WESTBOROUGH, MA May 20, 2018 In response to recent acts of both terrorism and recurrent gun violence by home-grown psychopaths more should be done to maintain greater control over potentially violent persons. In the Las
Vegas concert venue and the more recent Texas church massacre it becomes
increasingly clear that predicting violence is practically impossible. At least this is
what we are led to believe. And yet when it comes to domestic violence
homicide the similarities in cases are almost carbon copy.
In the end, there is always at least a single person who knows what is about to happen and often does nothing to stop it. Whether this duplicity stems from cultural beliefs that what happens behind closed doors is nobody’s busy change in the way in which law enforcement manages these cases is essential. The buy in from police, legislators, judges, probation, and society needs to be fully endorsed for real change to happen and for safety plans to work. Many states across America are planning to enact “red flag” rules that will remove weapons from individuals with a known history of domestic violence e.g. choking spouse during fight. These behaviors toward a victim instill fear and point to the perilous danger that exists.
“Someone with a history, particularly a continuing history of violence, can be presumed to be dangerous.” Frederick Neuman, MD
Coercion and Control
Lenore Walker is a psychologist at the Domestic Violence Institute has published a theoretical description of the coercion and control model of DV. Victims are young and vulnerable to being emotionally and physically controlled. The Texas killer Devin Patrick Kelley had all the makings of a violent abuser from the time he was in high school and only now are people willing to talk about his darker side. Kelley was separated from his second wife who was just 19. Victims like this are often kept away from their families, not allowed to work, or when working are not permitted to handle their own funds. Some victims have to explain every cell phone call or text message they make or receive often being met with jealous fury. By robbing their sense of self keeps intimate partners emotionally isolated and insecure. They are often led to believe they could not live on their own and the children they share will be lost to them if they choose to leave. This “so called” male privilege keeps his partner marginalized and in servitude. It appears at first glance that Kelley was looking for the mother of his currently estranged wife likely enraged over steps taken to keep them apart as the divorce progressed through the courts.
Occasionally police or children’s services are called when intimidation and threats become violent. It is important to provide aftermath intervention and follow-up with families where domestic violence or chronic substance abuse occurs or families tend to disappear. Change is required to pay closer attention to those with whom law enforcement has frequent contact. Over and over
surviving family members speak of coercion and control on behalf of the abused. Lives will be saved when society takes a closer look at red flag violence – these are the preincident indicators that violence and domestic violence homicide are possible. This is not new data nor are the stories very different.
I speak to police agencies and individual officers about DV and DVH offering detail from the psychological autopsy research we conducted on a sensational and tragic case in Dexter, Maine in which Stephen Lake killed his 35-year old spouse after 10 years of marriage along with their 2 children. The Lake case was very much like the Kelley murders in terms of the cycle of abuse and its early onset. It was thought that Lake was intending to go on a killing spree but was interrupted in the act by an observant police officer. Recently a police officer participating in the statewide DV task force in Vermont asked whether there is a single most important factor or predictor to the risk of DVH? Some believe the fear of being killed by her spouse and abject cruelty toward step children raise the bar significantly and as such are worthy of crafting one’s DV report and request for orders of protection around. But keeping the victim and her abuser on the radar screen will also reduce her fear and loneliness and offer greater protection. Other risk factors include: choking and recurrent
sexual violence – although victims seldom disclose this out of guilt and fear of not being believed.
People knew what might happen
The Psychological Autopsy of Stephen Lake consisted of over 200 hours of interviews with immediate family members on both sides. Stephen’s aunt was quoted as saying “I never thought he would take the kids” in reference to an acknowledgment of his depression and anger at the impending divorce. She believed Lake would take his own life in front of his wife and children as a final act of punishment they would never forget. But he went far beyond that as we again saw in the small church in Texas this week. We are getting better at teaching children and families that if the see something they should say something. This is the trademark line of the Transportation Safety Administration in its fight against terrorism. The same might be taught to neighbors and friends when domestic violence is suspected or known to be occurring. If you see something than it is incumbent upon each of us to do something to help those in harms way.
