Building a Profile
With Each Shooting, Common Threads
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
On a hot August day in 1966, a 25-year-old engineering student and ex-Marine named Charles Whitman climbed the clock tower of the University of Texas at Austin's Main Building and began firing. He killed 14 people -- he had killed his wife and mother earlier -- and wounded 31 in what, until yesterday, was the nation's worst shooting rampage on a campus.
So-called spree killings are multiple homicides that erupt for no immediately apparent reason. They are not, by definition, terrorist attacks. They're usually not political.
The University of Texas incident may not have been the first -- some historians consider the 1890 Battle of Wounded Knee a spree killing -- but it was the first that combined two modern elements: mass media coverage and the ready availability of high-powered weapons.
"We've always had people who robbed banks and all that, but until Whitman, we never thought that someone would take the kind of weapons he took and target strangers in a public place," said Gary M. Lavergne, author of "A Sniper in the Tower" (1997).
We have learned a few things about who the killers are. In a New York Times profile of 102 killers in 100 attacks -- from a 1949 incident in Camden, N.J., through Columbine High School in 1999 -- researchers found that at least half showed signs of serious mental problems.
Whitman was found to have a brain tumor, but whether it affected his actions was never determined.
On July 18, 1984, James Oliver Huberty, 41, opened fire at a McDonald's restaurant in the San Ysidro section of San Diego. He killed 21 people.
According to the Times's database, Huberty almost exactly fits the spree-killer profile: white male, unemployed, in possession of easily obtained semiautomatic weapons.
In August 1986, Patrick Sherrill, a 44-year-old Edmond, Okla., postal worker, shot and killed 14 fellow employees and then himself. He became a symbol of workplace rage. "Going postal" entered the vernacular.
In October 1991, George Hennard, 35, drove his pickup through a window of a Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, Tex., climbed out and started shooting. He killed 23 people before shooting himself. The Luby's incident was the nation's worst spree killing, until yesterday.
During the 1990s, killings at suburban schools in Jonesboro, Ark.; Louisville; Littleton, Colo.; and Springfield, Ore., prompted nationwide soul-searching about school violence, the availability of guns, campus safety and the psychology of disaffected young people. Littleton's Columbine High School became an enduring symbol of the phenomenon when two students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded 23 others before killing themselves.
Since 1999, spree killers have unleashed their deadly fire in Atlanta, Fort Worth, on the Chippewa Indian Reservation in Minnesota and, last fall, inside an Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pa. Five girls died.
Those "likely to do this . . . have a common denominator," Lavergne said. "They're very, very frustrated people who are so self-centered they feel the whole world is against them. There are many thousands, maybe millions of people, who fit that description."