February 12, 2009

Do You Think You Could Spot a Killer?

Posted: 06:34 PM ET

Steven Kazmierczak was a sociology major at Northern Illinois University. He later went on to study social work as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. He was surrounded by professors who studied criminology and were experts in criminal behavior. His friends were also counselors-in-training.


When I first reported this story, one year ago, I met some of the people closest to Steven Kazmierczak. I asked them if they had seen any warning signs. I asked them if they thought he was capable of mass murder. They all told me they never saw this coming.

But why didn’t they? Two of the people closest to him told me they knew he had problems, they knew he was off and on anti-depressants, and that he was anxious and had obsessive compulsive disorder.

It makes me think that if a group of criminologists and counselors in training didn’t pick up on what some people would call “warning signs,” than what luck would an average person have at detecting strange behavior?

One year after the shooting, police records obtained by CNN show a much different story than the one his college friends, and professors told me.

The documents show that Steven Kazmierczak was spiraling out of control. As a teenager he attempted suicide on several occasions. He was hospitalized nine different times, prior to 2001.

He was kicked out of the Army for lying about his mental health problems on his application.

He suffered from OCD.

He was an insomniac.

He was off and on anti-depressants.

He loved horror movies, and began to identify with the sadistic killer “Jigsaw” from the movies “Saw.”

He got a large tattoo of “Jigsaw’s” alter-ego riding a tricycle through a puddle of blood on his forearm.

He owned multiple guns.

He had sex with several women he met on Craig’s List.

He was confused about his sexuality.

He loved on-line, first-person shooter games.

He was obsessed with studying serial killers – and seemed to admire Adolf Hitler and Ted Bundy.

The list is lengthy – and this doesn’t even come close to covering it all.

Of course, it is much easier to look back at someone after a tragedy like this, and ask yourself, “What did I miss?” I mean, what’s so wrong with loving horror movies? What’s wrong with being a gun owner or having tattoos or being obsessed with serial killers? Who is to say that any of this means someone is about to snap?

In this case, some of the people closest to Steven Kazmierczak were studying psychology – and many of them focused their work on how the criminal mind functions and operates.

So, my question is if none of them could spot a killer, how could any of us?

Filed under: Abbie Boudreau • Special Investigations Unit

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Johnny D.   February 13th, 2009 10:46 am ET

We can't. Technically, a person is not a "killer" until they've killed, and after the crime has been committed, it's a little late for prevention. You can spot people with warning signs, but just like Steven's family, what can you do but offer them all the help available...and obviously, that's not always enough.

There will always be crazy people, and there will always be people who want to hurt other people. You can't prevent this type of tragedy any more than you can prevent floods, hurricanes or earthquakes. What you CAN do, is be prepared for it, know what what to do when the time comes, and know how to deal with the aftermath.

Chris   February 13th, 2009 10:58 am ET

Obviously if somebody is hospitalized in a mental institution should be banned for life to buy any kind of weapons. As a nation we are too liberal, and too stupid to change that. That's why we will have from time to time sick individuals shooting at our kids at schools. We as a nation welcome this type of crimes- it seams to me. Why is so difficult to pass some laws that would certainly prevent mentally unstable people from obtaining guns ? The answer is simple: our media needs this kind of the stories from time to time. Our politicians benefit from sick people shooting at schools. Forgive me for being sarcastic, but why these laws are not proposed, and not passed is beyond me.

Cody Kitterman   February 13th, 2009 11:05 am ET

You have to respect the fact that everyone is capable of killing you and that you too are capable of killing others.

The only thing more fragile than the human life is the human psyche. If you need an example of this look to the economy! Look at the "desperation", and pressures put upon the unemployed, yet no one has starved! I am sure people have gone hungry but honestly that's their own damn fault. You're probably jumping to mock me but come on over and take a look at my lot.

I may be Unemployed, putting plastic utensils in the dishwasher, burning my garbage, but I am happy and I'll be damned if I am starving! How could I be with a fishing pole and a bunch of free time?

Note: I am hardly White Trash, and I am hardly Redneck. I am originally from Miami, FL and I was raised within the daily operations of a Multimillion dollar corporation. What I am though is a United States Marine and a resilient MF'er.

Anonymous   February 13th, 2009 11:18 am ET

If you know someone with a history of suicide attempts, you expect him to try to kill himself, not someone else.

And how do you tell: Take me: I have a history of depression. I'm fascinated by serial killers (and, for that matter, the mind of Adolf Hitler). I'm on anti-depressants. My past includes a couple of suicide attempts. I play violent computer games. A lot. I flunked out of college. I collect knives. I'm not exactly insomniac, but I'm certainly nocturnal. I have a shelf of books about murderers. I've even ... had sex! With different people! I have pet snakes. People thought I was weird in college. There are two plastic Roman gladiators posed fighting each other on a shelf over my desk, and little WW2 soldiers ambushing each other on a bookshelf. And, once upon a time, I was even a psych major.

And yet I'm not a murderer. I'm a middle-aged woman, happily married, with my own part-time consulting business. The most violent thing I've done in recent memory was shouting at the cat when he hacked up a hairball in my shoe. My neighbors admire my little garden. I'm well-liked by my relatives, my in-laws, my friends, and my gaming guild. In short, I'm the woman next door (except maybe a little geekier).

Ancient Romans were good at finding portents for any event. Birds flew north when they should have been flying south. A strange star appeared in the sky. A hawk caught a pigeon in the Forum. It was easy, though, because they found them after the fact. "I know I was destined to win that battle, because a raven perched on my tent at sunset two days ago." When we look at the history of a person like this, we see these "red flags" and think that someone should have noticed something, someone should have done something. But those same traits are all over the place, in all sorts of different people, the overwhelming majority of whom never commit any criminal act, let alone mass murder. Like the Romans and their omens, if you look back at anyone's life, you can find things that relate. They might even be descriptive, but they're not predictive.

For example, many self-made millionaires started their first businesses as children. They were the kid who walked dogs, or mowed lawns or shoveled snow. I did, at the age of 11. But I'm far from a millionaire, just an ordinary part of what should nowadays be called the struggling class. For every pre-teen lemonade stand owner or leaf-raker who becomes a millionaire, there are tens of thousands who don't. Nobody thinks that offering venture capital to every aspiring business owner who had a lemonade stand as a kid would be a profitable investment strategy. All the hindsight, all the comments like "of course he became a millionaire, look, he started when he was 12" are essentially meaningless when it comes to prediction.

Everyone has 20/20 hindsight. But, like the Roman "postgnostication", it's only good for explaining; it's no use at all for predicting.

Bugs   February 13th, 2009 11:29 am ET

The human mind is so complex and dynamic that there's probably no way to predict with certainty what someone will do. Those traits and experiences you listed appear, after the fact, to be steps in a process that led inevitably to a violent conclusion. But only after the fact. A slight alteration of the process could have changed its direction and its ending. So in general, I don't think you can just observe someone, no matter how closely, and predict that they'll end their days in a murderous shooting spree. The best you can do is try to spot people who are obviously disturbed and try to get them to get help. And the obvious problem with that is, how do you define "disturbed?"

A.J.   February 13th, 2009 11:32 am ET

No one spotted Ted Bundy when he was raping and murdering. What is interesting to me is "people who study how the criminal mind works". As a corrections officer I have ample opportunity to study "criminal minds" up close and personal everyday. What I have found is that not all of them are suffering from mental illness nor are they all anti social personalities. There are a goodly number of them that suffer from the malidies but not all. For someone to think that they could spot a killer just by observing the individual are fooling themselves. The article talked about OCD. OCD is not, say, Bipolar Disorder, or even Schizophrenia. It is treatable as are the other two. The article mentions that he went of of his medication. As an individual that suffers from bipolar disorder, I know that the syptoms return when you start feeling good enough and stop taking medication.Often hospitalization is required in order to adjust medication and to get back on track. If he went off of his medication the obsessions and the compulsion to do something about them it could have driven him to do something like what he eventually did. It all depends on what the compulsions were. I believe that we as society constantly try to find some meaning to the reason as to why some people do the things that they do. However, as someone with a mental illness, mentioning that he had OCD is not condusive to lowering the stigma attached to these issues. He was a disturbed individual , but it is impossible to say that someone missed something that could have prevented this shooting from occuring.

Ross Fugitry   February 13th, 2009 11:35 am ET

The entire US population presently is so enamoured in multi-tasking including talking on cellphones holding two cellphones at a time! (believe me, I have seen this in various southern states) with no hands on the steering wheel at times, that I think most individuals operating in this manner of which an overwhelming amount do, that a meteorite the size of Manhatten Island could strike the earth a block in front of them and they would not notice it ! Now you tell me if folks will notice a serial killer walking among them...I very seriously doubt it!!!

Ife   February 13th, 2009 11:41 am ET

People see what they want to see, and a lot of what they don't want to see in another is a part of themselves. I remember a quote by someone that said " . . . there is a little bit of Hitler in a lot of you, and a lot of Hitler in some of you." We are what we are, and if we will not become conscious of it, it will unconsciously get us in the end. There is no way these people can believe what they said about not seeing anything. They just said they did by giving examples of what this guy was doing before he went on to kill others. Stop lying to yourself, it hurts more than you in the end. It's all excuses for not wanting to accept the truth.

