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Why did he do it?
I just happen to be in Scotland when I hear about the massacre.
It's the morning of Wednesday, March 13, 1996, and I'm in a television studio in Glasgow as part of a promotional tour for my book Mindhunter, at the invitation of our British publisher. For the last hour I've been interviewed about criminal profiling on the ITV television program This Morning by a very personable team of cohosts named Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan. How did I begin in the field? they ask. How did I learn what I know, and who did I learn it from? How did my Investigative Support Unit in Quantico, Virginia, go about creating and using a profile of an unknown subject or UNSUB, as he is known in FBI and law enforcement circles? Throughout the tour I've been really pumped up by the Brits' fascination with the subject and the interest they've shown in my career of studying and hunting killers, rapists, bombers men whose evil and depraved acts challenge the bounds of the human imagination. Fortunately for the people of the United Kingdom, their society is not nearly as violent as ours in the United States; but they come by their fascination understandably. The first known serial killer Jack the Ripper terrorized the East End of London in a grisly mystery that's remained unsolved for more than a hundred years. On this tour, interviewers still ask me if the killer could be profiled and the case closed, I tell them that it would be difficult to come up with the Ripper's specific identity at this late date, but that even after a century we can verylegitimately profile the UNSUB and say with reasonable assurance the type of individual he was. In fact, I tell them, I've done it several times in the Ripper murders both in training exercises at Quantico and on a live international television broadcast with Peter Ustinov some years ago.
I'm back in the TV station's green room when the producer comes in. I assume she's going to thank me for appearing, but when I look at her she's grim, and her voice is urgent.
"John, can you come back on the show here?"
I've just done an hour what more could they possibly want? "Why?" I ask. "What's happened?"
"There's been a horrible murder in Dunblane."
I'd never even heard of the place. It turns out to be a traditionally peaceful village of about 7,300 people, midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, that goes back to the Middle Ages. I've got about five minutes before the producer wants me back on, and she quickly hands me the wire service copy.
It says there's been a mass killing of children at the Dunblane Primary School. Reports were frantic and details sketchy, but it appears that a gunman walked into the school at about 9:30 in the morning and began shooting four-, five-, and six-year-olds in the playground. There'd been multiple gunshots, and some of the children had definitely been killed. Others were injured, their teacher fatally wounded. The news reports didn't have a name or age, but apparently the killer had more than one weapon with him high-caliber military-type weapons, it seemed.
From these brief news flashes, it sounds like a scene of utter and appalling horror. For a father of three even with all I've seen it's difficult not to become sick at the thought of small children being massacred on the playground of their own school.
This is all the information we have when we come back on the air a few minutes later, still reeling from the news. The story is broadcast, and Richard Madeley turns to me and says something like, "Well, John, what do we have here?"
"Well, first of all, you're dealing with a mass murderer," I tell them, then explain how that's different from serial murderers and spree killers. A serial killer is hunting human beings for the sexual thrill it gives him and will do it over and over again, believing he can outwit and outmaneuver the police, never expecting to be caught. The spree killer kills a number of victims at different locations in a short period of hours or days. But a mass killer is playing an endgame strategy. Once he commits himself to his course of action, he does not expect to come out of it alive. He will generally either kill himself after he's "made his statement" or commit what we call "suicide by cop" forcing a confrontation in which the police or SWAT team will have no choice but to open fire. I expect that later reports will say that this individual died at the scene. These killers are such inadequate people, such losers, that they know they cannot get away and won't give others the satisfaction of controlling them or bringing them to justice.
But what kind of person would do this? Judy Finnigan wants to know, genuinely bewildered.
"Well," I respond, "the first thing you have to understand is the motive, and the key to that is in the victimology." Who has he chosen as his victims, and why? Are they victims of opportunity, or was a careful and deliberate choice made?
"Generally speaking, mass murderers are white males, ranging from their mid-to-late thirties to their mid-to-late forties. In your country you don't have that large a percentage of blacks, so the white-male guess is a pretty good one. But even in our country, where we have many more blacks, it's still going to be a white male, and he'll be an asocial loner. That's what this gunman is going to turn out to be."
