What Kind of Spree Killer was Robert Card?

5 min read
Art by K. Ramsland

Art by K. Ramsland

Robert Card, 40, killed 18 people and injured 13 others at a restaurant and a bowling alley in Lewiston, Maine this week, then fled, sparking a massive search. We’re still wondering about his motive, but some clues give context. This past summer, Card underwent treatment in a mental health facility after he’d made threats and reported “hearing voices.” He left a note that suggested he didn’t plan to be found alive. Two days after the shooting, he was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound near a facility from which he’d reportedly lost his job.

Card had committed a multicide, but what kind? Although the FBI ceased using the designation of “spree killer” after its international conference in 2005, he fits the definition. Researchers in criminology who focus on developmental, psychological, and predictive issues in homicidal events recognize value in retaining the distinct categories of serial, mass, and spree. Even subtle differences can be important for intervention, investigative management, and risk evaluation.

With former FBI profiler Mark Safarik (an organizer of that aforementioned 2005 conference), I developed a comprehensive database, described and analyzed in Spree Killers: Practical Classifications for Law Enforcement and Criminology. We defined the multicide categories as follows:

  1. Mass murder involves at least four fatalities in a short-lived incident in one basic locale, even if the killer travels to several loosely related spots in that general area (such as in a building or going next door).
  2. Spree killing involves at least three murders in at least two locations, arising from a key precipitating incident that continually fuels the need to kill, and the murders occur fairly close in time.
  3. Serial murder involves at least two murders in two separate incidents (the FBI’s most recent definition).

Card traveled to two separate locations about four miles apart to complete his assault, and he killed more than three people. He’s a spree killer.

Mass murderers and spree killers are often driven by anger, a mission, or desperation, with the spree killer stringing out the assaults for a longer period and over a broader set of locales. Within these designations are distinct categories based on motive, behavior, and mental state.

As we collected over 350 cases involving 419 spree killers (some worked in teams) from more than 40 countries, we spotted clear groupings. Categorizing them allowed for data analytics and a nuanced way to understand those who kill in a spree-like manner. We created five primary categories, some of which have subcategories.

  1. Anger and Revenge (Targeted, Targeted and Random or Opportunistic, and Random or Opportunistic)
  2. Mission (Psychotic and Non-psychotic)
  3. Desperation
  4. Mental Illness (no stated mission)
  5. Robbery and Thrill (Teams and Lone Operators)

We also recognized mixed types, such as serial-turned-spree.

Since we’re still awaiting information about Card’s association with his target locales or victims, his immediate mental state, and context regarding potential paranoia, we can’t be sure about his category, but he’s clearly not in #5. The job loss and the report of hearing voices suggest desperation (7% of spree killers) or mental illness (12%), but if anger drove him to the two locations to accomplish something like payback, he could be in category #1 (30.6%). This category, Anger/Revenge, is distinct from mission-driven, which generally has a religious or political context.

Card killed himself afterward. Apparently, he was done. From his note, he seemed to know before he started that this was how it would end. About 23.6% of the spree killers in our study committed suicide or attempted to. This figure skews lower than expected due to Category #5, which is large and generally non-suicidal. Also, among those who died in a shoot-out with police, it’s not possible to say unless they left a note or showed obviously suicidal behavior. Many of those who ended their lives during the spree were in the Desperation category (48% suicides or attempts). In the Mental Illness category, one of three had killed themselves or attempted to, and about 37% did so in the Anger/Revenge category.

Those motivated by anger or revenge might target each victim or just some victims with others randomly chosen. Or they might kill entirely randomly or opportunistically. In other words, some spree killers with a grudge or the need to seek revenge or payback have specific targets, while others have a more generalized need to just act out. Spree killers with clear targets are most easily identified and potentially stopped. Add the mission-motivated category (which helps to predict groups and locations) and the percentage of those spree killers who might be stopped short of their goals rises to nearly 40%.

It will likely be a while before we can categorize Card and learn if he showed distinct behavioral leaks that might have alerted someone to his imminent intent, but it’s already clear he had mental health concerns and access to lethal weapons. We’re getting better at spotting the clues and moving to intervene, but we need to improve.

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours