“To publicize or not to publicize?”

Since the end of the Casey Anthony trial, some in the public and in the media have turned their attention back to some unsolved cases that got completely eclipsed by the lead-up to the trial and the 6+ weeks of trial proceedings, including:  missing Florida toddler Haleigh Cummings, missing Utah mom Susan Powell, and missing Tennessee nursing student Holly Bobo (I’ve written and talked about all of these on various occasions over the past couple of years).  Recently, my TV colleague Pat Brown, a former FBI criminal profiler, expressed some frustration with Bobo’s family and with law enforcement investigating that case, writing this:

“If the family of Holly Bobo and the police really want help finding her, why have they been withholding so much information?…The police and the family need to sit down and answer in full all the questions people have about how the crime went down and what evidence they have. Otherwise, people should suspect they know more and not spend their time and money looking for someone they are not going to find.”

You may recall that back on 7/20/09, I wrote a piece answering my most frequently-asked viewer question, “Why [do] some cases get national television coverage and others don’t[?]”  “To publicize or not to publicize?” is another question that I get asked with some frequency when it comes to unsolved cases.  Law enforcement often likes to “play it close to the vest” for various reasons.  Sometimes, investigators just don’t want to tip their hands and let a suspect know how much or how little information they have.  Other times, they want to retain information so that they know when they’ve got their guy (i.e. when they catch someone with undisclosed information that presumably only law enforcement and the suspect would have).

While publicity can arguably compromise an investigation, it can also arguably be tremendously helpful.  Recognizing that time is of the essence whenever there’s a missing child (their statistical chances of being found alive drop tremendously after the first 24-48 hours) we’ve even developed the Amber Alert system to disseminate information about the children and suspects as widely and quickly as possible.  The case of the “East Coast Rapist” is a different kind of example of the same principle.  It was a serial rape case that had gone unsolved for years (I wrote about it here back on 3/5/11) with law enforcement playing it relatively close to the vest until investigators decided to take a different tack and appeal to the public for help through a multimedia campaign that even included billboards.  Within days, thousands of tips poured in, one of which led to the arrest of a suspect who was then connected to the crimes via DNA.

Attitudes toward involving the media in investigations vary widely from agency to agency and investigator to investigator.  I recently spoke to a law-enforcement officer who had wanted to go public with information about a long-unsolved serial rape case here in the Midwest, and had even been advised to do so by multiple nationally-regarded crime experts, but whose department ultimately declined to do so (previously-unbeknownst to him, I had even offered to help his department with that case, either as a behind-the-scenes analyst or as a courier of information to the TV media, but the department declined my offer as well, probably out of concern that someone who did as many TV appearances as I do might inadvertently — or even intentionally, although I’d never do such a thing — report information that the department wanted to keep confidential).

So, “To publicize or not to publicize?” that is the question.  I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to that question.  I think it has to be answered on a case-by-case basis, but I do think that the capture of the “East Coast Rapist” demonstrated the power of the media to elicit pivotal new information from the public when cases have gone unsolved for years with a “close-to-the-vest” approach.

“Why would someone do something like that?”

Last week, a 30-something New York man was arrested after a young boy who apparently had asked him for directions was found dead and dismembered in the man’s apartment.  This week, a Florida teen was arrested after police responding to a tip searched his family’s home and found his parents bludgeoned to death in an upstairs bedroom while the young man hosted a party downstairs with some 60 friends and acquaintances.  Whenever such depraved behavior makes the news, it seems like everyone, whether they’re sitting behind the host desks on national TV news programs or just sitting near me in restaurants, wants to ask me, “Why would someone do something like that?”

Now again, this is a frequently-asked question that doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all-cases answer.  The guy in New York supposedly hears voices, so just as I predicted, he’s apparently trying to attribute his depraved behavior to mental illness, but as I explained last week, the thought that went into that crime before and after belies that defense.  It remains to be seen whether we’ll get a similarly-bogus mental-illness or “abuse excuse” out of the Florida teen.  And if you’re a regular reader, you know that you can always look here for my case-by-case analysis of what appears to me to have been going on in the minds of the people whose crimes make national news.

But here’s something that I haven’t often said or written that I think might be helpful to keep in mind, and I have to give credit to attorney Kurt Clausing for being the first to articulate it:  It’s OK not to understand this kind of behavior.  In fact, if you don’t understand it, that indicates something good about you.  Conversely, if you understood exactly why someone would commit grotesque crimes, that might be cause for come concern about your thought processes.

I once received an email forward that was dubbed a brief screen for psychopathy, and it went something like this:  A woman went to the funeral of one of her family members, and at the funeral, she met a man previously unknown to her among the attendees, in whom she had romantic interest.  Having left the funeral without getting his name or contact information and wanting to see him again, the question was, “What might she do?”  “Normal” responses included things like “Ask family members and friends who were also in attendance whether they know anything about the man.”  The “psychopathic” response was “Kill another family member.”  The latter never occurred to me, and probably not to you either, and if not, that’s one test we can all be glad to have “failed”!

I have years of training and experience in analyzing people’s motivations for bad behavior, and while I can usually explain it clinically to some degree here and on television, I freely admit that I don’t really fully understand why people behave badly in ways that are even fairly benign relative to murder.  For example, I’ve never really understood how someone can walk into a store, pick up someone else’s (i.e. the store’s) property, and walk out of the store with it without paying for it.  I can understand why the person might want the item, but I really don’t understand how someone gets from that thought to identifying theft as even being among the options, let alone the option of choice, for actually acquiring it.  Personally, I could never enjoy the item knowing that I had acquired it by theft.

So, “Why would someone do something like that?”  I think it’s a good question to ask because it helps us to hold people accountable for their volitional bad behavior and because it can help us to prevent recurrences of such behavior.  At the same time, if we never quite understand it at its core — i.e. if we can never really relate to the thought processes involved in it — I agree with my friend Kurt that that’s probably just fine.

Thanks for your good questions!

[And before I go, a couple of new mysteries unfolding in the news:  First, two suspicious deaths have occurred in the space of a week at the California home of a pharmaceutical executive — the man’s six-year-old son died after a fall down a flight of stairs, and while the son was hospitalized in critical condition, the man’s girlfriend was found hanging by her neck from a balcony on the property with her hands and feet bound.  Second, a man who blew the whistle on a major journalistic scandal in which staff members of a British newspaper reportedly hacked into the voicemail accounts of prominent British citizens has been found dead of an as-yet-undetermined cause (while the underlying hacking story involves an invasive crime that should be thoroughly investigated and severely punished, I’m not exactly sure why it’s getting “Anthony-esque” coverage when the death of the whistleblower seems like the more interesting story to me).  Stay tuned for more on both of these unfolding mysteries!]


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