WVMontani   February 13th, 2009 11:51 am ET

So what are we supposed to do? Lock up every person who acts strange because they *might* kill someone?

Cameron   February 13th, 2009 11:56 am ET

"When I first reported this story, one year ago, I met some of the people closest to Steven Kazmierczak. I asked them if they had seen any warning signs. I asked them if they thought he was capable of mass murder. They all told me they never saw this coming."

Therein lies the first problem, those closest to him have the most difficult time in being objective of someone's true state. Most people are optimistic when it comes to the affairs of someone's well being, especially someone close. I highly doubt that you view anyone you associate closely with as a potential mass murderer.

"But why didn’t they? Two of the people closest to him told me they knew he had problems, they knew he was off and on anti-depressants, and that he was anxious and had obsessive compulsive disorder."

However, those behaviors have no direct association with a history of past physical violence. There are plenty of individuals who express these behaviors, and the vast majority of them are non-violent. Until all associations are gathered, it is hard to put all the puzzle pieces together until after the fact. Why are serial killers caught after multiple murders instead of the first? It is because a profile has to be made after the fact, not before it.

"It makes me think that if a group of criminologists and counselors in training didn’t pick up on what some people would call “warning signs,” than what luck would an average person have at detecting strange behavior?"

Honestly, no chance whatsoever. Precognition is not a common place occurrence.

"The documents show that Steven Kazmierczak was spiraling out of control. As a teenager he attempted suicide on several occasions. He was hospitalized nine different times, prior to 2001.

He was kicked out of the Army for lying about his mental health problems on his application."

Prevention is only as good as the person taking the medicine. Recommendations and evaluations could have been made by doctors, Army medical, and police officers. The fact that he was on and off anti-depressants shows that previous evaluations were made.

"The list is lengthy – and this doesn’t even come close to covering it all."

Half of that list bears little relevance to his ability to commit a murder, but in aggregate could be some signs. Mostly his medical conditions and the fact that the Army rejected him. Let me say first and foremost, if the Army rejects you because of a mental instability – you need help.

The simple fact was that he was mentally unstable. Those closest to him didn't understand the depth of his condition until after all the facts were revealed. The ability to predict someone out of a crowd as a killer based upon a magical concoction of potentially unknown factors is preposterous. Unfortunately "Minority Report" isn't reality.

Ross Fugitry   February 13th, 2009 12:23 pm ET

I can guarantee one thing...if a lot of the BS time spent examining the minds of these killers AFTER they have killed was spent on building gallows and electric chairs and other means of executing them for their heinous deeds, a lot of their killing WOULD NEVER TAKE PLACE! If someone, and even the analyzed and professionally labeled NUT knows beforehand what will happen to them if they do carry out their deeds...they will NOT DO THE DEED IN THE FIRST PLACE!!! End of STORY!!!

John   February 13th, 2009 12:31 pm ET

I think you are getting into really dangerous ground when you try to come up with some sort of set criteria for people to be judged even before a crime is committed.

The criteria that you listed is honestly, in my opinion, not that remarkable. I know many people 100's of times "stranger" than this person, but they wouldn't harm a flea.

If he pulled out a gun in class and waved it around, threatening people, and then walked home. Yeah, that is big. Have him checked out.

But no, those items in the main blog post are just not that unique to me. Frankly, many of them apply to me and quite a few people I know.

Horror movies? First person shooters? Googled Ted Bundy? Good luck with trying to filter through the millions of adolescent boys who do those things.

Come on. It's trendy and hip now a days to be in therapy and on some sort of medication for "emotional issues." RIght?

Come up with another angle. Please.

Wanda Woman   February 13th, 2009 12:47 pm ET

Hey, I left my ex-husband because i knew he was seriously dangerous. Whenever I hear of some sort of rampage out where he is living, I half expect it to be him. Like Steven K., my ex has advanced education and is in a teaching position. If he ever "does it," I can say I was expecting it all along. //

Our society provides no way to control someone else's actions. Confidentiality of records does not allow us to even know what is actually going on with those closest to us. if you have ever tried to someone that is out of control to medical help, you know that is not possible if the person is an adult. //

The article mentions violent movies and games. Should these even exist? We allow so much that is depraved as prime entertainment. I think these give people bad ideas and lead to bad actions and energies.

Dan   February 13th, 2009 1:00 pm ET

Ross – Almost every one of these school shooters in recent memory has taken his own life at the end of his rampage. For most of them, that was part of their plan all along. How in the world is "building gallows and electric chairs" your solution to this problem? Treating these individuals and getting them all the psychiatric help possible is the only way to avoid this type of tragedy.

passerby   February 13th, 2009 1:16 pm ET

The whole essay is meaningless and full of cliche. Yes, criminology was a branch of sociology, but just because you study sociology, does it make you an expert on criminals? Also, some of the closest people are often blind. He was obviously acting strange, judging by his nickname "Weird Steve."

"So, my question is if none of them could spot a killer, how could any of us?"

That's absurd. He wasn't a killer prior to this incident. Just because "some of the people closest to Steven Kazmierczak" did not think he was capable of committing a crime of this magnitude does not mean there never were any. The question should be whether we can spot people who potentially commit a heinous act like this, but not people who has some experience in this area.

Adrienne Young   February 13th, 2009 1:30 pm ET

Psychiatric illnesses do not necessarily portend homicide, and to suggest that depression, anxiety, and OCD – in any combination – is enough to signal "red flags" to a person's friends, relatives, or co-workers, is to do a great disservice to those who suffer from these often difficult conditions.

The stigma surrounding mental illness is already a profound problem in our society, and I hope that CNN will try to keep from exploiting that stigma to garner attention to their stories. This episode is tragedy enough without adding sensationalism about mental illness to it.

It is useful to consider what might be warning signs in a person who is heading in such a violent direction. Mental illness may be a part of these scenarios, but we should be wary of assuming that our friends, loved ones, and neighbors are potentially violent simply if they are dealing with OCD, depression, anxiety, etc.

Much more to the point, I think, is a culture obsessed with violence and easy access to any sort of firearm or explosive device. The Second Amendment suffers at the hands of strict "traditionalists" who believe that nothing should alter what they consider the "original intent" of the framers, even though the arsenal of weapons has strayed far away from what the framers could have ever imagined. Couple that with non-stop violence in popular culture, a childhood culture of bullying, crowded classrooms, parents too busy trying to make a living to spend time with their kids, and a cultural insistence that all male children fit a narrow frame of acceptable "manly" behavior, and we have a mix in which children grow up with tremendous stress and self-loathing, and a limited range of methods with which to cope. Occasionally, someone is not going to make it, and it's not too surprising to see a violent outcome.

Sadly, there is no simple answer and no obvious diagnosis. And I don't think we spend much time looking too closely at the "strange" people around us; we're taught not to stare, not to get involved in other people's problems, and to turf the non-compliant. And no parents want to see that their child is damaged. I hope that CNN won't continue to make simplistic assumptions about the tremendous pain surrounding such horrible events, but will give them the thoughtful treatment they deserve.

pelle   February 13th, 2009 1:30 pm ET

Even if you do recognize the signs that someone is a potential violent criminal, that doesn't mean you'll be taken seriously.

I was married to a man who turned out to be a sexual predator. After we were divorced, I learned he had tried to hit on the young girls in the neighborhood (11 years old) and also he had quite a stash of child pornography that he left behind in our home. When I turned it over to the police, they were skeptical and accused me of planting the stuff to "get back" at my ex. They essentially screwed up the case and declined to prosecute. They realized I was telling the truth when they talked to the parents of the young girls in the neighborhood. By then it was too late, as the cops had compromised the case.

Before I turned the stuff over to the cops, I begged my ex to get some kind of help. He refused to talk to me. So I told his family, and the refused to believe me or get him some help. I had no choice but to turn over the kiddy porn and identify who had accumulated the trash.

His work occasionally brought him into contact with small children. We both worked at the same place – a very difficult situation – and I advised our employer about what I had discovered. I was fire – and he still works there.

I fear that he will one day do something to harm a child and his actions might have been preventable if only someone had listened to me.

Drew   February 13th, 2009 1:38 pm ET

Anyone can spot a killer.
Just look in a mirror.

History is full of people killed by "regular" people.

CitizenUSA   February 13th, 2009 1:51 pm ET cannot just look at someone and know whether or not he/she is a killer or contemplating killing.

This is precisely why responsible citizens should be allowed to purchase, own, and carry firearms for self protection, and the protection of others.

Police cannot be everywhere, all the time, protecting everyone.

If characters like this start shooting out of nowhere in public, an armed responsible citizen may be able to stop him/her.

