a tech company that pairs AI research with experts, told VICE News. “They're trying to unravel some kind of puzzle. They're trying to get into the (alleged) killer's mind and figure out what he does, because those kinds of answers would be deeply satisfying for us. But what he laid was a breadcrumb trail; he left behind a trap for people to go digging.”
Like the alleged perpetrators in the recent Buffalo and Uvalde mass shootings, the man accused of killing seven people during the Fourth of July parade on Monday is a young male. Unlike the Buffalo shooter, the Highland Park shooter didn’t leave behind a screed that he wanted people to read and explain his actions. But the shooter did leave behind a massive digital footprint.
An extensive review of his online activity by VICE News, including a look inside the disturbing gore forum where he posted 3,546 times since he joined in June 2020, and interviews with extremist researchers and friends of the suspect, reveals that his online activity cannot be narrowly categorized.
"He embodies sort of the pop-culture image of a mass shooter,” Conley said. “For decades, especially since Columbine, the media has been talking about the idea of a dangerous level of mentally ill, confused, schizophrenic young man who doesn't really have any intentions—, he's just crazy, right? And this is a shooter that said, 'OK' and embodied that. Everything about him is confusing on purpose.”
In many mass shootings, the motivation is clear. The shooter is part of an ideological group (neo-Nazis, white supremacists, etc.) with obvious aims and targets and makes that fact evident. Or they write a screed that points directly to their motivations. What makes shooters like the Highland Park gunman more difficult to understand is that while hateful, racist, and antisemitic beliefs almost certainly factored into his actions, his digital footprint was purposely designed to emphasize the violence over any ideological leanings.
When something not quite clear cut like this occurs, experts also warn about retroactively reinterpreting aesthetics through the lens of ideology. In a thread on Twitter, Marc-André Argentino, extremism researcher and Ph.D. candidate at Concordia University, cautioned both citizens and researchers against holding up one part “of this attacker's complex web of motivations as the single motivating factor for this attack.”
“After digging through all of the shooter's digital footprint I find it’s hard to tell if Crimo's extreme style is actually a form of ideological extremism,” he wrote.
“We have a responsibility to make a clear line between what we as experts call violent extremism and what we may call extremism,” he added. “When looking at Highland Park, we cannot simply equate an extreme aesthetic through the lens of the ideology which drove him to violence.”
One forum where the shooter was especially active specializes in "morbid reality," where people post images and videos of dead people, people dying, gore, conspiracies, nihilism, and so on. Often the posts are intentionally garbled. Like many internet communities, it has its own language, jokes, memes, and aesthetics that can be difficult for outsiders to parse, and it's hard to know what to take seriously or as a joke shrouded in layers of irony. Often, the aesthetics are more important than the ideology in these communities—a concept that can be seen in the Columbiner communities, groups that worship school shooters.
While some of these communities say they don't want to shy away from the grim reality, the works created by the shooter and the communities he entrenched himself in can lead to a detachment from reality according to Alex Newhouse, the deputy director of the Center on Terrorism at Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, who says the content is intentionally disorienting, to the point where it’s amenable to carry out violence.
"Reality is meaningless, and if they can destroy reality, then that's the only thing worth doing anymore,” said Newhouse. “The dehumanization of both the self and other people is the core aspect of why this shows up in these types of cases.
Deliberately hard to understand
Extremism researchers warn that failing to understand how these communities operate, and how the people like the Highland Park shooter become radicalized means that these incidents will continue to happen. But it’s also crucial that the media and academics don’t glamourize it in any way.
“We waste a lot of time getting in the head of the most recent shooter and not enough time getting in the head of the next one, because however we respond to this one will determine how the next one goes,” Conley said. “Every single one of the shooters builds their profile based on the success or failure of the ones who came before them; they know what works, they know what plays well in the media, they know what makes a big splash, and we play into it every time by sensationalizing their story.”
Police say that the Highland Park shooter planned the rampage for weeks—and on Wednesday police said Crimo admitted to planning a second attack—which seems to correlate with his online footprint. On his now-deleted YouTube page, the shooter made videos with flashes of violent images; one image showed the street the parade went down. Experts said there were hints that he may have been trying to leave an alternate reality game—an acquaintance of his told VICE News he enjoyed these immensely—for his audience and the online community. This could be seen through works he published and shared to both his Amazon and YouTube accounts.
Do you have information about the Highland Park shooter? Please contact Mack Lamoureux at firstname.lastname@example.org or David Gilbert at email@example.com or DM either on twitter and ask for a Signal number.
