Las Vegas Sun

March 23, 2019

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Q+A: Experts weigh in on elusive motive in Las Vegas shooting

Stephen Paddock

Courtesy of Eric Paddock / AP

This undated photo provided by Eric Paddock shows his brother, Las Vegas gunman Stephen Paddock. On Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017, Stephen Paddock opened fire on the Route 91 Harvest Festival killing dozens and wounding hundreds.

Law enforcement officials have been unable to determine the motive behind why a retiree would become the most prolific mass killer in modern American history.

Experts say many mass shooters end up killing themselves before they’re caught, and that 64-year-old Stephen Craig Paddock may have planned to escape, but must have known that his capture was highly likely.

The Las Vegas Sun called on experts to discuss the history of mass killings, and what motivations have led people to commit such acts.


Don Haider-Markel: A University of Kansas political science professor, Haider-Markel researches extremism, terrorism and violence.

Kenneth Gray: A lecturer at the University of New Haven (Conn.) Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences, Gray is a retired FBI agent who worked primarily with terrorism matters. He teaches investigations.

Maria Tcherni-Buzzeo: An associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences at the University of New Haven. Tcherni-Buzzeo used to work as a forensic psychologist before she switched to criminology.

Dr. Scott Poland: An expert on the psychology of mass killings at Nova Southeastern (Fla.) University, Poland is a psychologist who's an expert on school violence and training on prevention as well as suicide prevention. He has been part of the trauma response after 15 school shootings, including at Columbine (Colo.) High School.

Is it really possible to fly under the radar like Paddock? What could push this man to this horrifying extreme?

Haider-Markel: Among terrorists, if you compare those individuals who are acting essentially as lone wolves versus those acting as part of a group, you tend to see a higher level of mental illness than you do among those acting for the group.

Likewise, with what they call lone-wolf shooters, in about 40 percent of the cases, you find some underlying mental illness. So there is that shared characteristic as well, which of course can also facilitate the normalization of violence.

Gray: This doesn’t look like rage unless he had something that we’re unaware of. This appears to be something else than rage. … If you look at the Columbine shooting, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, they planned the shooting for a full year. They had stolen equipment out of a truck; they were both put into a juvenile justice diversion program; they were both being treated; they were planning their act for a full year after that happened. They made a bunch of bombs, a bunch of weapons. You can be involved with that and be involved with other factors. Harris was considered to be a psychopath, Klebold a depressive-suicide type.

Planning itself does not limit you into one of the categories. Rage usually is something that happens pretty quickly. Long-term planning like this doesn’t necessarily indicate rage.

Tcherni-Buzzeo: The most puzzling thing about it is the guy’s age — that’s really surprising. People don’t usually become mass shooters at 64. It usually happens earlier. … We never know what’s going on in a person’s head. It could be a total mystery to people who think they know this person well, nevermind all the rest of us. … It doesn’t make sense. I cannot think of any good explanation, so I feel like we still are missing some important pieces.

What does a person get out of this kind of killing spree? Is it a physical rush, an emotional release, an amusement, a power trip, the satisfaction of making a radical statement?

Gray: I’ll give you the categories that came out of the study on the Columbine shooting — depressive-suicide types, psychotics and psychopaths. A lot of people who are involved in mass shootings end up dead by their own hand. Quite often, they want to commit suicide; they want to let people know they are depressed; they carry out this act because of their depression. Because they want to die, it’s either suicide by cop or they kill themselves.

Poland: I would stress suicide was primary. There’s no way in the world this guy did not know that he was going to be killed or apprehended by police. He probably had plans to die by suicide in jail or he was never going to let that happen. As police were closing in, he died by suicide. What could have been an escape plan? I don’t think anybody who plans so meticulously could have possibly thought he was going to fire all those rounds and somehow escape. So then it’s murder-suicide. Why? We have to look at the glory angle mostly.

If you’re coherent enough to plan the way he did, you probably understand the slim chance of walking away alive. So what do you get out of this type of last act?

Haider-Markel: I’ve seen some reports that perhaps he expected to escape and go on and commit multiple acts or something along those lines. It very well could be that he had an idea like that in his mind, but he would have had to also understand it’s very unlikely that you could escape a situation like that. … Certainly for virtually anyone, your adrenaline would be pumping. I expect anybody would get some kind of rush, whether it was pleasant or unpleasant … We know in the past that different shooters have actually tried to offset that by taking drugs beforehand. Typically It depends on what that underlying grievance was.

The fact that he was an extensive gambler … suggests that this was a person really thrived on that adrenaline rush of the moment and the risk. It really is suggestive that this may have been somebody looking for that rush. But … typically there’s some sort of underlying reason … (and) perhaps an attempt to gain notoriety. … Just the simple notoriety of engaging in a mass killing is sometimes a pretty big motivator for mass shooters — just getting attention to themselves.

What does extensive planning say about a criminal’s personality or motive?

Tcherni-Buzzeo: You could say, like, “Oh, if a person plans so carefully, it means that he was not, like, out of touch with reality.” But that doesn’t mean anything. A person can be completely out of touch with reality and have a schizophrenic episode and have wildly insane ideas about persecution, and still be able to plan and execute a fairly complicated scheme like that. I wouldn’t say that (the planning) can tell us much about his underlying issues. A psychopath could be a careful planner — a psychopath who just wants to inflict a lot of damage on other people for whatever reason.

Poland:It tells us that he was very intent on doing this. It must have been something he had been thinking about for a a very long time. It tells us he’s probably an extremely intelligent individual. The cameras in the hallways are like, wow, (I’ve) never heard of that before; the number of weapons that he had stockpiled. I’m sure he did a lot of practicing with those weapons. (And then) to get them all into the hotel. As I understand it, he had room service, but he had to be really careful to make sure someone didn’t see a weapon.

It shows the intent, the planning, but then it still leaves us with this question: Why? How could he be so angry? And it made a lot more sense if he’d have gone into a place he knew, (a place) he was angry at … That would have made a lot more sense than what he actually carried out. That’s why I think we’ve got to go with the glory (angle) and the mystique and basically being a sort of an enigma. I suppose maybe he’s left behind a little bit of a trail of breadcrumbs, but it sure hasn’t led to very much yet.

What does having rented a room the previous week overlooking another festival tell us?

Haider-Markel: He really wanted to have the most casualties as possible. (He’s) picking these public events (with) the idea of being a long-gun shooter from a distance. Masses of people are grouped together and are distracted by a concert. Things are loud, and it’s difficult to even hear or distinguish outside sounds besides the music. All that suggests he was really trying to inflict the greatest number of casualties in the shortest amount of time and really sort of make a tremendous mark with that.

Poland: Rehearsal. People think about, plan and rehearse what could potentially be tragic incidents all the time. Thankfully, most people never carry them out. What ignited this guy? There’s something called a precipitating event. So what happened? What was going on in his life in the 24-48 hours before he checked into that hotel? What caused him to actually move forward?