The Making of Child Assassins

May 22, 2007

[This was originally published on the blog Dream's End, in response to the Seung Cho killings at Virginia Tech. The author remains anonymous, and the original link is dead.]

In order perhaps to understand Cho better, I began looking into other school shootings. And while there are books which outline the similarities among these and seek to develop some sort of psychological profile, I wonder if there is one aspect being overlooked. Specifically, it appears to me that these children and young adults are often in some sort of dissociative state while engaged in the shooting and often have previous symptoms that are symptomatic of dissociative disorders. (This most certainly applies to some very famous assassins, such as Mark David Chapman and Sirhan Sirhan, but I'm not going to deal with that here.)

I'm using the term assassin here, because while it is tragic when any young person shoots another, whether out of anger or gang activities or whatever, these cases share certain features those other cases lack. Here are a few of the features that I've not seen highlighted in discussions of these young shooters.

And schizophrenia, though not typically considered a possible diagnosis in children, could be the culprit. However, it's important to note that schizophrenia is primarily a thought disorder and makes the sort of meticulous planning that is often seen in these cases rather difficult if not impossible. In many ways, then, dissociative disorders, whether involving multiple personalities or simply a tendency to shift into "altered states" of consciousness during times of high stress, seems just as likely to explain what we are seeing, if not more so. If you combine the tendency to dissociate with a relationship with an abusive or manipulative authority figure or peer, this could easily explain most of the factors so common in these shootings. This is very important, in my view, even absent theories of "MKULTRA" or "Manchurian Candidates." Dissociative disorders come about primarily as a result of long-term childhood abuse, often sexual abuse and/or extreme neglect. As such, it should be of concern that no one seems to be looking at this pathway in the development of these child "psychopaths." (It should also be noted that the abuser does not necessarily have to be a parent.)

Here are a few "case studies" and I'm sticking with the lower profile cases we don't hear as much about. I don't have access to much material on these cases, but what I do find is shocking.

Let's start with Brenda Spencer. In San Diego back in 1979, 16 year-old Spencer took a rifle and started taking shots at kids in the school across the street. When a siege ended with her arrest, she reportedly said that she began shooting just because, "I just don't like Mondays." Other reports have her gleefully recounting that it was "a lot of fun" to shoot the children. This, by the way, was before video games even existed… if you don't count Pong, which is not a particulary violent game.

What makes a 16-year-old girl so cold? Well, apparently the courts believed that that's just the way she was, and reasons aren't important. And to be fair, she did not offer up any reasons until her parole hearing in 2002. Here is a collection of articles on that hearing. And what she told the parole officers, though ultimately rejected as unsubstantiated excuses, should raise a few red flags.

Spencer said that she was sexually abused by her father and forced to share his bed until she was fourteen. The rifle with which she shot the children was a Christmas gift from her father, though she'd asked for a radio. She felt he wanted her to use it to kill herself, but whatever the reason, it's an odd gift for a 16-year-old girl. She claimed that she was drunk and on PCP at the time and was hallucinating that a group of commandos was coming in her direction from the school when she began shooting. (Drug tests evidently came back negative, but she claims those tests were faked.)

Spencer also claimed that she was kept on mind altering drugs after she was arrested and was kept in a sort of zombie state doing and saying whatever investigators wanted. In fact, she claimed she is active with a group of 50 female inmates who were all allegedly kept on mind-altering drugs until their trials were over and are planning a lawsuit, though surely they have little hope of success even if it is true.

Sure, she could just be making all of that up hoping to win parole. Though I have to say, if that's the way she was hoping to win parole it was an odd way to go about it. As I realize every time I even venture to write about these topics, this sort of thing is not taken seriously, least of all by parole boards. However, it is hard to imagine any other explanation that makes sense. Perhaps we could assume she was taking PCP voluntarily and then just snapped, but to me, a history of abuse seems very likely. Her father has never spoken out about the shooting.

Several school shootings are described in fairly substantial detail in the book Deadly Lessons: Understanding Lethal School Violence (2003). Two of them are of interest here.

