Popular Posts

Search This Blog

Monday, July 23, 2012

What's In a Name? or Face? James Holmes Case

Swiveling on a wheeled chair, large microphone suspended in front of my face, I concentrated on the caller's voice coming through the guest earphones clamped around my head.  "We should blur this guy's photo," he said passionately, "we should erase his name."
James E. Holmes appears in Arapahoe County District Court, Monday, July 23, 2012, in Centennial, Colo. Holmes is being held on suspicion of first-degree murder, and could also face additional counts of aggravated assault and weapons violations stemming from a mass shooting last Friday in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., that killed 12 and injured dozens of others.

The "he" referred to by KTAR caller, Jerry, is James Holmes, the man arrested in Aurora, Colorado with his cartoonish orange thatch spilling out over his even more cartoonishly dazed stare.   I was in studio discussing the case with KTAR's peerless talk show host, Jay Lawrence, because not only am I a crime writer but the subject of one of my books, Dale Hausner, has distinct parallels to James Holmes.

Jerry the caller's point was that when these evil maniacs pop up, they get an instant and grandiose "reward" for their heinous acts by seeing themselves plastered all over front pages and television and all other forms of media (which, incidentally, have become too numerous any more to lend themselves to an easily inclusive roll-off-the-tongue phrase).

Jerry begged that we impose a sort of blackout on ourselves to deprive would be mass killers of this incentive.  "Let's hear the names of the victims," Jerry beseeched, "Who cares about this guy? Let's hear the names of the victims in the newscasts instead."

Jerry has a good point. Not just a good point, a point I embrace with the same passion that he so clearly conveyed to the radio and streaming audience.  Everyone who comes to this blog knows, or soon figures out, that A SUDDEN SHOT: THE PHOENIX SERIAL SHOOTER is my flagship project, my home base. Four years after writing that book, I would LOVE to forget the name of Dale Hausner. I have trouble even typing his name now. Even while writing the book, sometimes I avoided using his name on the page, opting instead for pronouns and other substitutes. I couldn't stand to give him any more ink than I had to. Typing his name seemed especially personal and I had to tamp down my disgust whenever I did so. I still do.

Dale Hausner definitely enjoys his infamy and it will likely turn out that Holmes does, too. But there is something far more powerful driving these men than a desire for fame. There are many, many other ways of achieving fame. Dale tried comedy, cable TV, and (quasi) professional photography. For Holmes, real fame seemed within reach as he pursued his elite science education and research goals.  As a young man of just 24, he could realistically still dream of the big invention, the Nobel Prize, the major patent. So what if he had setbacks?  Who doesn't?  That's called adulthood.

In my work with mass-spree-serial (a distinction without a difference for purposes of this discussion) killers, I can not say that depriving them of fame would change their behavior.

What is driving them to aim their sweaty rifles at perfect strangers is not a desire for headlines but a desire to kill.  Remove that desire, then you can change their behavior.

Nobody knows how to do that yet. Psychologists, priests, prophets, and philosophers all over the world are working on that one.  The collective amount of blood, sweat, and tears that have gone into this effort is immeasurable. The first one who figures it out certainly will achieve lasting fame.

In the meantime, can we at least slow down these guys down in some way by blotting out their names and faces from news coverage, as Jerry begs us to do?  Over the weekend, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper referred to the terrible man in the bullet proof gear as "Suspect A," putting into action Jerry the caller's sentiment.  I like the Governor's gesture. But he can do that because he is speaking from his own heart. He is not responsible for keeping the public informed in the same way that a news professional is.

One thing there was no time for me to say to Jerry over the microphone last night is that there are tangible benefits to the community by putting the perpetrator's face and name on TV.

First, the safety of the community.  Suppose somebody recognizes the face or the name and realizes there is an accomplice at large or a second crime scene or an as yet un-executed act of violence about to explode in a larger scheme?