WESTBOROUGH, MA April 25, 2018 Maine is the latest state to consider a so-called red flag law. It would let family members or law enforcement officers petition a judge to take away a “high risk” person’s firearms temporarily, if the judge determines the person poses an imminent risk. In a recent post I describe the updated terminology for individuals who are a potential threat called Gun Violence Restraining Orders. The proposed action would allow law enforcement to remove the firearms of people who are known to be threatening or physically violent toward intimate partners. “Felons, the dangerously mentally ill, perpetrators of domestic violence – these people have demonstrated their unfitness to own a firearm” said David French, 2018. In cases such as these police have reasonable cause to disallow gun ownership based not on prior conviction but on the elevated risk to potential victims.
Here in Massachusetts, in August 2013 I published a blog after the death of Jennifer Martell who was murdered in front of her 4-year old daughter by Jared Remy, son of Red Sox broadcaster and former player Jerry Remy. The younger Remy had received one break after another some say linked to his celebrity father’s influence. He was never held until a dangerousness hearing could be undertaken. Had this been done Ms. Martell may be alive today. In 2011, Stephen Lake murdered his wife and children after he was kept from attending his son’s 8th grade graduation. Lake had exhibited several red flag warnings prior to the murders. In spite of these he was not held nor were his firearms removed form his control Allanach, et al. 2011.
Several states have debated similar red flag laws in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Supporters argue a red flag law could have prevented the Parkland shooter, but some gun owners say it’s an overreach that threatens their 2nd Amendment rights.
Like many states in the U.S. Maine has more than its share of calls for domestic violence and domestic violence homicide. “All law enforcement personnel who respond to incidents in which an individual’s mental illness appears to be a factor receive training to prepare for these encounters; those in specialized assignments receive more comprehensive training. Dispatchers, call takers, and other individuals in a support role receive training tailored to their needs.” Communication between members of a response team with awareness and understanding of red flag warnings will reduce the impact of coercion and control that belies the secretive relationships between intimate partners. It will also bring to light the need for danger assessment and containment of people who are high risk for violence as in the case of Jared Remy in Massachusetts and Stephen Lake in Dexter, Maine.
Allanach, R.A., Gagan, B.F., Loughlin, J., Sefton, M.S., (2011) The Psychological Autopsy of the Dexter, Maine Domestic Violence Homicide and Suicide. Presented to the Domestic Violence Review Board, November 11, 2011
WESTBOROUGH, MA March 22, 2018 The recent spate of explosive attacks on apparently random victims continues as of this blog post. People around the world are speculating about the psychological underpinning of a person or persons who can create a bomb and deliver it to some intended victim without being caught. The explosion at the FedEx depot is something new as compared to the first 4 blasts. So far 2 victims have been killed by the bombs. The initial victims were African-American and Latino raising the specter of the bombs being a hate crime.
What does the bomb say about the bomb maker? Bomb construction thought to be a characteristic of underlying ideology and may be linked to motivation. Certainly explosive devices range in their level of technology and sophistication. In 1995 Timothy McVeigh created a powerful bomb made out of a deadly cocktail of agricultural fertilizer, diesel fuel, and other chemicals that killed 168 people at the Murrah Federal Building in OKC including many children at a nearby pre-school.
The type of bomb in Austin, TX has not been described by police or federal agents but the frequency of the attacks is unprecedented. It may suggest that more than one individual is working to produce the explosives and make deliveries or the devices were constructed to stockpile before deliveries were made. The bomber likely lives alone or has a shop where the devices and their components are stored for assembly. His keen interest is in making people afraid and keeping a city in lock down. McVeigh was a former munitions soldier in the Army and may have learned his technique in the process of training with the U.S. Army.
If the Austin devices are the work of a single serial bomber than the frequency and recent change in method of detonation raise the bar in terms of sophistication of delivery but the risk of being caught or making a mistake may also be accentuated. The police chief in Austin reportedly said that by using FedEx for shipping the explosive the likelihood of capture in short order was increased. An image was obtained of a man at FedEx that eventually became a person of interest.
The person who is behind this seige is likely an angry and detached with few friends. Being marginalized lends both to his stealth and fuels his anger and resentment. He may be suicidal and ultimately he final blast is to be part of his exit plan. He quite likely enjoys the sadistic control and media attention he is getting.
