Mass Shooters And Notoriety
When I covered Virginia Beach courts for The Virginian-Pilot in the 1980s I insisted on putting the names of murder victims in every story.
While on that beat I covered five capital murder trials. The biggest was the Joseph Roger O’Dell case. He was a truly loathsome creature who murdered a single mom named Helen Schartner.
I wrote her name so many times that I didn’t even have to double check the spelling before penning that last sentence.
I wanted readers to know that the man on trial was not at the heart of the case. At its center was an innocent woman who happened to cross paths with the Prince of Darkness one night in 1985. She was kidnapped, raped and murdered. Her family was devastated. Her son was motherless. I kept in touch with some of her relatives for years.
O’Dell was finally executed in 1997. He chose the electric chair. With all I knew about that evil man and the good people whose lives he ruined, I could have pulled the switch myself.
Why am I telling you this? Because I absolutely believe that victims should be paramount in crime stories.
On the other hand, like it or not, the killers are also part of the narrative. That thinking runs counter to the current “No Notoriety” campaign that has begun to serve as a voluntary gag order on local authorities and news organizations after mass shootings.
The movement started with the parents of Alex Teves, a 24-year-old killed in the Colorado Aurora Theater shootings in 2012. His parents rightly believed Alex and the other victims were being treated as afterthoughts while their killer was the center of attention.
They asked news outlets to refrain from naming shooters when possible and to keep the focus on the victims.
Last weekend, Virginia Beach’s Police Chief James Cervera announced that he would say the name of the shooter in the municipal center massacre just once. Never again.
News organizations dutifully followed suit. DeWayne Craddock’s photo has barely been seen since. We know very little about him. His name was missing altogether from several major newspaper stories on the tragedy. There are conflicting accounts of his employment situation. The New York Times reported that Craddock had been acting strangely and getting into “scuffles” with other city workers before sending in his notice of resignation just before the shooting started.
Yet some media outlets seem timid about chasing these disturbing stories.
I get it. There’s a belief that mass killers seek fame. Or infamy. Don’t give them what they seek, the thinking goes.
Once killers become famous, they may inspire copycats.
A hideous thought.
But if newspapers deliberately leave information out of stories, or don’t pursue certain angles, are they doing their jobs?
Reluctantly I have to say no. They’re not.
We, the people of Virginia Beach, paid the salary of the municipal center shooter. He cut down good, innocent people in cold blood. We need to know what the hell was going on with him.
That doesn’t mean we turn him into a local hero. But how can we identify sociopaths if we don’t know what happened in this gruesome case?
We don’t hide the names of other criminals. Would we be better off not knowing Osama Bin Laden? The Tsarnaev brothers? Ted Bundy?
Writing for USA Today, Northeastern University criminology professor James Alan Fox yesterday argued that the the No Notoriety campaign is misguided. Copycats may not want to become famous as much as they want to set new horror records.
“It is not just the details about an assailant that can motivate others to commit similar crimes. The more we tell stories of suffering and bloodshed, the more we play into the minds and sentiments of the few misfits and malcontents who would see these tragedies as a positive — as a victory for the little guy. They watch the nonstop coverage of the horror while imagining what it would be like to be there, but of course from a position at the back end of the gun. The more we speak of record-breaking body counts, the more we incite others to become record-setters”
It’s a delicate balance. Weighing the need to know against the danger of romanticizing a killer.
News organizations and folks on social media have done an excellent job reminding all of us of the 12 innocent people who were killed in Virginia Beach last Friday. We’ve seen their pictures and read their stories. They will not soon be forgotten:
Laquita C. Brown, Ryan Keith Cox, Tara Welch Gallagher, Mary Louise Gayle, Alexander Mikhail Gusev, Joshua O. Hardy, Michelle Langer, Katherine A. Nixon, Richard H. Nettleton, Christopher Kelly Rapp, Herbert Snelling and Robert Williams were our neighbors. Like us they were young and old, white and black, male and female.
They were the good guys. They were Virginia Beach..
The killer has a story too. If we don’t learn it, we can’t learn from it.