Drew   February 13th, 2009 2:27 pm ET

For the record, I've taken anti-depressents, am fascinated by serial killers, own multiple guns (hunting rifles and a shotgun), have engaged in casual sex, and rarely fall asleep easily. I also scoop up spiders and put them outside rather than kill them, have been known to choke up watching movies that aren't labled 'tear jerkers', haven't punched or intentionally hurt another person since fifth grade and am a stay at home dad that can handle the challenge of a 14 month old daughter, a barely two year old daughter and a 5 year old with behavioral problems without resorting to spanking.. Long story short, I should be appalled by this blog.

I understand the importance of looking for indicators, but the risk is stigmitizing people. I'm as likely to sprout wings as I am to kill anybody. I'm not even sure I could shoot an intruder.

Just my two cents.

Anonymous   February 13th, 2009 2:39 pm ET

Ross Fugitry, consider the country of China. In Communist China, they have the death penalty for corruption, and no reluctance whatsoever to apply it. Yet they also have massive corruption. If perfectly sane, rational people think that it's worth risking death to take bribes, do you honestly think that a crazy person is going to care about the possibility of death for doing what his insanity drives him to? Get a Ouija board and ask Ted Bundy.

Besides, people risk death all the time just for fun. It's called "extreme sports". Other people risk death to make a living. I have friends who are firefighters, who, as one puts it, "run into burning buildings when the sane people are running out." There are people who risk death to help others. Check the Carnegie Awards for a convenient list. Still other people do it for illegal money, such as the ones dealing drugs in the 'hood, who aren't nearly as afraid of the law as they are of each other. Then there are the ones who do it for patriotism and public service. There are how many thousand of them in Iraq and Afghanistan right now? And, for that matter, there are people living in war zones who risk death just to go to the well for a bucket of water. There are the people who tried to sit out hurricanes like Katrina and Ike. And, aside from just risking their lives, there are people who go to certain death. They have names like Boris Korchilov and Michael Monsoor and Father Damien, and if you don't know who those people are you should.

Fear of death isn't much of a deterrent to a lot of sane people; what makes you think that it will be any at all to crazy people?

Adrienne Young   February 13th, 2009 3:57 pm ET

Mr. Fugitry, can you explain how the threat of the death penalty would be a deterrant to someone considering murder-suicide?

JB   February 13th, 2009 4:15 pm ET

Owns multiple guns and likes playing FPS games are signs of instability or indicators of becoming a killer? That something so wrong should show up on your list reveals a lot about your biases, but nothing more.

Not only has no link ever been shown, it's been pretty well documented that there simply is no correlation.

The country is filled with millions of people who own one or more firearms. It is also filled with millions of people who enjoy FPS games. There are, doubtless, millions of people who are in both groups. Yet they are no more statistically likely to commit mass murder than are people who don't fall into those groups.

The only strong valid correlations are that these people have a long history of mental illness, often involving violent fantasies, and were often bullied as children. That is something not common among the general population. Firearm ownership and enjoying FPS games (whether online or not; that in itself is a red herring) are pretty mainstream activities.

And like Johhny D. said, you really can't spot a killer before the fact, because he's not yet a killer. Unless you can read minds, you can't know. And even if you're sure, you can't arrest him for something he has not yet done. The least you'd need is evidence he was planning it, or was unlawfully in possession of a firearm, or some other actual crime. If he's crazy enough, that might be grounds for detaining him. But you can't arrest somebody for being weird.

Buster   February 13th, 2009 4:18 pm ET

It's true that the the threat of the death penalty is not a deterrent for someone bent on a murder-suicide rampage. But then again neither is the threat of punishment for violating a "gun-free zone". All the zones do is make sure the killer's victims are disarmed. If one person at Virginia Tech had been lawfully carrying in those rooms it could have saved dozens of lives. But the politically-correct powers that be won't allow their subjects to defend themselves, and consequently places that don't allow weapons become the prime targets for sickos to try to rack up the biggest body count possible.

Stop disarming the victims! Concealed carry is a civil right!

william   February 13th, 2009 4:19 pm ET

We can't spot one. The bad part is they have to kill first to know he or she is a killer..You could see the nicest person and clean cut and they end up killing. I know people around here that have long hair, beards, dress bad, but they are the nicest people you want to associate with. You just can't tell....

experience yields caution   February 13th, 2009 4:25 pm ET

Sadly, our culture teaches us to be stupid. Our instincts often warn us that there is danger, but our whole PC culture has reprogrammed people to be more suspicious of their own fears and concerns and to ignore what our "gut instinct" is telling us. I suspect that there were MANY people who had misgivings about Steve. In the associated CNN article, the murderer "Steven Kazmierczak was known as 'strange Steve' to roommates". Really?! This implies that people had "a feeling" about him, and I bet there were many who thought he was creepy. But how many of them told themselves that they were "imagining things" and convinced themselves to ignore their instinctual misgivings?

I've seen this so many times, it's sad. I knew a white girl who went to Costa Rica and started hanging out with the Rastafari on the carribbean coast and had a feeling she was in danger but convinced herself that these were sublte "racist" feelings that should be ignored. She ended up getting raped.

I've put myself into similar situations, telling myself that my "fears" were really just hidden "prejudices" about people who were just "unique", only later to realize that they really were theives, liars, psychopaths.

We need to deprogram ourselves, and start listening to our inner voices who often pick up on the subtle behaviors that indicate that someone can be dangerous. And then we need to stay VERY far away from those people.

tammerajean   February 13th, 2009 4:26 pm ET

the last comment on the video "what does someone have to do?" I have been contacting our local law enforcement for several years regarding my 2 step-sons. Sadly, one of them committed suicide last June. The other, has had more than 20 arrests, yet he hasn't spent a day in jail, he also is obsessed with gruesome movies, basically all of the above. I gave local LE a copy of some of his journals. He is a ticking bomb. But, because he is 24, there is nothing they can do. He is frightening, he will hurt someone.

Jennifer   February 13th, 2009 4:44 pm ET

This list is just all over the place.

Of course showing this guy dressed up as a SAW character after the fact is chilling, but thousands dress up as mass murderers on Halloween.
Many thousands more have casual sex via networking sites (that was a weird "predictor").
And being confused about your sexuality is the latest mass murderer predictor?

Additionally, if every person who plays violent games and is into horror flicks is the next mass murderer I better get off this planet completely. I'm one of the only people I know who is into neither.

Profiler   February 13th, 2009 4:53 pm ET

I am an empath. When working for a publisher years ago, an employee broke into the facility and stole a number of computers. As a manager in the plant, I was questioned as to whom I thought may have done it. I told them what person I "felt" it was, but wasn't until thousands of private investigation dollars were spent and years past when the individual was arrested on a mandatory rape charge and they were able to locate the missing computers and link the crime. I was also responsible for a citizen's physical arrest of a bank robber in 2005, a credit I attribute to both being at the right place at the right time and being always keenly aware of what other people are thinking based on minute clues in their behavior. If the FBI wants my services, they can contact me through this site but I assure you they already have similar keenly attuned individuals on staff. If my attested skills give you pause, I don't blame you for the disbelief. It's not a gift I asked to receive.

Monikr   February 13th, 2009 4:54 pm ET

I know 4 or 5 people that fit this guy's description. None are crazy, but none are "normal". The sudden fixation on horror though, that is a red flag. Except if you are a fundamentalist preacher, fixated on Armegeddon. Imagery of death and torture are cool if your using it to illustrate the wages of sin, right? I looked at that every Sunday at my local parish church, and I am not crazy.

History is what counts, if you spent 3 YEARS in an institution, well, someone tried to help, and this guy fell thru the cracks. Even if Steve lost it and had to use a baseball bat, how far could he get? No Guns For Crazies !!! When are we going to learn?

Leslie   February 13th, 2009 5:04 pm ET

I agree with Wanda Woman and Pelle.

I also knew someone who was a timebomb waiting to go off. It was someone I worked with, and everyone was afraid of this guy. He would fly into a rage over the simplest things, and start throwing things around in his office. He often bragged about all the guns he owned, and how he was just waiting for someone to cross him.

They finally let him go, (for excessive absenteeism) but the manager and the rest of us were afraid to walk to our cars every night for months after that.

But even if you do spot someone like that, what can you do?

Wanda, you are absolutely right – these violent games and movies just give emotional validation to people like that, and it helps them visualize even worse crimes that what they might have had in mind in the first place.

Kimberly   February 13th, 2009 5:11 pm ET

It is our nature as human beings to ask why after a tragedy. To seek answers in an attempt to understand what could have been done so that we can convince ourselves that we can prevent the same event from ever occurring again. Sadly that is not the case. It appears fairly easy to sit on the outside of a situation, look at the "evidence" and draw conclusions. The truth is we are all human, we are all capable of murder. You can look for missed warning signs, place responsibility on everyone who had contact with Steven over the course of his entire life, it does not change the facts. Six people were killed that day, eighteen were wounded, countless lives ( including the people in the classroom, the building, on campus, in the community (including first responders and the mental health professionals who will be walking alongside survivors for decades to come), their families including their parents, children and friends) were changed forever in positive and negative ways. The ripples of trauma will continue to travel and affect generations to come in the future who were not even born at the time of the shooting. Perhaps rather than searching for answers we should be looking into our own souls, discovering how we can each take something away from how this tragedy touched our lives no matter where we are in the impacted ripples and create positive change in the world one choice, one moment, one relationship, one step, one life at a time.

