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INSIDE THE MIND OF A TEEN KILLER
By Phil Chalmers
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2009 Phil Chalmers
All right reserved.
Chapter OneChurch Kid Slaughters Family-News at Eleven
Good wombs hath born bad sons. -William Shakespeare, The Tempest, quoted by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Littleton, Colorado, school shooters
Luke Woodham called himself a social reject. He was the product of a painful divorce. A victim of clinical depression as a child. A casualty of merciless bullying. An angst-ridden teenager whose first and only love had shattered his heart.
On the outside, Luke resembled the average teenager. On the inside, he was a dormant volcano. What catapulted sixteen-year-old Luke into a violent rage on October 1, 1997, in the small town of Pearl, Mississippi, where he bashed his mother to death with a baseball bat, shot two classmates to death, and injured seven others? What made this baby-faced young man, who had seemingly typical adolescent problems, erupt in such a volatile fashion?
You may assume that Luke had an unusually dreadful childhood. Maybe you are even suspecting child abuse or sexual molestation-some overly traumatic, life-defining moment that served to create the monster within. But it wasn't just oneparticular event. Luke was simply overwhelmed by deep, emotional debris that he was never able to process in a healthy way.
Luke remembers his early years in random snapshots. He was born on February 5, 1981, to seemingly normal parents and a bossy older brother. They later acquired a friendly dog named Sparkle. Luke's most disturbing memories are the screaming matches between his mom and dad. They engaged in bitter verbal battles that left a young Luke confused, scared, and most times in tears. On several occasions when his mom tucked him in and kissed him good night, he desperately begged, "When are you guys going to stop fighting?"
She never replied, but the answer came when Luke's father took off one day when Luke was eight years old. He never came back. Luke was convinced he was at fault and never fully recovered. During the time he should have been playing on a Little League team or joining the Boy Scouts, Luke sank into a deep depression that would last for years. He tearfully told me, "I regretted my birth-even today I still feel guilty."
Luke retreated into a world of solitude. He did what he knew best-read books, daydreamed, and socialized with imaginary friends. He was embarrassed by his looks-his chubby frame, dorky glasses, and buckteeth. He had trouble communicating his emotions, and the only way he knew how to deal with his festering pain and sadness was to draw deeper internally. Though he shut the world out, he was desperate for someone to care. When no one did, Luke sought answers in a place that only fueled and poisoned his silent rage. And there he was pushed over the proverbial edge.
Luke discovered a twisted semblance of solace when he joined a satanic cult in 1996. The cult leader, Grant Boyette, was instrumental in shaping Luke's tormented emotional state by advocating graphic fantasies of death and murder and, specifically, a school shooting. (Grant Boyette was convicted and sentenced to six months at the Parchmoon Boot Camp and five years supervised probation.) On September 30, 1997, Grant convinced Luke it was time to seek revenge for his cruel life by finally acting out his homicidal daydreams. The very next day Luke scribbled what should have been a suicide note. He wrote, "The world s-t on me for the final time."
The following day Luke armed himself with a butcher knife, a baseball bat, and a .30-30 rifle. His mother was his first victim. She died after he stabbed her multiple times and beat her with a baseball bat. Luke then drove to his high school and continued his killing spree, ending the lives of two young students, including his ex-girlfriend, and wounding seven others. He thought he'd finally found justice.
"I was just trying to find hope in a hopeless world, man. That's all there is to it. I just wanted a better life for myself, and I've never had one." His "better" life is now being spent behind bars in a Mississippi penitentiary. He will never experience life as a free man again.
* * *
It's easy to look at Luke without an ounce of compassion or sympathy. His actions were despicable, inexcusable, and irreparable. Yet something gnaws at my spirit when I wonder how an adolescent who struggled with esteem issues and depression-problems characteristic of many teenagers-could transform into a violent and vengeful murderer. While many teenagers experience some degree of angst or family trouble in their lives, rarely do they resort to murder.
It's difficult to stand back, ask the tough questions, and somehow try to unscramble the mess of a teen killer's mind. It's definitely much easier to quickly condemn them or to blame the parents who "made" them this way. I wrote this book to wrestle with these questions and to shed some light on how we can stop raising violent teenagers.
Luke's story is the foundation of this book. Throughout every chapter, his biography is dissected for you to study his journey toward senseless murder-from his dealings with the occult to his fascination with violent media to his inability to appropriately manage schoolyard bullies.
