It is almost impossible for us to look into a child’s eyes and see them committing the ultimate crime – cold-blooded murder. No parent wants to consider the possibility, no school wants to be responsible for preventing it, law enforcement typically doesn’t deal with it until it is too late, and the mental health community often doesn’t have the resources to treat it. But kids DO kill, and with alarming frequency.
Government and religious figures want to blame this violence on the media, television, Hollywood, video games, music. And certainly there is blame to be handed out: school officials are reluctant to get involved because of lack of training, risk of culpability, and they do not want to be accused of overreacting; mental health worker’s hands are tied by stingy HMO’s and the trend toward de-institutionalizing the mentally ill; law enforcement is the last resort and by the time they get involved, the violence has often already occurred. That leaves one responsible entity to which all the others must turn for help: parents.
Today’s parents are bombarded with wildly varied, and often conflicting, advice. What was accepted wisdom for our parents is not necessarily so today. I see part of the problem as “too much of a good thing” parenting. In an effort to express our love for our children we shower them with unwarranted praise, material goods, excessive protection from disappointment and are often blinded to their ill behavior.
Some of us have been brainwashed to believe it is wrong to expect our children to be responsible for their actions, their treatment of others, or even their treatment of us, their parents. I have seen it at the earliest ages: toddlers hurt others and aren’t disciplined by their parents, leaving it up to daycare providers. When the providers relay the behavior to the parent, the parent makes excuses: “Well, he never does that at home,” or “She is just acting her age.” This lack of accountability by the child and the parents may continue as the child passes through the school system, and if left unchallenged, may wind up in violence.
In his review, Eric Olsen describes the powerful documentary that addresses a worst-case outcome of these issues:
- SIX, a documentary written by Knoxville forensic psychologist Dr. Helen Smith, washes over the viewer with the power of shaped fiction as it traces, via interviews and court footage, the inexorable, “perfect storm” series of baby steps that led straight down a rural Tennessee road to the 1997 murder of a mother, father, young daughter, and the severe wounding of their baby boy, and the conviction of six Kentucky teens for the heinous crimes.
I interviewed Dr. Smith about the making of her film. When she was conducting interviews for Six, Dr. Smith encountered great resistance from the educational system, law enforcement, and the community that had responsibility for teaching and socializing these kids:
- “When you are dealing with unstable people, it is hard to get cooperation, no one cares much for time schedules etc. For example, at one point in Pikeville, we were trying to get interviews with the group’s friends and they could only meet late at night in a small smoke-filled trailer and some did not want to talk.
“The prison also gave me a hard time. They had let me come four years ago and interview the girls with tape recorders etc. This time, they would not let me bring anything, no camera, etc., which made the job of making a documentary difficult as we had to be creative and piece together material from the courts and their diaries.
“Many people were afraid to talk with us because they had been ostracized if they had known the six, and did not want to take chances. For example, Betsy Lane High School refused to talk on camera, but then we found teachers at Pikeville High who were very cooperative.”
All the kids involved in the Lillelid’s murder had troubled pasts. Dr. Smith gives a brief summary of their personalities and challenges:
- “Natasha – the supposed ringleader was bipolar, a cutter and suicidal. She had latent aggression, which she tried to inhibit but when one person after the next rejected her (probably with good reason) she felt hopeless. She was married on her 17th birthday and her marriage lasted less than one year. She feared abandonment and would not let her husband out of her sight. One day he came home, got his stuff and left for good without so much as a good bye. That probably set the stage for Natasha feeling utterly alone and desperate.”
Natasha was clearly troubled mentally, but seemed to be the most intelligent of the group and the most charismatic. She also struck me as the most human of all the murderers. I genuinely felt sorry for her, despite this heinous act. The documentary included a number of taped interviews with Natasha’s mother, Madonna Wallen, whom I would describe a vacant parent at best. She seemed to love her daughter, but rarely did she mention taking an active involvement in helping her see the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. She seemed content to be her friend, not her mother: a mistake for any parent of a teenager.
Ms. Wallen put a vast amount of responsibility for her daughter’s well being in the hands of authorities, who really hadn’t the time or the interest to help her. And the fact that she herself was mentally ill, impoverished and uneducated was a powerful catalyst to Natasha’s eventual outcome.
- “Karen Howell was bipolar, had a mother who thought she [Karen] was possessed and punished her by having her stand on a bible. She was probably very passive aggressive and while she would not become violent on her own, certainly had the tendency to be an instigator of violence.”
