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Monday, April 3, 2006 - Page updated at 12:45 PM

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Kyle Huff's journey

Seattle Times staff reporters

WHITEFISH, Mont. — To try to make sense of the man responsible for the slayings at the blue house on Capitol Hill last weekend, you have to look at the differences between the friendly, if shy, Kyle Huff of rural Montana and the enigma he became in Seattle.

With every failed relationship and every lost job in Seattle, the 28-year-old Huff became more frustrated, detectives believe. He had no girlfriend that police can find, and no close relationships here except for his identical twin, Kane.

"He was just floundering in his own life," said Seattle police Detective Capt. Tag Gleason.

The investigation so far has shown that Kyle Huff's days were mostly spent in front of the television, often smoking pot, at the Northgate-area apartment he shared with Kane. At night, he delivered pizzas — when he had a job — or wandered alone or with his brother through bars and clubs.

In February, he apparently posted a comment on a Web site seeking information about raves. Presumably, Gleason said, Kyle Huff had gravitated to the one place that prides itself in accepting every outsider: the Seattle rave scene.

But police think his demons wouldn't let him fit in, even there. People who attended the rave that preceded the shootings recall that Kyle Huff was aloof, a wallflower standing to the side of the room while the music played and the people danced.

Early on the morning of March 25, Huff was invited to an after-party at a home at 2112 E. Republican St. on Capitol Hill. He left the party shortly after 7 a.m. and then returned minutes later armed with a shotgun and handgun and opened fire, killing six people. Huff committed suicide when confronted by police.

Eight days after the tragedy, the investigation to determine a motive has only just begun in the city's worst mass killing in 23 years. There are still many unanswered questions about Huff's life, which bridged the two very different worlds of Seattle and Whitefish, Mont.

At least in Seattle, police say, Huff struggled to find acceptance.

"For whatever reasons, he was unable to bond," Gleason said.

"Completely harmless"

In Montana, the 6-foot-5 Kyle Huff's size, long hair and penchant for black clothing came with a quick mind and wit.

"The Kyle I have known was a gentle soul and always full of laughter," said Mike Groff of Whitefish, who wrote in an e-mail to The Seattle Times that he had known Kyle and Kane Huff for a decade. "Always willing to help and the first to find humor in any situation, he was one of the few people that could always make me laugh."

Kyle Huff had a group of loyal friends with whom he had grown up. They partied together in an apartment that he and his brother shared above the art shop owned by his mother.

Friends say Kyle Huff was quieter and less "sassy" than his twin. Kane had a girlfriend after high school, but Kyle did not. Still, he seemed content, and at the pot- and beer-fueled parties, he was not reclusive, his friends say.

"To me, he was completely harmless," said Aimee Legris, a waitress and snowboarder in Whitefish who, as a teenager, partied many times with the Huff brothers.

Like all of Kyle Huff's friends in Whitefish, Legris finds she cannot fathom his rampage in Seattle.

"The most important thing I want to stress is that he had to be influenced by somebody — or something else — or have had something huge happen in his life," Legris said. "It was not like he was that way here, and [that] it was only a matter of time" before he did something terrible.

Montana childhood

The people who likely hold some of the greatest insights to Kyle Huff are his family, now grieving in the aftermath of the tragedy. His mother, Mary Kay Huff, lives in a riverside house south of Whitefish, and — except for a brief comment expressing her distress to the Whitefish Free Press — has declined to comment publicly.

As of Saturday, three no-trespassing signs were posted in her front yard, and curtains were drawn. Efforts to contact Kyle Huff's brother and his father, Willis S. Hough, have been unsuccessful.

Willis and Mary Kay Hough were married in Reno, Nev., in 1972. Property records indicate that the couple lived for a time in California. Mary Kay Hough was 10 years younger than her husband.

The twins were born Sept. 22, 1977.

They grew up in a wood-frame home outside Whitefish on a road known as Sasquatch Hollow. The home was vintage Montana — set back off an unmarked dirt road on a hillside near a lake amid spindly lodgepole pines. One boyhood friend, Dustin Hoon, recalls lots of good times playing in the woods, and said he and Kyle Huff read a lot of adventure novels and "The Hobbit."

As young boys, Kyle and Kane played Little League baseball, according to their former coach, Peter Forthofer.

In junior-high school, the Huff brothers took an interest in music. Hoon said they "jammed" to Metallica songs. Kyle played the drums.

In high school, their interest in music deepened but their interest in sports waned. Their imposing size made them prime candidates for the Whitefish High football team, but they wouldn't play. They grew their hair long, and Kyle developed interests in film and drama before graduating in 1996, according to Hoon.

In high school, Hoon said, Kyle was friendly with everyone and made a special effort to support people who were alienated by the more popular kids.

"He was strong mentally and he was gentle with his strengths and would befriend those who weren't accepted by larger cliques," Hoon said. "He was not superficial."