But these things don't happen in a vacuum. I know very well that even though we have few details at this point, a pattern is going to emerge as soon as we know more, and I already feel I can say what that pattern is going to be. The identity of the person who's responsible for this crime, I state, should not come as any surprise to his community. This is someone who's had a history of turmoil in this locale. And because it's a school that is the target, there must have been some problem in his relationship with the children in the school, with the school itself, or with the parents. There must be something related.
"In this kind of case," I say, "you would know that there has to be a reason why this subject would pick schoolkids something in his life connecting schoolchildren and himself. And he'll pick a place he's familiar with, where he feels comfortable."
Children are sometimes victims in a mass murder, but normally they will be either incidental victims (such as when someone shoots up a fast-food restaurant) or members of a targeted family. This was a different type of crime altogether, and its perpetrator, I predict, will adhere to a defined pattern of behavior.
Leading up to the crime, these people are very, very frustrated; very, very angry. You would look for this one in Dunblane to have written letters perhaps to the school principal or headmaster, the local newspaper, or some municipal authority. These types are much more comfortable with the written form of communication and so they'll express themselves in diaries, express the hate or anger they feel about whatever it is that's bothering them. When they feel they are not getting satisfaction, they may escalate and address their grievances at an even higher level. In the United States, it could be to the president. In Britain, it might be to the queen or prime minister. Then they reach a point in their lives where they feel no one is paying attention. So they take it upon themselves to perpetrate this type of crime.
I tell my television hosts that this crime appears to me to be a kind of revenge. Because the victims were very young children, I suspect it was retaliation for some perceived wrong real or imagined perpetrated against the killer. The children themselves were too young to have been targeted individually, too young for the guy to conceive that any of them had personally wronged him. The main target was not the teacher, though. Had that been the case, he would have shot her, then left. She was probably heroically defending the children and he eliminated her merely to get to his primary prey. In my mind, it is as if innocence itself is the target as if he has decided to take something very precious from either their parents, the school officials, or both.
He will turn out to be single, I say, without any significant relationships with women in his own age range. He will have had something to do with young children, either as a teacher himself or, more likely, as a scoutmaster or volunteer of some sort. This is the only sort of sexualized relationship he would feel comfortable with; he couldn't relate to his own peers, or they to him. He may be homosexual and prefer boys to girls, but not necessarily, since the victims are so far prepubescent. But parents or teachers will have become suspicious or wary of him, enough so that he's been removed from his position in charge of young children. He will think this is unfair, uncalled for; after all, all he is doing is giving them love and attention. That's what his letters will have been about: complaining that his reputation has been damaged.
When no one will listen, he realizes he has nothing of importance left in his life. And if these precious innocents are taken away from him, then he will take them away from those who are causing him this grief. He will take it upon himself to punish the authority figures, his own peers. And it doesn't matter whether the boys and girls in the Dunblane Primary School this morning were the specific focus of his grievance or not. The entire community is to blame, his entire peer group is at fault. No parents or school leaders trust him, so they are all deserving of his wrath. This is a retaliation. This is what we classify as a personal cause homicide. Most likely, too, there was a specific precipitating stressor to cause him to act when he did.
This is not someone who ever blended into the community. So often, when a serial killer in the United States is apprehended, neighbors, acquaintances, or coworkers will express shock, saying that he was the last person in the world they would have suspected of being a vicious murderer. He seemed so charming, or he seemed so ordinary. He seemed to get on so well with his wife or girlfriend.
Not this guy. Mass murderers are different from serial ones. Those around him thought of him as weird or strange. They've had an uncomfortable feeling about him that they might not even have been able to place or articulate. In the United States, I wouldn't be able to attach much significance to the choice of weapon or weapons. There, guns are all too easy to obtain, so the killer could either be a gun nut or someone who just recently procured the firearms for this one intended purpose. Here in Britain, though, guns and rifles are much more tightly controlled. If he wasn't in the military or a specialized wing of the police force, he would have to be a member of a gun club of some sort to have access to these weapons. And given his "odd" personality, this preoccupation with guns should have raised some red flags in itself. This guy was a pressure cooker waiting to explode, and these innocent children paid the price.
I'd already left Scotland by the time the definitive information was made public.