You may be expecting me to immediately paint an accurate picture of a teen killer or school shooter. But, quite frankly, it is almost impossible. They are white, black, Native American, Asian, and Hispanic. They live in the suburbs and in the inner cities. They come from upper-class, middle-class, and poor families. Some come from balanced and healthy families, and others come from broken homes. Some are religious and others are agnostic. Some are extremely intelligent, and others have very low IQs. The sad truth is that a teen killer could come from your own neighborhood and even from your own family.
A Father's Heartbreak and My Conviction
The title of this chapter, "Church Kid Slaughters Family," refers to teen killer Alex Helgeson of Minnesota. At the time of his offense, he was fourteen years old and had no history of mental illness or substance abuse. When I heard about Alex's story, I was so disturbed that I immediately arranged to meet with the boy's father, Dean Helgeson.
The Helgeson family was a churchgoing family with strong ties to the local community. One night, after Mr. Helgeson came home from a church meeting, his life unexpectedly changed forever. When he walked through the front door, he smelled the distinct stench of gunpowder mixed with the metallic odor of blood. Engulfed by nausea, he entered the living room, and his eyes captured a grisly scene that would be permanently etched in his memory-the bloody carnage of his wife's and their two sons' dead bodies. Suddenly, Mr. Helgeson heard a gunshot echo through the house. He didn't realize then that the sound came from his oldest son, Alex, who had just committed suicide after shooting his own mother and brothers.
Alex regularly attended church, was known as a nice young man who was pleasant to be around, and had a number of close friends. He exhibited no behavioral red flags. Yet Alex clearly struggled with some tumultuous internal issues, and on the day of the murders, he had reached his boiling point.
The ordeal began in his bedroom, where he loaded a hunting rifle with six rounds. He then walked down the hallway toward the living room where his mother, Mary Helgeson, and his brothers-Matthew, twelve, and Marcus, seven-were watching television. Only a few moments later, all three victims lay dead, brutally shot by Alex.
After his vicious rampage, Alex walked upstairs to his bedroom, telephoned his church youth leader, and asked, "How do I get to heaven?" He then proceeded to destroy his vast collection of violent music and video games, smashed his CD player into pieces, and penned a suicide letter on a couple of yellow sticky notes. Alex posted these notes on his father's bed and waited for Mr. Helgeson to come home. When he heard his father walk through the front door, Alex pointed the rifle at his own head and ended his life.
When we hear of a school shooting or of a teenager such as Alex who massacred his own family, we are shocked. We use that as an opportunity to evaluate the health of youth culture. But what about the periods of time between these highly publicized and tragic crimes? How violent are our country's young people?
While the general murder rate has fallen in the last twenty years and has seemed to level out in the past few years, this doesn't necessarily mean that violent teen behavior is as stable. The grim statistics, targeted toward teens, reveal that killers are getting younger and younger every year. Twelve-, ten-, and even seven- and eight-year-olds are being arrested for murder.
In 2002, one in twelve murders in the United States involved a juvenile offender, or roughly 8 percent of all reported murders. In 2003, law enforcement agencies made 2.2 million arrests of persons under age eighteen.
Current research exposes a frightfully high level of violent activity in our nation's schools:
Among teenagers ages five through eighteen there were seventeen school-associated violent deaths between 2005 and 2006.
In 2005, students ages twelve to eighteen were victims of about 1.5 million nonfatal crimes at school, including thefts and violent crimes.
Between 2005 and 2006, 86 percent of public schools reported at least one violent crime, theft, or other crime.
During the same period, there were 14 homicides and 3 suicides of school-age youth.
Lt. Col. David Grossman-a retired army officer, former West Point psychology professor, and best-selling author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book On Killing-observed that from 1960 through 1991, while the U.S. population increased by 40 percent, violent crime increased by 500 percent (murders increased 170 percent, rapes by 520 percent, and aggravated assaults by 600 percent). Clearly, our nation is getting more violent. Though the murder rate has fallen, it is not necessarily an indication that we are becoming less violent. The violent assault rate is up, for example, and teens are doing a great job of hurting people instead of killing them.
We can examine the simultaneously steady murder rate and escalating wave of teen violence through a number of things, but specifically through the aggravated assault rate, the basic barometer of violence in our country. In legal terms, this is an aggressive form of assault, usually with a deadly weapon. Even in the presence of a steady murder rate, the aggravated assault rate has increased seven times since the 1950s. And there are no signs of it slowing down.
