So, What’s New By You? Just Another Kid Losing it With A Gun.
c. 2009, Judith Acosta
An edited version of this article appeared in Opednews.com
PART I: What Happened.
I live in New Mexico. My family lives in a big city back Northeast. We speak
regularly. They always ask, “So, what’s new by you?” And I always answer,
“Not much down here.”
Most of them have not been out to the southwest and when we speak on the
phone they often reveal their ideas about where I am by the questions they ask:
When I mentioned I went shopping at a large department store: “Oh, you have
When I broke my wrist dancing: “Do you have hospitals there or do you have to
go to Denver?”
Or the most recent one: “What happens if there’s a fire?”
“I call 911.”
“Oh, you have 911 there?”
I understand their confusion. I live in a very small town and to them I really am
in the middle of the desert. In their minds, small town means no services. In my
mind, it means having just the necessary services, a quiet community, and safety.
Until a couple of months ago, when that quiet and sense of safety was shattered
in a way that is becoming all too common on the American landscape. In fact,
within only a few days it had all but disappeared from the news media. Just
another kid losing it with a gun.
On August 28th, a 10 year-old boy shot his 42 year-old father in Belen, another
small, quiet town that lies just to the south of Albuquerque, NM. The man took
one bullet to the head from a rifle around dinner time.
Initially the speculation was that the young boy had been playing with the rifle
and it went off accidentally.
By August 29th, however, the police announced that it was a premeditated
murder and they were charging the boy. What they were going to do with him
was another matter. As one cop said, “Where do we put him, with the teenagers
in juvenile detention?” Who ever thought of holding cells for pre-k killers, much
less long-term facilities?
Just a Little Boy in Belen
Within minutes of the announcement, the media on all three Albuquerque
stations had begun interviewing all the usual locals: teachers, cops, neighbors.
And they all gave the usual responses:
“What I saw…he was a wonderful dad, and those kids were really respectful
with their dad,” one neighbor, who lives across the street from the victim, stated.
“I mean, come on, for a man to raise three children on his own, you know, it says
it all right there.”
“He seemed like such a nice little boy.”
“He seemed like such a good father.”
“I never heard nothing from them bad before.”
Finally, it started to come out that the child protection agencies in the area had
been called to investigate the family at least 4 times over the last few years. The
parents were divorced and the mother was living on her own in Rio Rancho, a
suburban sprawl about 45 minutes north of the children. No one was saying
anything further but the confusion and the questions kept flying. What would
make a 10 year-old boy pick up a rifle and shoot his own father in the head in
front of his two younger siblings?
In a street sweep of interviews by giddy reporters, one boy who piped up before
they could turn their microphones away explained it this way:
“He had no friends... Maybe that’s why.”
I guess it takes a 10 year-old to even begin to understand.
The Dangers of Divorce
This is not the first time a child has killed a parent or the first time lawyers, guns
and money made it impossible to really understand what destroyed a young life.
It happened in Houston almost exactly 5 years ago. In an article by Andrew
Tilghman and Kevin Moran (Houston Chronicle 8/31/2004) we were told that
“sexual abuse by his father and an increased dosage of Prozac may have helped
drive a 10-year-old boy to shoot and kill his father last week, the boy’s mother
and attorney contend.”
Thus, for quite some time, with the media titillating itself over a new sexual
abuse scandal, the mood of public opinion swung swiftly against the dead father.
But things are not always what they seem.
According to another attorney report in November of 2004
(www.helpstoppas.com), the boy’s behavior was caused by “Parental Alienation
Syndrome,” which, he explains, occurs in the context of divorce when one parent
turns the children against the other parent, filling them with as much of his or
her own rage and hatred as possible. If successful, the alienation puts the
children in the position where they must choose. In order to get and maintain the
love and support of one parent they must act out against the other parent.
The case was not about sexual abuse, but about a very contentious divorce.
