My Sunday morning began with a 60-minute commute through the rain to the home of the maximum-security treatment program for Canada’s most notorious violent offenders. This was a special day as a new cohort of inmates was being transferred in to start treatment. I was excited about the chance to interview 25 new inmates and get them signed up for my research studies.
I arrived at the housing unit before the inmates had left their cells. I entered the nurses’ station and fired up the coffeemaker. The inmates’ cells opened and they rushed for the showers or the TV room. It was football season and the East Coast games were just starting. The inmates crowded into the TV room. I leaned against the door frame, watching the TV to see if I could catch a glimpse of the latest highlights. And then suddenly there was tension in the air. I felt it on the back of my neck before I was even conscious of what was happening. The inmates milling around had slowed, the sound of their feet hitting the cold concrete floor halted, the TV seemed to get louder, and all of a sudden I was acutely aware of the steam from the hot coffee in my mug spiraling up toward my nose.
An inmate had exited his cell completely naked and started walking up the tier. I noticed him out of the corner of my eye. He passed the TV room, shower stalls, and empty nurses’ station and proceeded down the stairs to the doors that led to the outside exercise area. Some of the inmates turned slightly after he had walked by to take a look at him. Others tried not to move or look, but I could see they noticed. The inmates were as confused as they were anxious. What was he doing?
The naked inmate proceeded outside into the rain and walked the perimeter of the short circular track. He walked around the oval track twice. The TV room was on the second floor and the inmates had a good view of the track. Some of the inmates peered outside and watched him. Everyone was distracted; no one spoke. We were all in shock.
The inmate returned, still naked, and walked up the stairs to the second-floor tier and then down to his cell. The tension around the TV room grew. The inmate quickly emerged from his cell with a towel and proceeded to the showers. He walked down the middle of the tier as inmates slowly moved out of his way or retreated into their cells. Other inmates appeared to talk to one another, but they were clearly trying to avoid any direct eye contact with him. I noticed one of the biggest inmates had subtly slowed his pace so that he would not cross the path of the new inmate.
The naked inmate took a quick shower and returned to his cell; there was a slight swagger to his stride. He was not particularly big, but his physique was ripped.
I had to interview him. I took a gulp of coffee and then walked toward his cell.
The first name written on masking tape above his door was “Richard.”
“Good morning. I’m the research guy from the University of British Columbia. We are conducting interviews and brain wave testing on the inmates in treatment here. Would you be interested in hearing more about it?” I asked.
“Sure” came the reply out of the dark cell.
“All right, then. Why don’t you get dressed and grab a bite to eat, and I’ll come get you in about thirty minutes. We’ll do the interview downstairs in my office.”
I returned to the nurses’ station and had a couple more cups of coffee. I wanted to make sure I was fully awake when I interviewed Richard.
‘Shock Richie’ Pushes My Button
Richard had dressed in classic prison garb: blue jeans, white T-shirt, and dark green jacket. He sauntered down the stairs and through the covered outdoor walkway to the mess hall for breakfast. He returned to his cell after about 15 minutes. I couldn’t wait; I went down early to get him.
He followed me to my office and he plopped down in the chair opposite from me.
Before I could get the consent form out of the drawer, he stared at me and said: “You ever need to push that red button?” He was referring to the silver-dollar-sized button in the middle of the wall; when depressed, it signaled distress. A buzzer would go off in the guard bubble down the hallway.
We were both about the same distance away from the button. I realized that I might not be able to reach the button before he could get to me. My mind quickly turned to figuring out a new way to organize the office so that I was closer to the button than the inmates being interviewed.
“No,” I replied. “In the five years I’ve worked here, I’ve never had to push the button.” I threw the five years in to let him know that I had some experience behind me.
Without saying another word, he leaped up and slammed his hand on the button. I didn’t have time to react. He returned to his seat as quickly as he had jumped up.
“Let’s see what happens,” he said calmly, leaning back into his chair.
Over a minute later, we heard doors being slammed open in the distance and the unmistakable sound of running footsteps.
I had thought about getting up and opening the door for the guards, but I would have had to pass by Richard to get to the door. So I just sat in my chair and waited. The guards’ response time felt glacial.
A key was jammed into my door and then it was flung open; two guards entered, panting and out of breath, and stared at us.
Richard turned calmly in his chair and said to the guards: “What’s the problem?”
“Someone pushed the alarm button,” the guard stammered. “Everything okay?” His question was directed at me.
“Oh, I must have accidentally pushed it when I took my coat off,” Richard answered. “Everything is just fine; we are just doing the research interview here.”
“Okay,” the guard said. “Don’t do that again.”
I just nodded. I was having trouble speaking.
