What sets off the mentally unstable?

By Scott Flanders
Philadelphia Daily News
July 18, 2005
Available online at:

Return to Current Events

WHAT DOES IT take to become the target of a killer with a mental illness?

It turns out, not much.

Maybe it's the way you smile at him.

Or don't smile.

Maybe it's just the color of the clothes you happen to be wearing.

He's angry enough to kill, and now - without your knowing it - you're the person he's angry at.

You're marked for death. And you may not even be aware of the killer's existence.

Experts on the homicidal mind say that people like Juan Covington - a mentally ill man who allegedly killed Trish McDermott, as well as his cousin and a stranger on the subway - live in a world of fantasy.

And if you somehow enter that world, even unknowingly, you could be in grave danger.

It doesn't happen every day. But it does happen. Just within the past year, there have been two other homicides in the Philadelphia area in which the victims were killed by someone they barely knew.

In November, a man with a history of mental illness beat medical student Lea Sullivan over the head with a baseball bat on South Street, killing her.

The suspect, Nadir Ali, was a former classmate. But they had no relationship, and his lawyer - who plans an insanity defense - says there's no reason to believe the killing was inspired by any romantic feelings.

And on Easter Sunday, police said Stanford A. Douglas Jr., a former housekeeper at a nursing home, tracked down and killed his former boss because, he told police, the man had told a racist joke - seven years ago.

Douglas, who hired a private investigator to locate his victim, had emotional problems, family members said.

"Typically, these people already have some kind of revenge or anger fantasies going," says Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University in Center Valley, near Allentown, and author of "The Criminal Mind."

They might see someone "who happens to fit the proper role in the fantasy."

"You might bump into them in the grocery store," she said. "Now you're in their world."

She added: "There's not anything the person has knowingly done - it's the way it gets interpreted."

Covington, who collected used needles at Pennsylvania Hospital, told police that McDermott, a nurse there, had pushed a cart into him, exposing him to radiation.

Police don't know whether there even was a cart, but Ramsland said it's not uncommon for certain mentally ill people to fear contamination.

And she said there's no way of telling the real reason Covington allegedly targeted McDermott.

"She could have smiled the wrong way or worn the wrong color," said Ramsland.

"Maybe one day she was nice to him and the next day she didn't have the time, and he wondered why did she change?"

Elliot Atkins, a local forensic psychologist, said that sometimes the victim reminds the killer of someone who hurt them in the past.

They form an obsession that can arise out of anger, but also out the flip side, love or lust.

The victim, he said, "may represent an unfulfilled need, or be associated with someone who fulfilled that need."

He adds: "No one would ever know they're playing that role in someone's life." And sometimes it doesn't take much to set off a homicidal rage.

"What might be a mild slight to someone else," he says, "to them is an irreparable piercing of the heart."

J. Reid Meloy, a San Diego-based forensic psychologist and author of "Violent Attachments," says that some mentally ill people actually feel "entitled" to kill the person who they feel has insulted or humiliated them.

Some people with paranoia, he says, have an inflated sense of self, and think, "I'm quite special, I'm important, no one has a right to do this to me."

Says Meloy: "In the mind of the perpetrator, the homicide is completely justified. They're typically completely resolute."

Experts say that it's rare for someone to be killed by a passing acquaintance who's mentally ill.

But Vernon Geberth, author of "Practical Homicide Investigation," says he believes these kinds of cases are increasing. It's part of the growing violence in our society and the "breakdown of the social contract," says Geberth, a former New York City police official who is now a homicide and forensic consultant.

"With the breakdown of family, religion, neighborhood and respect," he says, "we've raised a generation of psychopaths."

It's hard to protect yourself, says Geberth.

"It's scary stuff," he says. "If you have a nut who's fixated on you, how are you going to be protected?"

Atkins agrees. "You'd have to worry about every innocent remark you've ever made, or worry about who you remind them of. It's impossible."

Adds Ramsland: "There's nothing we can do about it. You can be very nice, and the person now believes you were with them in another lifetime."

© 2005 Philadelphia Daily News and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

Return to Top    Return to Current Events

"We work for God."®