According to that same report, the allegations of abuse (which had been made by
the mother against the father) were proved false by two different police
investigations and two lie detector tests. As a result of the false allegations, the
mother was forced to settle the case out of court. The father was awarded the
home and 50/50 custodial rights. Right before the shooting, the mother
independently decided to have the 10 year-old put on Prozac without notifying
the father. When the father came to pick up the children to take them home, the
boy slid into the back seat, took out his mother’s .40 caliber, and fired three
rounds through the seat, wounding his father. He went back into the house, but
his mother sent him back to his father’s car. He unloaded the rest of the
cartridge, mortally wounding his father, and returned to his mother, who, even
though a registered nurse, never went to the aid of her ex-husband.
Things can be very complicated.
Kevin Rexroad, M.D., a psychiatrist in Albuquerque, stressed that the pain of
divorce should not be underestimated when considering its impact on children
or whether it can be factored in as a precipitant to violence. “When under stress,
especially of a prolonged nature (as are most separations and divorces), the
child’s fragile psyche will split into two parts: a part that feels helpless (hoping
and longing to have a positive parent-child relationship) and a part that
identifies with the aggressor (essentially Stockholm Syndrome; accepting a
negative parent-child relationship). What the child is attempting to avoid at all
costs is having a nebulous/neutral parent-child relationship. The undeveloped
psyche has no resources or experiences to tolerate nothingness. (Ital. mine.)
“Then the child reacts to the stress in order to maintain a sense of self that exists,
and unspeakable acts may thus occur. The child desires wholeness, the healthy
triangulation of father/mother/child. The child may very well act in response to
a conscious request or an unconscious wish on the behalf of an individual
parent. Or the child may simply act to prevent feeling unattached and
The undeveloped psyche has no resources or experiences to tolerate nothingness.
As Dr. Rexroad explains it, the exploding rage is partially the result of a terror so
deep it is inarticulate. And it is the terror that is at the source of their behavior,
the sense of being utterly alone, toes dangling over the edge of the abyss with a
wind at their backs. Nothingness…As an adult coming from a secure family, I find
it not only terribly sad, but frightening because that sort of isolation is nearly
impossible for me to imagine. The closest I can come is my own fear of death. Is
that what it was like for the little boy in Belen?
With insights as poignant and compelling as that, it is easy to stop right there
and say, “Well, that’s it. That’s the answer.” But is it? Does that explain it all for
every kid who kills?
Motivation is my business and I can say unequivocally that it is a very complex
issue. People assume behavioral motivations are linear and singular, that one
thing (or issue or need) literally drags a person from one place to another, like a
leash leads a dog across the street. Academics create whole schools of thought
and therapy around single ideas, which, like the Ouroboros, take us right back to
where we started. It seems that people need the reassurance of simple answers,
but the truth is almost never like that.
Because in 2001, right after Thanksgiving, the motives of two young Florida
brothers were quite different when they bludgeoned their father to death with a
baseball bat while he was sleeping. They then set the house on fire to cover the
Within a short time, the boys confessed to the murder but implicated 41-year-old
convicted child molester Ricky Chavis, who was involved in a sexual
relationship with the youngest brother and who had (they claimed) persuaded
them to do it. The courts and attorneys apparently believed them because they
were allowed to plead guilty to arson and third degree murder (carrying only 8
years in prison) and Ricky Chavis was sentenced to 35 years after being found
guilt of accessory after the fact to first-degree murder and evidence tampering.
From cases like this one, we understand that children can be easily confused and
manipulated. Lost souls are particularly easy to corrupt. We know they may also
not even be truly aware of what murder means, either spiritually or practically,
that their concept of death as final is not fully formed and, as such, can be easily
convinced to commit themselves to a course they can’t possibly comprehend.
Predators are very aware of this—that children are easy to use as well as to hurt
—and take full advantage of it.
But can they be self-interested sociopaths? Will they shoot just because they want
to? Or because of some perceived gain?
The courts thought they’d seen a true psychopath when they found Jasmine
Richardson—a 12-year-old girl—guilty of brutally murdering her parents and
younger brother in Alberta. She had run off with her 23-year-old boyfriend,
Jeremy, whom her parents disliked. She was given the maximum penalty for a
child under 14: ten years.
