Helder became obsessed with death

By Meg Jones, Nicole Sweeney and Nahal Toosi

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MENOMONIE, Wis. -- To many acquaintances, Lucas John Helder seemed quiet and unassuming, an intelligent but thoroughly ordinary college student.

But in recent months a darker side became more apparent.

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He was caught with drug paraphernalia late last year. He began to express worries about government control. He developed a fascination with "astral projection" and out-of-body experiences. He became obsessed with death.

It was not possible Tuesday to pinpoint when he began to change -- though one acquaintance noticed a strong reaction in him to the events of Sept. 11.

Still, on Wednesday, a young man remembered in his tiny hometown of Pine Island as always offering to do the dishes for his bandmate's mother, was in custody in Nevada, charged in a pipe-bomb spree that stretched through the Midwest and into Texas.

Shockwaves radiated Wednesday through Pine Island and the University of Wisconsin-Stout campus in Menomonie, where Helder, 21, was a student, as the details of the charges against him became known.

Helder attended Pine Island High School, where he played football and golf and sang in the choir. He played guitar and sang for a three-member grunge band called Apathy, which played at small Rochester venues and at the Pine Island Cheese Festival. The band apparently broke up when Helder left for UW-Stout as a transfer student last year.

'Nothing scary or weird'

"I just want to tell people that there is nothing scary or weird about Luke Helder," said Rachel Stanton, whose 17-year-old son, Mike, was an Apathy band member.

Apathy was influenced by Nirvana and Silverchair, but Helder was the only Nirvana fan. He even had chin length blonde hair for a time, which Stanton thought Helder did to look more like Kurt Cobain.

The parents of all three boys were supportive and attended most of Apathy's gigs, even though Stanton thought the music sounded mostly like screaming. She once asked her son Mike about the meaning behind the unintelligible lyrics and he said, "Well, they're not about anything."

Stanton's son last saw Helder in February, and the only change he noticed was that Helder had started listening to metal music, which he had never liked before.

Talked music, not politics

Helder worked at econofoods, a Rochester grocery store, in the summers. An employee there said he talked mostly about music and never about politics.

Residents of Pine Island were baffled by the revelations and many shunned the media spotlight.

Don Saugen, a family friend of 10 years, drove to the family's A-frame house three miles outside of town Wednesday. He remembered Helder as a good-natured boy he once hired to clear his asparagus fields.

"It's tough," mused Saugen, "I think that young man got bad advice from some bad people."

Helder transferred to UW-Stout in fall 1999 from Rochester Community and Technical College. At Stout, he majored in art with a concentration in industrial design but wasn't involved in any recognized groups, sports teams or activities on campus.

Helder last attended classes around April 24 but was seen around the campus last week.

"Apparently, he was an average student. Personable. We've heard nothing negative about him at all," university spokesman John Enger said.

According to a federal complaint, Devine told authorities that Helder had within the last year developed a strong interest in "astral projection" and out-of-body experiences. Helder, whose birthday was Sunday, had also said he was looking forward to death -- that it was the way of going on to another life.

His reaction to the events of Sept. 11 stuck out to classmate Keri Torkelson, a sophomore. Helder was in class when instructor Nancy Blum-Cummings heard about the tragedy from other professors and told students.

"Maybe this doesn't mean anything," said Torkelson, "but (Helder) just had a bigger reaction than anyone else did. I thought maybe he had an over-reactive personality."