Spree killers target innocent bystanders, thrilling in the destruction of the public’s well being. Their acts of violence are motivated by revenge or a misguided need to be noticed.
On April 28, 1996, Martin Bryant opened fire at a popular café. He killed 35 people and wounded 19 others in a single day. Bryant was a troubled and tormented youth, lashing out in anger. He lashed out in defense against bullying and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and mild retardation. As a young adult he became isolated and desperate sought companionship, striking up conversations with random women. His attempts were thwarted and he became angry at society in general and planned revenge. After the shootings, Bryant fled to a nearby inn and was surrounded by police. He set the inn on fire and was badly burned. He recovered from his injuries and was sentenced to 35 life sentences after pleading guilty to murder.
Social exclusion seems to be a common indicator in spree killers. Test subjects were tested to see the impact of social isolation and rejection. After being rejected, subjects were asked to fill in blanks on several words. Rejected subjects repeatedly choose violent words.
On August 1st 1966, Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother, then packed a footlocker full of weapons and drove to the University of Austin. From a clock tower on the college’s campus Whitman killed 15 people and wounded 31 others. Whitman was raised in a physically abusive home. He left home at 15, joining the Army and was sent to the University of Texas on scholarship. He married but struggled to overcome the violence of this past. He was court martialed after a violent public outburst and his scholarship revoked. He is ashamed of his behavior, but unable to control them. He wrote about his struggles in his journal and confessed his desire to kill bystanders from the clock tower to a psychiatrist. After the attack, an autopsy was performed and a tumor was discovered.
Borderline personality disorder is a mental illness that can cause impulsive behaviors, fits of rage or inappropriate emotions. The amygdala is the part of the brain that regulates fear and anger. Those with borderline personality disorder have heightened activity in the amygdala, which may inhibit an individual’s ability to control their rage.
19 year old Charles Starkweather and his 14 year old accomplice, Carol Fugate embarked on a killing spree after Starkweather killed Carol’s parents. They claimed 10 victims, lashing out at any one who crossed their path. Starkweather was an outcast at school, bullied and teased, he fantasized about revenge. Carol and Charles had a passionate affair and planned to marry, but her family stood in their way, so they were eliminated. Starkweather shot Carol’s mother, stepfather and 2 year old sister then took their blood lust on the road. They killed seven more people before they were apprehended. Carol Fugate claimed she was a hostage but both were convicted.
Spree killers are becoming more deadly and methodical, attacking at schools, malls or other crowded public places. Understanding the motives and traits will hopefully help law enforcement prevent tragic blood shed in the future.