In the aftermath of multiple murders like the one that occurred in Aurora, Colo., last weekend, the immediate reaction is to scrutinize the background of the culprit for underlying reasons behind the aberrant behavior.
Following the Fort Hood massacre, the shooter’s Middle Eastern background and Islamic faith fed into the deeply entrenched hysteria surrounding Muslims and ignited a rush to judgment about a potential nationwide Jihad, a phobia nurtured by the media.
Similarly, armchair psychologists expounding on the Virginia Tech rampage openly speculated about possible influences Asian culture may have had on the psyche of the shooter, and his decision to open fire on his classmates.
All these amateur psycho-sociological propositions fail to acknowledge the fact that most immigrants, regardless of their point of origin, work hard to fit into the fabric of American society, and are more likely to embrace the U.S. mantra of conspicuous consumerism than become embroiled in the tradition of violence that is part and parcel of Yankee folklore.
Conversely, people of color look upon the legacy of spree killing and surmise that, since most serial killers are White males, they have an inherent moral superiority to these members of the most privileged class. But in this belief, they conveniently ignore the body count amassed by D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad, the California Bay Area’s Zebra killers in the 1970s, and the Los Angeles suspect Lonnie David Franklin Jr., alleged to be the notorious “Grim Sleeper.”
There is also the now largely forgotten Jefferson High School alumnus and follower of the Rev. Jim Jones, Tyrone Mitchell, who committed his carnage on the playground of 49th Street Elementary School in 1984, which dispells the notion that mass murder is the largely the province of White society.
While mass murder is not always the result of mental illness, authorities conclude that better, more efficient diagnosis and treatment could have prevented many of the tragedies in recent history. In the case of alleged Aurora, Colo., triggerman James Holmes, prior intervention was unlikely, since this suspect had no criminal record and had exhibited no deviant behavior consistent with legally defined psychosis.
Feb. 24, 1984, would have been the happiest day of the week for most kids attending grade school. It was the beginning of the weekend and that meant no school the next day and Saturday morning cartoons. But that Friday afternoon Mitchell had other plans. For some reason, he decided that Friday he would partake in an event that would label him the first mass shooter in California’s history and the first African American to commit such an act.
Mitchell began the morning by smoking PCP, according to various newspaper articles that covered the incident 28 years ago. Prior to the shooting, Mitchell positioned himself in a room on the second-story of his home and began firing several rifles at children and staff on the crowded campus of 49th Street School across the street.
Barbra Nickel, a former resident of East 49th Street and childhood friend of Mitchell’s cousins, “It ended four hours after the shootings began at 2:23 p.m.” Police reports indicate at least 16 canisters of tear gas were fired into the house in an attempt to subdue Mitchell.
Upon entering the house, the Los Angeles police found the body of a man they said was the sniper. They identified him as Tyrone Mitchell, 28 years old. Mitchell reportedly died from self-inflicted wounds.
The New York Times reported that Mitchell was a member of the People’s Temple and had been in Guyana the day that hundreds of Jim Jones followers perished in mass murders and suicides in November 1978. He reportedly escaped death at Jonestown by traveleing to Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, when the deaths occurred. But his parents and at least two other close relatives were believed to have died in the massacre.
Jones had opened the People Temples Church at 1336 S. Alvarado St. in Los Angeles in hopes of attracting Blacks from Watts, South Central Los Angeles, and Compton, according to a spokesperson from the Southern California Association of Seventh-day Adventists, which had leased the building to the People’s Temple.
Mitchell caused two fatalities–10-year-old female student Shala Eubanks and 24-year-old male playground supervisor Carlos Lopez. The injured included nine children and two adults (Lopez being one. He died about six weeks later, on April 13,1984), according to LAPD Public Information Officer Lyle Knight. Many in the media believed Mitchell chose to begin shooting as pupils were leaving for the day to ensure adequate targets. Police said Mitchell had a reputation as a habitual PCP user, and that relatives had told them he was under the influence of drugs the day of the shooting.
In an odd way, the Mitchells had been the envy of many kids at 49th Street School. During the 1960s when they were growing up, their home, although humble, was across the street from the school. If they forgot their homework or lunch they could retrieve them within minutes. They could get home early to catch afterschool cartoons, and they could avoid the older neighborhood jackers who would shake you down for money while enroute to and from school.
Growing up in the early ’70s, Mitchell could be identified by his cross country flats–a lightweight, cushionless black-cloth running shoe–and his very large afro, known back then as a blowout. He was very popular, according to Carver Junior High and Jefferson High classmate Anthony Brooks. He was known throughout the neighborhood for his speed, and was a member of the Thomas Jefferson High School cross country team.