And then there was 14-year-old Michael Hernandez, who was convicted of the
premeditated murder of a classmate. He’d lured him into a bathroom then
stabbed him and slit his throat. While he had appeared “so normal” to his friends
and “so polite” to his teachers, his journals revealed a youngster fixated on
violence and committed to plans of mass murder.
And there’s the Bulger Boy Murder in Northern England in 1993, which I
personally remember quite well. I still feel a physical revulsion in writing about
it. Two otherwise ordinary 10-year-old boys, Jon Venables and Robert
Thompson, abducted two-year-old James Bulger from a local shopping area,
wandered with him for hours before they beat him to death and left him on
railroad tracks. They covered his head with rocks. No explanation was offered.
None was ever found.
PART II: The Culture of Violence
Children are Surrounded
Jo Eekhoff, a licensed clinical social worker in Belen, where the most recent
patricide took place, found herself deeply saddened by the situation. She works
with the public school system and has a great many ties to the children in the
“I found myself thinking about the little boy and all the kids I see being raised by
only one parent or grandma or auntie. They desperately want the love of that
missing parent and the attachment issues lead to anger and fantasies and false
personas and personality problems. Then there is the violence all around these
kids, the fear in the news.”
Then she asked me: “Have you ever played “Grand Theft Auto?”
“The killing,” she explained, “is so real they are completely desensitized to
killing. Then there are the overloaded school systems where kids used to find
some solace in a loving teacher or coach or counselor. But everyone is too
overwhelmed these days and the kids are passing unrecognized. Then I read
something online about all those CYFD (Child, Youth and Family Services)
referrals to the house and I wondered what was wrong there. I don’t know. It’s a
scary world for a 10-year-old these days.”
This news was no news for Police Chief Roy Melnick of Los Lunas P.D., who
worked the same type of case with an 8-year-old defendant in Arizona. And, for
a seasoned cop, he offered some compelling and compassionate advice to the
people who will have to work with this 10 year-old:
"Never forget his age, because he's a child. It's very traumatic to him as well. He's not
only the perpetrator, if in fact he committed the crime, he's a victim too. Its hard to say
that with someone that kills somebody, but when you're dealing with a child, there's
facts and circumstances that led up to this just like in our 8-year-old."
There are so many unanswered questions about these children who kill:
1. What are the facts and circumstances that lead up to something like this?
Is there some way to prevent it from happening? Or is that just another
way of throwing blame around? Another Ouroboros to add to our
2. Is the behavior or pathology intrinsic to the child or a product of the
environment or both? Is there any answer at all?
3. Is it happening more often?
To answer some of these questions when I posed them, Dr. Rexroad recalled his
own unhappy early life in coal mining country.
“My home life was an experience of parents battling depression and emotional
disconnectedness. In my teen years in the early 80’s, as a Heavy Metal rock ‘n
roller, I felt the power of belonging to something that represented strength,
unity, and acceptance… I now feel saddened by the tremendous amount of
violence that our children are exposed to in these entertainment
venues. However, the real battle for our youth is at home, within the psychic
dyads and triads of the parental unit.
“If this is so,” he continued, “then whom do we blame for the horrendous acts of
violence executed by these undeveloped and fragile minds? Maybe we should
start by noting how horribly fearful we are of such violent acts and realize that
we are all possibly susceptible to such experiences. Once the realization that we
are all connected via our humanity, then perhaps we can more easily notice
when others are in need and help them, to see that they may be the canaries in
the coal mines, rather than trample them in our legal system, identifying them as
oddities and freaks of our existences.”
From his perspective, the violence in these children is not an entirely unnatural
result of the preponderance of broken families and an epidemic of narcissistic
preoccupation in the adults who are supposed to care for them. But he does not
believe the phenomenon itself is anything particularly new.
Clearly, it has its precedents or we wouldn’t have myths like Oedipus’ etched
into our cultural consciousness.
Yet, to me there is a lurking danger more insidious than the acts themselves.
What concerned me is as I watched the case in Belen unfold is that it seems more
commonplace to many and, worse, it has become less shocking to us as a nation.
As I recall, these events used to make our heads reel and fix our attention on the
television for months. It’s barely a five minute spot on the news now. And unless
it involves a celebrity, most of these murders wouldn’t even rate a documentary.