The Huffs were definitely not joiners. One yearbook photo shows the twins in blue-jean jackets and T-shirts. They were dubbed "least school spirited."

Divorce, name change

In January 1992, according to Flathead County court records, Mary Kay and Willis Hough divorced.

Willis Hough was a Vietnam veteran who suffered from "emotional difficulties" from the war, said Danny Ciaramitaro, 29, a longtime and close friend of the twins. At the time of the divorce, Hough was working as a seasonal maintenance mechanic at nearby Glacier National Park.

Divorce records show a straightforward separation, where the couple agreed to joint custody of the twins, each parent keeping them for six months of the year.

They each agreed "to use our best efforts to ensure that our children receive the most care, love and affection possible from both parents through their entire childhood," according to court records.

After the divorce, Mary Hough changed the spelling of her last name, and her sons', to Huff.

Court records show she bought out her husband's share in their business — the Artistic Touch gallery in downtown Whitefish — for $6,000, and agreed to pay him $31,000 for his interest in the family home.

The mother appears to have prospered. She now owns three properties: the old family house on Sasquatch Hollow that is now occupied by a friend, the Artistic Touch and its spacious upstairs apartment, and the riverside home that sits on 1.68 acres near the town of Bigfork. Collectively, this property has an assessed value of more than $800,000, according to Montana records.

Not a fighter

By their late teens, the boys had moved into town, with their parents living in homes near one another so the twins could easily move back and forth.

At least through the high-school years, Willis Hough appeared to be very much a part of the twins' lives, according to Ciaramitaro. Whatever problems the father had, they didn't seem to affect his relationship with the boys.

"The war didn't put him in a good place," Ciaramitaro said. But "it was not something he passed along. It was a private thing."

To the twins, Hough was more "a friend than a disciplinarian figure," Ciaramitaro said.

On March 27, 1997, Willis Hough was charged with two felony counts for growing and intent to sell marijuana. His arrest occurred after Whitefish authorities were contacted by his second wife following a disturbance at Hough's home.

Hough pleaded guilty to one felony count and was placed on probation. By 1998, he had moved to Portland.

After the twins graduated from high school in 1996, some of their friends went on to bigger things. Hoon, for example, is now getting a master's degree in education at the University of Montana.

But for some other Whitefish High graduates, it was easy to slip into a slacker mode in a town full of friends.

Kyle briefly attended a local community college, where he studied art and philosophy, but then took jobs around town, such as a stint with a pizza parlor. Sometimes the twins would sit in a local bar's booth with friends, drinking beer and talking for hours. Kyle was not the sort to frequent the dance floor, Ciaramitaro said.

On a rare occasion, someone would try to pick a fight with one of the big brothers. If that happened, it was Kane — not Kyle — who was more likely to throw down.

"When Kyle got into a fight, it was almost always to end the fight," Ciaramitaro said. "He never took a swing."

Kyle would talk the aggressor down. Sometimes, he'd wrap a bear-hug around some guy who wanted to step outside. As often as not, they'd end up becoming friends, Ciaramitaro said.

A changing landscape

Whitefish is a sometimes-unsettling mix of the old and new Montana.

First, the old. This is gun country. For many, hunting is a major bonding ritual, and gun collecting a lifelong pursuit — rifles, shotguns, pistols, semiautomatics. It's routine to carry a gun or guns in a pickup, and some may carry hundreds of rounds of ammunition for target practice.

Besides the shotgun and handgun Huff used in the Capitol Hill slayings, police also found a .223-caliber assault-style rifle in his pickup, which was parked nearby, along with hundreds of rounds of ammunition, according to police.

Seattle police have made much of the number and type of weapons Huff was carrying, saying it showed he intended to go on a killing spree. But Whitefish cops wouldn't be surprised to find such an arsenal.

"The fact that he had all those weapons in the truck does not necessarily lead me to believe it was premeditated," said Whitefish police Detective Lt. Roger Bergstrom.

Guns also frequently appear at parties in Montana. Young people head out to the lakes to drink beer and unwind, and they bring guns for late-night target practice.

Mixing booze and firepower is not a good thing, Bergstrom said, but it happens all the time.

In this area of Western Montana, there still are some jobs in resource industries such as timber, but many of those jobs are gone. And many of the hotel, ski-resort and restaurant jobs don't pay enough to raise a family in an area where the natural beauty of the mountains, lakes and rivers has attracted new money from across the nation.

Whitefish, population 5,032 in the 2000 census, contains the fastest-growing real-property wealth in Montana, with its tax base rising 63 percent from 2000 to 2004 — 12 times the pace of the much larger Helena, the state's capital, Montana state Rep. Mike Jopek wrote in the Whitefish Free Press. During that period, property values soared.

