He had not been a problem child or a troubled youth, friends and family members say. He showed no signs of hostility seething inside, they say.
But in the month prior to last Saturday, when authorities say he gunned down four members of his family, Nathaniel Dickson had been rejected by the U.S. Marines, spurned by a girlfriend he adored and accused of stealing money from his roommate, according to the Marines and a close friend.
He had given up on his year-long attempt to make it on his own as a hamburger flipper and moved back to a home run by a strict disciplinarian father and shared with a brother who succeeded where he had failed in baseball, a sport his father coached, friends and relatives said.
Still, authorities say they have no idea why the 19-year-old would walk through his house with a shotgun, mowing down his brother, stepmother and stepsister, and blasting his father as he ran across the lawn trying to get away.
"That’s something, to be honest about it, we may never know," said Deputy Anderson County Coroner Don McCown. "I think the investigators with the Sheriff’s Office, the Solicitor’s Office, even the families themselves are trying to figure out what triggered this event.
"And I’m not sure if we’ll ever truly know the right answer."
In early April, Dickson had tried to join the Marine Corps but was turned down after he flunked a vocational aptitude test, according to 1st Lt. Staci Reidinger of the 6th Marine Corps District in Parris Island.
That alone would have disqualified him for service, but there were other reasons as well, Reidinger said -- reasons that she said couldn’t be disclosed.
Investigators have collected a huge amount of evidence from the home, although they have released few details about what led them to believe that Dickson, who is called Nathan, was the killer.
His world began to fall apart a few weeks ago when his girlfriend broke up with him and his roommate accused him of stealing money from him and told him to leave, according to Dickson’s close friend Brantley Creel.
Dickson had set up a MySpace page that was mostly devoted to his girlfriend.
"When the world stops spennin, that’ll be the day I stop lovin her!" he wrote next to his avatar.
In his "about me" blurb, he wrote in October, "well im 18 and i have the most wonderfulest girl friend .. and she means the world to me and thats about all ya need to know!"
His photos page has one picture of him and three of her, with captions such as "Mine ALL Mine" under hers.
Creel, who said he was with Dickson during most of their free time for the week prior to the shootings, says he doesn’t know why they broke up, and that Dickson didn’t appear overly upset about it.
"He just acted like, ‘whatever, I'll get another one later,’" Creel said.
As his hero, Dickson lists "DAD."¶
Dickson had thoughts of becoming an electrician, like his father, and had studied that subject with Creel in high school. But rather than going on to get training at a technical college after graduating from Wren High a year ago, he went to work at a McDonald’s in Anderson, according to Creel.
His dad, Andy Dickson, had a rule, according to neighbor Jeff Davis, that his son couldn’t live there after graduating high school unless he went to college. He moved in with a friend, whose accusations that Nathan had stolen money from him, led to his needing to move back to the family’s home on Pine Lake Drive outside of Easley about three weeks ago, Creel said.
One of Dickson’s favorite pastimes was playing shoot-em-up video games, particularly one called Army of Two, Creel said.
Returning home, he agreed to sign up for classes at Tri-County Technical College and pursue a career as an electrician, Creel said.
At Dickson's brother Taylor’s burial Friday afternoon, about 40 of his teammates, wearing their jerseys, gathered around his casket and read a poem that had been written for him, celebrating his prowess on the mound.
Earlier in the week, Wren High baseball coach Randy Thompson described Taylor as a talented pitcher on the Wren High C team with a bright future. Nathan had tried out for Wren High’s baseball team "a couple of times," the last time when he was in 10th grade, Thompson said.
"He never made our program," Thompson said. "But he was always real polite and never gave us any trouble."
Returning home after a year on his own put Dickson back in a structured environment headed by a father whose brother, John Dickson, described as a strict disciplinarian.
"He wouldn’t put up with bad behavior or anything like that," John Dickson said. "He had house rules. You’re supposed to have rules for kids to follow. It wasn’t just for kids. He had them for grown-ups and everyone around him, too."
Dickson and Taylor respected their father, John Dickson said.
"Andy told them to do something, they’d get up and do it," he said. "There wasn’t any having to chase after them and all this stuff. They knew their responsibilities and expectations."
John Dickson said that while the boys sometimes showed signs of rebellion, he never saw any thing outside normal adolescent behavior.
The apparent lack of visible warning signs is not uncommon in murder cases, said Dr. Al C. Edwards, director of the Greenville Mental Health Center. But just because they’re not obvious doesn’t mean they’re not there, he said.
"Usually in retrospect, after you take a hard look at that, that’s not usually the case," he said. "There’s some preceding events or warnings or threats made."
A convergence of events that could lead to depression, such as being turned down by the Marines and losing a girlfriend, could manifest itself as "pure anger," Edwards said.
It’s not unusual for a murderer to engage in routine activities immediately after killing, Edwards said, as a method of denial or coping with the stress.
Dickson went to a convenience store near his home and bought snuff and water, according to a clerk at the store, and Creel said Nathan spent the day with him riding ATV’s immediately after the time that authorities said he killed the four family members.
The lack of any prior behavior, such as cruelty to animals, running away from home or setting fires, would seem to rule out a sociopathic personality disorder, Edwards said.
"You don’t get to be 19 or 20 years old and suddenly turn into a sociopath."
But psychosis can begin suddenly at that age, he said, recalling a case he had years ago in which a psychotic young person killed both parents and two neighbors.
Anderson attorney Kurt Tavernier and Anderson County Assistant Public Defender Andrew Potter said they have been appointed to represent Nathan Dickson.
"He’s holding up well," Tavernier said. "He understands what has occurred and obviously is very, very emotional."