Las Vegas and the Myth of the "Out of Character" Crime

"Out of character" is becoming a refrain, but an empty one.

Posted Oct 03, 2017

I am writing this in the aftermath of the horrific and largest mass shooting in U.S. history, the killing of 59 people and injury of 527 concert goers. Like those reading this blog, I only know what I read and hear in the media. Thus I do not purport to have insights into this specific killer.

What I do know is that in 47 years of evaluating and treating offenders, an “out of character” crime does not exist. We hear it again and again that a perpetrator of a terrible crime had no criminal record, that he was a “nice guy,” that he didn’t cause trouble in his community, that he was employed, and so forth. So the initial appearance is that he must have “snapped” (whatever that means), or for some other reason was driven to engage in behavior that was completely alien to his character.

A house cannot fly. It is not within its character. A skyscraper cannot swim. It is not within its character. However, when a human being appears to have done something out of character, if we are patient enough and the investigation is sufficiently thorough, a context for the crime eventually comes to light.

Even people who think they know the perpetrator well are often at a loss when it comes to explaining what he has done. In the case of the Las Vegas shooter, we have already learned that he amassed a large number of weapons and bomb making materials over time. Clearly, the shooting was a planned act. We are hearing about his immersion in the world of high stakes gambling. We also know that he committed the crime when his girlfriend was out of the country, making her unavailable to interfere with what he was doing. She is still abroad and, it is likely, that more information will come to light once she returns and if she speaks candidly.

Personalities reveal themselves over time and, eventually, we discover what the context is with respect to the crime at issue. Rarely, if ever, is it a case of a “good guy” suddenly gone bad. Undoubtedly, as the investigation proceeds, more information will come to light revealing now unknown aspects of the Las Vegas shooter’s personality and motives. And we will see that it was in fact “in character.”