Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Sylvia Seegrist: Guilty But Insane


Sylvia Seegrist in shades, cuffed.
Sylvia Seegrist in shades,
In 1991, Sylvia gave an interview to Reid Kanaley for the Philadelphia Inquirer. With the help of treatment and medication, she had stabilized in her behavior and feelings, and she expressed some hope that eventually she might be released. She was no longer overwhelmed by anger or paranoia, and had no more delusions. Instead, what she felt was remorse over what she had done.

"Every time October 30 rolls around," she remarked, "I have a hard time that day. I have a hard time not crying. The idea that I hurt people. It's hard to describe." She said she did not realize at the time that she had been so sick.

Asked to account for her reasons, Seegrist said that she had feared that her mother was going to have her hospitalized that day. She so hated the side effects of her medication, which included weight gain, loss of muscle control, and problems with seeing, that she would have done anything to resist that fate. The current medications, much improved over those of the 1980s, had much less difficult effects. She no longer suffered from the violent fantasies she once had.

Indeed, it was her hope at the time to earn a degree in psychology and eventually to go into that field. Yet it was clear from comments by the DA's office when they heard about her ambitions that they would oppose her ever being released.

Another follow-up piece in 1994 indicated that Seegrist had nearly completed her college degree and was teaching math to fellow prisoners. Her mother commented that the prison structure for Seegrist was "humane."

In 2001, Julian Walker located Seegrist's mother and wrote a piece on her and her ideas about the mentally ill. Ruth Seegrist, a freelance writer at the time of her daughter's rampage, was then the director of Friends Hospital Family Resource Center in Philadelphia, created ten years after Sylvia's rampage. Ruth Seegrist made it a life mission to get information out to the public about the mentally ill. The FRC makes help and information available to family members trying to cope with the issues, as well as to patients who want to know more about their own illness.

Ruth and her husband, Don, had explored many treatment options while trying to find a way to deal with their daughter.  Even before Sylvia went to the Springfield Mall on that fateful day, the Seegrists were struggling to know what to do. Their daughter had grown steadily worse, both in her symptoms and her anger, and there seemed to be nowhere to turn for an answer. Over the years, Ruth acquired both useful information and not so useful information. She knows what works, what she should say (or not), and to whom she should refer someone. She understands that mental illness may be a chemical imbalance and she realizes why patients do not want to take their medication, even though it's necessary to their wellbeing. 

Most of her work revolved around people in a recovery mode who had been out of the hospital for at least a year. She assisted them with their treatment plan and encouraged them to believe that things would get better.

Whether or not Sylvia ever gets released, her legacy is that people may better understand that someone who is ill may commit violence that even that person does not fully understand.  It's important to ensure that mental health resources are available, well-coordinated, and compassionate toward those who cannot assist themselves. 


*With thanks to John Timpane for research assistance.