The guards pulled the door closed and Richard turned and looked at me.
“They call me Shock Richie,” he said. “And I’m going to shock you too.”
Mustering as much inner strength as I could, I replied: “I’m looking forward to it; I’m here to be shocked. Take your best shot.”
Shock Richie smiled.
Prison is never boring, I thought.
‘You ever tried to carry a body?’
We completed the consent form and then I started the Psychopathy Checklist interview with a question I would never ask any other inmate in my career.
“Why did you walk naked out in the rain?”
“Well, I arrived last night. You have to make an impression on the other inmates right away when you get shipped to a new place. I saw you standing there by the TV room. You noticed how all the other inmates got a bit nervous when I walked by. Even the big ones get nervous when you do shit like that. You just got to establish yourself right away. If you don’t, then inmates think they can test you.” He stared quite matter-of-factly at me; the emptiness in his eyes was unnerving.
“When I do stuff like that, inmates don’t know what to think. I’m unpredictable. Sometimes I don’t even know why I do what I do. I just do it.”
My mind was racing again. I completely agreed with his logic, albeit twisted; he had already established his dominance at this prison. He was going to score high on at least a few psychopathic traits. Nike probably never envisioned a psychopathic inmate embracing their slogan Just Do It in a manner quite like this.
“You’ve been working here for five years?”
“Yes, since I started graduate school,” I replied.
“Interviewed lots of guys, right?”
“Yes, hundreds of them.”
“Well, you ain’t never met anyone like me,” he said.
“Really? What makes you so special?”
“I’ve done shit you can’t even imagine. I’m gonna shock you like I shock everyone,” he stated calmly. “Let’s get on with it.”
Richie enjoyed doing bad things. He was only in his late 20s when I interviewed him, but he had a rap sheet like no one I had ever interviewed before. As a teenager he had committed burglary, armed robbery of banks and convenience stores, arson for hire, and all kinds of drug-related crimes from distribution to forcing others to mule drugs for him. He would force women to hide plastic baggies of cocaine in their body cavities and transport them across borders and state lines and on plane flights. One of Richie’s girls got a baggie stuck in her vagina. Richie used a knife to “open her up a bit” so he could retrieve his drugs. He said he didn’t use her again after that. When I asked him what he meant by that, he said that he didn’t use her for sex; she was too loose now, and she lost her nerve about carrying drugs.
Richie smiled as he told me a story of a prostitute he had killed for pissing him off. He actually seemed proud when he described wrapping her up in the same blanket he had suffocated her with so he could keep all the forensic evidence in one place. He put her in the trunk of his car and drove out to a deserted stretch of road bordered by a deep forest. Chuckling, he told me he was pulled over by a highway trooper because he was driving erratically as he searched for a dirt road to drive up so he could bury the body in the woods.
“So the cop pulls me over and comes up to the window and asks me if I have been drinking alcohol. I lied and said no. I told him that I just had to take a piss and I was looking for a place to go. But the cop gave me a field sobriety test anyways. I figured that if I didn’t pass the test, I would have to kill that cop. Otherwise, he might open the trunk and discover the body. The cop didn’t search me when I got out of the car, and I was carrying a knife and a handgun. I’m surprised that I passed that field test since I had had a few drinks that night. I was planning to beat the cop senseless and then I was going to put the girl’s body in the backseat of the cop’s car. Then I would shoot him in the head with his own gun and make it look like a suicide after he accidentally killed the prostitute while raping her in the backseat of his cruiser. Everyone would think it was just another sick dude.”
The irony of his latter statement was completely lost on Shock Richie.
The cop proceeded to point out a dirt road just up the way where Richie could pull over and take a piss. It was fascinating that Richie could remain calm enough not to set off any alarm bells for the cop that something was amiss. After all, Richie had a body decomposing in the trunk of the car. Yet apparently, Richie showed no anxiety in front of the cop. Most psychopaths like Richie lack anxiety and apprehension associated with punishment.
Richie turned up the dirt road the cop pointed out to him and drove in a ways. He pulled over, parked, and removed the body from the trunk.
“I had all these great plans to carry the body miles into the woods and bury it really deep so nobody would ever find it. But it’s f—ing hard to carry a body. You ever tried to carry a body?” he asked.
“No, I don’t have any experience carrying dead bodies,” I told him.
“Well, it’s a lot of work, let me tell you. So I only got about a hundred yards off the road and just into the trees before I was exhausted. Then I went back and got the shovel from the car. I started digging a huge hole.”
He looked up at me with those empty eyes and asked: “You know how hard it is to dig a hole big enough to bury a body?”
“No,” I answered, “I don’t have any experience digging holes to bury bodies.”
