Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

EVIL, PART TWO: THE HEART OF DARKNESS - REFRAMING EVIL

Harming the Innocent

Albert Fish (CORBIS)
Albert Fish
(CORBIS)

Some predators view children as mere objects for their erotic stimulation. Albert Fish, Marc Dutroux, and Wesley Allan Dodd all abused and harmed children in some manner, but Fish was probably the worst of the lot.

A religious fanatic and sadist, early in childhood he developed an obsession with punishment. Although married and the father of half a dozen children, he secretly beat himself (or got his children and their friends to beat him) with spiked paddles. He also stuck needles into his groin (leaving some there), threaded rose stems into his urethra, and lighted alcohol-soaked cotton balls inside his anus. Among his many paraphilias was coprophagia (consuming human feces) and mailing obscene letters. In visions he received commandments that made him believe he was Abraham from the Bible, and just as Abraham was called to sacrifice his only son to the Lord, Fish realized he would have to kill childrenor at least to castrate young boys.

Fish's first wife had long ago left (after keeping her lover hidden in their attic) and he began to travel to distant places where he married three more times and may have molested over one hundred children in twenty-three states. He actually claimed that the total was more like 400, and some of these children he mutilated and killed. The one that led to his arrest in New York in 1934 involved a twelve-year-old girl named Grace Budd.

Fish was 58 at the time. Passing himself off as "Mr. Howard," he approached the Budd family with the intent of luring their eighteen-year-old son to his home under the pretense of giving him employment. Then he spotted Grace and chose her instead. He ingratiated himself with the family until they trusted him, and then told Grace that he would take her to a birthday party and she willingly went with him. Her family never saw her again.

Six years went by and for some inexplicable reason, Fish sent an anonymous note to Grace's mother. He wrote about how he had taken Grace away, strangled her, and then dismembered her. Then he claimed that he had cooked certain pieces of her and consumed them.

It was the stationery that gave him away. A dogged investigator traced it to Fish, and when the self-professed cannibal was arrested, he confessed in lurid detail. In the stew he made of Grace Budd's flesh, he had added carrots and bacon strips, and as he savored it over the next several days, he masturbated over his grisly deed. His first murder, he said, took place in 1910 when he killed a man in Delaware. Believing himself to be Christ, and obsessed with sin and atonement, Fish admitted to the murders of three other children, although some experts place his death toll as high as fifteen.

Despite obvious insanity, the jury sentenced him to death, and on January 16, 1936, he was sent to the electric chair.

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Westley Allan Dodd, mugshot
Westley Allan Dodd, mugshot

Westley Allan Dodd was a predator. He fantasized about his future victims and made elaborate plans for what he would do with them. Caught while attempting to abduct a six-year-old boy from a movie theater restroom, he was investigated for his involvement in the murders of three other boys in the Vancouver, Washington, area. Two brothers, Cole Neer, 10, and William Neer, 11, were found stabbed to death in a park. Less than ten miles from there, a 4-year-old was murdered and dumped. Dodd confessed to all threeobviously delighting in the sadistic details.

Searching his home, police found a torture rack, photos of his victims, and a disgusting diary recording his crimes and detailing his gruesome plans for other victims. His MO involved befriending the children with gifts and coaxing them to go with him. Although he was stopped when he was 28, he'd already been molesting young boys for 15 years.

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Some child abusers also get involved with child pornography, as was the case with Marc Dutroux in Charleroi, Belgium. From the mid-1980s until he was caught in 1996, he developed an international child pornography and prostitution ringalthough he himself had three children. He supported them and his second wife by kidnapping young girls and selling them into prostitution across Europe.

In 1989, he was convicted in the rape of five young girls, but after only three years in prison was granted early release. Soon more young girls disappeared. As it turned out later, he kept them imprisoned in empty houses that he owned, and though police actually searched one, they failed to find the secret dungeon in which the girls were kept.

When police raided Dutroux's home in 1996, they found 300 pornographic videos of children and a concrete dungeon that Dutroux had built that held two girls. One was 12 and one 14, and they'd both been sexually abused. They'd been grabbed off the streets, drugged, thrown into the dungeon, and forced to pose for films. One of them had been there for over two months.

Two other girls, both 8, had died while imprisoned. When Dutroux had been incarcerated for a month for car theft, they had starved to death and he'd later buried them in his backyard. With them was the body of one of Dutroix's accomplices, whom he said had been buried alive as punishment for letting the girlshis source of incomestarve.

Then there were two other girls, 19 and 17, who had turned up missing and who were linked to Dutroux. They were buried under concrete in a shed next to another of his houses.

During the investigation into these four deaths and the many kidnappings, police discovered a sex ring, which included Dutroux's second wife and a businessman who had entertained government officials at an orgy. Getting Dutroux to trial for these crimes, however, proved difficult. Over four years later, he still had not been formally arraigned.

The human mind has the capacity to reconceptualize almost anything, even the most atrocious acts against others. It's called reframing and it simply means that an act in one context that clearly is evil can be viewed in quite another context as noble and heroic. Americans thought that the attacks on the World Trade Center were an unmitigated evil that would be recognized as such around the world. Many were astonished to see films of people in Afghanistan cheering over this victory for fundamentalist Islam. They had struck a telling blow against Satan.

How can a single act be both evil and noble? How can a single person who views harm to others as evil one day call it good? It depends on the context, and that makes it possible for people raised within a certain culture to engage in what that culture views as evil, because they are participating in a context in which other values prevail. Thinking is malleable and the pressures of peers or an ideology can affect conduct and values.

Yet that's not a definitive explanation for evil acts. While each of the people described above had a way to reframe what they were doing to make it seem less wicked and even to ennoble it, there are some who don't care what anyone thinks: They identify with symbols of pure evil and just go all out. We'll encounter such people in Part 3, and try to get to the roots of the evil imperative.

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