The art scene has thrived in this new environment. Head downtown and you still find a hardware store, but it's surrounded by art shops such as The Purple Pomegranate and the Artistic Touch, the shop owned by Mary Kay Huff.

These changes have caused consternation among some local youth who grew up here. They say it is much harder to rent a place, much less buy a home, in the town where they were raised.

The moose incident

The Huff twins had the good fortune to be able to move into a spacious apartment above their mother's studio. It was a favorite hangout and there were lots of parties with beer and marijuana, friend Aimee Legris recalled.

At these gatherings, it was mostly small talk among friends. But the changes in the town were deeply felt, and several friends brought this up when they tried to put context to the incident in which Kyle Huff used a shotgun and handgun to blast a sculpture of a moose in July 2000.

The action stunned and disturbed the creator of the moose — John Rawlings, a local teacher and artist. His "Daphney" was one of 15 "Moose on the Loose" sculptures that were set up around town and raised more than $150,000 for three nonprofit groups involving arts, animal welfare and a horseback-therapy program.

Rawlings said the artists and the town were riding a "wave of euphoria" as the statutes went up in the summer of 2000.

But several of Kyle Huff's friends had a different take.

"As an artist and a resident of Whitefish I can say that those horrid things were begging to be vandalized," wrote Groff, the twins' friend, in an e-mail to The Seattle Times.

"No it wasn't right to do so, but come on — the only people that didn't want to blow those up were people that spend way too much time and money in 'Montana art gallerys,' " he wrote.

Whitefish police think that Kyle Huff had an accomplice in the sculpture shooting. But he never admitted that, pleading no contest to misdemeanor criminal-mischief charges. He paid restitution and a fine, and was ordered to perform community service.

Two years later, the twins still were living in Whitefish when tragedy rocked the community.

Jared Hope, a high-school friend of the twins, killed his parents and shot himself on a weekend visit home from Missoula.

According to Ciaramitaro, the Huff brothers had been out drinking with Hope the night that the murders and suicide occurred. Hope had long struggled with mental illness that was well known among friends. And the twins told Ciaramitaro that they were uneasy with Hope's behavior that night.

"They said that they had seen him on that last night, and went back to their house, and were talking about he [Hope] was getting a little too weird to be around."

After that tragedy, friends reflected on Hope's troubled life and wished they could have done more to help.

But Ciaramitaro said that as he reflects on Kyle Huff's life, he sees none of the same warning signs.

The move to Seattle

Ever since high school, Kyle and Kane Huff had talked about Seattle and the city's music scene.

Their move occurred sometime after May 2002, when Kyle Huff still listed his address as the Whitefish apartment in a citation he received for having expired license plates.

Kane Huff attended North Seattle Community College and apparently received an associate's degree. There is no indication that Kyle Huff attended school anywhere in the Puget Sound area. But he did spend a lot of time delivering pizzas.

Orion Steinbrueck, 22, worked with Kyle Huff for a few days at a Domino's pizza in North Seattle. Huff, he said, showed up for two days, missed two more, and then was fired.

"He was mild-tempered and soft-spoken," Steinbrueck said. "But he was stubborn. He wanted to do things his way."

Shortly afterward, Steinbrueck saw Kyle Huff driving for Pizza Hut. He also worked briefly for Pagliacci.

The manager of the Northgate-area Town & Country Apartments where the brothers lived described them as excellent tenants who seemed extremely close. They often practiced their drums, but were "very respectful" of the other tenants, assistant manager Jim Pickett said.

But again and again, Kyle Huff left Seattle to reunite with old friends.

Last April, Kyle and Kane Huff joined Ciaramitaro in Las Vegas to attend the wedding of an old friend. Then in October, he was back in Whitefish, working a construction job.

When there, friends say, Kyle Huff just didn't talk much at all about Seattle. Nothing bad, nothing good, Ciaramitaro said: "Every time I saw him, it was the same old thing. " 'Good to see you, how have you been?' Nothing that would leave you to believe there were any problems there [in Seattle]. We would just pick up where we left off, and it was as if he never left."

Ciaramitaro said Kyle Huff appeared to be having a bit of success with women — a few brief flings, but nobody steady. Yet he didn't seem to have much of a support network.

"I just assumed that he didn't have much of a friend base. I just thought that him and Kane were sticking together," Ciaramitaro said.

In Las Vegas, and then again at Halloween, Ciaramitaro got the impression that Kyle Huff was making plans to return to Whitefish.

"I think that he wanted to come back," Ciaramitaro said.

On Halloween, Kyle Huff appeared to be in a festive mood, showing up early in the evening at Groff's house in Whitefish with a clown mask, eager to head downtown for drinks. At the bars that night, there were lots of familiar faces amid the crowds.

At least on that night, it was like old times.

Hal Bernton reported from Whitefish, Mont.

Seattle Times staff reporter Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this report.

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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