Some see links in ‘senseless’ killings

Same traits exhibited by many defendants

By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / October 12, 2009

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In the seeming senselessness of the killing of Kimberly Cates - hacked to death in her bed last week in Mont Vernon, N.H., allegedly by teenagers who chose her at random and didn’t know who she was - criminologists say there may be, in fact, a kind of twisted logic.

Across the country, similar homicides have been carried out by teenage males who are sad and lonely, who bond over feelings of alienation and draw strength and feelings of inclusion by separating themselves from the outside world. Often in those crimes, there has been one leader, the most disaffected youth, who hatches a plot to take revenge on the world, and the others go along willingly for fear of rejection.

“They’d rather get the death penalty than be an outsider,’’ said Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University.

The youths often feel even closer to one another after undertaking the act - enjoying a shared sense of courage, risk-taking, hypermasculinity, control, and empowerment.

“It becomes an initiation ritual, assuring that all of them are bonded in a very intimate way,’’ Levin said.

The teens charged in the Mont Vernon case all exhibited signs of unhappiness before the brutal attack on Oct. 4, when they allegedly broke into a house chosen solely for its remoteness with the intention of killing whoever was inside.

Steven Spader, 17, a longtime Boy Scout, in recent months had grown increasingly depressed, often disappearing for days at a time until the police brought him home. Christopher Gribble, 19, home-schooled as a Mormon, had rebelled against a sheltered upbringing to become a brooding figure who expressed a fondness for knives. William Marks, 18, already an insecure and angst-ridden teen, apparently took an alarming turn earlier this year when he met Spader. And Quinn Glover, a 17-year-old, onetime choir boy, seemed desperate to find a crowd to belong to.

Spader and Gribble face murder charges. Marks and Glover are charged with burglary, conspiracy to commit burglary, and armed robbery.

Specialists cautioned that it is too early to reach conclusions about the accused teens because too few details are known about them and their connections to one another.

But they noted that the killing has parallels in other well-known local cases, most notably the 2001 murder of a pair of Dartmouth professors by two teens who chose their victims because they happened to be home.

It also has echoes of the 1998 killing of a 14-year-old male in Laconia, N.H., by two teens because they wanted his $200 bicycle; the 1997 murder of two young women by three teens in Salem, N.H., one of whom was obsessed with the movie “Scream,’’ which is about a pair of conspiring teenage killers; and the 1996 case of two Rochester, N.H., teens who killed their parents, then hid their bodies in the attic and basement and partied with friends over the weekend.

In all of the cases, a public outcry went up about the senselessness of the crimes. But specialists say there were distinct methods at work - such as the teens working in teams to pull off the killings.

“Boys will feed off each other - feeling like everyone hates us, we’re a band of brothers, wild and dangerous, that does ruthless things,’’ said Ted Kirkpatrick, co-director of Justiceworks, a crime and justice research unit at the University of New Hampshire. “Then it becomes a whirlpool that increases in intensity and speed and aggression.’’

“Groups embolden people. The leader of a group is rewarded by the fact that others are following his lead - so much that they will kill for him. And on the flip side, the followers are gratified when they are complimented by someone they admire on their toughness,’’ said James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University.

Often, Fox said, the followers might even be reluctant to commit the act. But they believe that the other followers are committed to it, and are fearful of not going along.

“There is often a shared misunderstanding,’’ Fox said.

Another part of the pattern tends to be teens killing without obvious motive, specialists said. While murders by older people tend to be motivated by jealousy or greed or revenge directed at an individual, youths who kill tend to act out feelings of rage or alienation on people they don’t know or against people with whom they have little cause to be angry.

Their target is not one particular individual, but rather anyone who is available.

“The victims are interchangeable,’’ Levin said. “They look at the accessibility of the victim. They make sure the victim lives in an isolated area, with no security system. They use vulnerability as a criteria.’’

Some specialists say that a sense of disenfranchisement was bound to be stronger in small New Hampshire towns, such as Amherst and Brookline, the hometowns of the teens charged in the Cates killing.

In small homogenous communities, teens who don’t fit in stand out much more than in cities, they say.

“A strong sense of community is wonderful if you happen to be accepted,’’ Levin said.

“But if you are regarded as an outsider, you may feel profoundly rejected . . . Their peer group is the only game in town. If they are rejected, they have nowhere else to go.’’

William Pollack, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said a teen in a small community also might fear confiding his troubles because word spreads fast in a small town.

“These are boys that have a hard time connecting, and so it is that much harder to go and connect,’’ Pollack said.

But Kirkpatrick does not see any urban-rural disparity, pointing to recent murders committed by teens in Chicago.

“You can feel disenfranchised and alienated in both urban and rural environments,’’ he said.