Within minutes of the suspect’s name being released by police while he was still on the run Monday afternoon, his social media presence, YouTube channel, and Spotify account were all quickly discovered and dissected. His songs on Spotify were full of references to mass shootings and his music videos were filled with violent visuals. His social media posts showed him posing with a Trump flag and attending a Trump rally in a Where’s Waldo? outfit. But he also followed left-wing figures on Twitter. And for amateur sleuths, political warriors, and cable pundits, that was enough to understand his motives, with many looking for a quick way to label him like other mass shooters. Was he a white supremacist? A Trump supporter? A part of antifa? A member of a militia? What were his political beliefs and motives?
“I would not be surprised if [his digital footprint] were crafted to be confusing on purpose, as this is about par for the course with a lot of the stuff coming out of these online communities,” Full Beard, an anonymous researcher of online extremism with Dirty South Right Watch, a group of researchers who mostly focus on tracking extremism in southern U.S. states, told VICE News. Dirty South Right Watch published a review of the kinds of communities the shooter existed in.
For the last year, a central haunt of the alleged shooter was an online gore forum where he posted frequently in the days leading up to the shooting. None of the posts indicate a clear political ideology as a central force in his life. He aggregated gore videos of people being maimed and killed in a variety of ways for the website, but he also posted about his day-to-day activities and discussed his favorite murderer. Some of the posts were intentional gibberish, similar to what’s in some of his music videos.
“You scare the shit out of me, ya fucking weird freak of nature,” one person wrote in response to one post.
Other posts and behavior clearly indicate he likely held racist beliefs. Highland Park is a predominantly Jewish area, and in April he went to and was kicked out of a synagogue for an unknown reason. Users on this forum baste themselves in a similar racist edgy and ironic humor as sites such as 4Chan and, while it wasn’t the main thing he did on the forum, the account tied to the shooter actively took part. He wrote such things as “I say we just get rid of the blacks all together” in threads about how black people were “a problem.” He participated in threads that questioned the reality of the Holocaust. On July 1 he made a meme showing him “lynching” another member of the site. However, he seemingly did not actively tie this part of his life to the shooting.
The shooter was infamous on the forum for posting images of a young-looking sex doll he had. He also posted some videos of him with a nonlethal firearm. The Fourth of July shooting has been the central topic of conversation on the site since it occurred, with some fans of the site worried it will be shut down. Many spent time parsing the shooter’s posts for any hints of real-world violence.
“I’m shocked,” wrote the website's moderator in a chat with fellow members. “The guy was strange, no doubt, but he never seemed like a violent person to me. I mean Christ, he carried his life sized sex doll with him from place to place.”
“It seems he was here online until around 12:10 (a.m.) or so on the 4th. He must have been posting here, went to sleep, got up, and decided to head down to the parade.”
A possible troll
A former friend of the alleged gunman who was also in a rap crew with him told VICE News that the suspect was a troll who thought both sides of the political spectrum were idiotic—but that could have changed since the two fell out of touch a few years ago. The friend, who wanted to be referred to as his rap name Nod so as not to be associated with the suspect, spent a lot of time with him in the late 2010s and even had him living on his couch for some time.
The friend said the man was a loner who frequently self-isolated. The rapper told VICE News that the suspect was a bit of a gamer kid, and while he could have seen him killing himself, he’s shocked he took violence against other people.
“He was very much of a loner. He didn't really want to go out and talk to people,” said Nod. “He definitely did start to lose touch with reality there a little bit. One of the last times I spoke to him I was telling him you should ask your father for help.
(The suspect’s father has since retained the same lawyer used by convicted sex offender R. Kelly, as it was learned he helped his son get a gun, despite previous violent threats.)
Some online slueths think the shooter was politically motivated because the Discord he shares with his friends was called SS. But friends claim that was a reference to their rap group Sleepy Squad rather than a Nazi reference. The symbol often used in the suspect’s videos that has been compared to a symbol connected to a Swedish far-right group was something that the suspect was hoping to use for a prospective clothing line, Nod said.
Nod told VICE News that when they hung out the alleged gunman made several references to having schizophrenia, but he did not know if that was a joke. Having “schizophrenia” and joking about being disconnected from reality was something often joked about within the community. Nod was surprised that his former friend was posting on a gore forum—that began after they lost touch.
Another person in this friend group described the suspect as “an isolated stoner who completely lost touch with reality.”
“He co-opted aesthetics from the left and right, but I don’t think he was any of those things, I think he was lost,” they said. “Gravitated towards aesthetics he found interesting.”
Both Nod and the other friend didn’t excuse their previous acquaintance's actions and urged people not to jump down rabbit holes he may have left behind.
“If I could say one thing, it would be this: Do not spend your time focusing on his motives, his backstory,” wrote a friend on Twitter. “This isn’t a TV show, there isn’t some grand conspiracy here. Maybe elsewhere, but not here. Please check in with your friends.
“Please show the victims support.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the Uvalde shooter as a white male. That reference has been removed.