The fact that there are so few deaths – versus a massive splash event is not quite clear. It speaks to ambiguous planning and perhaps unclear motive and may signal the growing disorganization associated with his terminal event. Additional personality features are uncovered with each action. These are kept from the public domain. My analyses are conjectural.
WESTBOROUGH, MA March 1, 2018 There is a fine line between civil liberties and the need to keep Americans safe. As of now that line has not been crossed in terms of built-in protections from those who are most dangerous to society. But when someone who thinks he is being commanded by the neighborhood beagle to murder young lovers as Son of Sam serial killer David Berkowitz did in the 1970’s – can remain free to ply on his dangerous delusions? Berkowitz was a more obvious case of psychotic behavior and violence although ultimately he was found guilty of murder.
“The specter of mental illness insures a convenient scapegoat” Michael Sefton, 2013
Have we have lost site of what it means to deal with mental illness and keep people from being victimized because of a threat to the civil liberties of the mentally ill? No. Everyone deserves due process but those with a proclivity toward gun violence who have expressed an intent to murder should be afforded closer scrutiny and be kept from having access to firearms. In some cases they must be contained as a means of keeping potential victims and the greater society safe.
It will be interesting to see the psychological profile that emerges moving forward although as of this posting authorities in Broward county are negotiating a guilty plea and when that is signed off we will not hear about him again – until he is lost in prison, or the next murderous episode is recorded. The local district attorney has hinted he may seem the death penalty for the perpetrator of the despicable actions taken one month ago in February, 2018.
“Civil liberties that have historically ended in mass homicide must no longer be “civil liberties” to any degree. That includes owning guns, knives, poison and baseball bats. People without criminal intentions and such homicidal hang-up’s tend to worry not about “civil liberties””. Brian Gagan 2018
How can we not collect data on someone seeking information on proclivities toward violence? Every time I shop on-line I receive hundreds of pop up ads for similar products I may like. On Saturday February 17th, CNN’s Michael Smerconish asked the question “would it not be possible to have a similar technology for data mining that looks for proclivities toward violence and capture their social media footprint” of those who might do us harm? There are algorithms used to track people’s on-line shopping behaviors why can’t there be the same data mining to bring forth those looking for weapons, those buying ammunition – as in the case of the Las Vegas shooter, and those who express their desire for committing mass murder via You Tube video’s, Facebook posts, Twitter, or any of the other regular social media platforms. In review of Cruz social media presence there were several red flag warnings of his intentions that were missed.
WHAT ARE TRIGGERS FOR VIOLENCE?
There are always triggers for violence, we believe, that sets a plan into action. So far these have not been disclosed In the ongoing investigation. Triggers differ from case to case. Triggers can be sudden emotional loss or overwhelming humiliation that is unbearable to a potential assailant. Triggers may also be the result of months or years of festering emotional baggage that explodes after some relatively benign insult such as being denied a date to the prom or loss of employment.
The red flags were well noted in his pre-incident behavior. The FBI had specific and detailed warnings about Cruz. He had been expelled from the Parkland, Florida high school because of violent behavior and threatening other students. He was sent to an alternative school about which we have learned very little. Outwardly, Cruz was living in the fringe of humanity and was known to be an angry violent person. Media reports indicate 29 visits to the Cruz household by county law enforcement officials because of conflict and fighting with adoptive parents – both of whom are now dead. Upon initial review, after his mother died in November, Cruz had been living with a family who offered to take him in after she died suddenly of pneumonia. His father had passed away several years earlier of a cardiac issue.
Certainly the death of his adoptive mother may have been an emotional catalyst – if she were important in his psychological life. Perhaps she shaped his fragile inner narrative sufficiently to delay this emotional maelstrom by providing a positive sense of self -worth. It is not yet known. But it was Cruz who fired the weapon. The evil was in him not the firearm. More will become known about the Cruz family and his adoption in the coming months. So few of these perpetrators of mass homicide survive. Moving forwsrd, I would suggest accessing police reports under the freedom of information act and see yourself what police were dealing with.