Brooks also remembers having a conversation with Mitchell at Tams Burgers located on 51st Street and Central Avenue one or two weeks before the shooting rampage.
Brooks said he muttered and at times his speech was inaudible. “It appeared he was complaining about how Mexicans had taken over the neighborhood,” Brooks said. (The San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre followed five months later. Its shooter James Oliver Huberty also targeted an area that was frequented by Mexican Americans.)
Even before the shooting, according to Reginald Smith, Mitchell had developed a bizarre, threatening behavior, and was known by friends and relatives to keep an arsenal of weapons in his home. Smith thinks Mitchell purchased his first rifle for protection–he was dating a girl whose former boyfriend was gang-affiliated.
According to the Los Angeles Times, he was not being treated for mental illness at the time of his attack, although county officials had declared him “unemployable” five years earlier because of an “anxiety neurosis” characterized by excessive fear or dread.
Police had been called to the Mitchell home several times in the years before the shooting, in response to reports from relatives and neighbors that Mitchell was threatening them or firing weapons into the air at passing airplanes, according to former classmate and close friend Lonnie McGregor.
McGregor believes Mitchell was probably prosecuted only once–for firing a gun into the air and, as a result, may have served a week in jail.
LAPD Newton Division records indicate that during Christmas of 1983, two months before the schoolyard shooting, police responded to a family dispute at the Mitchell home and confiscated a shotgun, but had to eventually return it when his uncle refused to press charges. Three weeks later, the same shotgun was found with two other weapons beside Mitchell’s lifeless body in the second-floor room from which he committed the state’s first mass shooting rampage.
Immediately after the Mitchell shooting,the LAPD formed a commission designed to create guidelines to help officers handle possible mental health offenders as well as other individuals needing assistance while ensuring that the public is protected. The plan provided extensive training to police officers in how to recognize the mentally ill, how to keep encounters with them from turning violent, and how to familiarize them with services that are available around the clock to assist them.
Officers trained to recognize symptoms of mental illness can arrest individuals who appear to be potential public safety threats. Such arrests are handled by two units–the LAPD Threat Management Unit, which handles cases of harassment or stalking (It was initiated in 1990, after the murder of actress Rebecca Lucile Schaeffer), and the Mental Evaluation Unit. Stalking suspects often suffer from some form of mental instability, and workplace violence suspects typically experience some form of mental health crisis.
The units utilize specially trained police officers and clinicians from the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health. The goal is to minimize violent encounters with law enforcement agencies and to provide safe and humane treatment for the most vulnerable members of society–the mentally ill.
Before that, such offenders would be booked and jailed, if the root causes of their actions were determined to be psychiatric.
“Putting them in the criminal justice system is not going to prevent their antisocial behavior but psychiatric treatment might. In a 1985 interview, then-LAPD Cmdr. James Jones stated, “We’re trying to find a way to divert people would be more appropriately treated by mental health professionals away from the criminal justice system. This will give us a better chance of spotting the Tyrone Mitchells beforehand and preventing some of them,” said Jones, who represented the police department on the multi-agency committee that devised the guidelines for handling the mentally ill.
In 1985, Jones said that in the past the department had been in the position where “we did not know what to do or where to take people [who] appeared to be mentally ill). It was totally frustrating for us, as well as dangerous for the community.
“Now we’ll have a method to bring that person to the attention of the mental health system, hopefully before some kind of violence occurs. We won’t catch all of them, but if we can prevent just one incident like the school shooting . . .,” said Jones in 1985.
Mary Mesa, a long-time resident of East 49th Street, today appears to be more concerned with gang shootings than spree shootings. She feels living down the street from nearby South Park places her at ground zero in reference to shootings and homicides. She also believes gang members are no different than mass shooters.
Clinical psychologist Rhonda Hampton was asked to describe or compare the differences or similarities in thinking between an individual who would commit a violent act like the Colorado shooting to a gang member committing a drive-by with total disregard for innocent bystanders.
The short answer, Hampton said, is that gang members are typically sociopaths who engage in acts of violence as part of their need for group affiliation and in compliance with the rules of the gang. When gang members kill innocent bystanders, it may be incidental to the goal of killing a particular individual believed to have wronged the gang or someone in the gang. While the gang member may or may not be remorseful about the death of the innocent victim, it is typically not their plan to murder innocent bystanders.
In the case of massacres like the one in the movie theater in Colorado, it appears as though the accused shooter was experiencing some delusional belief system in which he has lost touch with reality and which caused him to act on this fantasy at an opportune time. While the delusions are not reality-based to other people, they appear logical to the individual experiencing them, and consequently, they feel their actions are justified as a result of their beliefs. Massacres such as this are intentional and well-planned out, and there may not be any particular intended victim.