OMAHA, Neb. - The teenager who killed eight people and committed suicide in a shooting rampage at a department store spent four years in treatment centers, group homes and foster care after threatening to kill his stepmother in 2002.

Finally, in August 2006, social workers, the courts and his father all agreed: It was time for Robert Hawkins to be released - nine months before he turned 19 and would have been required to leave anyway.

The group homes and treatment centers were for youths with substance abuse, mental or behavioral problems.

Altogether, the state spent about $265,000 on Hawkins, officials said.

Yesterday, while some of those who knew Hawkins called the massacre Wednesday at a busy Omaha mall unexpected, not everyone was surprised.

"He should have gotten help, but I think he needed someone to help him and needed someone to be there when in the past he's said he wanted to kill himself," said Karissa Fox, who said she knew Hawkins through a friend. "Someone should have listened to him."

Todd Landry, state director of children and family services, said court records do not show precisely why Hawkins was released. But he said that if Hawkins had not been released, someone would have raised a red flag.

After reviewing surveillance tape, a suicide note and Hawkins' last conversations with those close to him, police said they don't know - and may never know - exactly why Hawkins went to the Von Maur store at Westroads Mall and shot more than a dozen people.

But he clearly planned ahead, walking through the store, exiting, then returning a few minutes later with a gun concealed in a balled-up sweatshirt he was carrying, authorities said.

Debora Maruca-Kovac, who with her husband took Hawkins into their home because he had no other place to live, told the Omaha World-Herald that the night before the shooting, Hawkins and her sons showed her a semiautomatic rifle. She said she thought the gun looked too old to work.

Police believe Hawkins was using that AK-47 when he stormed off a third-floor elevator at the store and started shooting.

Police said they have found no connections between Hawkins and the six employees and two shoppers he killed.

Acquaintances said Hawkins was a drug user and that he had a history of depression. In 2005 and 2006, according to court records, he had psychiatric evaluations, the reasons for which Landry would not disclose, citing privacy rules.

In May 2002, he was sent to a treatment center in Waynesville, Mo., after threatening his stepmother. Four months later, a Nebraska court decided Hawkins' problems were serious enough that he should be under state supervision and made him a ward of the state.

He went through a series of institutions in Nebraska as he progressed through the system, including time in drug treatment.

On Aug. 21, 2006, he was released from state custody.

About an hour before the shootings, Hawkins called Maruca-Kovac and told her he had written a suicide note, Maruca-Kovac said. In the note, Hawkins wrote that he was "sorry for everything" and would not be a burden on his family anymore. More ominously, he wrote: "Now I'll be famous."

"He had said how much he loved his family and all his friends and how he was sorry he was a burden to everybody and his whole life he was a piece of (expletive) and now he'll be famous," Maruca-Kovac said on CBS' "The Early Show," describing the note. "I was fearful that he was going to try to commit suicide, but I had no idea that he would involve so many other families." *