I will say that there are Nikolas Cruz copycats everywhere and we should be on guard for them – as I try to be here in Boston. In Florida, persons suspected of having mental illness may be held under the Baker Mental Health Act allowing for involuntary psychiatric exam. All states have this mental health protocol but too often law enforcement officers are not trained to make these determinations or are concerned about litigation. This is training I want to see begin to become part of the academy training for career law enforcement officers. The “see something – say something” adage may be a jump-start toward better control over individuals who brandish ideas of violence and broadcast their underlying emotional slippage on social media. These persons should have no access to firearms.
“There is broad conceptual agreement that regardless of whether you view gun ownership as a right or a privilege, a person can demonstrate through their conduct that they have no business possessing a weapon. Felons, the dangerously mentally ill, perpetrators of domestic violence — these people have not only demonstrated their unfitness to own a weapon, they’ve been granted due process to contest the charges or claims against them. David French in National Review 2018
There must be a mechanism put into place for the fluid containment of individuals who pose high risk such as the individual who pulled off this despicable event. As you see from the quote above, David French published an article in the National Review and proposed a gun violence restraining order (GVRO) that would preclude those most dangerous from owning, buying or having access to guns. Nikolas Cruz was on the fringe for a long time – perhaps his entire adoptive life. It may ultimately come down to an attachment disorder as an underpinning for his terminal rage triggered by loss and powerful resentment toward his adoptive parents and school authorities who expelled him into social and emotional oblivion. His prior behavior, mental health hospitalization, and active threats on social media posts would have likely
made him an unsuitable gun owner. According to David French, senior writer for the National Review, “the concept of the GVRO is simple, not substantially different from the restraining orders that are common in family law, and far easier to explain to the public than our nation’s mental-health adjudications. Moreover, the requirement that the order come from people close to the respondent and that they come forward with real evidence (e.g. sworn statements, screenshots of social-media posts, copies of journal entries) minimizes the chance of bad-faith claims.” in National Review on February 16, 2018. When such a data set is discovered by family, friends, other students, teachers, etcetera a court mandated mental health assessment and the gun violence restraining order may be issued. California has used a system of GVRO enactment since 2014 with success. In 2016 over 80 such restraining orders were issued. In the case of Nikolas Cruz, he was thought to be the “most likely” student to initiate a school shooting according to multiple students interviewed after the shooting last week.
The correlation between mental illness and violence is quite weak. Myths seem to exist that the mentally ill are prone to violent behavior and this is not supported in reality. Dr. Jonathan Metzl, director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University, said that these mass shootings highlight Americans’ desire to reaffirm a stigmatization of the mentally ill as “ticking time bombs” to avoid more difficult conversations about gun violence according to Phil McCausland reporting for NBC News. I find it extremely important and compelling that Nikolas Cruz is alive today rather than among those sleeping in the morgue in Broward county. Most serial killers have taken their own life at the culmination of the terminal event and just prior to succumbing to the police active shooter response. Perhaps, one day in the distant future, Cruz will give up his secrets to an unsuspecting correction officer with just the right stuff to earn his trust. If such a person exists.
WESTBOROUGH, MA February 15, 2018 The fact is that greater containment of high risk abusers is needed. I have spoken with police chiefs, district attorneys, and state senators here is Massachusetts about conditions of bail. Whenever someone is arrested he or she is given the opportunity for bail – usually on his own recognizance. This means he simply promises to show up for his initial court hearing usually in the next 24-48 hours. Unfortunately, no one seems to believe that a person can be held on “high bail” simply because one subject held his family hostage and threatened them with a firearm or another person tried to strangle his intimate partner.
The system of bail is directly related to a defendant’s prior history of crimes, convictions, and lastly, the nature of the crime for which he is seeking bail. The cycle of abuse is posted to the left. It is all about power and control of the victim. On average, police are called after 9 prior episodes of abuse. In general, they arrive when the couple is in crisis and he may be feeling guilt and making excuses for his behavior. Or other times, the couple is in the honeymoon phase of the cycle and one partner invariably refuses to press charges on his partner. This is what really infuriates police officers called upon to answer these potentially violent calls. “It was all a big misunderstanding” according to the dangerous partner.
