I’ve blogged about several child murderers in Killers Without Conscience. Although each child murderer is an individual there are often repetitive behaviours in each of these cases that have allowed forensic and child psychiatrists to study in order to find the motive behind their horrific crimes. On the surface it may seem that the murders have little in common besides the modus operandi, but personal backgrounds and various social environments appear repeatedly in these children’s histories.
Case No. 1 – Eric Smith
I blogged about 13-year-old Smith’s murder of 4-year-old Derrick Robie, a little boy who was on his way to summer camp when he was intercepted by his killer. Smith lured the child to a wooded area, killed him by dropping a large rock on his head and strangling him, undressed and sodomized the body with a tree limb. Smith’s profile was littered with unfortunate traits:
- an unfortunate physical appearance – low ears, thick glasses for impaired vision and small stature.
- Smith was often bullied by school toughs for his odd appearance.
- Smith was a loner.
- Smith was diagnosed with “intermittent explosive disorder.”
- His father was physically abusive and emotionally distant.
- Smith was a sadist.
- Smith went to police to ingratiate himself in the search for Robie’s killer.
- His family was unequipped to help Smith with his psychological problems.
- Grandparents defended Smith and stated “in no way do we feel he could have done it.”
Case No. 2 – Mary Bell
Bell murdered two toddlers, Martin Brown and Brian Howe, through strangulation and suffocation. She sexually mutilated Brown’s body post-mortem. She wrote a message revealing her identity on a wall near the body. She wrote about killing Martin Brown in her diary. She had a partner who was Bell’s intellectual inferior, Norma Bell, no relation. Until the James Bulger murder she was the youngest convicted killer in England.
1. Bell had a chaotic family life – her mother abandoned her for weeks at a time and her father eventually left the family.
2. Bell’s mother was a prostitute and dominatrix who brought clients into her home and forced Bell to participate in her sexual acts with clients.
4. Bell suffered from uncontrollable rage.
6. Bell murdered two children by strangling and suffocation.
7. Bell ingratiated herself in a public campaign for tighter safety laws in the neighbourhood.
8. Bell attacked schoolmates on the schoolyard.
9. Bell grew up in an impoverished neighbourhood the press dubbed, “Rat Alley.”
Case No. 3 – Jesse Pomeroy
A young American killer, Pomeroy was known as The Child Fiend. He tortured and several young boys between 1871 – 1872. The young boys were beaten with a fist, belt, and in at least two of the attacks, a knife was used. In March 1874, a ten-year-old girl from South Boston named Katie Curran went missing. The body of Katie Curran was found later, in the basement of Pomeroy’s mother’s dress shop. Her remains were hastily and carelessly concealed in an ash heap.
- Pomeroy was regularly and mercilessly tortured and beaten by his violent father, who used a belt and a horsewhip.
- Pomeroy stated he couldn’t help committing the murders.
- Pomeroy took pleasure in torturing and killing people.
- Pomeroy had a thick film across one eye that repulsed his father and led to bullying at school.
- He bullied smaller and weaker boys.
- His mother Ruth defended him and declared he would stop bullying if others stopped bullying him.
- He tortured and killed animals.
- He read novels of gore, sex and mayhem.
- Pomeroy grew up in an impoverished environment.
Case No. 4 – Jon Venables and Robert Thompson
Venables and Thompson, like Mary Bell and Norma Bell were partners in crime. At the age of 10, they are the youngest convicted killers in England. On they brutally murdered 2-year-old James Bulger by torturing him to death. Thompson sexually mutilated Bulger post-mortem. The boys left his remains on a railroad track so that it would appear a train accident had killed him. Bulger suffered a total of 42 injuries. The boys had no remorse and often laughed during their criminal trial.
- Both boys hailed from highly abusive households. Siblings “bit hammered, battered and tortured” each other.
- Venables was physically abused by his mother and sexually abused by an older sibling.
