'A bit of a class clown': Alleged Christchurch gunman's actions stun hometown

Those who watched Brenton Tarrant growing up in the sleepy Australian country town of Grafton say they had no inkling of his potential to allegedly unleash evil in merciless attacks at two New Zealand mosques that claimed at least 49 lives.

Brenton Tarrant grew up in sleepy Australian town of Grafton, travelled to Balkans, Turkey

Brenton Tarrant, charged for murder in relation to the mosque attacks, is seen in the dock during his appearance in the Christchurch District Court in New Zealand on Saturday. The picture is blurred on a judge's order. (Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald)

Those who watched Brenton Tarrant growing up in the sleepy Australian country town of Grafton say they had no inkling of his potential to allegedly unleash evil in merciless attacks at two New Zealand mosques that claimed at least 49 lives.

The chief suspect in New Zealand's worst mass shooting in modern history grew up in a modest house in suburban Grafton, a close-knit town of 20,000 on the Clarence River in northern New South Wales state.

Jennifer Huxley, an Australian Broadcasting Corp. reporter, went through Grafton High School six years ahead of Tarrant.

"I've caught up with some of his classmates and they remember him as a bit of a class clown," Huxley said Saturday. "But staff remember him as a bit of a disruptive student who was prone at times to being quite cruel to his classmates."

"But the teachers are struggling to come to terms with the fact that the pupil that they were involved with in Grafton has now been involved in what has happened in Christchurch," Huxley said.

Diligent fitness trainer

After high school, Tarrant became a personal trainer at the Big River Squash and Fitness Centre, where he had earlier trained and become obsessive about building up his strength.

"I am a goddam monster of willpower. I just need a goal or object to work toward," Tarrant posted on social media in 2011, a year after his father died.

Tarrant, an Australian-born resident of New Zealand, grew up in the Australian town of Grafton, which is pictured Saturday. (Regi Varghese/Getty Images)

Tracey Gray struggles to accept that the diligent fitness trainer she employed is the man accused of a horrific hate crime in Christchurch.

"I can't ... believe that somebody I've probably had daily dealings with and had shared conversations and interacted with would be capable of something this extreme," Gray told Nine Network television.

Ran free programs for children

While working at a fitness centre, Tarrant ran free athletic programs for children, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

A woman who works at a Grafton news agency, who gave her name only as Brigid, told ABC that local residents were shocked by the events in Christchurch.

"It is very upsetting, actually," Brigid said. "I think pretty much everyone is in the same boat of being very upset about it. It's not something you would expect from someone from such a small community because everyone is well-known."

Gray said Tarrant had left Grafton by early 2012. He travelled the world, including what New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described as sporadic visits there. Police say he spent little time in Australia during the past four years.

Tarrant wrote that he developed his racist views while travelling in Europe in 2017.

Travelled to Bulgaria, Turkey, Croatia

Authorities in Bulgaria, Turkey and Croatia have confirmed that Tarrant had been to their countries in 2016-2018. Hungarian counterterrorism authorities also suggested that Tarrant had visited, but revealed no other information, and local media in Bosnia reported a 2017 trip there.

While the details of Tarrant's travels are sketchy, authorities in those countries said they are investigating his movements and any contacts he might have had with local people.

This image taken from CCTV video obtained by the state-run Turkish broadcaster TRT World and made available on Saturday shows the arrival of a man who it says is Brenton Tarrant in Istanbul's Ataturk International airport in Turkey in March 2016. (TRT World via AP)

During his livestream, Tarrant exposed his apparent fascination with the religious conflicts in Europe and the Balkans — a volatile region that has been the site of some of Europe's most violent clashes.

Tarrant's soundtrack as he drove to the Christchurch mosque included a nationalist Serb song from the 1992-95 Bosnian war that tore apart Yugoslavia, and an image of rifles posted online contained the names of legendary Serbs and Montenegrins who fought against rule by the Muslim Ottomans in the Balkans, written in the Cyrillic alphabet used by the two Orthodox Christian nations.

Revives memories of Bosnian war

Bulgaria's chief prosecutor, Sotir Tsatsarov, said Friday that Tarrant last year rented a car and toured more than a dozen cities, visiting historic sites from Nov. 9 to Nov. 15. He was mainly interested in the battles between Christians and the Ottoman army, the prosecutor said.

The Interior Ministry said Bulgaria is co-ordinating with counterterrorism teams from various countries, including the United States, over Tarrant. An investigation has been launched into whether he had contacts with local citizens, authorities said.

Turkey is also investigating Tarrant's movements during his two reported visits to the country that straddles Europe and Asia and who had three citizens injured in Friday's slaughter.

In Bosnia, many residents said the massacre in New Zealand and Tarrant's mention of Karadzic, who has been convicted of genocide, have brought back their own horrific memories of the Bosnian war, which killed more than 100,000 people.