Praying for all who were affected,
School Shooting Survivor 2003

Anna   February 13th, 2009 6:21 pm ET

The first part of my response is to chris – you say that anyone in a mental institution should lose the right to ever own a gun. I disagree. Just because someone is in a mental institution does not mean they are automatically a risk to society. People go into mental institutions for a variety of reasons – depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, even eating disorders. Just because at one time a person might have been a danger to themselves does not mean they automatically dangerous to anyone else. Those with Eating Disorders are not known to be violent to others – in fact, often their caring for others is what drives them to not take care of themselves. This does not make them dangerous.

What this man did was tragic, but could not have been prevented without disregarding him as a human being.

1) His record published on CNN from his therapist makes no mention of him being at risk of hurting anyone. Yes, he tried to commit suicide 9 times, but that is more of a hate for self than a hate for society. Depression/suicidal tendencies are not an immediate red flag that someone is dangerous. If that was true, at least a third of the country could be considered dangerous to society.

2) His fascination with serial killers is not necessarily a red flag either. 'Saw' has a cult following – if it did not, it would not be a 6+ movie franchise. Some people really enjoy the movie, for one reason or another. Some people are fascinated by serial killers and what makes them tick. Think of all the psychologists that are interested in criminal profiling, could they not also be considered having a red flag?

3) Just because he got a tattoo of a Saw item, does not mean he is "obsessed" with it. People get a variety of tattoos for many different reasons. Maybe he was fascinated with Saw, but we cannot assume that the fascination meant that he was obsessed and wanted to emulate that character.

4) Finally, these articles about him are very poorly written. Nothing in the paperwork they have on him indicates that he was a threat to anyone but himself, and yet to sensationalize the crime, people are quick to make pseudo-links. He had sex with multiple partners from Craigslist? Come on, that is a lifestyle choice, not a red flag. People meet on sites like, etc., all the time. Now if he would have hooked up with partners from Sado-masochistic websites or such, maybe that could have been construed as a red flag, but just because he had multiple, unknown partners does not mean it is a red flag. He liked first-person shooter games? So do a majority of gamers – which is why they sell so well. Does that mean they all have red flags too? No. What happened here was this was clearly a conflicted individual with a history of self-deprivation that went too far. He snapped, for one reason or another, but none of his "red flags" really are any different than those other people have.

This could not have truly been prevented, because he never made threats or had overt actions. When schools start to pre-empt violent acts by locking up individuals with mental health issues, they prevent many kids that have no threat to society from getting the opportunity to become great. The schools that have tried kicking out depressed individuals have almost all been sued and lost, because the courts rule that just because someone is mentally ill does not automatically make them a risk to anyone else. MANY influential and important individuals throughout history had a past of mental illness, and had they been prevented because of the stigma of mental illness, there are literally thousands of things that would have never existed.

Do not scape-goat mental illness. Articles like this feed into the negative stigma surrounding mental illness. The more stigma, the more likely that resources are cut-off from those who need them. When you cut off resources, that is when problems can escalate. Instead of demonizing everyone that struggles with their mental health, we should offer support. If we embraced their struggles as we do with other biological illnesses, like cancer, they could feel assured and safe in getting treatment and will be less likely to end up becoming overwhelmed and subsequently snapping.

Mike   February 13th, 2009 6:23 pm ET

Ross Fugitry – you are an uneducated dolt who has no idea what you are talking about.

Capital punishment is a deterrent to people who kill with no intention of being caught in the first place. It is not a deterrent however to someone contemplating murder/suicide. Those individuals already have the intent to kill themselves or be shot by us (suicide by cop) when we arrive on scene. They already plan to implement their own death penalty on themselves, so how exactly will we deter them with another one of our making?

The truth of the matter is there are very few indicators that flag a potential murderer. All of us have the capacity to kill in cold blood under the right circumstances. What we need to concentrate on is making sure we have adequate levels of police officers on all of the college and university campuses nationwide instead of still relying on unarmed security officers (like they do at community colleges in Washington state) to "protect" these kids. All a security officer is going to be able to do is stand there and watch you and your friends die while we are trying to get to your campus and stop people like Kazmierczak from killing too many of you. And as we have all seen from events like this and as I know from first hand experience, every moment we are delayed in taking direct action against an active shooter is another opportunity for them to kill more innocent people.

papioz   February 13th, 2009 6:45 pm ET

like all people i too have had interest in the so called serial killers& have been on antidepressant meds for a number of yrs... i allso have had morbid dreams at times & like others i have flown into rages .
but the thing is
to me the majority of people have already tagged someone a so- called killer or whatever.. all because they read into the madness .
paranoia is rampant if not controlled as far as the ?f spotting one
for the record my 14 yr old son was killed by a weirdo( his friend) all because the boys mom would nt let him do what he wanted to do , so he in turn took out his anger on my son . something i shall never forget
^& it turns out the kid was mental to a point ,did nt take his meds...
instead took a life

Dan   February 13th, 2009 7:58 pm ET

Being confused about one's sexuality is a red flag for mass murder? Where are the red flags for being a potentially violent homophobe?

Marilyn Spencer   February 13th, 2009 8:56 pm ET

As a Psychiatric nurse, who worked in a maxiimum security prison for five yrs, I'd like to say that what is happening w/ the "Jigsaw" case is Monday morning quarterbacking. Were the signs all there? Yes. But, did anyone see all the signs? Likely not! There are many "strange" people, even w/ OCD; on & off meds, in & out of hospitals/treatment; many who like sick & twisted movies/reading/are obsessed w/ the likes of the Columbine massacre/Ted Bundy/Hitler; you get the drift. However, rarely do they commit heinous crimes. It's so easy to point to the police, this/that counselor/friend/teacher/parent; and, I do believe there should be some way to get a handle on all of these signs. However, there has been no crystal ball which gives anyone the ability to "see" what someone may do.
There needs to be so much more work done towards accepting mental illness as we do physical maladies; better outreach programs; adjustment to the laws, not to put people in mental hospitals willynilly, but to be able to keep them/treat them, even when they're refusing treatment. People w/ mental disorders are often their own worse enemies. It's all terribly sad for everyone involved. I'm certainly not excusing killings just because you're mentally ill, but playing the blame game gets us nowhere.

Hyaena   February 13th, 2009 9:07 pm ET

Chris, *I* was in a mental institution when I was younger. I am also a life member in the NRA. What I learned while hospitalized gave me the tools to be able to combat the issues I have with winning strategies. I was hospitalized voluntarily, but it was a psych hospital nontheless.
Please don't make sweeping generalizations about people on the basis of who has and has not sought treatment for a mental illness. It's stereotyping.

Mary   February 13th, 2009 9:23 pm ET

Yeah, look at his eyes. He has whacko eyes. They say that means something but who knows?

Ty   February 13th, 2009 9:39 pm ET

Um...duh-just because you are close friends with a person in college (or anywhere else) doesn't mean you know EVERY single thing about their history, their personal life, or even their present state. I'm sure no ONE person knew every single on that list like who he slept with off craigslist, or fantasized about killing realistic. While it is obviously EASY to read the entire list draw the logical conclusion that home dude was mentally ill, it would not be nearly as obvious if say, one only knew four or five things on the list., because a few things off the list do not necessarily indicate a problem.

Anonymous   February 13th, 2009 9:59 pm ET

In related news, 100% of mass murderers wake up in the morning.


Becky   February 13th, 2009 10:32 pm ET

Capital punishment is, and never will be, a deterrent of any kind. It's ridiculous to think so. People who kill seem to do it in a moment of passion–unintentionally–or in a very planned manner with absolutely no intention of being caught.

As for seeing the "warning" signs for people who end up being serial killers, I doubt it. Each human brain is unique. It's rather arrogant, really, to think that we can understand or "chart" this type of behavior. Of course we wish we could. Who wouldn't want to avert the horrors that this kind of "random" killing puts people through? But it doesn't mean we can.

bones   February 14th, 2009 12:28 am ET

Well, here is a case history for you to pick over. One parent dies young when client, a male, is 4, the other parent remarries poorly to an abusive manipulative woman and divorces losing everything. Parent starts emotionally abusing client. Client is not permitted to talk about deceased mother, parent collects nazi objects, worships devil, develops alcoholism. Client starts defacing public buildings with swastikas, roaming around at night, fighting, catching stray dogs and torturing them with matches and cigarettes, obtains pleasure from their pain and fear. Client is preteen. Parent lives in council flat, is regarded as highly eccentric. Client is sexually abused by male teacher after gotten drunk by him, also by a town pedophile. Client is thrown out of home at 16, starts hitchhiking, wins scholarship to University, attends but becomes hooked on IV morphine sold by Malaysians, smokes pot, sniffs petrol, moves from town to town, takes datura, car sickness tabs, sells and uses LSD and psilocybin, drinks cough medicine, smokes pot, associates with criminals and drug users, engages freely in sex, sleeps in parks and on benches, steals, cons, and so on until 18. Gets married, attends night school gets degree, joins government, leaves and joines professional services firm, makes huge money and makes partnership, in 40s is convicted for many criminal pursuits including sex offending, firearms, drugs, smuggling. Has children and grandchildren. Still married, well off financially, owns house and is highly solvent. Depressed often, drinks, takes drugs including speed and E, engages in minor criminality, literally hates mankind and dreams over and over of mass murder using sophisticated means. Has high intellect well over 130 intelligence quotient.

