VIew of a casket inside an old church next to a window

The Weapon Used for Homicide Tells a Story

The murderer’s weapon of choice is a story within a story. It can yield a horrifying glimpse into our loved one’s last moments. It sheds light on the relationship with their killer (or lack thereof).

We hope the death of our loved one was swift and painless.  Better yet, we hope they never saw it coming.  But some methods nullify that wish. The weapon used will influence our funeral options and be a factor in the possible conviction of the assailant. It will most certainly become a feature in our nightmares.

The weapon of choice may become evidence in the courtroom, but only if we’re one of the 3% of homicide-survivor families who actually get a trial for our loved ones.  The other 97% are left with a plea bargain – a token for what passes for “justice.” Plea deals rob us of knowledge. Our questions go unanswered. No evidence or testimony is presented. And to add insult to injury the defendant will be offered a reduced sentence for their murderous deed.

Framework

This is a tough topic, I know.  No one likes to think carefully about the weapon used to annihilate their loved one.  We seldom talk about it.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t think about it.

But, murder doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  Researchers have gleaned the impressions below from a number of homicide cases. They believe  – all things equal – that the choice of weapon sheds light into the dynamics at play at the time of death.

These are generalities.

Firearm

As every homicide survivor knows, gun violence is an ugly epidemic in the U.S.  As I write this today, we’ve just had another mass killing  The victims numbered 16 when I went to bed last night. But when I awoke it had risen to 18. This time the slaughter happened in Lewiston, Maine.  A suspect was quickly identified and a manhunt was launched. Hours later we learned that the shooter took his own life.  (You may not know that most mass killings occur within families – not against the public.)

Firearms are used in half of all murders today and most mass killings.  It’s also the weapon of choice for suicides.

As for the dynamics behind this weapon, one obvious characteristic of gun death is that it puts distance between the attacker and their victim (except when carried out at point-blank range).  It’s fast and a near guarantee of death. Guns are impersonal.  The killer choosing this weapon is often more patient, aloof, and cold, someone who is emotionally detached from their victim. Their goal is death, not pain, not to extract information or get a confession.  They’re usually sending a message.

If our loved one was shot to death, we can hold out hope that they didn’t see it coming.  Maybe they died quickly, so quickly they didn’t feel it at all. That’s about the best we can hope for.

Our loved one may not have been the intended victim.  They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Such is the case of Russell Lewis.  His wife, Jessica, was a guest on the Domino Effect of Murder podcast in January of 2022.  Law enforcement believes it was a case of mistaken identity involving gangs.  That’s of little comfort to his young widow who still has nightmares of his passing. This tragedy was replayed in the Kalvon Hawkins episode also. His beautiful, vibrant nearly 17 year old daughter was in a park and suddenly caught in a crossfire between two rivals. Just because it was accidental didn’t make her death any less permanent and premature.

Remember Ethan Crumbley? What about his victims?  They lived in Oxford, Michigan.  November 30, 2021, was the day the 15-year-old used a semi-automatic weapon to kill Madisyn Baldwin, Tate Myre, Hana St. Juliana, and Justin Shilling inside Oxford High School.  Like Russell Lewis, and Keisa Hawkins they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t personal. He barely knew them.

These four classmates are being fondly remembered and deeply missed by all who knew them.  One enjoyed drawing with her grandmother and aspired to become a professional artist.  Another played varsity football and often volunteered to give others a ride home from practice.  He was an honor student.  Customers and employees of Anita’s Kitchen can’t wrap their heads around the loss of the young employee who was known for being courteous, prompt, and reliable.  He’s remembered as a teen with a wide smile and a preference for teasing.

So much for “We reap what we sow,” yes?

All of the fallen students loved school and had a promising future.  The most common word used to describe them by family and friends is “joyful.”  The parents of two of the deceased students were close friends.  They even vacationed together. And now they mourn together.

Ethan was angry at his parents for not taking his emotional problems seriously. In his journal, he wrote: “I have lost every hope of life.  Help me!”  Ethan pled guilty to 24 charges and will be sentenced in December of 2023.  His parents gave him the weapon that he begged for, just four days before the attack. As a result, they’ve been charged with involuntary manslaughter.  Their separate trials are scheduled for January and March of 2024.  I bet they’ve given more thought to Ethan’s mental state in the last year while awaiting trial than in all previous years of Ethan’s life.  And even now, two years later, it remains the case that it’s easier for a kid to get their hands on a semi-automatic weapon than a psychiatric bed.  We knew that with Columbine. We knew that with Sandyhook. We knew that with Parkland and with Robb Elementary, Virginia Tech, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and now we know it with Oxford, too.

Strangulation/Smothering

Unlike a sidearm, death via strangulation or smothering is neither impersonal nor slow. It inflicts suffering. The killer enjoys the control he or she has over their victim and in determining how soon death will come.  It’s more commonly used in domestic violence situations and crimes against females by men. 

Cutting off the air supply can be done with bare hands, a ligature, rope, belt, or other tool.  The murderer wants the victim to feel their helplessness, relinquish control, and sense their life sliding away.  Strangulation and smothering are viewed as personal – even intimate – by experts in the field. 

