You may have heard that an apparent serial killer has been arrested after (allegedly) brutally stabbing several homeless men to death in the L.A. area. Dubbed the “Orange County Killer” by some, the suspect in custody is a 23-year-old former U.S. Marine and veteran of the war in Iraq. Investigators on the case have stated that this guy pre-selected and stalked his victims, that he attacked them brazenly (one of the attacks was captured on a nearby business’ video surveillance camera), that he stabbed them dozens of times in their upper bodies and heads, even continuing to stab them after they became unconscious, that he had already picked out future victims before bystanders chased him from the scene of the last attack to the scene of his arrest, and that he seemed to enjoy the publicity that his attacks were getting while his killing spree was underway.
Stabbing is an extremely up-close-and-personal way to kill someone, so when I hear about a killer stabbing a victim dozens of times, I think first of deep personalized rage toward the specific victim as the probable motive. That seems unlikely in this case, though, because there’s nothing to suggest that the killer had a relationship with any of the victims. Is it possible to have more of a generalized rage against a “class” of people? Sure, we’ve seen it with serial killers who’ve targeted prostitutes or members of particular demographic groups (e.g. KKK types targeting minorities, terrorist types targeting Americans). It’s tough to identify any potential source of generalized rage in this case, though, because the demographic similarities among the victims seem to be just that they were middle-aged, homeless men.
So then, I think of psychosis, mental illness so severe that the killer didn’t really know who or what he was stabbing or that it was wrong to be doing it (e.g. a killer who really believed that he was killing demons instead of human beings). That seems unlikely in this case though, too, because it sounds like this guy’s murders were quite premeditated and because he tried to flee from the witnesses and cops after the last attack (if you didn’t know that you just committed a crime, you probably wouldn’t think that you needed to flee, i.e. he appears to have had “consciousness of guilt”).
So finally, I think of psychopathy — a sense of entitlement to gratify oneself by hurting innocent others with no sense of any duty to the others whatsoever — i.e. the ultimate narcissism. Sometimes, the gratification obtained is “secondary,” i.e. it doesn’t come particularly or primarily from the killing itself, but rather from something that the psychopath gets after the fact — money, property, etc. that belonged to the victim. The victims in this case didn’t have anything though, so that’s out. Other times, the gratification is “primary,” i.e. it comes purely from the killing itself — the rush, thrill, pleasure, and/or empowerment that the psychopath feels from inflicting extreme suffering or death on another. It’s always important in this context to restate that psychopathy isn’t a “disorder” per se — it’s more of a description of a thought/behavior pattern that is malignantly antisocial but conscious. Sure, there’s something wrong with a person who thinks of murder as a way to get gratification, whether it be in the form of money or thrills, but psychopathy doesn’t force anyone to do anything — their ultimate acts of murder are conscious choices.
It’s too early to say anything definitively, but the latter is what this case is sounding like: the case of a psychopath who found it thrilling to stalk people, look them in their eyes, and feel their blood spurting out, as he stabbed them repeatedly to death. It might explain why he seemed to be increasingly brazen in his selection of crime scenes (i.e. why he picked places with relatively high risks of being witnessed and captured — maybe it added to the “thrill”). I know, you don’t understand how anyone could find that thrilling. I don’t either, and that’s a good thing. If it made sense to us, we’d be very bizarre, and perhaps very dangerous. People like that do exist though. I once had an opportunity to read an entire “memoir” written by one while he was serving time in prison for the latest in a lifelong series of murders. It was amazing how matter-of’-fact he could be when reflecting on taking human life. If you really want to explain it, psychology will only take you so far, and where psychology leaves off, you’ll be in the realm of philosophy (your own concepts of “good,” “evil,” etc.).
Lastly in what’s becoming a not-so-quick take on this case, you’re going to hear some people speculating that service in Iraq made this guy this way. I have experience assessing and treating veterans, and I doubt it. A lot of attention has rightly been paid to symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, but neither of those conditions would be expected to manifest in either homicidal psychosis or psychopathy. Could war stress and/or the stress of “reintegrating” into civilian life contribute to a “psychotic break,” i.e. push someone who was already mentally-vulnerable “over the edge” into psychosis? It’s possible, but again, it doesn’t sound like these murders are attributable, at least not fully, to psychosis (because again, there’s apparent premeditation and consciousness of guilt). I think it may be more likely that this guy had serious mental illness and/or was a psychopath all along and that the military simply didn’t identify him as such. Who knows, he could’ve gone into the military in the first place looking for a way to legitimize violent impulses and then targeted these innocent homeless guys when he got back and there was no longer an enemy to target. I often say that murder is rarely the first violent thing that a person does in life, so it’ll be interesting to hear what he may have done during his military service that perhaps wasn’t recognized in the context of a war as an indication that he may be a danger to the public after he was discharged. He’s reportedly being examined by mental health professionals in the lockup, so stay tuned, and hopefully we’ll get some definitive answers sooner rather than later.
(P.S. As I wrap this up, the L.A. Times is reporting that the apparent severed head of an adult male human has been found in a plastic bag alongside a walking/hiking trail near the famous “Hollywood” sign. Is it the work of this same guy? If it is, it’d be somewhat of a departure from the m.o., which would be rather unusual — serial killers tend to stick to the same m.o. So is there yet another psycho on the loose in L.A.? Stay tuned.)