When Kinkel was taken from school after being expelled for having a loaded pistol, he was terrified of what his father would say. He'd long felt belittled and ashamed that he couldn't live up to his popular and athletic older sister, his only sibling and six years his senior, and this incident would just make things worse. He felt that he had nowhere to turn and no choice but to end his parents' lives. From that moment forward, he planned how he would do it, and then (according to some accounts) how he would make sure that he, too, would die—but not before getting back at classmates who'd made him feel worthless.
Yet there was something else about this kid besides just failing to be part of the popular crowd. The way he planned and carried out what he did on May 21, 1998, speaks to something a bit more malignant: He may have been psychopathic. Child psychologist Jonathan Kellerman, author of Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children, includes him in a list of children who have acted out violence with cold calculation. He recounts how Kinkel slew his parents, spent the night with their bodies in the home, booby-trapped the house with bombs, stole the car, and drove twenty minutes to school the next morning with a semiautomatic rifle and Glock pistol, with the intent to spray many rounds of bullets into people he knew. This was his world and he was wantonly destroying it over something as minor as a school violation. He even had a knife strapped to his leg and some pepper spray, which he tried using against the arresting police officer. His crime showed a finely honed and detailed sense of premeditation, and in fact, over the previous few years, he'd been slowly arming himself with numerous guns and explosives.
"What turns them on," says Kellerman about children like Kinkel, "is the kick, the high, the slaking of impulse...the subjugation of the rest of us." According to him, "Bad people are really different." They can seem quiet and shy, but that may in fact be the emotional flatness that signals psychopathy and that keeps them calm throughout their violent episodes. A good predictor of dangerousness in children, he says, is the combination of a certain temperament with a chaotic environment. Yet Kinkel did not come from a chaotic home—or could it be that the placid environment his sister Kristin had known for several years before he was born had changed and was thus chaotic to him?
By early adolescence, he set about making himself into someone that others regarded as "dangerous." He hung out with kids who got him involved in petty theft, and when he was caught, he knew this was yet another disappointment for his parents. He framed the lyrics from Marilyn Manson's song, "The Reflecting God," to the effect that there was no salvation, and then became fascinated with explosives. His was a disturbed mind, and he embraced emblems of despair. Unbeknownst to his parents, Bill and Faith, he collected a small library of books about making bombs, and classmates viewed him as something of an expert. Thus, he accomplished a sense of mastery, power, and dangerousness all at once. He was not about to give it up, and instead he added to it by collecting guns and hiding his stash from his family.
In 1999, PBS's "Frontline" produced a thorough documentary of Kip Kinkel, called "The Killer at Thurston High." They interviewed friends, school personnel, and even Kristin Kinkel to try to find an answer as to why he'd want so badly for others to regard him as dangerous. From all appearances, he'd been raised by two schoolteachers who were good people, who wanted to get the most out of life, and who provided a nice home out in the country. How could they possibly have raised a killer?
While there's no formula for knowing exactly what goes wrong in the life of a kid, there appear to be several factors that joined in just the wrong way for Kinkel—factors that were not true for his sister, who was raised in the same home:
- His parents went to Spain for a year when he was young and put him into a non-English-speaking school, which placed him at a severe disadvantage.
- He experienced other failures early, such as an inability to perform athletically like his sister, and once back in Oregon, an inability to do well in school.
- He was dyslexic in the midst of a family that was immersed in academics.
- He was clumsy, while his father was a star tennis player.
- He came to believe that he disappointed his parents, probably through watching their complete approval of their firstborn.
- He was small and weak, and he looked for ways to empower himself.
- He had a poorly-managed temper and he participated in some antisocial activities, such as throwing rocks at cars. He claimed he'd also blown up cats and a cow.
- His father, too, had a temper, which frightened Kip, and he was quick to show judgment. He expected a lot from both of his children.
- Kip set off explosives that he made himself to vent his feelings.
- As he learned about the power of firearms, he struggled against his father, who wanted to keep guns out of the home. Then he changed his mind and allowed Kip to take some gun safety lessons and bought him some rather high-powered rifles, as well as a lethal hunting knife.
