“and deliver us from evil…”

A Wolf in sheep’s clothing

Are there evil people living among us here in Boston?  I learned much about the criminal personality while attending graduate school.  I was fascinated when reading about psychopathy and its prototypic charm, lack of remorse, and proclivities toward violence. I read Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, first published in 1979 about serial killer Gary Gilmore. Gilmore was the last death row inmate to die by means of the firing squad here in the United States. It was his request to be put to death in this manner. The book was an encyclopedia of the underpinnings of psychopathy or sociopathy, used here interchangeably.  I also studied David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam killer in New York City.  Berkowitz used a Charter Arms Bulldog, a .44 caliber pistol, to kill 6 and wound 7 in 8 separate shootings in 1976.  At his trial, he claimed that a neighbor’s dog instructed him to kill young lovers whom he caught and killed while parking on lover’s lane.  He later retracted these claims and was sentenced to 6 consecutive 25 year-to-life sentences.  It is largely impossible to truly “know” someone but if you are picking up subtle signals in your brain about something someone said or did during your time together, Gavin deBecker might say that your unconscious “gut instinct” appraisal center in the amygdala and hypothalamus is giving you a warning to stay away. His book Gift of Fear was published in 1997.

“Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves”.  Mt 7 15-20

While these publications are not specifically about criminal personality or the neurobiology of antisocial behavior, it struck me during the Spring semester class that a neurobiology of rage, and a neurobiology of moral development, and the neurobiology of emotions are very real. Professor Sabena Berretta, M.D., a physician studying brain disease at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts carefully laid out the ground work for this.  It is written, in the same way a good tree cannot bear bad fruit nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.

Dr. Berretta described the case of Theodore Bundy who may have killed and mutilated over 30 female college students – even females as young as 12 year of age.  Mr. Bundy was intelligent and charming and disarmed his victims slowly.  He earned the trust of many of his victims only to use his cunning to undue that trust by sexual torturing and mutilating his captives often while still alive.  These members of society have callousness, lack of remorse, egocentricity, manipulativeness, superficial charm and shallow affect (Berretta, 2019). They are able to act witty and charming in a callously, predatory manner. Ostensibly, predation is a biological phenomena over which one might argue Bundy had no control. 

This is a hard sell for me. I was always of the belief that psychopathy represented something of an anomaly in human behavior and it was for them that death row was made.  I began to see for myself when I heard the predator analogy – see Great White shark, Alaska Brown bear, and the pride of lions – all hunter killers.

After some degree of give and take Dr. Berretta made a compelling case for mental illness as the cause of these horrific events committed by people I believe to be fully culpable for their crimes. The mutual understanding Dr. Berretta and I came to accept was based on our knowledge of the center for emotional regulation in the brain – the amygdala and hypothalamus and prefrontal brain coupled with a lack of social and moral development and disinhibited sexual drive and unregulated anger were the multifactorial underpinnings of his serial killing.  These are all functions regulated by circuits in the brain.  Ted Bundy did not affiliate with others and had no interest in anyone but himself and meeting his primal drives highlighting the hypothalamic and pituitary absence of oxytocin – a hormone that when present at normal levels produces affiliative, pro-social behavior AKA “the love hormone”.

Bundy was, by definition, a career criminal and was put to death in 1989 – a bonafide wolf in sheep’s clothing.  No one should lose sleep over his departure from this world.  

It can be unsettling when career criminals go free.  In another case in point, in July 2018, Albert Flick was released from prison in Maine after serving 30 years for the violent murder of his wife.  This was committed in front of her two children and was by all accounts a gruesome murder.  The crime occurred in Westbrook, ME in a city police agency where I served as a patrolman.  Soon after Mr. Flick was released he began stalking a woman and her two children near Auburn, Maine.  Within a few months his fixation grew and he started to follow her.  She knew he was around.  Always around.  Something in her brain triggered an early warning of danger.  Shortly after this the victim told friends that he worried her although he was 72-years old and appeared somewhat frail. She should have listened to that primitive signal. Gavin deBecker described the fear instinct as a gift to be recognized when in the presence of evil.  Dr. Berretta linked this early warning to a primitive survival instinct seen in all animals.  It drives the fight-flight response in the autonomic nervous system and keeps us on guard.  Long before there is conscious awareness of danger the amygdala signals that a threat exists.

Within a few days of disclosing this she was dead.  She had a strange feeling about Albert Flick that she shared with her friends.  She was stabbed to death, again in front of her two small children.  Flick stabbed both women, his wife – 30 years earlier, and a relative stranger with whom he had an infatuation, both occasions in the presence of small children. 

Flick is once again in prison where he belongs.

At the same time I am studying the underpinnings of psychopathy.  Psychopathy is a term ostensibly used interchangeably with sociopathy and refers to a pattern of criminality. The neurobiological underpinnings of which come from a lack of empathy, sensation seeking, and superficial exploitation of others. These features are derived from a primitive drive state of predation, stalking, and killing or injuring without conscience. In animals these are survival instincts and as human beings, we sometimes naively believe in a higher order sense of right and wrong.

There are people who are drawn to committing violence and would like nothing more than to steal our lives if we let them. But these citizens lack the internal moral development needed to affiliate with others and are often transient.  Some families seem to contain far more than their share of criminal family members across several generations. This familial concentration of crime has been confirmed as a characteristic of the general population. 