I have posted several essays over the years on the topic of “dangerousness” in terms of it being considered prior to the granting of bail. The June 2011 case in Maine culminated after the abuser was released from jail on $ 2000 dollars bail. After his death the money was returned to his family. Some district attorneys have tried to withhold bail money when the defendant fails to appear in court due to death by suicide after domestic violence homicide (DVH). For many this seemed like a draconian response to families who were in pain and suffering immeasurable.
“Many believe there is a disconnect between the judiciary and the bail system.” Sefton, 2011
What can be done to assure greater containment?
Containment refers to the need to protect a potential victim and his or her family from a violent often marginalized family member who is showing red flags of impending terminal rage. A Domestic Violence review panel conducted in June 2011 concluded that “there is nothing society can do for a despondent, abusive spouse whose obsession overrides the norms of society – even his will to live”. If we believe this then we will erroneously surrender innovation in domestic violence prevention and harm reduction. When high-ranking prosecutors say domestic violence homicide cannot be prevented society is cheated out of taking steps toward containment of those who may violate protection from abuse orders. Lois Reckitt, executive director of Family Crisis Services in Cape Elizabeth, ME is quoted as saying that the wrong people are in jail when violence-prone abusers are released from custody to stalk and terrorize their family, as was the case in the Dexter, Maine tragedy in 2010. Containment and harm reduction should be the focus of the legal system and social service agencies alike. The judiciary and political machinery in states throughout America must speak out about protecting victims and families and not say there is nothing that can be done to stop DVH.
WESTBOROUGH, MA January 21, 2018 Do people just “snap”? Rarely according to most literature I have read and published. The expression of violence is elicited slowly following a prolonged period of marginalized aloneness along with underlying resentment and anger according to Michael Sefton, Ph.D. This takes a great toll on relationships, loss of trust and a growing persecutory narrative that may become delusional. The gunman in the Las Vegas mass homicide was described as narcissistic – a personality disorder vulnerable perceived rejection or disrespect often resulting in sudden rage, denial, decreased rational thinking, accusatory blaming, and often marked denial of responsibility. In the Las Vegas shooting it has been learned that the gunman had recently sustained a significant financial loss although its link to the people he killed remains a mystery. There is typically some specific event that may trigger a violent event that could have been planned over months or years and evolve like the expression of some genetic permutation.
“People do not just “snap.” When something horrible happens, like a murder or violent attack, we naturally look for a cause. “Snapping” is an easy way to describe what is actually a complex, yet understandable chain of events. Research into violent attacks and the behavior of the attackers can shed some light on how one moves down a pathway toward violence.” Swink, 2010
The capacity for behavioral science to predict when the next mass shooting will occur remains unrefined. Yet, by studying the cases of mass murder that have occurred in the past 5 years there are important pre-incident behaviors that may foreshadow a coming terminal event. Often there are people who know precisely what is going to happen. In our study of a domestic violence homicide that took place in Maine, 2011 we were told by the aunt of the murderer that she expected her nephew to kill himself but expect that he would do it in front of his wife and children. What ultimately happened was a murder suicide. Steven Lake killed his wife and 2 children and made an attempt to incinerate their bodies before local police arrived. At that point he made himself comfortable and ended his life and the Lake family timeline.
Swink, J (2010) The Pentagon Shooting: They Don’t “Just Snap” Posted Mar 06, 2010 Taken Jan 4, 2018
WESTBOROUGH, MA January 5, 2018 As we begin to make program recommendations for reducing intimate partner violence it is worth noting that change comes very slowly in protecting those who are most at risk. There is still a paucity of protective measures in place to assess and contain those who are most violent in our society. Retired New Braintree Police Sergeant Michael Sefton was in Augusta, Maine in October 2011 providing testimony about the results of the psychological autopsy conducted by Michael Sefton, Ph.D. Brian Gagan of Scottsdale, AZ, and Ron Allanach, Ed.D. of Conquitlam, BC, Canada and former Chief of Police Joseph Laughlin of Portland, ME. Dr. Sefton, who holds a doctorate in psychology and is a licensed psychologist provider in Massachusetts provides neuropsychological and forensic consultation on domestic violence including domestic violence homicide and assessment of risk. The report that was filed came up with over 50 recommendations directly related to reduced intimate partner violence. The report was cited over 12 times in a recent Maine Law Review publication on proposed Conditions of Bail. Little has changed in Maine since our first report in 2011 and there is no leadership to bring forth legislative dialogue.