Now, this person is known to me. Do you think he has thrown out any red flags so to speak? If so, what should I do? His minor transgressions involve only minor drug use and the like. He has also been diagnosed as psychopathic by a forensic psychologist when he was arraigned in his 40s, and by another person as having borderline personality disorder. Yet, this is not apparent on speaking to him. On close inspection however it is clear he has no conscience whatsoever.

TXMLMOORE   February 14th, 2009 12:55 am ET

With the way world is turning, it is going to be real hard to spot the serious crazys. I see a lot of people, and at anytime any one of them are capable of doing some serious harm. Add the drugs and the bad frames of minds is a combination for unquestionable behavior. This world is on a spiral downard. We need to get rid of the designer drugs. Then maybe we will be able to spot the ones that need our help.

Jessica   February 14th, 2009 3:51 am ET

It happens every time someone does a horrible act like this – friends and family say 'we can't believe it.' We never saw it coming. Only later, when these 'red flags' come out do people think bag and say 'well, okay... yeah, maybe... wow, how did I miss that?!?'

bs   February 14th, 2009 8:43 am ET

Each of you who have written here could be or are being programmed to kill your fellow man. Who are the programmers? Your classmates, the military, your family, the list goes on and on. Humans are a sorry lot in many ways; we glorify killing in movies and books, we enjoy making fools out of our co-workers etc. etc. Look in the mirror, you have at one time or another intentionally hurt someone. You might not have killed them, but you hurt them psychologically if nothing else and then you laughed with someone about how stupid they were or how fat they were etc. etc. So, each and every one of us shares in the guilt because, after all, we collectively are the society that produces the people who kill. In the end, after your programming, only you know what you will do and maybe not then. Good luck.

Kasia   February 14th, 2009 11:24 am ET

You can't spot a serial killer until they themselves have killed mulitple people. You can't spot a murder until they have murdered someone. It's nearly impossible to see if someone will kill someone or go on a mass shoot-out. you can't say "Omg, he told me he was going to kill him" because people always say that when their mad or something and they usually don't carry it out...

Darvish   February 14th, 2009 12:22 pm ET

Since when is ownership of multiple guns an indicator of mental illness? Look up "fallacy of composition" someday. Even normative methods require some science to back them up. What you have here ladies and gents is a very very sick young man, everyone around him thought he was sick... and yet no one went so far as to get the authorities involved? Time after time we see this, the warning bells scream out and yet nothing gets done preemptively. Your indicator that ownership of a large number of guns is a warning sign makes me laugh. Guns kill people and pens cause spelling errors right? I predict in the not so distant future one of these nut jobs is going to strap on an home made explosives vest... what then are you going to ban? Fabric vests?

Cam   February 14th, 2009 12:54 pm ET

haveing OCD doesnt mean your a killer, nor loving to play first person shooters, being an insomniac, or watching horror movies!

Anonymous21   February 14th, 2009 1:25 pm ET

I'm not sure I could spot a potential murderer, but I did have an experience a few years ago that made me think twice. A couple whom I never felt comfortable or safe around have a son. This son was around 10 years old at the time of these incidents. My first experience was him having a special object, a dinosaur egg. It was extraordinary and he held it like a prize. I asked him if I could see it and he held it out to me. When I reached to touch it, he pulled back, saying "it's mine". I told him I knew it was his; I simply wanted to experience it with my hands. He would not let me touch it, but kept showing it to me and then pulling away protectively. I found this strange; it went on for ten or fifteen minutes until I just backed away and decided the kid was strange.

As time went on, I was able to observe this child with two other kids with whom his family was living. He was extremely manipulative with these other two kids, and decidedly sadistic. The other two kids were continually baffled by his behavior, but being kids, they forgave and forgot and continued to interact with him.

Over a period of about two years, I came to believe that this child was actually sociopathic, and had the makings of a serial killer. He did in fact kill small animals, and found it fascinating to dissect them.

His parents had bought property with my best friend (the mother of the two other kids), and this scenario ended very badly. After they were off the property, my friend found one or two of her sheep slaughtered in the field; she believes the father of this boy was responsible, but could never prove it. If this is actually the case, it stands to reason that the son has systematically been "trained" in manipulation, scornful behaviors and anti-social beliefs.

This is just a short series of observations on my part, and I realize they may never pan out to anything violent, but my deepest instinct tells me that this child, now around 13-14 years old, has it in him to obsess over sadistic acts and perhaps act out these feelings on humans at some later point.

I worry for my friend and her two kids; this family did not move far away, and there is a lot of land on her property where a scornful person could hide and lay in wait for a desired victim.

I pray nothing comes of this, but if it should, what should I have done with my observations and thoughts? Whom should I have told? How can anything violent be prevented in this case? I have no idea.

Perhaps I am sharing this with you (the public) now as a way of sounding the alarm. Time will tell...

CHADD   February 14th, 2009 1:34 pm ET


Cam   February 14th, 2009 1:56 pm ET

@ Anonymous21 maybe you should tell the mother of the 2 kids about this and alerting the police is another good idea.

Jesse P   February 14th, 2009 5:54 pm ET

The thing about mass murderers and serial killers is that they are incredibly difficult to spot. That, I assume, is why people like Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy weren't caught sooner. In fact, Gacy was a respected member of his community. However, the current problem is that the media is so intent on finding an "M.O." that the "warning signs" have become ridiculous. I hardly think that an interest in serial killers or horror movies suggests any murderous tendencies. Why don't we just stick to the psychological evaluations? If we are going to start examining people interested in serial killers or horror movies or that might be confused about their sexual orientation, there are going to be a lot of potential "murderers". Those things wouldn't be out there if there wasn't an audience and, fortunately, very few in that audience have gone on to be mass murderers. Could I spot a mass murderer? No, and other than a psychologist, neither could anyone else. The whole situation is becoming far too Kafkaesque.

Ryan   February 14th, 2009 5:59 pm ET

Are you all insane? Why don't we just lock up everybody who watches horror movies, has a tattoo, and has looked up serial killers on the internet, for surely they must all be highly dangerous.
How many times must I endure this needless moral panic?
Remember when you numbskulls were blaming beavis and butthead for ONE KID's stupidity? how about Ozzy Osbourne? or KISS? or dungeons and dragons? or teletubbies? or Marilyn Manson?
Good lord, If ONE person does somthing horribble, that's on them. stop looking for "warning signs" in television, music, and movies! Millions of people are fans of the SAW movies. Millions of people are morbidly curious about serial killers. Millions of people play "violent first person shooters" Ever heard of a little game called Halo? or Call of Duty? What do you think you can do? Are you gonna lock them all up? put them on a watch list?
Do yourselves a favor and read 1984 before you start accusing people of thoughtcrime. And please remove your collective heads from your collective hindquarters.

J.C.   February 14th, 2009 6:14 pm ET

You gotta love it when people try and pin violent films and video games with people who commit murder. There's a popular saying for the national media that goes by "If it bleeds, it leads". CNN, Fox News and other media outlets are just as responsible , if not more so, for embedding violent images in the minds of individuals as any violent film or video game. The U.S. is obsessed with death and violence and that is exacerbated by media, in particular the news.

Hindsight is always 50/50 and we always find that the people who commit these murders were themselves victims of bullying or abuse. I'm sure I would have a couple screws loose and be a little anti-social if I had grown up with people making fun of me. Nobody can spot a killer. Nobody. So how about we start wasting time asking "Can you spot a killer? like Abbie Boudreau has decided to do, and start actually doing something productive. Maybe we can work on that school bullying issue? I guarantee that if every single bully was locked up the school shooting rate in the U.S. would drop by 98%. If people want to keep demonizing people who watch slasher flicks, or play certain games, or listen to certain music, fine. If you do so, you are only exacerbating the problem and the blood of every person who has been killed by school shooters is on your hands.

BobC   February 14th, 2009 6:18 pm ET

It seems we have two choices. We can become a complete Nanny State with the government intrusively monitoring every aspect of our live so the can ferret out the dangerous among us. Or we can accept that part of the price for personal freedom is that some of these violent people will slip through the cracks.

send9   February 14th, 2009 6:43 pm ET

Wait, what does having sex with women from Craigslist or being confused about one's sexuality have to do with being a potential murderer?

Delta511   February 14th, 2009 7:32 pm ET

As the Bible says, everyone will be faced with temptations, and we all have to choose in how we respond to those temptations.

Do we act out or follow that temptation or do we face it head on and simply walk away from it? The answer should be obvious, but in today's Phsychobabel world we end up trying to figure out how to excuse ourselves from a poor choice rather than simply doing the adult thing of standing up and saying we were wrong, accept the consequences and learning from it.

