SEMINOLE — Nathanial Zeno's grandmother and aunts are struggling with the idea that the 16-year-old stands accused of plotting a Columbine-style massacre at Seminole High School.
But even they aren't sure if Zeno really intended to carry out his plan.
"We don't know. We're glad it didn't happen," said April McGrath, the aunt who had custody of him for about three years. "We don't want to believe it, but we fully accept the possibility."
Pinellas deputies committed Zeno to a mental hospital March 4 under the state's Baker Act, which allows involuntary hospitalization if someone is deemed to be a threat to himself or others. That was a couple of weeks after the teen had taken out a book on Columbine from the school library and shortly after a school employee noticed him marking a map of the school.
When Zeno was released on Wednesday, he was arrested and charged with one count of solicitation to commit murder, a felony. Zeno is in the Pinellas Juvenile Assessment Center.
McGrath, her sister, Michelle, and their mother, Claudia, said they had no idea Zeno was in trouble until just before his arrest when the boy's mother, Amber Brooke Zeno, called to tell them.
Mrs. Zeno could not be reached for comment. But her family, the McGraths, said Zeno's emotional difficulties started early.
"He spent a lot, a lot, of time with us even when he wasn't living with us," Claudia McGrath, his grandmother, said. "Even when he was really little, he used to tell me he felt like he had a black hole in his stomach. … I think he felt something was missing. Maybe he felt alone in a crowd.
"I can't ever say that I remember Nathan being happy," she said. "He always had a sadness about him."
When he was 8, Zeno came to live with his aunt April in the Largo duplex she and her mother own. He stayed there for a bit more than three years, then his mother decided to take him back. She and Zeno moved to New Mexico to be with the teen's father, Mike. That's when he changed his name from Nathanial McGrath to Nathanial Zeno.
But the situation was not good, the McGraths said. Amber Zeno has not talked much about it, they said, but she left Mike Zeno because she said she was afraid and went to Texas.
Claudia McGrath said she visited around Thanksgiving in 2009. Her grandson had a couple of friends and a girlfriend, and was taking ROTC, a thrill for a boy who'd been Army-mad as a child. But that soured. Zeno was "dis-enrolled" from ROTC, and his mother was unable to find a job. They moved back to the McGraths' home in Largo in the late spring or early summer of 2010.
He spent the summer playing with younger kids, ages 12 and younger.
"Socially, he's behind," April McGrath said.
His mother enrolled him at Seminole, but acceptance came hard. And Zeno, a loner, was hard to get to know. He would wear all-black clothing and had a problem with personal hygiene. He was a "furry," a person, who, in the broadest sense, likes the concept of humanlike animals in art and fiction. He was especially interested in cats and had a fox costume he wore to the Renaissance Festival. He had a rich fantasy life.
"I think he felt very rejected and isolated (at Seminole)," Claudia McGrath said. "He wasn't into drugs. He wasn't violent. … He was messy. He was on the gloomy side."
His entries on the deviantart.com website show Zeno's level of distress over the past months:
He uploaded two pictures of himself. Under one, he wrote, "I know I'm ugly." Under the other, "I'm hideous."
He listed his personal quote in German, which translated to, "Would die in order to be a real furry."
His tagline on messages: "I'd rather die on paws than live on feet … FFL — Furry for Life (Keepin' it furry since 1998)."
On Aug. 12, he noted, "Depression started up again."
On Aug. 18: "School starts on the 24th of this month for me. New school AGAIN, new people AGAIN, new places AGAIN. How many times do I have to restart my life exactly?"
Early this month on the site, he filled out a questionnaire of mental health questions. In one place he wrote that he had attempted suicide and in another he wrote that he had run away from home but been caught and returned.
The signs of distress had started much earlier in the school year. He was admitted to the hospital on Sept. 29 under the Baker Act, said Tom Nestor, a Pinellas County sheriff's spokesman.
The McGraths say the commitment came because of a letter that Zeno wrote after another student "rejected" him. They said the school thought the letter was threatening.
After Zeno returned to class, they said, the school kept a close eye on him. And they wonder why something more wasn't done to help a teen who was so obviously in mental distress.
The system may have worked to prevent a Columbine-style massacre, Claudia McGrath said. But when it came to her grandson, "I think, no, it didn't work."
If authorities were so concerned, she said, they should "make sure the kid gets into counseling."
Reach Anne Lindberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.