I wholly agree with Dr. Smith’s analysis of Karen Howell. I felt from watching the court proceedings that Karen seemed entirely disconnected from the event, even in a state of elation. She rarely showed remorse except under the most apparent of circumstances involving the Lillelid children. She struck me as a self-absorbed teenager, more concerned with her fate than the fate of her victims.
- “Joe Risner had a lot to prove. He wanted to gain acceptance with the group and was in love with Karen Howell. While not rejecting Joe, Karen seemed neutral on him and appeared to have more feelings for Natasha. Joe was probably very overly-controlled – that is he would hold everything inside until he finally blew up. The Lillelids probably represented everything about the Christian society that he had lived in, that preached tolerance but treated him and his friends as outcasts.”
Joe was the most puzzling for me to watch. Various characters in the documentary described him in effeminate terms such as “one of the girls,” “sweet,” “quiet.” He was articulate and emotional in his testimony, but it’s also important to mention that he began the kidnapping and possessed one of the guns during the murder. It was never determined if he was a shooter. While, Dr. Smith feels sure that Joe was involved in the shooting, it was hard for me to imagine such a wishy-washy person taking such decisive action.
- “The group dynamics had taken over by that point on the deserted road and Joe and Jason were playing good cop, bad cop and my belief is that both of these boys killed the family. The witness, Mark Gaby, in the doc said that there was a short period of time from when he heard one set of shots from one gun to the next set of shots from another gun. According to all accounts, Jason had only one gun so my guess is that he did not have time to get the other gun in a few seconds. The second series of shots, I believe were from Joe Risner.”
Ultimately, the impetus to murder was pinned on Jason.
- “Jason Bryant was just a conduct-ordered kid ready for some excitement. He had blatant aggressive tendencies. Natasha and Karen met the 14 year old while he was standing on a street corner. They thought he looked cool and picked him up. He was probably the perfect catalyst for their aggression. He would act out what they could only dream of.”
Jason was a killer waiting to blossom. Abandoned by his mother, neglected and most likely abused by his alcoholic father, he was trouble from the start. He showed absolutely NO remorse for his actions and seemed without empathy for anyone involved. If he wasn’t the only shooter, it was easy to see how the others could turn on him and pin the shooter role on him.
The remaining two members of the group, Dean Mullins and Crystal Sturgill, appear to have been primarily hangers-on: along for the ride, without the compunction to stand up and say “this is wrong,” but also without the will, drive or intelligence to orchestrate anything. They were drawn in by the charisma of the others and the desire to be accepted in to the group dynamic.
- “Dean Mullins was a rejected young man who could barely get women interested in him. He felt like his former girlfriend (prior to Natasha) wanted little to do with him. He was at a crossroads in his life – not knowing which way to turn. He met Natasha and found someone who brought out his dark side. It was exciting to him.
“Finally, Crystal Sturgill was another bipolar who joined the group late in the game. She had been sexually abused by her stepfather and been kicked out of her house. With nowhere to go, she met up with Natasha and stayed with her and her mother. Madonna’s trailer had become the home for the wayward – a place where outcast kids could be themselves.”
I asked Dr. Smith for her view of the psychological dynamic behind the tragedy and she provided this insightful analysis:
- “I think all of the kids had a role to play but it was Natasha who was the catalyst for getting all of the kids together. She told me that when the kids decided to go on the road (to New Orleans) Joe had said they could make their way there by carjacking people at malls. Now if this girl were so innocent, why would she have been willing to go with a guy who had made his criminal intentions so clear?
“Carjacking is a violent crime, so one has to wonder both about Natasha’s judgment and her intentions. My guess is that Natasha and perhaps Karen instigated the crime by saying something about robbing the family to the boys, but once they got to the point of murder, they did not have the stomach for it.”
While no one disputes that the six are responsible for the Lilliled murders, some of the blame for kids who kill should be shared with society as well. Dr. Smith continues:
- “We will always have parents in our society who cannot or will not take responsibility for their children. Of course, we saw some poor parenting with all of these kids but some of the parents were mentally ill themselves. With little help available, they struggled as best they could. Madonna Wallen was diagnosed herself with bipolar illness. The schools simply ignored the kid’s problems or overlooked them.
“At one point when Natasha reached out for help from the principal, he called her a freak. This only left her feeling more vulnerable and like there was no authority or adult in charge to help her or guide her in life. Her mother could not do it and now the school would not help. At one point when her mother tried to kill herself, Natasha went to school and told her teachers what was happening. They ignored her. The community did not accept the kids, as they were different and had little money.
