11/04/2002

Killers' Warnings Often Unheeded

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 remark seriously.

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.

"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 serial killers.

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