I am quite convinced that if we make it a practice to walk away even the simplest of temptations, say speeding, running a light on yellow, cheating on a test etc. we will establish a foundation that will help us when we are faced by what might be considered as big temptations.

In this fellow's case he just followed too many of the minor temptations, got mixed up in sexual liaisons outside of marriage etc, which ultimately led him to making a mistake that would not only ruin the one life he had forever, but also ruined untold numbers of people's lives in the loss of loved ones they will never see again.

I can sure see why the military rejected his enlistment. Military personality/psych tests, fortunately haven't become watered down to the point that they permit someone like this to carry a weapon or really serious equipment designed to destroy or kill.

Too-Loose the Wreck   February 14th, 2009 10:52 pm ET

Okay, first this kid was a sociology major, and secondly obviously had extensive practice at blending in. The thing about sociopaths is that they know how to blend in, and their perversions, psychosis, and habitual behaviors are not always prevalent to their daily behaviors. Oftentimes, they can blend for months at work, in the neighborhood, etc. without striking any odd looks or recognitions. And when they do, they typically pull up stakes and relocate quickly. So to blame these "counselors in training" for not realizing he was a sociopath is rather harsh, considering they ARE in training, and he is obviously a practiced deviant.

neil   February 14th, 2009 11:46 pm ET

Sorry, Chris...your comments just don't cut it. A few months ago in Japan, some cross-wired guy went off his gourd and killed seven people with a kitchen knife. Likewise, in Belgium VERY recently, yet another headcase took out two adults and three children for a total of five dead. With a knife. I would shudder to think what someone with a well sharpened tool such as a mini-bush hook such as all lawn maintenance people are very familiar with.

Compare that with the Super-Duper-Deadly "Assault Weapon" AK-47 that Patrick Purdy went apesh&t with. His death toll? Five.

The simple fact is that when one lives in a society with ANY freedoms at all, there is NO way to prevent some sick person from creating mayhem.

Your best bet is to be legally (thank God that is still possible in many parts of this country) armed and ready to defend yourself and others should you ever encounter such a person. And please don't tell me "it doesn't work". If it "didn't work", then our police officers wouldn't be armed.

Christine   February 14th, 2009 11:58 pm ET

Dear Abbie,

The media must be more responsible in separating people who have a diagnosed mental illness such as depression, an anxiety disorder, PTSD, etc., and people who may have a mental illness but who have other factors in their lives where there is reason to have safety concerns about the individual. The vast majority of people with a mental illness, long or short term are not dangerous. The media can help reduce the stigma of depression, anxiety, etc., because it still exists. People don't want to say they suffer because they worry the wrong thing will be thought about them and if the media in such shows as you have had tonight don't show the differences between a sociopath who has comorbid mental illness and a person with mental illness and no dangerous behavior at all (or thoughts) mental illness becomes "criminalized". More and more of this is happening because there is still a shocking amount of ignorance within society about mental illness. This is strange given that by 2020 the World Health Organization predicts depression will be the number one illness diagnosed. It must be emphasized repeatedly what kind of individual you are speaking about otherwise you are adding to a burden people with mental illness do not need added to their already severely burdened lives. It is very difficult coping with depression, PTSD, or any form of an anxiety disorder among other illnesses. The person most commonly "at risk" is the individual suffering from the depression or other mental illness. Suicide is a tragedy all too common. These people are most often, the vast majority of the time NOT a risk to others. This is basic knowledge that can be found easily is researched properly. It's sensationalistic to tell some stories in certain ways. But it isn't fair or right.

By the way the VAST majority of people with OCD are never dangerous. They may have unusual thoughts and medication can help as it's thought there is a deficiency of Serotonin in the brain – similar to depression, and other anxiety disorders. People can have thoughts that might seem nuts to some but are not remotely dangerous. Again many people do not go for help because they are embarrassed, ashamed or scared to admit to what thoughts come through their mind. They are merely thoughts. People with OCD, without another condition like sociopathy, are hardly going to "act on the thoughts". Please don't taint mental illness any more than it already is and please have experts on who tell a story accurately. Does the author of the book have mental health training such as a Ph.D. in forensic or clinical psychology or psychiatric training?

Someone living a double life is rarely dangerous and many people deceive but are not physical risks. Many combinations together must be in play to cause violence. Any decent expert will say it is almost impossible to predict re-offending or initial violence. It's an educated guess.

Please separate someone like the NIU shooter from the average person with a mental illness.

Christine   February 15th, 2009 12:03 am ET

Hello again,

I just looked at the list of symptoms and behaviors the NIU killer had. Sleeping around permiscuously, anti depressants, having OCD, insomnia??? – these would never be signs of some deviant and do not show a killer. Many people sleep with strangers and think nothing of it. It's not for me but it happens a lot. We all know that. You surely must Abbie. You aren't naive. Guns – hey, huge worry. The States is nuts with the allowance of funs. Thank God I am in Canada. Very different. You'd have much less violence without them.

Making generalizations about people with behaviors a lot of us wouldn't want, like sleeping with people they meet on Craig's list do not indicate a danger or a sexuality issue.

Please be clear about this in reporting.

Ron Avi Astor   February 15th, 2009 12:09 am ET

this is a commentary I wrote after Virginia Tech that was published online in Teachers College Record. It addresses your question.

Lessons That Should Be Learned From the Virginia Tech Mass Murders

by Ron Avi Astor — May 23, 2007

I’ve been researching school violence worldwide since the early 1980s and I’ve seen how our culture has responded to these tragedies. Unfortunately, some of the most important lessons that need to be learned are often lost in a quest to “understand the perpetrator.” If we hope to reduce future attacks, these are the main lessons we should learn as a culture.

Lesson 1: Students, teachers, and family members are our most important line of defense for saving lives. In almost all mass school shooting events the perpetrator has sent out many messages to friends, family, and peers. These signs follow a similar pattern across many of the shooting situations. This means we need ways to allow these groups to pass information on to the correct places that could address potential danger. Almost all K-12 school murders that have been thwarted were stopped because a student, faculty member, or family member came forward before the event occurred. When these types of lethal events are prevented, our nation should celebrate as heroes the students, teachers, and family members who saved lives. This past year we had one such event in Green Bay. Students were amassing napalm, firearms and had a clear plan to create another Columbine-like massacre. Luckily, one student came forth (many students knew and heard about it), and the school/ authorities took the threat seriously. This tragedy was averted due to the student who heard about the pending attack and the appropriate response from professionals. However, through local media and sometimes the grapevine (and we should have a better way of knowing when these thwarted events occur) it appears that there are dozens of these kinds of student, teacher, and family hero scenarios since Columbine that go unacknowledged in our national consciousness. It sometimes seems that our populous wants to learn after a tragedy occurs but devotes far less effort to understanding how these atrocities have been averted. This hampers our societal learning on how to prevent mass shootings in schools.

Lesson 2: We need to be clear on what to look for. Most of the shooters have been suicidal and homicidal for extended periods of time. The public and media have been trying to frame the cause along one variable (e.g., bullying, mental illness, guns, suicidal behavior, etc.). It’s clearly not ONE variable but the combination of variables. The most important one is threat to self and others. This means that the risk signs we normally look for with suicide could be very helpful in deciding what is a real problem. Has he made threats of suicide/homicide? Does he have a plan? Does he have a target group? Does he have a method? Is he obsessed with weapons, firearms, or explosives? Has he communicated verbally or in writing violent tendencies? Does he have a history of mental illness with violent traits? Does he see himself as a victim with many perpetrators around him? It’s not one of these questions that determine the ultimate risk, rather the combination of all of them that requires the need for speedy intervention. Creating institutional mechanisms that can examine risk variables across multiple categories is critical in assessing the overall risk. A focus on only one or two variables distorts the level of potential risk. Clearly, at Virginia Tech, the perpetrator had been suicidal and reported by his peers; a stalker and reported by his peers; a violence concern to his professor(s) and reported by the professor. So this was not a failure of the cohort to recognize the overall fear and risk involved. Rather, it was a failure of the system to consider (or be aware of) the multiple risks in combination. Part of the reform will require changes in state and federal laws surrounding privacy in high-risk situations, but schools should also change their procedures to inquire and take into account these other multiple variables rather than focus on only one that is presented at that period of time. Most K-12 schools have already informally moved to this kind of swift assessment since the Columbine murders.

Lesson 3: Understanding this act as a form of national terrorism, personal glorification, and a desire for eternal fame. This understanding is critical if we as a society want to reduce the number of such tragedies. The main motivation shooters have in perpetrating these events in the way that they are done is eternal memory and fame. They also want to strike fear into the hearts of every American for many years to come. This means the country should respond to these events as they would to terrorist acts, acts of suicide, and attempts to destroy our morale. Decades of social science research clearly show that glorification of perpetrators in the media right after an event increases the chances of these events happening in the months and years following a saturation of information on perpetrators in the media. A focus on the victims and the pain caused by the tragedy leads to a decrease in copycat events. The public has a right to know information; however, the guidelines and deliberations on what events to show and how to show them should follow similar guidelines surrounding terrorism and suicide. These kinds of guidelines might be helpful to schools in the way they frame the issue to students and faculty. It may encourage a greater alertness and clarity about the need to respond and inform if similar situations appear in their settings. Over time, this type of response may help in reducing the number of copycat events.