Sixteen children, ages four to six, died that morning, fifteen at the scene and one at the hospital. So had their teacher, forty-five-year-old Gwen Mayor, who courageously tried to stop the attacker as he entered the school and headed for the children's exercise class in the gymnasium not the playground as we originally understood. Twelve other children were injured. Only one escaped unscathed, and two others, by the grace of God, were out sick that day. The killer had tried to get to the school during a time when hundreds of students were in the gym for the morning assembly, but he had received incorrect information when he asked a student about the schedule; so when he arrived, only one class was present. He had four guns with him, including two revolvers and two nine-millimeter semiautomatics. Headmaster Ronald Taylor called in the emergency and was credited with keeping the others in the seven-hundred-pupil school calm and safe as gunshots echoed throughout the building. The massacre took three minutes in total.
The gunman, Thomas Watt Hamilton, forty-three years of age, white, and unmarried, was a former scoutmaster said to be obsessed with young boys and bitter over the community's rejection of him. He'd become a Scout leader back in July of 1973, but there had been complaints about his behavior and he was asked to leave the organization in March of the following year. His repeated attempts to get back in were unsuccessful. In addition to young boys, his other primary interest was guns. He was a member of a local gun club and held the appropriate permits to fire them under the club's auspices.
Neighbors described the tall, balding Hamilton as private, a loner. Some compared him to Mr. Spock on Star Trek and all thought he was weird. According to their reports, he was invariably dressed in a white shirt and parka with a flat cap covering his receding hairline. He'd originally run a Do-It-Yourself shop called "Wood Craft," then decided to become a professional photographer. Two female neighbors described the walls of his two-bedroom house in the Braehead district of nearby Stirling as being full of color photographs of scantily clad young boys.
When he couldn't get back into organized scouting, Hamilton formed his own boys' club, called the Stirling Rovers, and took groups of eight- to twelve-year-olds on outings and day trips, during which he would take extensive pictures, home movies, and, later, videos. One of the two neighbors was once invited in to watch a home movie of young boys frolicking in their swimsuits.
In 1988, he tried yet again to get back into the Scouts, with the same lack of success. Between 1993 and 1994, local police requested information on Hamilton from scouting organizations after spotting him in a gay red-light district. Around the same time, he sent letters to Dunblane parents, denying rumors that he molested young boys. In the weeks before the massacre, he had been turned down as a volunteer at Dunblane Primary School. He wrote to the media to complain about the police and Dunblane teachers spreading lies about him, and he wrote to the queen that the Scouts had damaged his reputation.
All in all, my profile stood up in every significant detail. Several Scottish newspapers ran headlines such as G-man shares insight into mind of a maniac and Train Police to Spot Potential Killers, Says Expert.
So how was I able to do this? How was I able to peg a man I knew nothing about except his final explosive act, in a place many thousands of miles from where I've lived and worked? Is it because I have a psychic gift when it comes to crime and criminals? I wish I did, but no, I don't and never have. It's because of my two decades' experience in the FBI dealing directly with the experts themselves the killers and other violent offenders hunting and profiling them. It's all in what I learned along the way.
And it's because behavior reflects personality. If you've studied this segment of the population as long and as intensively as I have, you come to realize that even though every crime is unique, behavior fits into certain patterns. Why should it not be surprising for a man like Thomas Watt Hamilton to become a mass murderer of children, but highly surprising for him to become, say, a serial killer or bomber, even though those two categories often involve antisocial loners as well?
If you've seen enough and experienced enough to be able to pick out the significant pieces of those patterns, then you can begin to figure out what's going on and, more important, answer the question Why? That, then, should lead to the ultimate answer: Who? That's what every detective and FBI agent want to know. That's what every novelist and reader wants to know. What makes people commit the crimes they commit in the way they commit them?
It's like the old staple of 1930s gangster movies: why does one person become a criminal and the other a priest? Or from my perspective, why does one become a serial killer, another a rapist, another an assassin, another a bomber, another a poisoner, and yet still another a child molester? And within these crime categories, why does each commit his atrocities in the precise way he does? The answer lies in one fundamental question that applies to every one of them:
Why did he do it?
The who? follows directly from there.
That's the mystery we have to solve.