The testimony provided to the domestic violence review board offered details about a hideous case of family violence that ended with the homicide of 4 members of the same family and was culminated by an attempt to burn the bodies after the murders and the killer shooting at police officers responding to the missing victim. But they were too late. Their research was conducted over a 3 month period following the homicide deaths of Amy Lake and her children. The team conducted interviews with over 60 persons with direct knowledge of Amy Lake, the victim, her two children, Monica and Cody, and the murderer Steven Lake.
“Although Maine’s statute lists these prohibitions, it lacks the enforcement tools to protect victims against violence associated with guns and other weapons, which is a major factor in Maine’s domestic violence deaths.” Nicole Bissonnette, 2012
Most researchers agree it is nearly impossible to predict when DVH will occur. However, the psychological autopsy provides many obvious red flags that offer clues to an impending emotional conflagration or explosion of anger and blame. The problem in the 2011 case was two-fold. First, the requirement for bail was not seriously considered because Lake had no criminal history – and yet Mr. Lake had demonstrated an unwillingness to adhere to the legal mandates of the order of protection and violated the court order at least 4 times over the year before he killed his family. Given this unfettered lack of personal control, he should have been held for a hearing of potential dangerousness. And secondly, the cache of firearms that Lake was known to have kept was not surrendered to police nor was an effort made to obtain the 22 weapons Lake owned by members of law enforcement. No one thought the guns would be an issue.
Many believe that when the victim indicates a strong fear belief that her spouse intends to kill her that risk of DVH is elevated exponentially and must be taken as fact. These often unspoken fears illustrate the need for supervision, assessment of potential for dangerousness and containment of PFA violators. Substantive red flag factors suggest a true risk of violence exists. The study also found that individuals with heart disease who are depressed will often have higher inflammation levels in their body. Many studies show that a combination of exercise and fatty acids, such as Omega-3 found in salmon, can reduce inflammation and consequently reduce bouts of depression and mood swings.In the sworn statement in 2010 for an order of protection, Amy Lake specifically reported that she feared that her husband might kill her. These fears of death would come to fruition one year later. And they did come true in despicable, horrific fashion.
It is not uncommon that red flags are often present early in the relationship as people reported during our research interviews during the psychological autopsy. Many people we spoke to were aware something agregious was going to happen. These include obsessional jealousy, threats of death, sexual aggression, unwillingness to integrate into extended family, any use of a weapon, and others. In the course of their research Sefton and Gagan interviewed Dale Preston who was convicted of DVH in 1982 and served 18 years in Maine State Prison for the murder. When asked what may have stopped him from killing his wife, Mr. Preston indicate “there was nothing that could have stopped me…” In these cases, a greater awareness of risk or dangerousness is essential and in some cases a person must be contained for the safety of others. Such containment requires NO direct contact with an abusive spouse, GPS monitoring, house arrest, or no bail imprisonment.
The case in Maine occurred in June 2011 – exactly 1 year to the day after the victim obtained a protection from abuse order from her husband. The murders occurred 2 weeks before the divorce was to be finalized and were likely triggered by the abuser’s anger over not being permitted to attend his son’s 8th grade graduation ceremony. The Bangor Daily News presented details of the recent psychological autopsy presented recently in Augusta, Maine. Over 30 states across America have formal homicide review boards. “To make this general deterrence aim successful, abusers must not have access to their victims nor to potential weapons, and the risk of punishment associated with breaking the law must outweigh the abuser’s urge to commit the conduct.” said Denaes, 2012. Bail is a judicial condition that allows a person to be released from jail with the promise to appear in court to answer to charges. Bail also provides for public safety by keeping violent offenders in jail when necessary.
I make an effort to review those published from New England states. Vermont has an excellent annual report of domestic violence homicide and publishes all recommendations and changes in statutory requirements following individual cases of DVH.
Johannes N. Denaes, PUNISHMENT AND DETERRENCE 7 (1974) (“General prevention may
depend on the mere frightening or deterrent effect of punishment—the risk of discovery and punishment
outweighing the temptation to commit crime.”).