killer in the family illustration

CNN’s Lisa Ling meets a man whose father attacked the World Trade Center. Watch “This is Life with Lisa Ling” Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

Story highlights

Stigma, isolation and grief are common among family members of mass murderers

Criticism is frequently directed at the parents, spouses and children of the accused

Psychology experts say it's important to talk through the grief and process the guilt

Reconciling a killer's good traits with their evil deeds is challenging for those left behind

CNN  — 

“Missy, you need to change your last name,” the shackled man in the orange prison jumpsuit said into the receiver, staring blankly at his 15-year-old daughter’s tear-stained face.

“That’s when I knew that these things were true,” recalls Melissa Moore, now 33.

Until that day, the man behind the glass partition, Keith Hunter Jesperson, was simply her father; the one who used to tuck her into bed at night “like a burrito.”

Now, in her eyes, he was also the convicted serial killer plucked straight from the newspaper headlines who was serving multiple life sentences; the one who had bloodied her family name forever.

Jesperson, the so-called “Happy Face Killer,” murdered eight women when he was a long-haul truck driver in the early 1990s. Jesperson earned his nickname by sending confessions to journalists and police departments around the country to gain notoriety, signing the admissions with a happy face.

That visit at Washington’s Clark County jail as he awaited trial was Moore’s last with her father for many years. She eventually severed ties with him and took her husband’s surname when she married at 21.

Moore is a part of an exclusive group, those who share blood relations with someone perceived by the public as a monster: a mass murderer. With that unenviable tie can come isolation, guilt, grief, fear, disbelief, even post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to a very public stigma.

In the aftermath of a massacre, questions and criticism are frequently directed at the parents, spouses and children of the accused. The public sometimes sympathizes, often criticizes and even goes so far as to blame family members for the actions of their kin.

In documents released Thursday, it was revealed that 20-year-old Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza’s mother (whom he shot in the forehead before turning his guns on 26 more victims, as well as himself, at the elementary school) gave him money earmarked to purchase weapons and allowed him to keep a gun safe in his bedroom.

Whether they provided the weaponry, ignored warning signs or had no clue what was to come, the Lanzas, Loughners and Klebolds of the world are essentially guilty by association.

Michael Price, a professor of evolutionary moral psychology at Brunel University in London, said people are hardwired to defend their kin, like Moore did before she realized her father’s guilt.

“There will be strong psychological and emotional incentives to defend and remain loyal to the family member, and to delude and self-deceive themselves about the reality of their relative’s guilt,” Price said.

At the same time, Price said individuals may be prone to protect their own reputations and disassociate themselves from the killer to avoid being ostracized.

“They may experience anger at the relative for putting them in such a conflicted position,” Price said.

Recently Lanza’s father, Peter, met with Robbie and Alissa Parker, the parents of 6-year-old victim Emilie, to discuss his son’s actions.

“One of the main reasons that I wanted to speak to him was I wanted to just speak to him as a father, one father to another father,” Robbie Parker told CNN’s Piers Morgan. “And I understand that, despite the circumstances, that he lost his son and that he needed to grieve that as well, just as much as I needed to grieve my daughter. And so I wanted to express those condolences to him, and I felt that we were able to do that for each other.”

Sandra L. Brown of the Institute for Relational Harm Reduction & Public Pathology Education said relatives of killers can initially be categorized into two groups: the family members who recognized the pathological nature of the violent perpetrators and those who did not.

“The more psychopathic they are, the better they are about hiding it,” Brown said.

Melissa Moore with Keith Jesperson
Melissa Moore with Keith Jesperson

In Moore’s case, she looked back on her childhood; what had she missed? She remembered playing games with her wavy-haired father and going to laughter-filled meals with him and her siblings at the local truck stop.

She also remembered a bitter divorce and her dad killing their pet dog by beating its head in right in front of her. “But I didn’t like to remember that.”

“When I was growing up, my dad had put so much pride in my last name, and he gave me lessons on how to be a good citizen,” Moore said. “My name was now known for these horrific murders, and it started to make me wonder if I was like my dad.”

Brown says it’s normal for the family members of killers to doubt their own moral integrity. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, right?

Soon after her father’s arrest, Moore’s friends started making excuses not to hang out with her. She later found out that their parents instructed them to avoid her.

Brown said the more horrendous the crime, the more isolated the family becomes.

It wasn’t until Moore wrote her book, “Shattered Silence,” that she finally opened up.

Most don’t take such an open route, especially when their grief is complicated by the death of the perpetrator, said Brown.

