Experts offer insight into criminal rage
15 August 2004
By Deborah Circelli, Daytona Beach News-Journal


DAYTONA BEACH -- There can be countless reasons why people, fueled by uncontrolled rage, commit unthinkable crimes, according to forensic psychiatrists and psychologists.

Personality disorders. Mental illnesses. Brains addled by drugs or alcohol. Violent backgrounds. Traumatic childhoods. Negative influences. Coercion by a powerful, charismatic leader. Pure evil.

At this point, it's only possible to theorize about what might have underscored and unleashed the senseless violence that last week resulted in six young people being bludgeoned to death with baseball bats in Deltona.

And to wonder about the minds of the four men who stand accused -- three teenagers and a 27-year-old felon, who investigators say organized the attack because he thought one of the victims took his Xbox video game system.

"It's always a mistake to hypothesize," says Joel Dvoskin, a forensic psychologist who teaches at the University of Arizona Medical School and serves as a threat assessment consultant. "Simple explanations for complex behaviors are almost always wrong."

And respected forensic psychiatrists and psychologist don't make long-distance diagnoses.

But in telephone interviews, Dvoskin and several other experts didn't mind offering insights into possible causes of criminal rage based on their experience and research in the field.

When people who are predisposed to violence "have very little stuff," what they do have sometimes "takes on exaggerated importance," according to Dvoskin, especially if they've been in prison. In that culture, he says, the "notion of swift, decisive revenge" is prevalent.

Which may explain how an Xbox and some clothes could have precipitated a mass murder. Investigators say Troy Victorino of Deltona, who has a violent history and prison record, organized the massacre because he was enraged that one of the victims took his belongings from her grandparents' home where he'd been squatting.

Victorino's mother also claims in court records that he was sexually abused as a small child.

Suffering such abuse increases the risk for adult criminality by 50 percent, says Dvoskin. But he's quick to note that seven out of 10 abused children do not become criminals.

"The majority of people who've been abused or neglected as children figure out a way of handling it," he says.

However, "there's a certain subset that never recovers," says Tonia Werner, a Gainesville forensic psychiatrist who teaches at the University of Florida Medical School. The signs and symptoms of antisocial personality disorder -- including lack of remorse and no behavioral checks and balances -- become evident by age 15 and peak by the time a person is in his 20s or 30s.

When such a person feels wronged, his rage can go out of control, she says.

Statistically, 3 percent of males and 1 percent of females have antisocial personality disorder, according to Werner, with a much higher prevalence in prison populations.

The disorder does not get anyone off in court, she notes.

Those who commit horrendous crimes might also be termed psychopaths. A variation of antisocial personality disorder, psychopathy is "felt to be biologically determined," says David Shapiro, a forensic psychologist who teaches at the Center of Psychological Studies at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. The person "has no capacity for feelings. The wiring in the brain just isn't there," he says.

It's also possible that someone who commits unthinkable acts may have a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, or be under the influence of certain drugs, the experts say. Victorino's mother also says in letters to the court that her son had been treated for depression since age 8.

The experts agree that personality disorders don't preclude criminals from having the power to sway others. They can be exploitative, charismatic and more than capable of getting others to follow their lead.

"People who feel powerless often follow a leader," says Robin Inwald, a forensic psychologist who heads Hilson Research in Kew Gardens, N.Y. Such followers can be incited to commit "horrific deeds," she says. "It depends on the values of the group."

Those with a gang mentality, for example, may view it as a positive thing "to take control and make sure no one disrespects them," says Inwald.

Little is known, at this point, about what was going on in the minds of the three 18-year-olds -- Michael Sala, Robert Cannon and Jerone Hunter -- who investigators say followed Victorino's lead and wielded the baseball bats along with him during the bloody massacre.

But there is a psychological model for recruiting "other people for evil acts," says Gregory DeClue, a Sarasota forensic psychologist. The 10 steps, he says, include presenting a rationale, giving participants meaningful roles to play, increasing the level of aggression in gradual steps and making it hard for anyone to back out of the plan.

In social psychology, DeClue says, "evil is defined as intentionally behaving or causing others to act in a demeaning or dehumanizing way, or to harm or kill innocent people."

Clearly, something evil happened in Deltona last week.

But it may take a long time before anyone really understands why.

Did You Know?
[In the US,] Homicides with multiple victims increased gradually from 1976 to 2000, from less than 3 percent of all homicides to slightly more than 4 percent.

The U.S. Department of Justice also reports that:
[list]· The percentage of homicides involving multiple offenders increased from 10 percent in 1976 to 18 percent in 2000.
· Less than 1 percent of all homicides have both multiple victims and multiple offenders.
· Homicides committed by younger offenders are more likely to be committed by multiple offenders.
· Multiple victim homicides are more likely to involve guns than single victim homicides.[/list:u]