Lesson 4. Pre- and post-crisis planning need to include many citizens. Compared with other countries, the United States has very few members of the public trained in how to help and respond in a crisis. Much of my work has been in Israel where most of the people have training in basic crisis principles and response. Hence, in a crisis the EMTs and police have thousands of civilian helpers and allies to help evacuate, secure perimeters, triage, and everyone knows where to go and how to respond in a timely manner. In the United States, the entire immediate crisis response is professionalized to police officers, firefighters, and a small group of crisis workers. There is no reason that all U.S. high school students and college freshmen can’t take basic emergency training courses to increase our national and local capacity to handle disaster events. Clearly, 9/11, the Oklahoma bombing, the many school shootings, Hurricane Katrina, pending earthquakes, and other forms of natural disasters in recent years have shown that our population could be better educated and prepared to be assets in crisis situations. In the same way we educate about CPR or how to use the Heimlich procedure or basic safety classes on riding a bike, or driving a car, we can create short pre-during-post crisis units in health classes (both at the high school and college levels). This would be especially important for schools in high-risk areas (e.g., California with earthquakes). This way our country could have millions of responders rather than populations that feel helpless and are unsure how to respond when the need appears. In the same way that learning CPR and the Heimlich empowers people who learned these skills, basic crisis knowledge could help students feel that they can help and contribute if called upon.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 23, 2007

Anonymous   February 15th, 2009 12:14 am ET

I agree with Chris to ban for life from owning a firearm anyone who was admitted to a mental institution. I am a son of a schizophrenic father and would not be here if not for the Brady Bill. It save me and my family from being wiped out when he had plans of buying a firearm at walmart and other stores but was denied everytime. He will call friends to buy for him instead but we will warn everyone we could possibly know first.

I had experienced the horror when someone is sick mentally. He will tell us his plans of killing us, how he will kill us, when he will do it, that someone is after him or we may be after him so he has to kill us first or them, he was in and out of the VA and almost constantly and very traumatic experience growing up.

I would go one step further of requiring Family members, Psychiatrist and Counselors to make it mandatory to report their patients they deemed psychologically depressed and unstable to be added to the banned list database.

And this I can tell you, when people are sick mentally and depressed and hurt someone with a gun or knife, they do not know what they are doing...

Tyler Durdin   February 15th, 2009 12:22 am ET

This entire report was the most non-factually based, collection of theories I have ever heard. Finding excuses for why sick people do things does not help anyone. Trying to link movie characters to reasons that people do things is the same as trying to link Ozzy Osbourne to suicide. It is the media that assimilates these things not the crazy people doing it. Abby tries to make similarities in characters to movies she has never even seen, especially when trying to make a connection between this sicko and Edward Nortons character in the movie fight club, which I dont know which version she seen, but has no sexuality conflict at all, I think it would be seen very easily that this guy using the name Robert Paulson on the return address of an envelope is clearly showing in death we have a name "and his name was robert paulson" as the movie would put it. Apparently he felt that alive he didnt have a name and dead he does. Then the use of her expert who it would seem is looking more to make a couple of bucks off book sales then doing anyone any good,I could not even see this guy as a movie critic none the less some kind of expert in this field. I have recently grown pretty tired of CNNs' lopsided and for the most part one sided views of the way things are, This station has gone over the line to many times on reporting their opinions rather than the news.

brian   February 15th, 2009 2:29 am ET

This is not a world of PRE-CRIME, where we can see the future and prevent violent criminal acts. The normal everyday citizen does not want bad things to happen to other people, but what is the definition of normal? How many people talk about killing someone who made them mad, but never went through with it? I am sure there is a long list there!! The human mind is very complicated. In some cases you can spot a violent criminal a mile a way, but what you don't see is the psychopath living next door who reads his or her newspaper everyday with a nice cup of hot coffee.

FTK   February 15th, 2009 3:20 am ET

One question not asked is, did Kazmierczak's mother drink ANY alcohol while she was pregnant with him? Something that should be asked and then looked into in all cases.

Anonymoys   February 15th, 2009 4:10 am ET

Can you spot a messed up soon-to-be killer?

If they plan and talk about such things openly, then possibly yes.

But from being introvert and shy, or anxious in social situations, we cant. Most shy persons may seem cold or even over-proud, but really are very kind and loving persons.

All madmen are not serial killers!

Corbin   February 15th, 2009 6:32 am ET


SHAME ON YOU. It is one thing when a person spouts off in a nonsensical rant amongst friends. The nonsense only makes it to so many people. But to do so with an international audience? Your irresponsibility and recklessness are matched only by your insensitivity.

The majority of Americans (at least those who have the resources) have been on and off some type of Anti-Depressant or Anti-Anxiety medicine at some point. Thank god we have them.

OCD patients, most of whose anxiety is fueled by guilt and fear of causing harm, will go to the ends of the Earth to ensure that they are not the cause of pain or harm to anyone. A person having OCD would be more of an argument for why they would not commit such an act.

It is clear that without spending any effort to understand the things about which you speak, you have chosen to just waive these ideas around like some schoolyard bully. You should know better. You should be better.

Your list - was it some attempt to create some sort of dramatic retroactive light bulb that should go off in all of our heads? It is the list of an uneducated fifth-grader in the backlands of some rural small-town. OCD? Insomnia? Sex with women? Sexual Confusion? He liked the #1 selling genre of video game in the history of video games? You mean... he was human?

Were you offering this list as something that held no bearing on violence in order to show how irrelevant they were when trying to determine someone's violent capabilities? But if that was your intent, then why didn't you just include in the list his hair color or the fact that he wore shoes as possible tell-tale signs?

Bravo to those readers who have so much of a better grasp of challenges such as OCD and depression and have called you out for your pointless ranting. It is such a fight to shed light on these topics and remove them from under the stigmatized rocks which they lie. And then someone like you comes along and starts shoving everything back under those rocks.

I wonder what we'd find if we opened your psychological closet and took a look.

You should look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself what it means to be a journalist. You should be ashamed for what you've written here.

Rakog   February 15th, 2009 9:03 am ET

Surely we can use technology to help with the situation.

Put up a 'psychotic or not' app up on facebook. All your friends
get to vote, once they reed the instructions, but you don't get to see the results yourself. If you get too many 'psycho' labels, the app sends your facebook profile to the criminal authorities in your state, and you
may get a visit if the police think you are 'interesting'

This will increase the number of wasted investigations, but imagine the lives that could be saved!

Jody Allen Crowe   February 15th, 2009 9:21 am ET

We have not been asking the right question in every violent deviant act. We need to find out if the perpetrator was prenatally exposed to alcohol. I have recently published my research on the seven school shooters in Minnesota and Wisconsin. All fit the profile of prenatal exposure to alcohol. Four out of seven have been confirmed to have been heavily prenatally exposed to alcohol. Two of the remaining three were born to mothers who were binge drinkers. No information could be found on the remaining mother. Over 80% of the shooters across the nation fit the profile of with brain damage characteristics of prenatal exposure to alcohol. People with brain damage do things that normal people do not do. The psychologist diagnose the behaviors, but do not look at the root cause. Additionally, self-reporting by the mothers give the professionals false information as to the levels of alcohol the fetus' are exposed to. If you were to be able to get accurate information on the pregnancy of the people talked about in this blog, as well as the perpetrator in the investigation, you would find that most, if not all, were heavily prenatally exposed to alcohol.

anonymous   February 15th, 2009 10:19 am ET

He may have had Asperger's Syndrome, which was unrecognized.

Without support and caring people around the Asperger's individual they may go off on their own, alone. Because of having a neurological/biological/developmental disorder...he perceived the world differently. Evidently he did not have anyone in his life who understood his lifelong issues/ one to assist, guide, help him with his out-of-control behaviors.

Anonymous2   February 15th, 2009 10:29 am ET

Chris, When you say that anyone committed to a mental institution should never be allowed to own a gun perhaps you have not taken into account certain mitigating circumstances. There are people who have suffered great trauma (e.g. rape, domestic abuse) who suffer post-traumatic stress and could be committed to an institution. Those people after their recovery might very much want to own a gun for their own protection, but would not be able to even though they are not the violent ones. Similarly, there are what's called "identified patients" within families; that is, the one who is scapegoated for their problems. Their parents might have them committed instead of addressing the problem(s) themselves, not to mention the real underlying problem(s) in the home. In both of those situations I mentioned the "crazy" person isn't the one who is institutionalized.

Ruby   February 15th, 2009 11:59 am ET

People-@ LEAST half of america is on an anti depressant, falling into the treatment for being mentally ill.
How many people that are not seeking treatment that ARE mentally ill AND GET THE GUNS????
Gun control should not be base on a person that is appropriately receiving treatment or else we should also do a pysch evalution on everyone from guns, to having children or for that matter driving.

Maybe we should start evaluating them and drivers for that matter.

