Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Childhood Psychopath: Bad Seed or Bad Parents?

Bad Seed: The Fledgling Psychopath

Brenda Spencer
Brenda Spencer
In 1979, sixteen-year-old Brenda Spencer received a rifle for her birthday. She used it to shoot kids at an elementary school near her San Diego home, wounding nine and killing two. A reporter asked her later why she had done it. Her answer: "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day."

In 1993, two bodies were found on a country road in Ellis County, Texas. One was male, one female. The boy, 14, had been shot, but the 13-year-old girl had been stripped, raped, and dismembered. Her head and hands were missing. The killer turned out to be Jason Massey, who had decided he was going to become the worst serial killer that Texas had ever seen. He tortured animals, stalked another young woman, and revered killers like Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, and Henry Lee Lucas. He was nine years old when he killed his first cat. He added dozens more over the years, along with dogs and even six cows. He had a long list of potential victims and his diaries were filled with fantasies of rape, torture, and cannibalism of female victims. He was a loner who believed he served a "master" who gave him knowledge and power. He was obsessed with bringing girls under his control and having their dead bodies in his possession.

Nine-year-old Jeffrey Bailey, Jr. pushed a three-year-old friend into the deep part of a motel pool in Florida in 1986. He wanted to see someone drown. As the boy sank to the bottom, Jeffrey pulled up a chair to watch. When it was finished, he went home. When he was questioned, he was more engaged in being the center of attention than in any kind of remorse for what he had done. About the murder he was nonchalant.

On April 13, 2000, three first-graders in north-western Indiana were apprehended in the act of plotting to kill a classmate. They had formed a "hate" club and were trying to recruit other girls to join them in the planned slaughter. They were not yet sure whether they would shoot their target victim, stab her with a butcher knife or hang her. Their plan was interrupted, but another victim in similar circumstances was not so lucky.

Jessica Holtmeyer, 16, hanged a learning-disabled girl in Pennsylvania and then bashed in her face with a rock. Afterward, a witness reported Holtmeyer to say that she wanted to cut the girl up and keep one of her fingers as a souvenir.

These children have a character disturbance. They devalue others and lack a sense of morality. Such incidents as those described above have made it increasingly clear that psychopathy is not exclusively an adult manifestation. In fact, some child development experts believe that childhood psychopathy is increasing at an alarming rate. In the research, these children are regarded as "fledgling psychopaths" who will become increasingly more dangerous as they get older. They might not become killers but they will learn how to manipulate, deceive and exploit others for their own gain. It is generally believed that they have failed to develop affectional bonds that allow them to empathize with another's pain. What they have developed are traits of arrogance, dishonesty, narcissism, shamelessness, and callousness.

Through the years, the diagnosis of psychopathy in adults has gone through a confusing conceptual evolution. Psychopaths have been called sociopaths, but they've also been distinguished as a separate and distinct group. Another complicating factor is the development of the diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder, which overlaps with many traits of a psychopath but also has key differences. It is not surprising, then, that juvenile psychopathy, too, has been poorly defined, often confused with the various youthful conduct disorders.

Given society's interest in diminishing the crime rate among the most chronically recidivating offenders — psychopaths — it is important to determine if childhood psychopathy is a clearly measurable manifestation. The salient question is whether we can single out such children and treat them before they become truly dangerous.

 

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