In April of 1998, at age 14, Andrew Wurst came to a school dance at his Pennsylvania middle school with a pistol. He shot one teacher to death and wounded a few more students. Here is what he said when he was apprehended by the owner of the facility hosting the dance:

'I died four years ago. I've already been dead and I've come back. It doesn't matter anymore. None of this is real.' (p. 73)

In later conversations with a psychiatrist, Wurst said he'd been knocked unconscious when "caught between two swings" at age 8. This would be 6 years previous. But by age 10, he was already having suicidal thoughts. Here is what a psychiatrist says was Wurst's belief about other people.

Other people are "programmed to act and say what the government, mad scientists, or a psycho want them to say." Andrew elaborated later, saying that people are like robots, programmed with "time tablets" that give them differing levels of intelligence and different personalities.

"If I can think, I am free -- the last freedom are my thoughts." (p. 77)

Wurst suffered from many seemingly irrational fears. His mother said that he was still afraid of monsters in the closet or under his bed. In addition, he was a bedwetter till age 9, and though this can have many causes, it can be a reaction to sexual abuse. Wurst also admitted that he heard voices in his head. In fact, he'd written to a friend that "the voices are coming again."

Wurst felt he had been brought here from the future and had a special task to carry out:

At another point, Andrew stated he had returned from the future and has "a mission to prevent something terrible that has happened or that will happen in the future." He wasn't certain what that mission was, but he did know that he had an "arch enemy" who would try to prevent him from accomplishing it. He had never seen this arch enemy but knew that everyone has one, which meant that he had to be on guard. (p. 78)

And Andrew had told his former girlfriend some months before the murders:

"We are all in reality in hospital beds being monitored and programmed by these mad scientists, and this world is not real for them…. The scientists watch over us to see what we're doing."

The following year, the film The Matrix was released. The following year.

Just a few months prior to Wurst's rampage, in December of 1997, Michael Carneal entered the lobby of his Paducah, Kentucky high school and began shooting students in a morning prayer circle. He'd brought several guns with him, as well as several sets of earplugs, which caused some to think he expected others to join in. Like Wurst, it would later emerge that he was deeply affected by mental health issues. He gravitated toward the "goth" crowd, some of whom wore the long black coats that Columbine would soon make famous.

Although he brought several guns with him that day, bundled up in a blanket as "props" for a skit, he told everyone, he chose to do the shooting with a .22 pistol. This was probably the least powerful weapon of the bunch. Not to worry, however, for Carneal, like Cho, had an amazing proficiency with this weapon that left even one military expert stunned:

Michael Carneal, a 14-year old boy who had never fired a handgun before, stole a pistol, fired a few practice shots the night before and came into his school the next morning with the gun. In this case 8 shots were apparently fired, for 8 hits–4 of them head shots, one neck, and 3 upper torso. This is simply astounding, unprecedented marksmanship, especially when it comes from a child who apparently had never fired a real pistol in his life (prior to stealing the gun) and had only fired a .22 caliber rifle once at a summer camp.

I am an Army Ranger, "expert" qualified on all major U.S. small arms and many NATO weapons, an instructor for: the American Society of Law Enforcement Trainers (ASLET); the International Association Society of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI); the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Emergency Response Teams; the California Highway Patrol Academy; and numerous other state patrol academies. I have fired many tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition, and even with all of this I sincerely doubt that I could have fired as accurately under these circumstances. Indeed, I have never heard of anything remotely like this in its degree of deadly accuracy under these circumstances. The Illinois Highway Patrol in an assessment of the accuracy of their officers across several years found that the average officer, in the average engagement, at the average distance of 23 feet, hit with 13% of the rounds fired. In the Amadu Dialo shooting in New York City, four members of an elite NYPD unit fired 41 rounds at an unarmed African immigrant, at point-blank range, and hit 19 times. That is the norm, even in the best of conditions, among trained, professional law enforcement officers. In the recent Jewish daycare center shootings in Los Angeles, the shooter is reported to have fired 70 shots, and wounded 5 individuals. This is what should be expected from an untrained shooter.