- Thompson’s elder brother Ian was placed in foster care then returned to the family whereupon he tried to commit suicide.
- Ann Thompson reported one of her own sons for threatening his sibling with a knife.
- Thompson’s father abandoned the family when Thompson was
- Venables’ mother defended her son’s crime by stating “he was provoked….he has got involved with the wrong person….we feel so sorry for him.”
- Both boys were loners without friends until they met.
- Venables exhibited disturbing behaviours in school by committing extreme self-harm and attempting to strangle a schoolmate.
- Thompson was transferred out of his school for his behaviours.
- The two boys watched several hours of horror movies together.
- Both boys grew up in impoverished circumstances.
Similarities in Child Killers
In the four cases detailed above, there are outstanding, repetitive patterns in their lives and behaviours:
- Extreme, ongoing child abuse (Bell, Pomeroy, Thompson, Venables).
- Chronic family instability – intermittent and permanent abandonment by parents (Bell, Venables, Thompson)
- Bullying issues at school and aggressive attacks against peers (Bell, Smith, Pomeroy, Thompson, Venables).
- Victimizing children who were younger and weaker than themselves (Bell, Pomeroy, Thompson, Venables).
- Loners with few or no friends (Pomeroy, Smith, Bell, Thompson, Venables).
- Psychological disorders (eg. intermittent explosive disorder) – (Smith, Thompson, Venables Pomeroy).
- Sadistic personalities (Pomeroy, Bell, Smith, Thompson, Venables).
- Enjoyment of murdering and torturing their victims (Smith, Bell, Thompson, Venables, Pomeroy).
- Impoverished communities with high crime rates (Bell, Pomeroy, Thompson, Venables).
- The children committed other crimes sometimes involving vicious assaults, aside from the murders (Pomeroy, Venables, Thompson, Bell).
- Perpetrators are usually male (Smith, Pomeroy, Venables, Thompson).
- Influenced by graphic media (Pomeroy, Thompson, Venables).
Of all the names on this list, Venables, Thompson appear the most often (12), followed by Pomeroy (10), Bell (9), and lastly, Smith (6). Yet the occurrence of a child’s name on the list doesn’t necessarily reflect the existence of psychopathy. Psychopathy is not proven in Bell, Thompson and Venables, as seen in the cessation of their torture and killing sprees after their release from prison. Bell and Pomeroy demonstrated psychopathic behaviours in that they would likely have continued their killing sprees had they been released from prison. Bell is the only child killer who appears to have expressed genuine remorse for her crimes.
Similarities in Some Child Killers
These traits are also repetitive but somewhat less frequent.
- Unusual physical appearance leading to bullying by peers (Smith, Pomeroy).
- Attention-seeking behaviours after committing murder (Bell, Smith).
- Family defended the child killer and denied the possibility that the child could have murdered the victim/s (Pomeroy, Venables and Smith).
- Children’s Protective Services were seldom involved with these families (Bell, Smith, Pomeroy).
- Psychopathic tendencies (Smith, Pomeroy).
Of all the previous cases, Eric Smith’s name is the most frequent on this list (5). A police officer stated he is “still afraid of Eric Smith,” and, it would seem, with good reason.
Children Who Kill
Often children who kill are as clever and calculating as adult killers. They tend to exhibit disturbing behaviours at a very early age, around the toddler stage. Their behaviours are usually a result of a chaotic and dysfunctional family life. Physical and sexual abuse is typical. It is not unusual for child killers to torture and kill small animals. This is a way of acting out their stressors, repeating the abusive cycle and trying to communicate their situation to others.
When we examine the root of child crime we can argue very convincingly that child killers are the product of a terribly troubled environment, rather than genetic anomalies. They are also children whose needs have been ignored by the community or handled inefficiently by Children’s Services. Since the origins of hatred and violence in children begins at home at a very early age, it is fair to say that adults are at the root of the problem. Ergo, adults must provide the solution.