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It appeared that all involved had done what they were supposed to do. Elliot Rodger, a lonely 22-year-old who had dropped out of Santa Barbara City College, was in touch with a therapist. His parents, concerned about some recent behavior, went so far as to have the police check on him. And like most states, California has laws designed to make it easier to require treatment for mentally ill adults. Yet on May 23, Rodger killed six people and wounded 13 more. If this rampage couldn’t be stopped, can any?

The best chance to prevent the horrific attack came three weeks earlier, when local sheriff’s deputies visited Rodger at his home in Isla Vista. Disturbed by videos he had posted on YouTube, his mother reportedly called a therapist, who called a mental-health hotline, which contacted the authorities. The deputies determined that Rodger was shy but polite and did not appear to pose a risk to himself or others. Absent that, they had no legal right to take him into custody. They urged him to call his mother and left.

Rodger, meanwhile, had already purchased several guns–all legally–along with hundreds of rounds of ammunition. He had been plotting for years to exact revenge on “humanity,” particularly women, for rejecting him socially, according to a YouTube video and a parting manifesto he sent out via email just before the rampage. Of the encounter with the deputies, he wrote, “For a few horrible seconds I thought it was all over. When they left, the biggest wave of relief swept over me.”

It’s not uncommon for people capable of such violence to hide it well, and a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office said it didn’t know about Rodger’s videos until it was too late. “It would have been impossible for them to make an informed assessment without those,” says Kenton Rainey, chief of police for Bay Area Rapid Transit and an expert in how law enforcement deals with the mentally ill.

And Rodger’s parents had clearly taken precautions, calling the police and racing to Santa Barbara after seeing his manifesto. By the time they arrived, the killing spree was over and Rodger had also taken his own life.

“If a family is worried about their loved one and they call who they think they’re supposed to call,” says Jessica Cruz, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in California, “what else can you do?”

This appears in the June 09, 2014 issue of TIME.

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