Stand by Me: Kids and Killers
If your buddy shows you a body, what would YOU do?
By Dr. Katherine Ramsland
Tyler Hadley’s sentencing hearing has been running for over a week. When he was 17, he bludgeoned his parents to death with a framing hammer. His father took 39 deadly blows, his mother 36. This wasn’t on impulse. It was planned. So was the party he threw afterward. With his parents’ bloodied, battered corpses locked in the bedroom, he invited dozens of kids to his home to party like there was no tomorrow.
During the party, Hadley confessed to his best friend, Michael, what he’d done. Although Hadley could be weird, this was a stunner. Michael didn’t believe him until Tyler showed him that his parents’ cars were both parked in the driveway. Michael still didn’t believe him.
Tyler showed him the bedroom, with blood spatters and gore everywhere one looked. A white leg sticking out from under bloody sheets convinced Michael that Tyler had done it. He’d slaughtered his parents. Brutally, with malice aforethought.
According to Nathaniel Rich for Rolling Stone magazine, Michael rushed from the room. But he didn’t leave the house. He didn’t immediately call the police. He said later that Tyler had asked him to stay there until the others left. He didn’t want to, but he complied. He remained at the party for another 45 minutes. He even took a selfie on his phone with Hadley, out in the garage.
Ultimately Michael turned on his friend, but he stood by for a while, aware of a terrible crime and doing nothing.
When another party-goer learned about these events later, his comment was, “Wow. I just went to the party of a lifetime…Twenty years from now, I’ll be able to say I was there… that’s kind of cool.”
Journalist Nathaniel Rich noticed this attitude. In another article, he said, “I was amazed to learn how many kids at the party seemed to have known that Tyler’s parents were dead—and kept partying anyway.”
What is it with these kids? Are they callous? Confused?
This incident and the ones below remind me of a movie, The River’s Edge, which was based on a murder in California in 1981. Anthony Broussard, 16, raped and strangled Marcy Conrad, 14. He took her body in his truck and dumped it down a ravine. Then he bragged to his high school buddies about what he’d done. He even took people to his body dumpsite.
At least ten kids saw it, possibly more. One person tossed a stone at the corpse, according to an article later published in Time. Yet the crime went unreported for two days. When students who knew of the murder were asked why they hadn’t come forward, they said they hadn’t wanted to get into trouble.
Other kids have stood by like this, too. In 2009 in New Hampshire, four teenagers planned a home invasion. The goal was theft. They chose the home of Kimberly Cates. Group leader Steve Spader decided they should eliminate whoever was there. Christopher Gribble followed him to a bedroom while William Marks and Quinn Glover looked for things to steal.
Spader used a machete to hack Mrs. Cates to death and Gribble repeatedly stabbed her eleven-year-old daughter, Jamie. Marks stood in the doorway and watched. He did nothing to stop it. Glover put his hands over his ears to block out the thud of the machete and the victims’ screams. He, too, did nothing.
Jamie played dead, which allowed her to survive and get help. The boys were arrested the following day.
The prosecutor said that Marks initially had lied about his involvement. Just a few weeks after the crime, he talked with his father about contacting media outlets to sell his story. He’d wanted to profit from it.
A fifth co-conspirator, Autumn Savoy, helped conceal evidence and had an alibi for Gribble and Spader. In court, he apologized, admitting he had a chance to do the right thing, but hadn’t.
At his own proceeding, Glover told the judge, “Every moment that I close my eyes I see what I could have done and how I could have prevented this horror that I helped set in motion.” He recognized that he’d been a coward.
In Philadelphia in 2003, three boys and a girl participated in the fatal bludgeoning of Jason Sweeney. The girl lured him into the woods while the boys—including his best friend—attacked him with a hammer, hatchet, and rock. As he lay dying, they stood over him in a group hug. Then they took his money and went to the home of a friend.
This person, unnamed in the press, would later tell the police that he’d overheard their plans and had helped to wash out their bloody clothing. He knew what they’d done and he did nothing to report them.
As I watch The River’s Edge, and now read stories like these, I wonder what I would have done as a teenager had I been shown an unreported murder victim. My first instinct is to judge these kids harshly for their cowardice and indifference. But I’d rather try to understand what goes on in the mind of an adolescent who knows about or watches a friend commit murder.
We know about compliant accomplices—people who reluctantly participate on killing teams. The traits generally associated with them are youth, low IQ, deficient education, insecurity, and mental instability. Many have a background of abuse. Sometimes they’ve already crossed a line by committing petty crimes. They compartmentalize easily and yield to moral compromise if they need something their partner can supply.
Perhaps some of these factors figure into the reasons why some kids who know about murder just stand by. Those who’ve admitted to cowardice were not apathetic. In retrospect, they were horrified (or said they were). Some were embarrassed. A few didn’t quite know how to betray a friend.
It’s possible that the neurophysiological immaturity of the adolescent brain plays a role, although this is generally more relevant to stupidity during risk-taking behavior. Maybe it’s that adolescents tend to be self-absorbed so they’re buffered from full comprehension of what should be done.
A friend of mine, who is the mother of three sons, said to me that parents step in so often these days to decide for their kids that perhaps these kids expect someone else to make the right move. Maybe they just don’t know how to make tough decisions.
So kids, I realize that it can be difficult to break a bond, but your friend, the killer who asks for your allegiance, has already betrayed YOU. Think about it.
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Dr. Katherine Ramsland has published 44 books and over 1,000 articles, and recently had a #1 bestseller on the Wall Street Journal’s nonfiction list. She teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania and offers trainings on psychological aspects of investigations. She writes a blog, “Shadow Boxing” for Psychology Today, speaks widely on serial killers and psychopaths, and is a frequent commentator on crime documentaries. She has appeared on 20/20, 48 Hours, Larry King Live, and numerous cable programs.