Portrait of a Mass Murderer

Nurses are on the frontlines for treating at-risk populations. Here, a social worker identifies the warning signs of a troubled personality.

By Tammy Ruggles, BSW, MA
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On April 16, 2007, Cho Seung-Hui opened fire on the Virginia Tech campus, and 33 people were killed, including himself.

On August 1, 1966, Charles Whitman opened fire from a tower on the University of Texas campus, and 14 people were killed, including himself. The police shot him on the tower.

In July, 1966, Richard Speck killed 8 student nurses in a single night in their townhouse in Chicago.

On May 18, 1927, Andrew Kehoe detonated dynamite at an elementary school in Bath Township, Michigan, killing 45 people, mostly children, including himself.

The above list is just a small sampling of mass murders that have taken place in the United States. Others mass murderers include Timothy McVeigh, Julio Gonzalez, Jack Gilbert Graham, David Burke, and Martin Bryant. At some point in time in the future, someone, somewhere, will commit mass murder again. It could be on another college campus, or it could be in the emergency room of a hospital. But if we know the type of person to look for, if we recognize some of the red flags, perhaps more lives could be saved the next time, the victim count smaller, the grieving and suffering less, or, in the best scenario possible, the deaths prevented altogether.
According to the USA Bureau of Justice Statistics, mass murder is defined as “the murder of four or more victims at one location, within one event.”

Who are the mass murderers? Why do they kill? Do they have common characteristics? What do we look for in a person when trying to identify or predict this type of person or behavior? There is no perfect set of rules or profile to follow. Each person brings his own unique personality, history, mental and physical health, and thought patterns to a crime, but there are some similarities that can serve as a guide toward profiling a mass murderer and if you know what to look for, perhaps you will see the signs in a troubled patient, hospital staff member on the edge, or unstable visitor who drops by the hospital, clinic, or waiting room.

What A Mass Murderer Is Not
A mass murder is quite different from a serial killer or a spree killer. A serial killer tends to prey on the same type of victim, kills on different occasions, leaves time or a “cooling off” period in between the killings (like Jeffrey Dahmer), is methodical, and may be driven by special fantasies that he tries to fulfill by committing the killings. In 2001, Kristen Gilbert was found guilty of killing her patients. 350 of them died while under her care, but again, she would be classified as a serial killer, not a mass murderer, as the murders took place over a span of time.

A spree killer murders two or more people in more than a single location, and there is little or no time between his murders. This is marked as a single event, as was the case with Robert Polin in 1975 when he killed one Ottawa high school student and wounded five more after he had raped and then stabbed to death his 17-year-old friend earlier.

Who Are the Victims?
Some mass murderers choose family members as victims, while others choose coworkers, while still others choose classmates, or complete strangers. Some victims include the murderer’s immediate family, as was the case with both Charles Whitman and Andrew Kehoe. Both men killed their families earlier in the day before executing their mass slayings of the others. The explosively jealous husband or boyfriend of a nurse could walk into a hospital with intentions of killing her, but can turn into mass murderer if he decides to take out anyone who gets in his way or who has the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Their Motives and Psyche
Mass murderers kill for a variety of reasons, including financial difficulties, work-related problems, revenge, religious visions, mental illness, or perceived persecution by society or the world in general. Some feel driven to suicide, and kill themselves along with their victims. They often outline their motives in journals, diaries, videos, or manifestos left behind. Some feel such extreme pain, loss, and rejection in their lives that they feel the need to express it in a public way. Because their lives have lacked the positive attention they craved privately, they choose to seek it by executing openly. Rejection by a love interest could be the fuse that ignites a powder keg of suicidal and homicidal fury.

Mass murderers are usually predatory, calculating, and may or may not be driven by fantasies. They usually know they will not “get away” with their crime, and will try to make public, via the internet, recordings, notes, etc., their motives while exacting revenge, fully accepting that they will die during the commission of their act. Some have been bullied in the past; some have extreme pain that has not been acknowledged or effectively addressed by the murderer, his family, acquaintances, or mental health system. A weapon in the hands of a psychologically damaged person gives them a sudden power and control they have never had, and gives them a horrific new way to express, if not end, their problems.

Red Flags:
The following are characteristics which are commonly exhibited by the mass murderer:
— Has trouble relating to authority.
— Has trouble managing anger.
— Talks or writes obsessively about being an outsider, misunderstood, or victimized, in journals, video diaries, blogs.
— Has access to weapons.
— Has weapons.
— Has had training in how to use weapons.
— Makes overt threats against authority figures or acquaintances.
— History of mental illness or acting out.
— Appears to be withdrawn, lonely, alienated, or isolated most of the time.
— Relays accounts of being bullied.
— Makes notes concerning his feelings of powerlessness, “the world is against me,” his rage and hatred toward others, including family, acquaintances, groups, society, and the world in general.
— Difficulty in personal relationships.
— Delusions.
— Speaks about the need to punish others for his misfortunes.
— Tendencies toward aggression, violence, rage.
— Blames others for his own problems.
— Doesn't take responsibility for his actions or circumstances.
— Holds irrational grudges against others for perceived wrongdoings.
— Identifies with hate groups or violent groups.
— Feels inferior to others.
— Has violent fantasies.
— Inability to handle stress, rejection, perceived disrespect.

While profiles of mass murderers in the past have included characteristics like “Caucasian,” “middle-aged,” “loner,” “conservative,” “middle to lower class,” the new blueprint of a mass murderer isn't always so precisely drawn, so room should be left for those characteristics that seem “out of the norm” for the profile. Having one or two of the characteristics listed above doesn't automatically make someone a potential mass murderer, but a combination of factors should raise concern and should be brought to the attention of someone in authority who can help this person or who can direct him toward the attention and services that he needs.

If you think someone that you know fits the profile of someone who could perpetrate extreme violence, whether it be fellow nurse, doctor, patient, a patient's family member, or someone off the street who walks into your place of work, notify someone in authority, like the police, a mental health agency, director of nursing, chief of staff, or clergy. Bringing it to someone’s attention could be the first step in preventing a tragedy. If a patient exhibits some of these warning signs, talk to the family and alert your superiors.

Tammy Ruggles, BSW, MA, has over 10 years experience as a social worker in the fields of mental health, hospice care, and child/adult protection. www.geocities.com/teeruggles/tammyruggles.htm.

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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