Nashville school shooting suspect Audrey Hale became “infatuated” with a late schoolmate and repeatedly posted about the woman online in the months leading up to Monday’s massacre, according to a friend.
Hale’s former classmate Samira Hardcastle has spoken out about the impact that the sudden death of Sydney Sims appears to have had on the 28-year-old – who police say went on to kill three small children and three staff members in this week’s horror mass shooting.
Sims, a 27-year-old former basketball teammate of Hale, was involved in a head-on car crash last August in Nashville, Tennessee.
The crash killed another woman before Sims died one week later from her injuries.
An online obituary for Sims reveals Hale had left a message and sent a gift to the family.
“With much love to the family, I will miss my dear friend Sydney forever. Rise up Queen, You are Free!” Hale wrote.
Members of Sims’s family declined to comment to The Independent.
Ms Hardcastle, who attended Isaiah T. Creswell Middle School of the Arts and the Nashville School of the Arts with both Hale and Sims, told NBC News that Hale seemed to struggle to cope in the aftermath of Sims’ death.
However, she said that she does not believe Hale and Sims were close – instead believing that Hale “admired” and was “infatuated” with Sims.
“Audrey definitely admired Sydney,” said Ms Hardcastle.
She told The New York Post that Hale was posting about Sims’ death on social media almost every day.
“After Sydney’s tragic death, Audrey was really heartbroken over it … I just feel like she took it differently than some of us did. She was still posting about Sydney almost daily,” she said.
“What I knew of her was more admiring [Sydney]. Maybe even infatuation. That’s specifically who she really, really looked up to.”
She added: “I don’t think she was with anyone. She was just kind of by herself. I don’t think that they were very close but I think Audrey looked up to [her], like she looked up to Sydney. But I don’t know that it was ever, like, a two-way thing.”
In one TikTok video – which has since been taken down – Hale reportedly posted a clip of a person bouncing a basketball.
“For Syd. I look up the sky is bright. It’s a beautiful day. I wish you were here…” the post read, along with a dedication “to Syd”.
A former teacher also confirmed she had seen some of Hale’s social media posts where the soon-to-be school shooter repeatedly spoke about Sims’ death.
“A lot of comments about ‘you were all that mattered’ [and] ‘I’ll miss you forever,’ etc.,” Maria Colomy, Hale’s art instructor at the Nossi College of Art & Design, told NBC News.
Ms Colomy had previously told The New York Times that the shooter was “openly grieving” someone she appeared to regard as a romantic partner on Facebook.
Hale had announced the bereavement and asked to be addressed as Aiden and by masculine pronouns from then on, she said.
Police have identified the suspected shooter by their name at birth; Hale reportedly was a transgender man who used he/him pronouns, though law enforcement officials initially described the suspect as a woman in the aftermath of the shooting. Police did not provide another name but on the suspect’s social media accounts they refer to themselves as Aiden.
Ms Hardcastle told the Post she last saw Hale around a month ago when they had both attended the taping of their friend Avieranna Patton’s radio show.
Ms Patton, who also played basketball with Hale and Sims in school, has revealed that – while she also had little contact with Hale after leaving school – the shooter sent her some chilling final messages just minutes before the killing rampage began.
Ms Patton said that Hale sent her some messages on Instagram at 9.57am on Monday morning, issuing a dark warning that “something bad is about to happen” and telling her she would soon be reading about the upcoming events “on the news after I die”.
“One day this will make more sense,” Hale wrote.
“I’ve left behind more than enough evidence behind. But something bad is about to happen.”
She tried to get Hale help – first calling a suicide prevention help line and then calling the Nashville Davidson County Sherriff’s Office.
Ms Patton said she later learned what Hale had done.
While she knew Hale as a child, Ms Patton said they did not know each other in adulthood so it was suprising that Hale reached out to her in those final minutes.
At around 10am, just minutes after sending the messages to Ms Patton, Hale entered The Covenant School in Nashville armed with two assault rifles and a handgun.
There, Hale broke into the school building by shooting through the glass side doors and climbing inside.
Once inside, the shooter stalked the corridors, gunning down six victims.
Students Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, and William Kinney, all aged nine, headteacher Katherine Koonce, 60, substitute teacher Cynthia Peak, 61, and custodian Mike Hill, 61, were all killed in the attack.
Responding officers fatally shot the assailant at 10.27am – 14 minutes after the first 911 call reporting an active shooter came in.
Investigators are still working to determine the motive for the attack, which has been described as both planned and targeted.
The killer left behind a manifesto and a detailed map of the school building, with police also finding evidence suggesting Hale was planning other attacks on other locations.
Nashville Police Chief John Drake said on Tuesday that investigators “strongly believe” Hale was planning to carry out other attacks including at a local mall and targeting family members.
“We strongly believe there was going to be some other targets, including maybe family members, and one of the malls here in Nashville,” the police chief said.
“And that just did not happen.”
The Covenant School was believed to have been singled out for an attack because it had a lower level of security – with no school resource officer – than other locations.
Prior to Monday’s massacre, police said Hale had been able to legally purchase seven firearms – despite receiving mental health treatment at the time.
In a press conference, Chief Drake said that Hale was under care “for an emotional disorder” and that her family “felt that she should not own weapons”.
The police chief said that Hale’s parents were aware the suspect had purchased one firearm, but believed it had since been sold.
In reality, the 28-year-old had legally purchased seven firearms and hid them around the family home.
Three of those firearms – two assault rifles and a handgun – were used in Monday’s shooting.
Even if Hale’s parents had been aware of the stash of weapons and contacted law enforcement, there is no red flag law in Tennessee that could have been used to take away the firearms.
Hale – an illustrator and graphic designer who attended Nossi College of Art – did not have any criminal record prior to Monday’s massacre.
On Wednesday night, local residents gathered for a vigil in memory of the victims.
At the vigil, attended by First Lady Jill Biden, young people, parents and other local residents spoke to The Independent about their frustration that their community is now the latest to be torn apart by gun violence.
If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, the Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email email@example.com, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.
If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call National Suicide Prevention Helpline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Helpline is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.