“Well, it’s harder than you might think.” He starts laughing. “I had all these great plans to carry her miles into the woods and dig this monster hole so nobody would ever find her.”
A couple weeks later, a couple of hikers discovered the body. Shock Richie read about it in the newspapers, but he was never charged with the murder.
Not His Brother’s Keeper
Richie admitted that he had no need for friends. He’d really never been close to anyone in his life. He preferred to do everything on his own. He also didn’t trust anyone.
I believed him. Richie had no friends in prison, he had no visitors, and all the other inmates said he could not be trusted and he knew not to trust them in return.
He had lived a life supported by crime, never had any vocational training, and never made even a passing attempt at any other lifestyle. He made most of his big scores by taking down rival drug pushers. He would set up deals in different towns and then rob and sometimes kill the other person. Richie had no fear or hesitation with killing. Richie also had more than a dozen fake names and accompanying identification.
For a long time he was a pimp. He used to corral runaways into working for him. He would get them hooked on drugs and then make them work the streets. He’d killed more than a few prostitutes. He saw people as objects, things to be manipulated; we were there just for his entertainment.
When Richie had been released the last time from prison, he was taken in by his older brother. His older brother was not a criminal. He was on the straight and narrow. After a few months of Richie bringing home prostitutes and doing drug deals at the house, his brother had told Richie he had to stop or he was going to kick him out. They argued, but Richie never tried to change his behavior. Finally, his brother had had enough. He picked up the phone to call the police to have him arrested for drug possession. “I was high,” said Richie, “but not more than usual. I got the jump on him and beat him with the phone. While he was lying there dazed on the floor, I ran into the kitchen and grabbed a knife. I came back and stabbed him a few times.” He looked up at me intently to see if I was shocked.
“Continue,” I said.
“I figured that I would make it look like somebody had come over and killed him as part of a drug deal gone bad. Then I thought that maybe I should make it look like my brother had raped one of my girls and one of them had stabbed him.” By girls he meant the prostitutes in his “stable.”
After killing his brother, he went out and partied for a day or two. Then he came back home with a prostitute whom he planned to stab, and then put the weapon in the hand of his dead brother. He was going to put them both in the basement and make it look like his brother died quickly during the fight and the girl died slowly from stab wounds.
While he was having sex with the prostitute in the living room, she said she smelled something funny.
“You ever smell a body after it’s been decomposing for a couple days?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, “I don’t have any experience smelling decomposing bodies.”
“Well, they stink. I recommend getting rid of them fast.”
After having sex, he intended to lure the girl down into the basement. But the prostitute excused herself to use the bathroom and she jumped out the window and ran away. Later that evening the police showed up at his door and asked to come inside. Apparently, the prostitute recognized that odd smell to be that of a decomposing body. She had good survival instincts.
Richie told the cops he had been away from the house partying for a few days. He didn’t know that his brother had been killed. Confessing to being a pimp and drug dealer, Richie told the officers that he owed a lot of people a lot of money. He gave them a list of a dozen or so names of potential suspects.
The police eventually arrested Richie. Through his attorney, Richie received a plea deal. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to many years in prison.
No More Little Richies?
Richie had a few more zingers he hit me with that day. He had indeed met my challenge. When I got home that evening, I opened a bottle of wine; it was empty before I knew it.
Richie and I have both spent the last 20 years in prison. Richie as an inmate, me as a scientist trying to understand the mind and brain of the psychopath. Richie scored in the 99th percentile on Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), the test we use to assess psychopathic traits. There are 20 psychopathic traits on the Hare PCL-R, including Lack of Empathy, Guilt and Remorse, Callousness, Irresponsibility, and Impulsivity. Richie fit the classic definition of all of those traits.
Richie was also the first psychopath to receive an MRI scan of his brain. Since that first MRI study my laboratory has scanned the brains of more than 3,000 other inmates, many of them psychopaths like Richie. This MRI data is the world’s largest forensic neuroscience repository and it is starting to yield some startling discoveries. We know for example, how Richie’s brain differs from the rest of us. His limbic system, the area of the brain that controls emotion and affect, is reduced in both brain structure and function. Additional research has found these same brain abnormalities in incarcerated youth with emerging psychopathic traits. Indeed, some scientists argue that emotional and behavioral antecedents to psychopathic traits can be recognized as early as age 6.
If Shock Richie’s brain has been abnormal since he was a child, is he responsible for his actions as an adult? Does Richie have the same free will as the rest of us?
Finally, the latest science of psychopaths has also illuminated a path that might remedy these problems before they even get started. Indeed, studies are showing that early treatment might prevent little Richies from ever developing.
Excerpts adapted from The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those Without Conscience (Crown), by Dr. Kent Kiehl, available Apr. 22.