“Certainly, the mental health systems did not help. The hospital that took Natasha Cornett knew she was dangerous but released her anyway. This is a daily occurrence. Medicaid, which is federally funded, will not pay for people who have mental illness to stay in the hospital. This leaves the burden on the states. Medicaid does pay if the person is placed out in the community, so the state lets them out.
“However, ‘community’ help has never really materialized. There was no one following up with Natasha and her mother after the hospital. She was assigned a psychiatrist who told Natasha (at age 14) to call her when she felt she needed to come in. Again, the authorities did not take charge and Natasha was left to her own devices.
“Law enforcement contributes indirectly to these problems by not providing proper monitoring of problem kids. Natasha had been on probation for writing forged checks at 13, but they never even sent anyone to talk with her or to supervise her. This lax supervision leaves kids with the feeling that they can get away with anything.
“Finally, Jason Bryant’s father knew that Jason was leaving with a group of dangerous kids. He called the police and informed them that Jason was on probation and they needed to pick him up. The state police never even bothered to put the information out over the wire so that the trooper who stopped them for speeding could have been alerted. Of course, this trooper was afraid of the kids and did not ask questions or do anything.
Everyone involved shares some blame for the Lilliled murders, which is what I find so striking about the whole case: NO ONE took responsibility, not the murderers, not the parents, not the counselors, school officials, law enforcement, or the mental health community. The District Attorney was among the most useless of all involved: rather than trying to get to the root cause of the murders, he continued to play the “devil-worship” card and blamed their supposed involvement with the occult for the murders. What a waste of an opportunity make some changes for the good, to help prevent some future tragedy.
Dr. Smith works tirelessly in an effort to fix this broken system, and that devotion led to her difficult, rarely rewarding, even demoralizing work with the anti-social mentally ill. Her days are filled with the angry, violent, frustrated and ill, seemingly itching to strike back at society. Her impulse to repair the often un-repairable is also behind her determination to explore this case and bring it to a wider audience:
- “Seven years ago I had a teenage boy come to my office for an evaluation. I tested him and thought to myself, ‘This boy is going to kill someone.’ Sure enough two weeks later, he shot and killed a man in Knoxville during a party. At that point, I thought to myself, I had this information – how do we stop someone from this final act of murder? (at the time I could not call the police as he made only general threats, not specific ones).
“I researched and wrote my book, The Scarred Heart, which explored the reasons why kids kill. In that book, there is a chapter on the Lillelid murders. I had interviewed some of the killers in that case at the Tennessee Prison for Women and found the case fascinating. It is a case study in which everything that can go wrong with the systems in our society leads to tragedy. I am affected every time I deal with patients who have had horrible encounters with our legal systems, courts and mental health facilities. The Lillelid case represented an extreme case of what can go wrong when no one wants to deal with people who are violent.
“To recap, there are many steps along the way that could have prevented this tragedy: parents who are ill or have problems with their kids would benefit from a caseworker coming to the home and offering some support and suggestions. If staff at the school had taken an interest and made Natasha feel a little more accepted it would have helped. When Natasha went to the principal for help, he could have listened (even if he thought she was wrong) and tried to offer some support or at least check into the situation where other girls were threatening to beat her up. Just the feeling that an authority is listening and attempting to fix the problem is a comfort to kids who feel vulnerable and disturbed.
“The community could have welcomed her a little bit more. At church they wanted little to do with her and she felt left out – hypocrisy [can] lead to anger and hostility in kids: here are Christians talking about accepting people but they treated her as an outcast.
“Hospitals should not release people into society after 11 days who are dangerous. We need more community resources, especially in rural areas, that can monitor and supervise kids who are disturbed. Weekly therapy sessions with competent therapists and someone to monitor medication would be helpful.
“Law enforcement should watch those kids on probation and make sure they meet their curfews, and stay involved until probation is over – not just let the kid off the hook. Operation Ceasefire in Boston targeted those kids who were troublemakers and made sure they were at home after curfew and took them into juvenile detention immediately after committing any violation of probation, and violence was greatly reduced.”
These six kids are like kids in your community, kids who may be friends with your kids, kids who may be your kids. Can any of us afford to pass the responsibility down the line, or should each of us decide to make a difference?
I will be conducting a follow up interview with Dr. Smith – if you would like to contribute questions, please email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We can all take part in making our world safer from violence.
Additional internet resources:
The Unthinkable: Children Who Kill
The National Mental Health Association
Get Real About Violence – Parents/Troubled Kids: What are the warning signs?
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry