Violent behavior analyzed

By Adam Wittenberg
Staff, Meriden Record-Journal

07/27/2007

CHESHIRE -- The triple homicide that occurred Monday has left many people wondering why.

How could an alleged burglary result in a beating, multiple sexual assaults and death?

Science hasn't found all the causes of violent crime, but there are some common factors.

"You look for substance abuse, extreme impulsivity, to some extent a lack of intellect or problem-solving skills, and not a lot of empathy or remorse," said Catherine F. Lewis, a forensic psychiatrist and associate professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.

Lewis spoke generally Friday, but her remarks could shed light on the events in Cheshire.

Psychopathy, Lewis said, or the combination of abnormal emotional and interpersonal traits with socially deviant behavior, is strongly linked with repeat criminal behavior. Violence, and the risk of becoming violent, is a matter of degree, Lewis said, not a yes-or-no question.

"Very often, violent rapists have committed a lot of other crimes and shown a wide range of criminal behavior," she said. "If people don't care about harming other people and have difficulty controlling their own temper, and they're in a situation that requires quick decisions, that can cause a lot of problems, even death."

Violence grabs people's attention, she said, but it's important to notice crimes such as burglaries and robberies. A burglar enters a home or building with the intent of committing a felony. Someone who is hurting, angry and not concerned about other people's rights can wreak havoc if confronted.

The Cheshire suspects, Joshua Komisarjevsky, 26, and Steven Hayes, 44, were career criminals who had been convicted of multiple larcenies and burglaries.

The men also spent time in the same Hartford halfway house for drug treatment prior to their release.

But neither man had violence in their extensive criminal records, and both received parole this spring.

That doesn't mean there weren't warning signs. Peter Lynch, clinical director at Meriden's Child Guidance Clinic, sees children with all kinds of dysfunction and disorders. He said it's likely the Cheshire suspects' conduct was part of a long pattern.

"When people commit horrendous crimes without being under the influence of some mind-altering substance, there are usually predictors," Lynch said. "Usually it's long term and usually it's pretty intense. My hunch is that it wasn't just something that snapped."

A list of prior criminal charges often doesn't tell the whole story, Lewis said.

"For example, a young man in another state was arrested for trespassing," she said. "He was later arrested for violent rape, homicide and burglary. But in his first arrest he was carrying what's known as a rape kit. The point is that it appears on his record as trespassing, a non-violent offense, but when you look at what actually occurred, it's somewhat ominous. It's not always illustrative to look at what a person was sentenced to or plead to."

Warning signs of aggression can show up as early as childhood, said Henry Schissler, a Cheshire resident and sociology professor at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport.

"When a person doesn't have any real intimacy with family, friends, a pet, neighbors or whatever," Schissler said, "when they've lost that empathetic connection, they can do some pretty horrible things."

The more disconnected people are, the easier it can be for them to hurt someone.

"We can see it in kids by 13 and 14," Schissler said. "The pattern psychiatrists call conduct disorder, typically if not dealt with, will become antisocial personality disorder in adults. That's what affects 75 percent of federal inmates."

Schissler said both biology, such as a family history of mental illness, and personality traits can contribute to a person becoming a criminal.

An 8-year-old who hurts pets, is fascinated with fire-starting or shows a true lack of remorse is showing signs of conduct disorder.

All children fool around, Schissler said, and our culture promotes aggression through violent video games, but a clear warning sign is a kid who shows an honest disregard for things and a lack of feeling when he's done wrong. Such behavior, if unchecked, can develop into more serious deviance in adults.

Child guidance explores the histories of the children who come for help, assessing for mental illness and examining their home or family life.

Lynch said the clinic offers outreach workers to help parents build their parenting skills.

The goal is to let children communicate, get them connected and give them whatever resources will help them remain in society.

For parents trying to help their kids cope with the killings, Lynch said they should emphasize how rare such apparently random acts of violence are.

"They can say that 'this is very, very, very, very bad, and it's very, very, very unusual,'" he said, explaining how children often use multiple verys to show matters of degree. Lynch, Lewis and Schissler agreed that too much exposure to a horrific crime is bad for children.

"I would let kids know it's OK to talk about this and be shocked by it," Lynch said. "But I would be very careful about the amount of time they're exposed to it, seeing it on the news and TV."