As a society we need to identify these sociopaths before they become active. They seek out violence and are rewarded by the release of brain chemicals when locked in or on the chase. That brings excitement and often erotic pleasure. They are predators and they live among us.  Their brains are wired differently than most of us and they live without moral contemplation or regard for the feelings of others.  These members of society have callousness, lack of remorse, egocentricity, manipulativeness, superficial charm and shallow affect (Berretta, 2019). They are able to act witty and charming in a callously, predatory manner all the while planning the snare looking very wolfish and bearing their teeth.  

Albert Flick is led out of the courtroom following his initial appearance in the Androscoggin County Courthhouse in Auburn Wednesday morning. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

The Agony of Releasing a Murderer

Albert Flick is led out of the courtroom following his initial appearance in the Androscoggin County Court house in Auburn Wednesday morning. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)
There is no pleasure when a parole board must decide on whether to release or not a man who violently murdered his wife. Especially the case of Albert Flick – arrested in Westbrook, Maine in 1979 and convicted of the brutal murder of his wife. Mr. Flick asked not to be released perhaps out of some inner sense of foreboding and primal instinct of things to come – if such a thing exists among killers. He is a wolf in sheep’s clothing -underneath he is ravenous.
Fast forward to Sunday July 15, 2018 Albert Flick who had been released from jail for committing the violent murder of his wife again killed a woman with whom he had an infatuation. He had been stalking her for weeks prior to her murder.  He followed she and her two little boys from place to place in Lewiston, Maine.  She had an inner sense that he was dangerous but was fearful of going to the police at the time of her death. Yet she had spoken to friends about her worries. What may have prevented the victim from calling police when she first noticed Mr. Flick was stalking her? Why was she fearful of the very people charged with preventing violence? What may have happened if she had notified the officer on her beat? Or a police officer walking in her neighborhood?
The answer is that Mr. Flick would have had a visitor that in all likelihood would derail his infatuating behavior. If not, he would have had is parole revoked as it should have rightfully been done.  I was a police officer in Westbrook, Maine when Flick murdered his wife in 1979. I was on duty when the call came in to the station but as a junior officer was not dispatched to the scene. The scene was horrific even by todays standards of violence. Nevertheless, the case is well know to me as I later worked closely with the arresting investigator Ron Allanach and his partner Wayne Syphers – both exemplary career law enforcement officers.  Ron went on to earn his doctorate in counseling and was Chief of Police for 8 years at the end of his career in Westbrook. Both men were instrumental at convicting Albert Flick.  Flick is shown in the 1979 photograph below being taken to court in Portland by Detective Syphers who made a heroic effort to save the life of the victim. The female victim ultimately died in his arms in 1979.  Albert Flick should have remained in jail for life and many in law enforcement who remember the case are agonizing over  his release after serving 20 years.
“Clearly, probation is not working. … At this point, I just don’t know what else to do. I think there’s a huge safety risk to women and society when it comes to Mr. Flick.” Prosecutor Katherine Tierney, 2010
WayneSyphers and Flick
Albert Flick with Det. Wayne Syphers (right) at Cumberland County, Maine trial in 1979
Flick was known for a proclivity for violence against women. After being released from his murder conviction Flick was arrested for chasing an intimate partner with a screw driver with intent to due harm. There would be other charges and other arrests that were red flags for the underlying anger he felt toward woman.  A group of us will reach out to Mr. Flick in the coming months for a sit down.
The female victim, Kimberly Dobbie, in this 2018 Lewiston, Maine case had felt threatened by Flick. Her instincts were keen as it related to his potential for violence against her. But she told only her friend and no one else.  She was 30 years his junior and had spurned his love interest. She had twin children who were present during the despicable killing and are traumatized having witnessed their mother’s death. In his book “The Gift of Fear“, Gavin deBecker espoused the value of trusting our primal instincts as they pertain to our personal safety.
Flick had been in and out of prison for crimes involving intimate partner violence and intimidating female witness who were courageous in coming forward against Flick. At some point he himself reported asked to be kept in custody.
“You can’t say that nothing can be done, because nothing will be done,” said Michael Sefton, a former Westbrook police officer who now works in Massachusetts for the New Braintree Police Department.
Keep Me Current, 2011
The judge who authorized Flick’s release is retired from the bench but his stated opinion for releasing Flick was that “he had aged-out and was no longer criminally inclined” yet he himself asked to remain behind bars.  Why?
Technically this was true, Flick no longer fit the stereotypic picture of a repeat murderer.  He was older and physically growing infirm.  Most men who commit domestic violence homicide do not recidivate once released from prison especially those over the age of 70.  While researching a case of family murder-suicide, I have spoken to a man who served 18 years for strangling his wife who was released and became a model citizen and amateur photographer. He published a book of his photographs that were quite good – even sensitive.  This man was not a risk and was somewhat younger than Flick.  So by all reasonable judicial standards Flick was considered a low-risk release. Probation would keep him in line.  Not so fast, information was available from his first release that included repeated violence against women raising a red flag of potential violence in the future.  Plus the horrific nature of the stabbing murder in 1979 was not a factor in the release conditions once he had served his time. Finally, there is also information that suggested that Mr. Flick did not seek his own release as reported above. He may have been institutionalized with the simmering anger he himself expected would again leach from his despicable soul.