Family members can be overwhelmed by grief and loss but don’t feel they have the right to those emotions. They may not reach out to support groups, like those for suicide survivors, because of the effect their relative’s hellish crimes have had on their community, according to Brown.

More than a decade after the gruesome school shooting that left 12 students and one teacher dead, the parents of Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold remain largely silent.

Susan Klebold, the mother of Dylan, finally opened up in a 2009 issue of Oprah Magazine with a personal essay titled “I Will Never Know Why.”

She wrote: “Through all of this, I felt extreme humiliation. For months I refused to use my last name in public. I avoided eye contact when I walked. Dylan was a product of my life’s work, but his final actions implied that he had never been taught the fundamentals of right and wrong. There was no way to atone for my son’s behavior.”

She also revealed that in one newspaper survey, 83 percent of respondents said that “the parents’ failure to teach Dylan and Eric proper values played a major part in the Columbine killings.”

After the essay was published, she and her husband, Tom, resumed their silence, until Klebold attended a lecture by author Andrew Solomon.

Solomon was working on a book, “Far From the Tree,” that explored children who were vastly different from their parents, whether through autism, dwarfism, homosexuality or crime, and in the Klebolds’ case, murder.

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    Solomon said the decision to write the 976-page book came out of his experience as a gay man, “out of my own sense of having been somewhat incomprehensible to my own parents,” he explained.

    Klebold agreed to talk about the aftermath of her son’s killing spree.

    “I think they spoke to me because they wanted to ensure that Dylan was known with his nuances, as someone who was capable of kindness, himself, even though he ultimately engaged in a terrible act,” Solomon said.

    “I expected to find an explanation for why Dylan had grown up capable of doing something so horrific. What I found instead was that the better I knew Tom and Sue, the more bewildering it all became.”

    Brown finds that families feel powerless, knowing they have to live with these crimes for the rest of their lives.

    “They are doing a life sentence of their own,” she said.

    Often, a statement on the family’s behalf is all they can muster amid the inexplicable events and the media frenzy.

    The family of Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people before shooting himself, issued a statement after the tragedy in April 2007. On behalf of the family, Sun-Kyung Cho, the sister of the shooter, said:

    “We have always been a close, peaceful and loving family. My brother was quiet and reserved, yet struggled to fit in. We never could have envisioned that he was capable of so much violence. He has made the world weep. We are living a nightmare.”

    The Chos haven’t spoken to the media since.

    Most recently, the Lanzas in Newtown: “We reach out to the community of Newtown and express our heartfelt sorrow for this incomprehensible and profound loss of innocence.”

    Then, there’s the survivor’s guilt.

    Mildred Muhammad’s ex-husband and father of her three children, John Allen Muhammad, terrorized the Washington, D.C., area with random sniper attacks in 2002.

    Mildred Muhammad testifies in court

    Muhammad was executed in November 2009 by lethal injection. His accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo, who was a teenager at the time of the shootings, is serving life in a Virginia prison.

    “People blamed me for what John did,” Mildred Muhammad told CNN.

    Prior to the shootings, Mildred and John had a troubled relationship, troubled to the point that he threatened to take her life.

    After the divorce, John Muhammad emptied out their bank accounts, kidnapped their children and disappeared.

    When she finally got the children back and was awarded full custody in Washington state, she fled to Maryland. She did not believe he would follow her, let alone be a physical danger to anyone, other than herself.

    Soon, there were reports of shootings throughout the Washington metropolitan area. Once John Muhammad was captured, there were whispers that he had done it to get his ex-wife’s attention.

    At first, Mildred Muhammad thought that if she’d only stayed with him, he would have killed her instead of killing 10 innocent strangers and wounding three. The guilt and disbelief were overwhelming.

    It’s difficult to grasp the reality that a family member could cause nationwide sorrow, said forensic psychiatrist Helen Morrison, who has profiled dozens of killers. Also hard is the realization that it’s not the family’s fault.

    Morrison said it’s imperative to get the individual to talk about their experience – their feelings, their doubt, their anger, their distress – and try to put that in a perspective that finally leads them to say, “It’s not my fault.”

    For Moore, grief, an unexpected emotion, was a pivotal part of her coming to terms with her father’s actions.

    “I would check out ‘Death of a Loved One’ kind of books. That was the most relatable help I could get because I was going through this death of his identity,” Moore said.

    Emotional conflict arises with the realization that there are happy times and rituals worth preserving in every family.

    In fact, Moore said she tucks her daughter into bed in the same loving way her father did for her.

    It’s important to remember the good times, though she’ll never forget the bad.

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