Another item to keep in mind is the advancements that have been made in our medical technology over the years, specifically in the development of lifesaving capabilities. Because of these medical breakthroughs, fewer people are dying from violent attacks. Lt. Col. Grossman asserted that if we used the same technology from the 1870s, the murder rate today would be fifteen times higher. If we used technology from the 1930s, the rate would be ten times higher, and with the use of 1970s technology, four times higher.
The U.S. Medical Service Corps echoed a similar sentiment. In a published report, they claimed that nine out of ten soldiers in the Vietnam War would survive a wound that would have killed nine out of ten soldiers in World War II. While a century ago there was a high probability of death with any significant loss of blood or puncture injury to the abdomen, skull, or lungs, that's not the case today.
Is a falling or level murder rate the result of a decrease in violent incidences, or is it perhaps the result of advancements in the medical field? Lt. Col. Grossman opined that our modern medical technology is holding the rate down. I agree. Don't make the mistake of being comfortable with the false sense of security a steady murder rate might offer. We must not ignore the simple fact that the environment surrounding our children is becoming increasingly violent and, as a result, so are our children.
The Six Types of Teen Killers
From extensive research, interviews with legal and medical professionals and law enforcement officials, and in studying killers one-on-one, I have determined that teen killers generally fall into six categories: the family killer, the school killer/shooter, the gang/cult killer, the crime killer, the baby killer, and the thrill killer.
The Family Killer
This type of criminal kills one or more members of his or her family. In 1996, fourteen-year-old Cody Posey shot and killed his father, his stepmother, and his stepsister on ABC News correspondent Sam Donaldson's New Mexico ranch, where his father served as manager. He was convicted of murder, but was sentenced to a juvenile facility for a maximum of five years. Cody admitted he specifically killed his sister "so she couldn't go tell or nothing."
In 1985, in Buffalo, New York, seventeen-year-old John Justice murdered his mother, father, and brother by stabbing them to death. As he left the scene of the crime, in an attempt to commit suicide, he rammed his automobile into a neighbor's car, accidentally killing the neighbor. John then called the police and told them to check his home address. He tried to commit suicide a second time by slitting his wrists.
The School Killer/Shooter
The school killer is a unique individual. Many of these kids have a misconception of justice and carry out their crimes as a way to get back at those who have bullied them. Luke Woodham is one example of such revenge kills. "I attacked the other students at random because I believed that they had all wronged me because of the way that I had been picked on and mistreated," Luke told me.
There are several cases that I'm sure most of you are familiar with, including the Columbine massacre in Littleton, Colorado, and the shooting in Paducah, Kentucky. But this isn't a new phenomenon.
* * *
One of the first school shootings occurred in 1978, when thirteen-year-old Robin Robinson shot and wounded his principal. Robin had been disciplined and paddled by this man. When Robin was threatened with a second paddling, he went home, retrieved a handgun, and returned to school. He then shot and wounded the principal. Robin spent time in a juvenile facility. After his release, he killed a retired police officer during a burglary and was sent to an adult prison.
* * *
January 29, 1979, in San Diego, California, sixteen-year-old Brenda Spencer, the first female school shooter, opened fire in an elementary school across from her home, using a .22-caliber gun that her father had given her for Christmas. The terrifying ordeal lasted for six hours. When it was over, two people were dead and nine others were wounded, including a police officer and eight children.
When Brenda was asked why she committed the crime, her response was nonchalant: "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day ... I had no reason for it, and it was just a lot of fun." She compared her crime to "shooting ducks in a pond" and said the victims "looked like a herd of cows standing around, it was really easy pickings."
The Gang/Cult Killer
Another kind of teen killer is motivated to kill because of involvement in a gang or cult. I have discovered that young people who live in major urban areas are more inclined to join a gang, while those who live in rural areas or suburban neighborhoods tend to become involved with a cult or hate group. Regardless of the kind of group they join, these troubled kids viciously act on their hatred, skewed religious convictions, or allegiance to a particular group.
* * *
In 1995, three young men, part of a white supremacist group-otherwise known as skinheads-killed members of their family in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Eighteen-year-old Ben Birdwell and his cousins-brothers Bryan Freeman, seventeen, and David Freeman, fifteen-lived by KKK principles. Bryan and David's family, however, were practicing Jehovah's Witnesses. One day as the three boys were hanging out in the basement of the Freeman home, Mrs. Freeman and the boys started to argue. As shouts escalated, Bryan grabbed a steak knife and stabbed his mother twice. She died immediately.
Excerpted from INSIDE THE MIND OF A TEEN KILLER by Phil Chalmers Copyright © 2009 by Phil Chalmers. Excerpted by permission.
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