Breaking the mold

Breaking the mold

Mass killers come in all colors

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 06/08/2006

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In the Hollywood potboiler “Copy Cat,” forensic investigator Sigourney Weaver is on the hunt for a mass killer. In a talk to investigators, she cracks, “All African-American and Asian males please sit down.”

She meant that black and Asian men should not fear being dumped in a line up of likely mass murder suspects. The line got a knowing chuckle. For decades police and FBI officials, forensic specialists, profiling experts and psychologists tagged a mass killer as a hate filled, sexually repressed, loner white male.

The morbid media attention on mass killers such as Son of Sam David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and the Unabomber reinforced the image of serial killers as loopy white males. But the slaughter of a Latino family in Indianapolis, allegedly by Desmond Turner, a young black male, and possibly other blacks, the shooting rampage in several states by Beltway sniper John Muhammad, and the brutal family murders in April in Baton Rouge shatter the reverse racial profile of a mass killer. In the Indianapolis killings, police speculated that the motive was robbery and then the killers simply decided to kill everyone.

Even before the latest spate of mass killings by blacks, there were horrifying and alarming signs that Muhammad and the young blacks that produced the gruesome body count in Baton Rouge and allegedly in Indianapolis were not total aberrations. A study and a survey on mass killers specifically looked at the race of the killers. The study found that the majority of mass killers were white. But it also noted that blacks now comprise about 15 percent of America's rogue's gallery of mass murderers. That was a sharp jump from years past. The survey listed the names of blacks convicted of mass murders and the number of murders they committed.

In a perverse and bitter irony, the racial profiling of young white males as likely mass murderers in the case of Muhammad’s killing spree and Derrick Todd Lee, convicted of killing five women in Louisiana, police, FBI investigators and psychologists repeatedly took wrong turns in the hunt. This unwittingly gave the black killers more time and space to commit their deadly acts. This pattern has been repeated in other cases involving mass killings.

That doubly compounds the gruesome tragedy. The victims of black mass killers are in many instances other blacks or non-whites. They often live in the poorest inner city neighborhoods where the murder rates are far higher than in middle-class suburbs. More often than not, they are poor minority women. They are perceived as the weakest and most vulnerable, and those routinely subjected to male violence.

Many blacks charge that police turn a blind eye to the violence in poor communities, or at best are laggard in their investigations. Police officials hotly deny the charge. They say that if cases aren’t cracked quickly, it’s because witnesses refuse to cooperate. The time lag in solving these cases enables the killers to go undetected much longer. This increases the peril to residents and ultimately makes more victims. The young blacks that commit multiple murders, no matter how far beyond the pale of society's accepted code of behavior, still are savvy enough to target victims who pose no real physical or personal threat to them. In Indianapolis, their victims were a Latino family. Their neighbors described them as law abiding and hard working.

Muhammad’s victims were men and women and racially diverse. That further stoked public panic and riveted national attention. Police and FBI officials initially assumed that the killer was white. But with evidence mounting, along with the testimony of eyewitnesses that the killer was black, they quickly reversed course and focused on black men. If they hadn’t, Muhammad would have continued to kill. In fact, at his Maryland trial for multiple killings in the state, his teen accomplice John Malvo testified that he planned to kill young children. That also fit the pattern in which mass killers prey on the weak and the vulnerable.

Police and FBI officials in Indianapolis learned from the mistakes made in investigations in other multiple murder cases. They quickly fingered one or more young blacks as the likely killers. They concentrated their personnel and resources on bagging them. The speedy apprehension of the prime suspect in the Indianapolis slayings almost certainly saved lives and sent the message that the lives of the urban poor and working class minorities are just as valued as those of suburban whites.

The horrible personal demons of rage, hatred, repression and violent fantasies that plague killers such as Muhammad and push them to commit monstrous destructive acts are no different than the demons that chase white mass killers. The violence they wreak in communities whether rich or poor and on victims of all races can traumatize a city, as the Indianapolis killings did, or a nation, as did Muhammad’s rampage. When that happens it tragically shows that mass killers can and do come in all colors.


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