For this week’s Research Thursday, I thought I would share a paper I wrote in graduate school on a South Carolina serial killer named Todd Kohlhepp. In the paper, The Development of a Criminal, I discuss Kohlhepp’s childhood experiences and temperament, and how they each may have impacted the decisions he made and the actions he took as a teenager and adult. While it is by no means a complete look at his life and his choices, it does give one an overview and insight into the things that shaped him and his world view. This research could be useful to aspiring writers who are looking to create a believable background for their antagonist or villain, or at the very least could point the way toward other avenues of research into creating a character of this type.
On a side note, I wrote this paper a year before John Douglas released his book, THE KILLER ACROSS THE TABLE, in which he discussed and interviewed Todd Kohlhepp (pp. 257-323). If you have the time, I highly recommend reading the book. John Douglas is one of the best in terms of criminal profiling and behavior dissection, and he proves that with every book he writes.
TRIGGER WARNING: Discussions of murder, rape, child neglect/abandonment/rejection below.
THE DEVELOPMENT OF A CRIMINAL
by Deanna Lynn
Todd Christopher Kohlhepp, a South Carolina real estate agent and convicted murderer, kidnapper, and rapist had behavior and temperament issues from a young age (Connor, 2017). These issues included anger, aggression, frustration, lack of empathy and remorse, destruction of property, and cruelty to animals (Connor, 2017; Field, 2016). Through careful research of his childhood, it is obvious to this author that Kohlhepp resented his parents, craved attention, and lacked self-regulation, three factors that theoretically led him to commit the many crimes for which he was convicted. Therefore, the primary purpose of this paper is not to study Kohlhepp’s crimes in themselves, but to figure out the influence of the social, environmental, and biological risk factors that preceded his first arrest and adult conviction at the age of 15.
According to psychiatric evaluations and court documents (Field, 2016), Todd Kohlhepp was 15 months old when his anger and behavior problems first arose. By age two, his parents had divorced, with his father moving to Arizona and soon afterward, his mother remarrying to his stepfather, after which it appears none of his parents took an avid and present interest in his life (Conner, 2017; Field, 2016).
In preschool, Kohlhepp acted out by hitting other children, destroying their school projects, and harming animals and pets to get what he wanted (Conner, 2017; Field, 2016). Before he was a teenager, Kohlhepp spent 18 weeks in a mental hospital due to his increased and prolonged aggression toward other children (Conner, 2017). This increased proclivity for violence corresponded with Kohlhepp’s confessed hatred of his father and stepfather (Conner, 2017) and showed an increasing lack of empathy and remorse with a continual decrease in self-regulation (Field, 2016).
Bartol & Bartol (2017) describe self-regulation as an inability to control impulsivity and it is clear from Kohlhepp’s psychiatric evaluations and court documents that he had issues with controlling his impulses as well as his anger, irritability, and sensitivity (Field, 2016). According to Bartol & Bartol (2017), a troublesome temperament in congruence with parental neglect or rejection can lead to a high risk of antisocial behavior, which can be defined as repeated marking of the abuse of, and the indifference for, the rights of others (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Based on his known childhood history, it is evident that Todd Kohlhepp presented signs for several developmental risk factors that are known to coincide with adolescent and adult criminal behavior (Bartol & Bartol, 2017). The first of these is a neglectful parenting style, which can be further broke down to parental abandonment and parental rejection. The second sign is a troublesome temperament and inability to regulate his own behavior. The third sign is a lack of attachment, empathy, and remorse that eventually led to cruelty to animals and an inability to assign emotion and humanization to those around him.
Developmental Risk Factors
Neglectful Parenting Style
When Kohlhepp’s mother and stepfather had marital difficulty when he was 12, his mother sent him to stay with his biological father in Arizona for the summer, a man Kohlhepp barely knew (Conner, 2017; Field, 2016). When Kohlhepp returned home again, he threatened suicide if his mother did not send him back to his father in Arizona, a matter in which she conceded after Kohlhepp, in a fit of rage, destroyed the new furniture she bought for him (Conner, 2017).
Things started out well for Kohlhepp back in Arizona, until his father stopped spending time with him and began leaving him alone for days on end (Conner, 2017). This parental neglect, rejection, and abandonment increased Kohlhepp’s anger, frustration, and resentment toward his father and later, his mother, and it precipitated Kohlhepp’s abuse of alcohol and his criminal decision to get back at his father by kidnapping and raping his 14-year-old female neighbor at gun point (Conner, 2017; Field, 2016).
Ryan, Williams, & Courtney (2013) suggest that sustained neglect and maltreatment during childhood and adolescence increases the likelihood of juvenile delinquency and adult delinquency. Additionally, Craig, Gray, & Snowden (2013) contend that parenting styles which lack warmth and affection can result in attachment anxiety that can diminish self-assurance and weaken an individual’s ability to regulate emotion and behavior. Furthermore, in a study on parental control, adolescent delinquency, and young adult criminal behavior, Harris-McCoy & Cui (2013) found there is a relevant association between a lack of parental control and higher levels of delinquency in adolescence.
As a child and adolescent, Todd Kohlhepp disliked authority and acted out against his peers (Conner, 2017; Field, 2016). He was diagnosed with conduct problems early on and later, with borderline personality disorder (Field, 2016), which can be defined as a pervasive pattern of unpredictability in social relationships, self-image, emotion, and clear impulsivity (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), and narcissistic personality disorder (Field, 2016), which includes pretentiousness, a need for attention, and a lack of empathy for others (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
This combined temperament of disruptive, impulsive, and defiant behaviors manifested in childhood and increased in adolescence, thus contributing to Kohlhepp’s inability to regulate his own behavior and emotional efficiency (Conner, 2017; Field, 2016). Moore, Tull, & Gratz (2017) suggest those with borderline personality disorder (BPD) have a diminished capacity to control their impulsive behavior and physical aggression when distressed (p. 31). This research finding would support Kohlhepp’s revelation that anger and resentment toward the absence of his father led him to commit his first kidnapping and rape offense at age 15 (Field, 2016).