So, something is happening and maybe it’s not just to the children. If they are, as
Dr. Rexroad believes, the “canaries in the coal mine,” maybe it’s happening to us.
America, Detached. Children, Unhinged.
It’s no secret to anyone who’s been watching that we have become a
pathologically disconnected and discontented culture. We are transient in ways
not only physical but emotional and spiritual. We dart like hummingbirds from
one source of nectar to the next. Living across the country from my family and so
many old friends, I have not been an exception to the restlessness that spins the
American spirit. It has a grip on all of us in one way or another. But I am
exceedingly aware of it.
Many are not. They spin and can’t understand why they feel dizzy. They super-
size their meals and don’t understand why they get sick. They bounce from one
relationship to the next and don’t understand why they feel so alone.
Getting married is now a higher-stakes affair than many poker games. Divorce
court is the destination of nearly 50% of the people who walk down the aisle.
We’ve become detached from each other, our commitments, our children, our
own bodies, and our emotions. With our eyes and our expectations always on the
horizon, we are very rarely fully present in the moment. As we are sitting with
the person we’ve spent weeks planning to meet, our minds are already into our
next date, our next event.
We have higher expectations than any other culture in earth’s history but far less
patience or persistence. We are simultaneously slothful and entitled. Our values
have been skewed as evidenced by the massive debts people have amassed
because they couldn’t wait to buy HDTV’s. Even our television shows and
videos are cut into segments so small and so visually disjointed, it’s impossible to
see a story from beginning through the middle all the way to the end. Consider
the impact all this has on a psyche as impressionable, as receptive, and as
malleable as an infant’s.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by children who kill. If we are all connected, as
Dr. Rexroad believes, we are all responding to one another all the time, engaged
and fluttering in an emotional or psychical butterfly effect in which nothing
happens in a vacuum or by accident.
According to the Evergreen Psychotherapy Center, which specializes in the
treatment of attachment disordered children, research has shown that up to 80%
of high-risk families create severe attachment disorders in their children. High-
risk families include those with histories of abuse and neglect, poverty, substance
abuse, divorce, parental violence, history of maltreatment in the parents'
childhood, depression and other psychological disorders in parents. They warn
us: Since there are one million substantiated cases of serious abuse and neglect in the
U.S. each year, the statistics indicate that there are 800,000 children with severe
attachment disorders coming to the attention of the child welfare system each year. This
does not include thousands of children with attachment disorder adopted from other
What does an attachment disorder predispose one to do or become?
According to many experts, a failure to attach leads not only to emotional and
social problems but has serious developmental and biochemical consequences.
As far back as 1951 (Maternal Care and Mental Health) John Bowlby, the British
psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who coined the term “maternal deprivation,”
warned us of the dangers of detachment and alerted us to a child’s true
Infants raised without loving touch (which we see a great deal in children who
languish in orphanages throughout Eastern Europe and Russia) have abnormally
high levels of stress hormones. They learn more slowly, are behaviorally
disordered, frequently fall ill, and are far more violent than their emotionally
secure counterparts. If attachment is disrupted during the first three years of life,
children can suffer what is now being called “affectionless psychopathy.” They
are unable to form meaningful relationships. They have poor impulse control.
They are angry. And they don’t care anymore. They have no remorse, no
empathy. And they can get guns.
Why are children shooting their parents? According to the reports, it would seem
almost inevitable. According to one study by Quartz & Seinowski (2002), 15% of
18-24 year olds are “disconnected” with almost 4 million young adults neither
attending school nor working. Since the 1980’s, despite all the Prozac and
Ritalin, the number of homicides committed by juveniles has risen 168% and
suicides have increased by 140%. It is in fact the third leading cause of death
among young people. If they’re not killing someone else, they’re killing
Somehow, we have managed to create a population of children with no center
and nothing and no one to give them one. Abandoned, alienated, and angry,
without hope or conscience, why wouldn’t they shoot?
The evidence for that is in the subtle way in which we have moved right past
cases like the little boy in Belen, the way in which we have become inured to
horror, the way in which we process pain as if we had drive-through psyches.