I trained a battalion of Green Berets, the Texas Rangers, the California Highway Patrol, the Australian Federal Police, and numerous other elite military and law enforcement organizations, and when I told them of Michael Carneal's achievement they were simply amazed. Nowhere in the annals of military or law enforcement or criminal history can any of us find an equivalent achievement, and this from a 14-year old boy with no previous experience in firing a handgun. Michael Carneal had never fired an actual pistol before, but he had fired thousands of bullets in the video game "murder simulators." His superhuman accuracy, combined with the fact that he "stood still," firing two-handed, not wavering far to the left or far to the right in his shooting "field," and firing only one shot at each target, are all behaviors that are completely unnatural to either trained or "native" shooters, behaviors that could only have been learned in a video game. (dead link)

But this last statement is completely wrong. You cannot learn to shoot in video games in any sort of way that corresponds to real life. You will not learn proper stance nor will you even use a gun. The games are played with a mouse and a keyboard. There's an argument to be made that violent video games play a role in all of this, but not in the sense of "training" people to shoot live rounds.

But one part of this rings very true. To Carneal, none of this seemed to really be happening. He told one psychiatrist that he felt like he was in a dream during the shooting. Carneal's sister witnessed the affair and noticed a complete physical change had come over her brother:

She said later that she would not even have recognized her brother if she had not seen his clothes and his face. His posture was different and he seemed larger than his normal self when he was holding the gun.

Carneal stopped firing when he saw his friend on the floor, bleeding, and noticed bullet holes in the wall. This snapped him out of whatever trance he was in and he put the gun on the ground. When another student came over to him, Carneal asked that student to kill him.

Carneal had not been diagnosed before with a mental illness, but he later revealed the secret inner anguish he'd been hiding fairly well.

All of the reports, however, detailed similar odd behaviors, paranoia, and trouble interpreting social interactions correctly. Michael Carneal reported unreasonable fears. He thought people were looking at him though the air ducts in the bathroom, and worried that if he touched the floor in his bedroom, he could be harmed by assailants lurking under the floor. He often announced when entering his bedroom, "I know you are in here." He often thought he heard voices calling his name or calling him stupid, but recognized that he might be imagining them. Before the shooting, he told one psychiatrist that he thought he heard people in the prayer group talking about him. He feared going to restaurants because he thought his family would be robbed. As he, his father, and a family friend walked across a quiet college campus the Friday before the shooting en route to a basketball tournament, he remarked, "Boy, you could really get mugged out here." According to the experts' reports, he never told his family about his fears because he knew them to be unreasonable.

Some of Michael Carneal's fears translated into strange behaviors. He covered himself with at least six towels (other sources say this was out of fear of being seen naked by these unknown watchers) whenever he took a shower and covered the air vents with towels as well. He often slept in the family living room. Knives from the kitchen were discovered under his mattress after the shooting. He reportedly hopped on top of the furniture to avoid touching the floor in his bedroom. (p. 150)

As with Wurst, there's plenty to suggest a psychotic disorder, such as emerging schizophrenia. However, the characteristics he showed are also consistent with a reaction to sexual abuse or extreme trauma. As with Wurst, we have no evidence that this is the case, but I think it's safe to consider the actual shooting to have been carried out in a dissociative state of some kind. We should also note here that, as is often the case, police suspected others may have been involved in the planning of this incident. Wurst brought more weapons and earplugs than he needed and may have been expecting others to join in. And too, we are left with that nagging question: who taught Carneal how to shoot so well?

We also have Luke Woodham in October of 1997. While there were suggestions by media and authorities in the above two cases that there were others involved in the planning of these shootings, in Woodham's case, the group was identified and five of them ended up facing minor charges for their role. Woodham showed up to school one day, wearing a trenchcoat, of course, and shot several students, killing two of them, including a former girlfriend. He remembered the school shooting but he didn't remember much about the murder several hours previous in which he had stabbed and bludgeoned his own mother to death (eerily reminiscent of the Charles Whitman murder spree in 1966). He remembered standing at her door with baseball bat and knife, but said he closed his eyes and when he came to again, she was dead.

Woodham and his accomplices were in a self-described Satanic cult called the "Kroth". He claimed that the leader of the group, Grant Boyette, was very powerful and had introduced him to the power of Satan and had the ability to conjure demons. It was Boyette's voice Woodham heard in his head, urging him on to murder.