In this situation, our loved one was likely murdered by someone familiar to them and to us.  Perhaps we were even related through marriage.  This adds to our pain.

Try as we might, we cannot talk ourselves into believing their death was quick or painless.  All we can hope for is that they passed out soon.

Chris Watts strangled his pregnant wife in their bed after an argument in 2018 before dragging her lifeless body past his little daughter, Bella.  He then smothered Bella and her tiny sister Cece in his truck about an hour later.  Bella saw everything.  She fought to survive.  Her last moments must have been unbearably frightening, confusing, and painful. There is just no sugar-coating the truth of her demise.

Bombs

In stark contrast to suffocation, bombs demand immediate public attention and are always shocking.  That’s the point.  They’re preferred by professional assassins and terrorists.  They’re guaranteed to rattle people and make the news.  When in the hands of a terrorist they’re linked to a twisted proclamation and insistence for change.  They’re rarely used in singular homicides, though that does happen. 

Sometimes explosives are tucked into a jetliner, truck, or basement of a building.  Most of these devices are improvised and cobbled together from misappropriated military or commercial blasting supplies or built from fertilizer and other household ingredients.  According to psychologist Mike Aamodt, murderers who use bombs are smarter than the average killer, often scoring in the superior 140 I.Q. range.

Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Ph.D. murdered three individuals and injured 23 more in a national mail bombing scheme spanning seventeen years. He zeroed in on victims he felt advanced technology at the peril of the natural environment. He favored nature-centered anarchism and denounced academics, business executives, computer experts, geneticists, and timber industry lobbyists.  Kaczynski believed natural human freedoms were eroding from the industrialization of society.  In his mind, the solution was to promote stress and propagate an anti-technology ideology – a revolution of sorts.  His successful mail bombing assassinations took the lives of Hugh Scrutto, an owner of a computer store, advertising executive Thomas Mosser in his New Jersey home, and Gilbert Brent Murray, president of the California Forestry Association in his Sacramento Office. He had attempted more but the devices failed to go off as planned.

The families or coworkers of the slain could have easily died along with them.  Explosives leave room for hope that the victims died instantly.

Bludgeoning

Killing someone by repeatedly hammering them with a heavy object is a hands-on method carried out by physically powerful people.  It’s associated with impulsivity, uncontrolled rage, and hatred.  These deaths were usually preceded by jealousy, resentment, and frustration in the weeks or hours leading up to the death.  They’re intensely personal. Experts assert that this method is an expression of severe psychological impairment and fury.

Unlike those who prefer guns or explosives, death by bludgeoning is an indication that the murderer has a personal conflict with the deceased.  They’re usually known for being hot-headed and impetuous.  It’s rare for the killer to have a clean arrest record.

According to Dr. Aamodt (whose primary focus is on serial murderers), killers who resort to bludgeoning have lower IQ scores than other murderers.  Their scores hover in the low 70’s (significantly below average).

The man who ended the life of my husband chose to bludgeon him with a baseball bat.  According to his own testimony in the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Wayne County, Michigan, John Carl Fry admitted striking my spouse repeatedly while demanding answers to questions long past the time of death.  If that isn’t rage, I don’t know what is.  At the time of Fry’s arrest nearly two weeks later, he was apprehended at midnight walking around a residential area with a baseball bat.  He had called ahead and angrily warned his aunt he was on his way because she “knew too much.” Maybe Dr. Aamodt was correct about his intellect.

I remember asking the medical examiner at the preliminary exam if my husband suffered.  She answered curtly and too quickly. “No. He didn’t.”  But years later I read her court testimony.  She stated he was undoubtedly alive during the first two blows to his head.  Do people think deception makes us feel better?

Stabbing and Cutting

Knives account for only 10 percent of homicides even though they’re readily available.  Everyone reading this undoubtedly owns several.  Like strangulation and smothering, this method is also intimate, imprecise, and slower than other means.  The killer is likely enraged and has a preplanned agenda, though the exact date of death may have been impulsive.  According to the FBI, murderers who use knives are more likely to be older and closely related to the victim.

The murder of the four University of Idaho college students in November of 2021 was brutal.  Ethan Chapin, Xana Kernodle, Kaylee Goncalves and Madison Mogen were stabbed multiple times, some with defensive wounds.  An arrest occurred in Pennsylvania in the Pocono Mountains on December 30.  Bryan Kohberger pled not guilty at his grand jury indictment hearing.  His trial has been delayed twice.  At the time of this writing, there is no scheduled date for the legal process to begin.  It remains to be seen if Kohberger will make a plea rather than face trial.  The exact nature of the relationship to his victims (if any) is unclear.

Given the statement made to law enforcement by the only survivor, the families of the deceased could not convince themselves that their adult children died painlessly or quickly.  It certainly adds salt to the wound.

Poisoning

The choice of a toxic substance is rare.  It’s slower with less assurance of death.  Some toxins are easily obtained.  Substances that are odorless, tasteless, and difficult to detect at autopsy are ideal.  Many of us can get our hands on lethal amounts of prescription drugs, rat poison, antifreeze, or street drugs.  Fentanyl (a synthetic opioid) is 100 times more potent than morphine and is so dangerous that it only takes 1 -2 mg. to become lethal. (If you need help visualizing that, take salt crystals and spread them over the date on a penny. That would be more than needed for an overdose.) 

