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Mothers of Murderers

What is it like to learn that your child is a monster?

[Note to readers: This survey is anecdotal, the start of a future study. It does not pinpoint cause or relegate blame. It explores responses and reactions to an unthinkable situation. These women did not raise their children to be killers.]

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Last week, the mother of British serial killer Joanna Dennehy told reporters that her daughter “doesn’t exist.” In 2013, Joanna Dennehy murdered three men and attempted to murder two others. After her arrest, she admitted that she’d decided to kill “to see if I was as cold as I thought I was.” She even took selfies with her victims’ corpses.

Dennehy’s parents had remained silent until now. Her mother, Kathleen, told the media, “For me, she doesn’t exist, because she’s destroyed people ... She’s not my Jo.” Her memory is of a polite, happy, and sensitive girl. When Joanna got involved with an older man during adolescence, she drastically changed, yet Kathleen never expected her to become a killer, let alone a serial killer. “The world’s safer without Joanna in it,” she now says.

Mothers of murderers show a variety of reactions to the news of what a child who kills has done. Often, like Dennehy’s mother, they’re aghast and horrified, wanting no part of an offender who bears no resemblance to the child they knew. But they might also become protective or dismiss the facts.

“Ted Bundy does not go around killing women and little children!” Louise Bundy told the News Tribune in 1980 after her son was convicted of two murders. “Our never-ending faith in Ted — our faith that he is innocent — has never wavered. And it never will.” She said that Ted had been “the best son in the world” — thoughtful, responsible, and fond of his siblings. Only after hearing tapes of his detailed confessions to many more murders did Louise accept that he was a serial killer. Yet, she did not disown him. Just before his execution, she assured him, “You’ll always be my precious son.”

Todd Kohlhepp’s mother, Regina Tague, agreed to be interviewed on 48 Hours after his arrest last fall. His name gained prominence when the missing Kala Brown was found chained inside a metal container truck on his property. His mother said he was a killer, and indeed he confessed to the murders of seven people in three separate incidents—four in a motorcycle shop massacre; Kala’s boyfriend; and another couple. Three victims were buried on his property.

Before he confessed, Kohlhepp requested to speak with his mother. He apparently gave her excuses, which she accepted. She later said that Kohlhepp was smart, kind, and generous. The murders, she said, were reactive. Supposedly, someone at the bike shop had teased the hypersensitive gun collector, so he shot them all. “They embarrassed him,” she said, as if this justified the murders. A convicted sex offender with no remorse, Kohlhepp was known for making threats and had even threatened to kill his mother.

Still, she downplayed his violence as “some bad things” done from “hurt” and “anger.” When he didn’t get his way, she admitted, he acted out, but she never believed he’d get this bad. “I just don’t understand how Todd could do this.” Because a lot of time had passed between the mass murder and the other killings, she didn’t think he was as bad as the media was saying. “He wasn’t a serial killer.”

Actually, he was—and he’s suspected in other murders currently being investigated.

Sometimes, mothers struggle to understand. When Dennis Rader was arrested in 2005 as Wichita’s “BTK” killer, some people who knew him insisted that the police had the wrong man. But Rader eventually confessed to 10 murders. I recently published a book based on five years of conversations with him, Confession of a Serial Killer. I asked him about his mother’s response to his confession, and he said she had wondered if his evil deeds were the result of the time she had accidentally dropped him on his head as an infant. He’d turned blue, but she had not taken him to a hospital. She thought that perhaps he’d sustained a head injury. She couldn’t pinpoint anything else from his normal childhood that made sense.

Some mothers of killers interpret as benignly as possible the behaviors that others see as red flags. When Jeffrey Dahmer’s divorced parents agreed to be interviewed on MSNBC, his mother, Joyce Flint, claimed that they had done the things that families normally do, and that she did not see anything unusual about her son: “He was a normal young boy.” When told that a teacher had called him inordinately shy and profoundly unhappy, Joyce dismissed this. Jeffrey did not like school, she said, and he’d had a difficult year in first grade. He did not seem “profoundly unhappy” to her.

Other mothers sensed trouble brewing, but didn’t know what to do until it was too late. Dylann Roof, recently sentenced to death for the mass murder of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina in 2015, was angry over what he perceived as unbalanced media coverage of racial issues. When investigators arrived at Roof’s home to question him, his mother, Amy, initially collapsed. Then she showed them her son’s camera, which contained photos of himself, armed, and carrying a Confederate flag. During the opening statements for his sentencing hearing, Amy collapsed again, shouting, “I’m sorry.” She had suffered a heart attack.

In rare cases, a mother might turn in her own child. “I almost vomited when he showed me the pictures,” Lori Knoble said in court in Easton, PA, this week. Her 27-year-old son, Jeffrey, had shown her a video of a naked corpse on his cell phone. He said he’d killed the man. “I didn’t want to believe it,” Lori said, “but I knew it was real.” Her son wasn’t upset about it, which chilled her. Not only did she help police locate and arrest him, but she also testified against him. She said Jeffrey had gone through a personality transformation, showing her who he really was. She summed it up in two words: “A monster.”

All of these reactions are understandable. Each expresses an attitude that is part of a family system that bears study, in terms of its potential influence on the killer's developmental trajectory. For now, they're just raw data.

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