Lack of Attachment, Empathy, and Remorse
McDonald et al. (2018) contend that emotions of anger and annoyance are most connected with childhood animal cruelty while Bartol & Bartol (2017) suggest an insecure attachment is the result of a child’s intense distress and anxiety caused by separation and an introduction to new environments that can later develop into hostility and indifference to a caregiver. This would lead credence to the assertion that Todd Kohlhepp’s lack of attachment and empathy may be the result of parental neglect, abandonment, and rejection (Conner, 2017; Field, 2016). The authors further suggest that a lack of empathy is the result of an individual’s inability to understand a person from his or her viewpoint rather than the individual’s own viewpoint (2017).
Kohlhepp displayed his lack of empathy through his aggressiveness toward other children as well as his torture of animals and pets. By his own admission and the reports of neighbors who knew him (Connor, 2017; Field, 2016), Kohlhepp once bleached a fish, shot a dog with a BB gun, and locked a neighbor’s son in a barrel, rolling it repeatedly, despite the other child’s cries for freedom. Later, this lack of empathy and inability to view the world from another person’s eyes would lead to Kohlhepp’s kidnapping and rape of another neighbor, a 14-year-old female for which he would be charged for kidnapping and sentenced to 15 years in an adult prison when he was 15.
Research shows that the biological, environmental, and social factors present throughout Todd Kohlhepp’s childhood and into his adolescence had a direct and substantial influence on his propensity for violence and in the intensification of his criminal behavior. Parental neglect, a troublesome temperament, and a lack of attachment are known and shown to interfere with the convicted offender’s ability to collectively regulate his emotions and control his impulsivity to violence.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders [5th Edition]. Arlington, VA: Author.
Bartol, A. & Bartol, C. (2017). Criminal behavior: A psychological approach [Eleventh Edition]. Boston: Pearson
Connor, E. (2017). Kohlhepp driven by anger. Greenville News. Retrieved from https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/news/crime/2016/11/12/driven-anger/93548938
Craig, R. L., Gray, N. S., & Snowden, R. J. (2013). Recalled parental bonding, current attachment, and the triarchic conceptualization of psychopathy. Personality and Individual Differences, 55(4), 345-350. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2013.03.012
Field, C. (2016). Suspect in captive woman case had deeply troubled past, court records show. WYFF4. Retrieved from https://www.wyff4.com/article/suspect-in-captive-woman-case-had-deeply-troubled-past-court-records-show/8243951
Harris-McCoy, D. & Cui, M. (2013). Parental control, adolescent delinquency, and young adult criminal behavior. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 22(6), 836-843. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826-012-9641-x
McDonald, S. E., Cody, A. M., Booth, L. J., Peers, J. R., O’Conner-Luce, C., Williams, J. H., & Ascione, F. R. (2018). Animal cruelty among children in violent households: Children’s explanations for their behavior. Journal of Family Violence, 33(7), 469-480. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-018-9970-7
Moore, K. E., Tull, M. T., & Gratz, K. L. (2017). Borderline personality disorder symptoms and criminal justice system involvement: The roles of emotion-driven difficulties in controlling impulsive behaviors and physical aggression. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 76, 26-35. DOI: 10.1016/j.comppsych.2017.03.008
Ryan, J. P., Williams, A. R., & Courtney, M. E. (2013). Adolescent neglect, juvenile delinquency, and the risk of recidivism. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42(3), 454-465. DOI: 10.1007/s10964-013-9906-8
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THE KILLER ACROSS THE TABLE
BY JOHN DOUGLAS
PUBLISHER: Dey Street Books
AVAILABLE IN: Digital, Paperback
PUBLISHED: May 7, 2019
The legendary FBI criminal profiler, number-one New York Times bestselling author, and inspiration for the hit Netflix show Mindhunter delves deep into the lives and crimes of four of the most disturbing and complex predatory killers, offering never-before-revealed details about his profiling process, and divulging the strategies used to crack some of America’s most challenging cases.
The FBI’s pioneer of criminal profiling, former special agent John Douglas, has studied and interviewed many of America’s most notorious killers—including Charles Manson, ”Son of Sam Killer” David Berkowitz and ”BTK Strangler” Dennis Rader—trained FBI agents and investigators around and the world, and helped educate the country about these deadly predators and how they operate, and has become a legend in popular culture, fictionalized in The Silence of the Lambs and the hit television shows Criminal Minds and Mindhunter.
Twenty years after his famous memoir, the man who literally wrote the book on FBI criminal profiling opens his case files once again. In this riveting work of true crime, he spotlights four of the most diabolical criminals he’s confronted, interviewed and learned from. Going deep into each man’s life and crimes, he outlines the factors that led them to murder and how he used his interrogation skills to expose their means, motives, and true evil. Like the hit Netflix show, The Killer Across the Table is centered around Douglas’ unique interrogation and profiling process. With his longtime collaborator Mark Olshaker, Douglas recounts the chilling encounters with these four killers as he experienced them—revealing for the first time his profile methods in detail.
Going step by step through his interviews, Douglas explains how he connects each killer’s crimes to the specific conversation, and contrasts these encounters with those of other deadly criminals to show what he learns from each one. In the process, he returns to other famous cases, killers and interviews that have shaped his career, describing how the knowledge he gained from those exchanges helped prepare him for these.
A glimpse into the mind of a man who has pierced the heart of human darkness, The Killer Across the Table unlocks the ultimate mystery of depravity and the techniques and approaches that have countered evil in the name of justice.
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