Second, the investigation itself. A significant break in the case of the Phoenix Serial Shooter came when law enforcement circulated on TV surveillance photos of two men at Wal-Mart. One of those guys was recognized and an arrest soon followed.  In the Aurora case, a gun club manager has come forward with important information because he recognized the name of "James Holmes" in news accounts. I believe that gun club incident will be of notable significance to investigators.

This dynamic is repeated in crime after crime all across the country.  That's why back in the Old West and beyond they put up wanted posters -- to protect the community from further harm and to facilitate justice.  Now we have televisions and computer screens to serve the same purpose in a vastly more efficient network of communications.

I would love to blot out the name of James Holmes. I would love to, as Jerry suggested, replace it with the names of the victims. But it is just not possible in the regular news cycle. But, in my small way, I do try to give the victims their due in the books that I write and the TV shows that I appear on.  These books and TV shows appear months and years after the initial incident and they take more work to produce than does a daily newscast. They also, and this is very important, require more work from the listener, viewer, or reader.  A member of a radio audience, such as Jerry, can not listen all day long to news broadcasts that repeat the name of 70 victims in every newscast every 20 to 30 minutes. Jerry, and every audience member, needs also to hear about gas prices, economic forecasts, and school closings in his neighborhood. He has to continue to manage his daily life and professional newscasters know that. It is their job to keep providing him the relevant information he needs, in addition to keeping him updated on the process of justice and giving the emotional payoff, when they can, of profiles of the victims and their families' efforts to cope and triumph.

Not the color of Cheetos, but not his natural color, either.
Dale Hausner in 2006
It's up to writers like myself and producers of the shows I appear on to give the audience a chance to really get to know the victims and survivors. Followers of mine know that I enjoy and passionately cherish the good relationships I have with the families in my books. Many of these families use my books to tell their story to their families and friends and squirrel them away to share with their youngsters at a later date, when the kids are old enough, and expect them to be handed down to further generations. I also know that my books have inspired perfect strangers to acts of generosity and warmth toward these survivors. So I can say from personal experience that the victims do get the kind of focus that Jerry hopes for them.

But these books and shows will only reach a certain segment of the audience.  I am the first to admit True Crime is not for everyone.  But for those who do want to learn the names and last acts of heroism of the people who, as Serial Shooter survivor Dianna Bein recently reminded me, "face the business end of a shotgun," my books and shows and those of my colleagues are there.  I am not making a plea for customers here. Please do not mistake me. But I am trying to explain why "general" or "daily" reporters cannot blot out the name of that guy in a Colorado jail cell with the windows taped over. Or the guy on Death Row in Arizona who, as a matter of fact, also was arrested with his hair dyed -- red.

What do you think? Scrub the internet of the Ph. D. student's name and face?  Or keep it out there?

Check this out on Chirbit

(To put faces to these voices, just scroll down one post.)

Pssst! Going to jail, buying documents, and everything else it takes to get this kind of info for the blog takes time and money! Every time you make a purchase here, it helps me be able to do more for you! 


  1. I think we have to keep the names in public view. Hiding the identity could lead to intense curiosity by people who wish to celebrate those who perform evil deeds. By seeing Holmes, I realize that this is a very troubled and evil man. But he's not super villain.

    That said, it is important to also put the spotlight on the heroes and the victims. When I think of 9/11, I think about the bravery of the first responders. I don't think much about the terrorists anymore.

    I'm also concerned that if we start hiding parts of a story, then do other parts also go into the background? The fact that Holmes was able to legally obtain some heavy firepower is a concern. It may also be something gun lobbyists want to see disappear.

    Perhaps wanting to conceal the identity of criminals is is a way of trying to cope with the horror of a crime. In many instances, it is important and equally painful to stare at the crimes that defy belief.

  2. Well said, Ken. Everyone certainly is trying to cope, as you put it. But the facts remain. And they must be faced one way or another. Excellent points. Thanks for sharing here.