I call killing sociopathic behavior BOTTOM LINE..

bella   February 15th, 2009 12:23 pm ET

Tragedies such as this have been around for ages and will continue to loom and take place no matter if one sees the red flags or not. The reason this happens at all comes from childhood and events that take place throughout ones life. If you look into a person's life that has created such havoc and gone on a rampage you'll find glaring similarities, all of which come back to a simple explanation. It's all about a person's emotions and how they are made to feel, whether by their families, friends, and even strangers. If a person is well equipped with the coping mechanisms to deal with this sometimes cruel and unforgiving world, he or she will be able to carry on with life with a realization of who they are, not paying attention to what others may say. But how does one achieve these coping mechanisms? It starts with family and a stable structure of morals and ethics and most importantly, a love for the individual. That alone will instill a confidence within that person. Then there are the times one is not with the family but in other social situations such as school, which can be in and of itself, a world of embarrassment and cruelty. If one is not well equipped emotionally, a seed of resentment and anger may be planted that can be negatively watered throughout other confrontations and humiliations. When there is no positive family structure and an inability to cope in school as well, the outcome later in life will not be a pleasant one for the individual, and possibly, others. I'm not saying that everyone, without positive influences, will turn out to be killers, but the chances are increased.
We blame the ones that do the damage, and rightly so. However, we should also delve into a person's upbringing and always ask, "what were the steps that were taken into getting to this point ?" We will find that there are always instances of certain neglect, ridicule, humiliation, or other emotional bruising that can have a lasting effect on a person's psyche. There will inevitably be more violence and lashing out at others in times to come, which is sad and disheartening. The point leading up to that moment started 20-30 years ago. In 20-30 years from now there will be other tragedies that are beginning right now with souls that are being forgotten, neglected, ignored, and humiliated.
The solution to this seems simple but obviously isn't so. It starts with a child and the words that are spoken, the examples that are shown, and the explanations that should be patiently forthcoming. Communication and understanding are vital to a person's world and it is no wonder why being a parent is one of the world's most difficult jobs.

des smart   February 15th, 2009 2:52 pm ET

Abbie, thank you for a report that tries to get to the truth. For a good number of respondents to your blog and story , listening seems to be a challenge. Perhaps it's time to get involved, to put a little of ourselves on the line, to actually become even a small force to make things better. Obviously, this doesn't mean monitoring which film your neighbor watches. What it does mean is to become less cynical and more concerned about how our lives may touch others. Again, thanks for a thought provoking piece.

Jared in Cali   February 15th, 2009 5:05 pm ET

I'd LOVE to see the evidence that correlates first-person shooters and violent movies to violent behavior. I don't feel that violent media can inspire someone to be violent anymore than the Carebears can inpsire someone to care.

Video games are superficial and being used as a scapegoat for behavior that is deeper-rooted.

I blame the mom on this one. If you read the article on CNN, she identifies his abnormal behavior early on, and apparently attempted to get him some professional help. Why did she decide to send him off the college? Does she not realize that college is a stressful place with a lot of the same social pitfalls as high school, where he was bullied and harrassed? Why would she send that kid somewhere UNSUPERVISED???

BIG$   February 15th, 2009 6:36 pm ET

Gun ownership is not the problem. The problem is the violent culture in America. Movies, video games and music encourage this type of behavior. People become numb to death and violence. There will always be homicide. People have and always will kill because of greed or anger. However, we can eliminate random acts of violence like Columbine, Virginia Tech and NIU.

jenny   February 16th, 2009 10:15 am ET

there are many strange people in this world that, after we meet them, in the least we recognize the behavior as abnormal, and at most, we are afraid of them. Until they actually commit a crime, what can you do about it? all you can do is be wary of them, and if possible, limit your association with them. if, for example, the person is a classmate or a customer at your place of business, you must be in some type of association with that person. so the question: can you spot a killer? really sheds no light on dangerous behavior. i'm sure there were many people who thought steve's behavior was erratic and frightening, but realistically, what could they do about it?

Mark   February 16th, 2009 11:21 am ET

I worked for Edgewater Technologies. I warned them about employees bringing in a Glock and threatening people in the Kansas City branch. They did nothing.

6 months later, an employee walked into Edgewater in Wakefield Mass, in 2000, a day after Christmas and shot dead 7 employees. He had hide AK-47's and shotguns in his office. I warned the HR department , they ignored me, and they were the ones who were shot in the Wakefield Mass. office. They has started garnishing the shooters wages for the IRS. The people I wanted to warn were the ones shot dead.

Jimmy   February 16th, 2009 12:30 pm ET

As a teacher at another University, I worry about what I can do to identify students who are "troubled" and to alert the appropriate authorities when I suspect that there is a threat to the student or other members of the University.
I am not entirely sure how much research would be considered an invasion of privacy since it may involve medical records etc. I also fear that alerting the authorities may backfire in the case where the threat was just "in my head". I am not qualified to make these kinds of judgments and it will probably be very offensive and hurtful to the student to be perceived as mentally ill and dangerous.
I wish there was a better solution for me than to just trust that the authorities know how to handle these cases ...

zach   February 16th, 2009 12:49 pm ET

jared in cali,

what you seem to not realize is that very little can be done even when someone is showing "a lot of warning signs." the best anyone can do is encourage the person to seek professional help, which oftentimes doesn't happen. as far as not sending him off to college: why wouldn't you allow your child to go to college?

i'll repeat what others have said before because it seems likely that you haven't read all of these comments: it's technically impossible to spot a killer because they can't be classified as a killer until it happens. there are an enormous amount of individuals who display the same "warning signs" as this guy did. i suffer from major clinical depression, i'm on medicine, i've had suicide attempts, i play violent video games... and i'm so nonviolent in real life my friends tease me about it. i can't remember the last time i purposely caused physical pain to someone. the idea of it is so foreign to me i can't even watch horror movies or slashers. they just bother me too much.

it's easy to look back and assign blame; easy and natural. but it doesn't solve anything.

Patrick   February 16th, 2009 1:20 pm ET

I own multiple guns. If many of you saw inside my guns safes, you'd probably skip the police and go straight to Homeland Security. Everything I own is perfectly legal, but some of my collection may scare the more sensitive of you.

I love playing FPS games. I'm particularly fond of the Medal of Honor and Call of Duty series.

I've seen a few of the SAW movies, but wasn't terrible impressed with them. I like other horror movies, though.

I sometimes have trouble falling asleep.

I've read several books about Hitler and just a few seeks abou watched a movie about Ted Bundy.

2 years ago I was prescribed the antidepressant amitriptyline. I was not depressed. Apparently it's sometimes prescribed to treat peripheral neuropathy, which I have I stopped taking it because it didn't work.

So now I live in fear that someday our liberal Congress and their new Obama 2008 rubber-stamp machine, 'for the children's sake' will pass a law prohibiting anyone who has ever been treated for depression from owning a gun, and that some government drone will learn what data mining is and cross reference a list of known gun owners with a list of people who have been prescribed an antidepressant, and I'll get a knock on the door someday and maybe hauled off to the next Guantaunimo on federal weapons charges.

Gees! I'm probably already a serial killer and don't even know it!

Jessica Baty   February 17th, 2009 3:14 pm ET

This is ridiculous. Individuals can not be simplified into a list of behaviors and characteristics. Individuals are complex and breaking them down into a list, such as this, completely disregards the context in which the individual existed. If we break down tragic events, such as the NIU shooting, and attribute it to "he didn't sleep" or "he was on medications", then we run the risk of identifying everything as a "warning sign".

I know we all want to make sense out of such a senseless event. What's scary is that these events can't be predicted. We can try to prevent them by being "educated" about what to look for, however, we need to be realistic. Individuals do things that we can't understand and will probably never understand. Steven made a choice. It's terrifying that someone could decide to do something so terrible and no one see it coming. But, that's the way that some things are. Tragic and unpredictable.

I know it's easy and comforting to blame those of us close to Steven.

Jessica Baty   February 18th, 2009 3:21 pm ET

Reducing a human being to nothing but all negative things is deplorable. If I were to do that to anyone, just make a list of all the negative things someone had done, it would be so easy to demonize them.

It's so convenient to ignore all the good things that Steven did and all the things that he accomplished in his life.

Stacy Vieux   February 18th, 2009 11:15 pm ET

Chris, at first I agreed with you. It does bring up a good point that people strong mental health problems should not be able to purchase weapons such as guns. I think with that would come cases where someone with a mental health issues could argue that they could not properly defend themselves and that could become a form of discrimination. But good point though.

Patrice Palmer   February 27th, 2009 12:08 am ET

I honestly don't think anyone could walk around and spot a psychopath, sociopath or narcissist. One would have to truly know a person. Even then, you may not know enough.

People should educate themselves on the signs of these disorders and arm themselves with knowledge. There are plenty of places on the Internet to find the common signs of sociopathy and other phsychiatric disorders. Even then, though, the best manipulators can purposefully fool experts. Some even fool themselves. Denial is excellent camouflage, whether or not it is purposeful.

Remember that all sociopaths don't kill or maim, but many do emotionally and spiritually hurt the people with whom they're involved.

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