Other toxins are more difficult to come by (such as arsenic, cyanide, strychnine, belladonna, and thallium) but all have been used.  Many come from plants that are wild or cultivated for landscape purposes.  In my garden alone I have two

dozen toxic plants and keep my dogs and granddaughter away from them.  Many are native to the area and widely sold in nurseries.

An early bloomer, a white Hellebore (‘winter rose”), is one of them.  It’s the first known example of chemical warfare.  In 585 B.C. the Greek army poisoned the citizens of Kirrha in the First Sacred War by adding massive amounts of the crushed leaves and roots of Hellebore into their water supply.  It causes vomiting, dangerously slow heart rate, and a burning sensation. The poisoned citizens of Kirrha were so weakened and defenseless that they could not fend off the attacking Greeks in a siege. Some historians believed Hellebore was used to kill Alexander the Great.

Have you ever heard of the Manchinell tree (aka “beech apple”)?  It primarily grows in South America but has been seen in the Florida Everglades.  All parts are toxic.  A small bite of the sweet green fruit triggers boils throughout your intestinal tract and can be lethal.  Smoke from burning the leaves can cause blindness. If you’re lucky it’s temporary.  Sap from the trunk is so acidic that even one drop will cause painful, scarring boils to form.

Unlike the rage killers, the poisoner is patient and often personally involved with the victim in the role of caregiver, intimate partner, or health care provider. They act much like a puppeteer, pulling the strings and orchestrating what will take place and when.  

Experts have found that the most common motives for poisoning are money, revenge, or a wish to start life anew.  The poisoner derives pleasure from seeing their victims gradually fade away and suffer.  Many enjoy the thrill of power over life and death.

One complication for the district attorney is to show the lethal intent of the assailant – not the suicide of the victim.  The poisoner may have been at some distance at the time of death which might bolster their defense.

In his book Behind the Murder Curtain, Special Investigator Bruce Sackman describes the frequency, method, and rationale for physicians and nurses who kill.  They often choose toxic overdose as their method of murder.  They have the opportunity, an awareness of what tests the medical examiner will use, access to deadly substances, and knowledge of the vulnerabilities of the human body. Others see them as beyond reproach.  Sackman’s book defines 26 warning signs that a given healthcare provider may be a serial murderer. The biggest safeguard from falling victim to such a monster is being accompanied by a friend or relative who takes great interest in your medical case and asks a lot of questions.

A case in point was a mild-mannered general practitioner in England by the name of Harold “Fred” Shipman.  It’s estimated that he poisoned 250 of his patients, all by fatal doses of drugs given directly or through a prescription.  Most lived alone. It’s believed that the homicides began around 1993 and continued through 1998.  His motive appeared to be the enjoyment he derived from having the power of life and death.  Many documentaries have been made about his homicides.

If our loved one was killed by poisoning, we likely knew the perpetrator. though never suspected they would do such a thing. Again, we hope it was fast and minimally painful.

Tragically, some homicide victims have multiple weapons used against them. One such unfortunate person is Jamie Yazzie, 32, from Chinle, Arizona. She was missing in 2019. Her remains were uncovered on the Hopi Indian Reservation in November of 2021. She is of Navajo ancestry. Jamie had been suffocated, strangled, and had a gunshot wound to the back of her head. Her boyfriend was the last to see her alive and they had argued about him seeing another woman. That man, Tre James, was arrested in August of 2022 and convicted last month. Jamie’s mother, father, grandmother other relatives and friends attended all seven days of the trial.

Most of us will never know what the last moments of our deceased loved ones were like. It’s the kind of question that keeps us up at night, staring out a darkened window at a world we don’t understand and no longer feel a part of. Just know that you are not alone in asking yourselves those questions. It’s all a part of the grieving process.

The reality is that you will grieve forever.

You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one;

you will learn to live with it.

You will heal and you will rebuild yourself

around the loss you suffered.

You will be whole again, but never the same.

Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.

                                            ~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler

https://www.vox.com/2016/12/2/13803158/serial-killers-victims-data

https://www.amazon.com/Behind-Murder-Curtain-Special-Veterans/dp1682617149

https://www.amazon.com/Dr-Death-Harold-Shipman/dpB081W4HCQV

For more detailed information and for other resources, please refer to my book What Now? Navigating the Aftermath of Homicide and Suicide, available now on Amazon.

Click this Amazon link:   https://www.amazon.com/What-Now-Navigating-Aftermath-Homicide-ebook/dp/B0BXND9DQR

I’m Jan Canty. Psychologist, author, podcast host, speaker…  and homicide survivor.

I am passionate about finding ways to support and help other so-called “homicide or suicide survivors.”

No one should have to go through this kind of loss… but if you do, I want you to know… YOU ARE NOT ALONE! 

You aren’t crazy. It’s not your imagination! Society does not know how to comfort us. Fortunately, we know how to comfort one another.

Check out my books and get tools and resources to help you or someone you love!