Perhaps it is both cause and effect and we are stuck in a feedback loop that
perpetuates alienation and rage, letting the pressure build until the dam bursts
and the swell is once again (but not for long) contained. We are simultaneously
engaged by horror and disengaged emotionally. We rubber-neck on the highway
but we keep on driving.
Yet, I am surprised. I have worked with the traumatized and tormented for more
than twenty years. I have been witness and sanctuary to hundreds of men,
women and children who have seen and experienced war, brutality, sexual
abuse, prostitution, and, worst of all, unrelenting hatred from the people they
had counted on to love them. Their stories never cease to grieve or shock me. I
am not inured. Each case makes my heart break anew. Each story brings forth
more empathy. As far as I am concerned, this is good and proper. We should be
grieved. We should be pained. Each time. Every time.
As I watched the last newscast about this child—this little boy who looked at a
fairly large weapon, took it up in his hands, pointed it at his father, and pulled
the trigger—I struggled not to understand but to imagine.
What was in his mind, his heart right before he decided to aim that rifle? Then, as
he wrapped his small finger around the trigger, did he feel his own heart beating
or hear the blood rush through his ears and head? Did he feel any urgency to go
to the bathroom? Did he think of his siblings? Did he miss his mommy? Did he
hear anything, some small voice, some remnant of reason and love and longing
asking him to wait? Or was there a dead silence?
I do not have all the facts on the case. I do not know the family members, their
circumstances, or their history in the system. I don’t know what made the
parents divorce or what their early lives were like. I am also neither looking to
blame nor excuse. I seek some enlightenment. Perhaps to ease my own angst.
Perhaps to shed enough light on the matter that we can begin to see what needs
I admit that even after all these years of work in the field of trauma, there are
more things I don’t know than things of which I am absolutely sure. Theories are
the pale shadows of piercing experience. And when it comes to understanding
our lives here, there are more unanswered questions than answered ones. My
work sinks me deep in the Mysteries. And I am reminded of it every time a
patient looks at me after an upheaval of memories enough to fill a Stephen King
novel and asks, “Why?”
What I do know without equivocation is that nearly every child born comes into
existence with an instinctive dependence on his parents. From the very start their
needs are undeniable and palpable. They cry when we leave the room and cling
to us when we return. They smile when we smile. They pout when we pout. It is
innate. It may not be “love” as adults come to know it, but it is emotional Gorilla
Glue. I see it as the most unconditional and purest of loves. Even when we
neglect, hurt, or ridicule them, they still want to give us love. Yet, even if you
look at it without any poetic mists, it is empirically and biologically utterly
reasonable. We are their survival. They need us. What on earth could destroy that
most natural of bonds?
The only answer I can offer is that something—on earth—did.
Judith K. Acosta, LCSW, CHT is a published author and well-respected clinical
psychotherapist, hypnotherapist and crisis counselor.
As a writer she's worked on a wide variety of projects ranging from editorial to
consumer advertising. She’s written commercially for major clients such as American
Express, The Music in Corrales Series, CIBA-Geigy, and Cannon. Her scholarly work
has appeared in various journals including the Journal of the International Critical
Incident Stress Foundation and the Journal of Emergency Medicine. She has a regular
column on JEMS Online as well as in the New Mexico Signpost. She has also published
in Women’s News, Omni, Inner Realm, Listen Magazine, and the International Journal of
Emergency Mental Health, Opednews.com and AmericanThinker.com, among others.
As a therapist in private practice she specializes in the treatment of trauma and
anxiety—particularly with military, paramilitary and emergency personnel—and writes
frequently about spirituality and anxiety as well as fear management and the role of the
media in promulgating what she calls Viral Fear.
She is the co-author of The Worst is Over: What to Say When Every Moment
Counts. (2002) and its sequel, Verbal First Aid for Children, due to be released by
Penguin by the end of this year. She has appeared on both television and radio and is a
national lecturer on Verbal First Aid, trauma, crisis communication and risk management
as well as viral fear, the media and American culture. She and her husband, Dave Heidt, a
musician and audio engineer, live in Placitas, NM