Threats May Signal Urge to Be Caught
By Jeff Donn, Associated Press
Looking back, it often seems so clear. Many people who have exploded
in violence first made threats or gave warnings that should have
raised alarms but didn't.
That appears to be the case in the Washington-area sniper case and
the killings last week at the University of Arizona. It has been true
of many previous mass murders.
Too often, the ominous words are brushed off as mere venting or
harmless ranting. Dr. Dorothy Otnow Lewis, a psychiatrist at New York
University who studies violence, said her research has come across
many violent people "who have given numerous warnings - explicitly
talked about killing - and no one has listened."
What drives some killers to give clues about their violent impulses?
There are varying theories.
For some killers, warnings or threats represent veiled pleas for
help, a way of asking obliquely to be stopped. In many cases, as
documented in thousands of domestic restraining orders, threats can
be meant to terrify. For serial killers, they can heighten the thrill
of a cat-and-mouse game with police and intensify feelings of power.
"The more dangerous it is for them, the more they wave a flag in
front of your face, then the more thrill they get from the killings,"
said Philip Jenkins, a Pennsylvania State University historian who
has researched serial murderers.
In the sniper case, it turned out that a friend had warned the FBI in
June about John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo, the two men accused of
the shootings. He said they spoke to him of carrying out a sniper
attack and killing police.
Authorities say they had reservations about aspects of the friend's
account, and Muhammad and Malvo were never interviewed. "I raised the
red flag three months ago," said Harjit Singh. "I told them what
their intention was."
At the University of Arizona, student Robert S. Flores Jr. told a
teacher in April 2001 that he was depressed, had thought of suicide,
and "might put something under the college."
It wasn't clear exactly what he meant, but it was threatening enough
for the teacher to go to campus police and file a report.
The campus police chief said the department took no action because an
administrator and faculty member talked with Flores and felt none was
needed. Last Monday, Flores walked onto campus with a loaded gun and
killed three professors and then himself.
Sometimes, a killer's warning is more explicit. On July 18, 1984,
James Huberty put on combat fatigues, gathered three guns, and told
his wife he was "going hunting humans." He went to a McDonald's in
San Ysidro, Calif., where he fatally shot 21 people before a police
sharpshooter killed him. His wife said later she didn't take his
Crime specialists say killers' warnings usually sound more typical of
the things ordinary people might occasionally say when angry or
depressed. The difference is that killers then act.
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"It's so inconceivable to the people who know these people that they
commit these apocalyptic acts, that they don't take it that seriously
when they utter threats," said Harold Schechter, at Queens
College-City University of New York, who has studied the lives of