- Eventually, Kip's parents took him to a therapist—a move his father was against—and while the therapist felt that Kip should not have guns, he proudly talked with Kip about his own Glock 9-mm handguns. Thus, Kip got a dose of ambivalence about guns from several authority figures.
- Kip was put on Prozac for depression, but when he seemed to be doing better, he stopped taking it.
- He wrote in his journals about how much he hated himself, how lonely he was, and how he wished he were bigger.
- He had a crush on a girl, who did not share his intense feelings, so he identified with a brutal version of Romeo and Juliet, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which was then in vogue among teenagers. In this film, violence and suicide are highly glamorized. Kip also wrote about his "cold, black heart," and added, "As soon as my hope is gone, people die." To his mind, love only inspired hate.
Given all these factors, which is most to blame? Did Kip's parents inadvertently handle things badly? Was Kip born with a predisposition such that, no matter what they did, he would have turned out to be violent? Was he influenced by the songs and films that advocated hopelessness and death? Or was there something else?
According to Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley in Ghosts in the Nursery, the roots of violence develop in the first two years of our lives, starting at conception. "With the exception of certain rare head injuries," they claim, "no one biological or sociological factor by itself predisposes a child to violent behavior. The research underscores that it is the interaction of multiple factors which may set the stage." In other words, it's not due to a negative experience, a brain disorder, genetics, or mistakes in parenting, but it could be the result of a cumulative effect of a combination of factors, along with the failure of normal protective systems in the environment.
Among those factors associated with violence, they list
- harmful substances ingested by mothers during pregnancy
- chronic maternal stress during pregnancy
- low birth weight
- early maternal rejection or abuse
- nutritional deficiencies
- low verbal IQ
- lack of consistency among caregivers in early life
- ineffective discipline
- severe neglect
While none are considered causal, in certain combinations and with certain dispositions, they can provoke anger, lack of anger management skills, and violence against self or others. If these kids don't connect early, there can be problems later in life. "Babies reflect back what they absorb," the authors say, and that notion has serious implications. If we fail to address the issues of competent child-rearing and healthy pregnancies, one in twenty babies born today will end up behind bars, as Kip Kinkel did.
Because he had access to funds and to people selling stolen guns, he was expelled, but even before that, the negatives were obviously accumulating. Then the police took him away and called his father to come get him, a humiliation in itself, and he had to think once more about what Bill was going to say about this disgrace. He decided then and there that all hope was gone. He went to his room, got his semiautomatic rifle, and then returned to the kitchen and shot his father to death. Then he called a friend and talked for a while as he waited for his mother to come home. She arrived around 6, parked in the garage downstairs and began to go up the steps. Kip came and told her he loved her before he shot her six times.
He covered the bodies of both of his parents with sheets and as he waited through the night, he placed homemade bombs around the home, putting one under his mother's body. He then turned on the soundtrack to Romeo and Juliet to play continuously, and left a note, "I have killed my parents. I am a horrible son." In his journal, he'd written, "My head just doesn't work right. Goddam these voices in my head."
Then he went to school with his rifle and a pistol, and in less than a minute shot 48 rounds into his classmates. He put a rifle to one boy's head and killed him. He'd also fatally wounded another and hit eight more. Fifteen kids were hurt in the stampede to escape. Some kids wrestled him to the floor and he begged, "Just kill me." When taken into custody and questioned about why he'd done this, he just kept saying through tears, "I had no other choice...I had to."
Though he was 15, Kinkel was certified to be tried as an adult. He'd initiated an insanity defense, but dropped it and pled guilty to four counts of first-degree murder and twenty-four counts of attempted murder. He was sentenced to 112 years in prison without parole.
Things seemed quiet for awhile in schools around the country. Then nearly one year after Kinkel's rampage, on April 20, 1999, on the anniversary of Adolph Hitler's birthday in 1889, the school killings reached their apex with the tragedy that occurred in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Two more angry kids acquired guns and bombs and plotted a day their classmates would never forget.