The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

Partners in Crime

Peer Pressure, Dysfunctional Relationships, and Murder

Sometimes, when two people kill together, one member of the deadly duo participated in the homicide because the choice from their abusive partner was to kill or be killed.  That’s not going to get them off the hook, from a legal standpoint, but it’s something most of us can get our heads around.  Who knows for sure what we’d do if our own life was on the line?

 But what about pairs who kill for sport?  Here, too, there is always a ring leader – someone who sets the plan in motion.  But why would the other person go along?

 Killing for the Thrill

 When two people kills together, it seems to me that there are at least three possibilities:

  1. A bad egg coerces a good-hearted person to murder.
  2. A bad egg persuades someone who appears to be a good person – but harbors his or her own demons – to kill.
  3. Two bad, but cowardly eggs get together and the strength of the dysfunctional relationship pushes them over the edge from dark fantasies into evil deeds. 

A recent case in Pennsylvania argues for theory number three.  Two newlyweds, apparently deciding murder would be a bonding experience for their three week anniversary, lured a man the wife had met through the dating section of Craigslist.  When the wife gave a signal after parking the car at a remote location, the husband threw off the blanket he was hiding under and the two simultaneously stabbed and strangled the man to death.  

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 The motive?  It was a fantasy they both shared.  According to police, “they just wanted to kill someone together.”

 The Couples Murder of the Century

Things are not always that straightforward.  In the fabulous book I just finished, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were rich, highly intelligent college grads who had the world by the shoulders and murder on their minds.  Or, at least, Richard did.

 Richard Loeb had reportedly fantasized about murdering a random victim for years.  Even as a child, he reportedly had fantasies of himself being tortured behind bars while an adoring and empathetic bevvy of beauties watched.    Before he and Nathan formulated their homicidal plan, Richard read about crimes, planned crimes and he committed crimes (although none involving violence toward an individual).

 Nathan was no angel; he described himself as a Nietzschien and believed himself to be a superman who was above the law.  However, unlike Richard, there was no evidence that he put his beliefs into practice – or even contemplated doing so -  before he met Richard.   

 Nathan’s fantasies centered around his role as a powerful slave who protected and adored a king.  Unfortunately for Nathan (and, ultimately, their victim), Richard became that “king.”  A lonely, unattractive boy, Richard was not only Nathan’s first real friend, he became the object of Nathan’s sexual passion as well.  Richard reportedly did not share Nathan’s sexual preference, but was apparently willing to barter sexual encounters for various favors.  It is likely that Nathan participated in their murder of a 14 year old boy more out of an attempt to please Richard than to satisfy any genuine bent toward homicide.  However, like many non-dominant partners of murderous pairs, once he agreed to carry out his lover’s fantasy, he participated with enthusiasm.

The Devil Made Me Do It

Actually, in my research on deadly duos, I couldn’t find any examples of a morally, grounded individual who was completely corrupted by an evil genius.  What I did find, though, were some striking examples of weak-minded, dependent persons who were quickly and easily transformed into whatever their dominant partner wanted them to be.  Myra Hindley is as good an example as any of a mousy, unremarkable women who apparent odds of becoming a homicidal maniac were remarkably slim before she met Ian Brady.  Yet she herself admitted that, even though she knew right from wrong and had never any violent urges on her own, she not only became a willing accomplice but ultimately took personal pleasure in the murders she and Ian committed.

 The Bottom Line

 Partners in thrill kills typically have one member who drives the murder mobile.  However, this doesn’t mean the other person is a passive passenger.  Most duos consist of a dominant person who teams up with an equally enthusiastic accomplice or someone who, because something is lacking in their own character, is easy to bring on board.  

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

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