In the aftermath of the tragic attacks in Buffalo, New York and Uvalde, Texas, a gamer in Arizona booted up Call of Duty on his phone and began typing ominous messages into the in-game chat. “The Buffalo shooting was justified,” he wrote on May 20th.
“The Texas shooting was justified in self defense,” he wrote a week later, on May 28th.
“Ramos Salvador was a good man,” he added on June 1st, referring to the 18-year-old shooter in Uvalde.
Then, the messages escalated: “Tune in June 10th for a Casa Grande school shooting… I’m going to kill at least 20,” he wrote.
According to court documents reviewed by ABC15 Arizona, he also threatened to shoot up the neighborhood movie theater, attack a police station, kill his ex-girlfriend and target random women and children. Elsewhere, he made racist and misogynistic remarks, praising the Buffalo shooter for his anti-Black mission. He even asked others in Call of Duty whether he should consider killing his mother — something seemingly inspired by prior mass shootings that started with a family member.
All of these messages, disseminated via two usernames, were uncovered earlier this week when the FBI received a tip from an anonymous gamer who had spotted these messages while playing Call of Duty. The investigation began on June 1st, with the FBI reaching out to game developer Activision to identify the user and obtain his chat logs. The federal agents then contacted Casa Grande Police in Arizona, who surveilled 19-year-old Joshua Adam Bowen and arrested him on June 5th.
Bowen was taken into custody and is currently being held at the Pinal County Adult Detention Center on a $150,000 bond. The Pinal County Attorney’s Office is currently reviewing charges for making terrorist threats, according to a statement from Casa Grande PD. Bowen reportedly claimed innocence when he was detailed, according to court documents.
The suspect’s experience coalesces a familiar mix of red flags and violent male tropes that we’ve seen in countless other shootings. His mother said she was shocked and in disbelief that her son would make threats. “He’s not a violent person, he’s very quiet and calm. He’s very sensitive,” she told ABC15 Arizona.
It’s unclear whether Bowen has a history of behavioral problems or violent ideation, too. Court documents note that he has a “developmental disorder”; his mother told local media that her son is autistic. According to Arizona records, Bowen was involved in a violent event in April 2021, getting charged with assault with intent to injure, criminal destruction of property and disorderly conduct. The court ultimately dismissed the case in June that year. (Experts note that while autism may influence a person to consider violent acts, there is no link that suggests it causes the violence, especially mass violence; studies have repeatedly shown those with autism are far more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators.)
It also isn’t clear how much physical planning and preparation the suspect had done; unlike the other shooters, law enforcement didn’t find any weapons on Bowen, although Casa Grande Police noted in a June 6th statement that “detectives were able to identify information that leads them to believe he may have access to firearms.”
While details will continue to trickle out, it’s impossible to ignore the context of why a young man like Bowen would so openly discuss his violent plans — and in the chat of a mobile game, of all venues. This isn’t the same kind of care taken by the Buffalo shooter, who limited his planning to a private Discord server and was cautious about being surveilled or stopped. Nor is it like the Uvalde shooter, who dropped breadcrumbs about his plans but stuck to private channels of communication.
Communicating an intent to do harm is common before mass killings — about half of all mass shooters do so. Understanding the true purpose of such communication, however, is complicated. One 2021 study led by criminal justice and violence experts dug into 170 mass shooters since 1966, finding that threats of a shooting were most commonly associated with previous counseling and suicidal ideation. “In other words, they were a cry for help as opposed to seeking fame or attention,” the authors wrote in an Los Angeles Times op-ed. “The alarming rise in school shooting threats is a bellwether for the current state of the mental health of young people.”
What is obvious is that there is a growing swath of lonely young men who, amid a society that is faltering under the stresses of extreme rhetoric, economic inequality and individual isolation, are looking for a way to make a difference and become something in the culture. As Andrew Smiler, a therapist and expert on male development, told MEL after the Dayton, Ohio shooting in 2019, American society has failed to address a crisis of masculinity, including the fact that young men cannot find a “path to fulfillment” in modern life. “Many of these mass killers are kids who seem to be on the quote-unquote margins of society,” Smiler said. “But the margins have gotten smaller and smaller.”
It’s clear that we will continue to find young men who, regardless of their actual intent and ability, publicly proclaim that they’re willing to disrupt everyone’s life by using fatal violence as a lever. Sometimes, the assemblage of anonymous tipsters and FBI investigators and local police will find and stop a young man before it’s too late. But other times, the policing will fail and fall apart — and we still don’t have holistic solutions to address it.