At his mother's murder trial on June 4, 1998, a tearful Woodham testified that he woke up on the morning of the incident haunted by demons. These demons, Woodham said, told him that he would be nothing unless he went to school and killed his targets. He also claimed that he tried to resist the demons but he kept hearing his friend Boyette's voice in his head telling him "to do something." Woodham, however, never specifically said that Boyette told him to kill and did not remember the actual slaying of his mother.

CNN reported from the trial:

Woodham, who broke down in tears on the stand, said he recalled getting a knife and a pillow and walking to his mother's room. He said he could hear Boyette's voice in his head throughout the process.

"I just closed my eyes and fought with myself because I didn't want to do any of it," he said. "When I opened my eyes, my mother was lying in her bed."

Woodham said he and Boyette became good friends in January 1997, after Boyette cast a spell from a satanic book. Woodham said he believed the spell led to a teen-ager being run over by a car and killed.

"We started a satanic group and through the hate I had in my heart, I used it to try and get vengeance on people and do what he (Boyette) told me to do."

After one round of pointed questions from Jones about his mother's killing, a visibly shaken Woodham said he could not remember the actual killing. "I don't know, sir. I don't know and it's eating me up every day."

Let's assume for the moment that Woodham was not actually possessed by demons. Although Boyette was also only a teenager, he apparently had some natural skill at manipulating Woodham and in what seems to me to be a case of amateur mind control. Taken to an even further extreme, this is quite similar to what Charles Manson was able to do with his followers. And by the way, if you don't believe that one person can gain significant control over others via these psychological techniques, then you should sign up for the "Free Charles Manson" committee. If you remember, Manson never killed anyone and was not even at the scene of any of the murders when they were carried out. I can't find anything further about Boyette, but if he is back in the population, he likely has another group of followers around him.

At the very least, I wonder about our society which seems unable to see many of these children as mentally ill.

1997-1999 was a busy time period for school shootings, culminating in Columbine, but one of the more disturbing I've run across (also in the book, Deadly Lessons) is the case of two boys not even done with puberty who meticulously planned and carried out a deadly attack in a school near Jonesboro, Arkansas. On March 24, 1998, Mitchell Johnson, 13 and Andrew Golden, 11 (sic) pulled a fire alarm in their middle school and took shots sniper-style from nearly 100 yards away, killing four students and a teacher and seriously wounding ten others.

In some ways this case does not fit the parameters I listed above. For example, both boys seemed to have total recall of the events and though both have hints of some mental health issues, neither is reported phenomena such as voices in their head, irrational fears, etc. But still, there is a lot about this case that stands out. For one thing, Johnson is known to have suffered repeated sexual abuse by (evidently) his biological father. And while there is no "evidence of abuse" of Golden say the authors, two of his half-siblings had to be sent out of the house due to unspecified "mistreatment" by Golden's father and grandparents. The details on this case again come from the Deadly Lessons book, but there is a strange reluctance by the authors to fully examine the sexual abuse of Johnson. In fact, if you only read the first part, you wouldn't know about it at all. But even what is described of Johnson's biological father is chilling.

Scott Johnson… had an explosive temper. According to media reports, by his own admission Scott Johnson was a screamer. While there is no evidence he was physically abusive toward Mitchell, he punched holes into walls and was verbally abusive, but after his tantrums rarely disciplined Mitchell in a way that would teach him what he had done wrong. Mitchell reacted quite strongly to his father's temper; on several occasions, he was found trembling and physically ill in response, and it could take hours to calm him down. (p. 103)

What's disturbing about that beyond the horror of Scott Johnson's temper is that Mitchell was repeatedly sent up to spend time with his dad, despite the clear emotional abuse (at the very least). He was even threatened with being sent to live with him permanently.

Yet the mention of Mitchell's sexual abuse is not made until the end of this chapter and in an offhanded way:

His troubled relationship with his father was a source of much anxiety for him, and the thought of possibly having to live with his father made him feel hopeless. He had suffered repeated sexual abuse, and while it is not uncommon for children to fear telling anyone about such abuse, Mitchell's fears were aggravated by his worries about his father's temper. (p. 115)

I guess that doesn't count as "physically abusive" to the authors, but why was this left out of the initial description? And it's not even completely clear about whether it was his father doing the sexual abuse, though the text strongly implies so. Mitchell had previously been caught sexually molesting a two-year-old girl. He had also been caught making hundreds of dollars of phone calls to 900 number phone-sex lines and he'd been kicked off the basketball team for self-mutilation, carving his own initials into his shoulder. All of these behaviors would be typical for a sexual abuse victim.

Golden is a bit more mysterious. While the authors of "Deadly Lessons" suggest he was never abused and perhaps even overindulged, his own half-siblings had to be sent to live with other relatives due to mistreatment of some kind.

The authors themselves describe both boys as having "Jekyll and Hyde" personalities. Both had dark sides not seen by many adults in the community. Golden was the worse of the two, in this regard:

He rode around with a sheathed hunting knife strapped to his leg and reportedly killed cats in his backyard, including one that he starved to death in a barrel. Golden's grandfather also had a reputation among some in the community as being irascible and petulant, and some wondered whether Andrew learned his menacing behavior from him. Andrew's behavior around the neighborhood contributed to his reputation as "mean-spirited." (p. 107)

But what stood out for me about this killing spree, besides the obviously startling young ages of the shooters, is that the two boys seemed not to know each other well at all:

By most accounts, Mitchell and Andrew were not friends, just acquaintances who met on the long bus ride to school. The bus ride provided the boys with a fairly lengthy period of unsupervised time, with the bus driver as the only adult present. Many parents complained of rowdy and inappropriate antics by older children on the bus, to which younger children were exposed. While Mitchell and Andrew were not assigned to sit together on the bus, many believed that their plans were likely hatched there nonetheless. Neither boy visited the other's house, they were in separate grades at school, and they had no common recess or activities together. In fact, adults at the school said they never would have paired the two together, their personalities were so different. But Mitchell and Andrew did call one another at least a few times, and friends said they saw each other outside school. (p. 108).

This young Jekyll and Hyde went to great trouble to procure weapons from Golden's house and the house of his grandfather who had a veritable arsenal of rifles. Amazingly, Mitchell drove his parents' van to the school, stopping, apparently, at three different gas stations to buy gas before an attendant would allow them to do so. None of the gas station attendants called the police on these obviously underaged drivers, however.

While both boys seem to have remembered the events, Johnson at least claimed that he had not intended to hit anyone.

I really thought that no one would actually be hurt. I thought we would just shoot over everyone's head.

Bullet holes were, in fact, found very high up on the school building. This suggests that of the misses, at least some were intentional. And maybe they never did intend to hurt anyone. Or perhaps the third shooter was somehow responsible for hitting the targets or ordering them to do so. Oh, didn't I mention that a third shooter was spotted with the boys? As in Columbine, another shooter was seen at the site.

The possibility of a third shooter was apparently investigated by the police and found to have no merit, but some of those who were in the line of fire still believe that a third shooter, situated on a hill near the elementary school nearby, was involved and eluded capture. Some community members also speculated that a third person, perhaps someone older, had helped the boys plan the event or had discussed it with them. This issue apparently was not part of the investigation. (p. 131… the footnotes, of course.)

Apparently not. In all of these cases of the late nineties, leaving aside the earlier Spencer case for the moment, other conspirators were rumored to be or actually found to be involved in the planning of the shootings. And even the Spencer case is suggestive in that it was her father who inexplicably bought her the rifle, though perhaps it was her own suicide he was attempting to manipulate her toward.

Sexual abuse. Satanic cults. "Mental illnesses" involving the belief that people's minds are controlled by doctors in white coats. Allegations of control by police via mind altering drugs. Dissociative episodes. Young children described as "Jekyll and Hyde". A "third gunman." This is the substrate within which we need to be interpreting these events. I'm not suggesting all of these events are part of some grand conspiracy. I'm suggesting that investigators and reporters seem to do little more than poke around with a stick at the fringes of these cases. These young assassins are made, not born. And I think it is very likely that the same mechanisms which have been studied carefully by the CIA for deliberately creating "Manchurian candidates" of their own are at work here as well.