Although he is primarily a novelist, with sixteen published books—the most recent the standalone thriller The Mojito Coast—Richard Helms has made a mark in the world of short fiction too. His November 2010 EQMM story “The Gods for Vengeance Cry” won an International Thriller Award, and he’s also the winner of a Derringer Award from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. He’s the creator of the character Judd Wheeler, who stars in a third novel-length case, Older Than Goodbye, to be released later this year. His most recent story for EQMM, “Second Sight Unseen,” is coming up in our July 2014 issue. It introduces a new character, Bowie Crapster, and already has, we’re told, a nearly completed sequel. Given his large body of work in crime fiction, some readers may be surprised to learn that until recently the author also had an entirely different career related to crime: He was a forensic psychologist, and it’s that career and the insights he gained from it that he talks about here.—Janet Hutchings
Most of my bios begin by citing my nearly two-decade career as a forensic psychologist, as if that lends me some sort of credibility to write mystery novels and short stories.
I never intended to become a forensic psychologist. It wasn’t in my life plan at all. I actually went to graduate school because it was the height of the recession in the early 1980s, and there weren’t a lot of jobs available for a newly minted BA in psychology grad. As it happened, I had a choice. I was offered two possible paths. One was a PhD program in Public Health at the university where I received by undergrad degree. The other was a grad program in psychology in the North Carolina mountains. I eventually chose the latter, mostly because I’m basically lazy and the idea of spending a career lounging in my office doling out advice to septuagenarian blue-hairs with Generalized Anxiety Disorder held a certain appeal.
As John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens while you’re making plans.”
I got out of grad school in 1982, at the height of the Reagan-era cutbacks in social and human services. If I thought the job market was bleak in 1980, I was totally unprepared for the scorched earth that I surveyed as I hung up my cap and gown and tacked my degree to my bedroom wall. There were no jobs to be had anywhere. No cushy office. No anxious blue-hairs. Nada. I spent the first six months after getting my graduate degree working in a video store.
I did get a few interviews. The North Carolina prison system was looking for psychologists to work with inmates. Eventually, I was offered a job at a new prison in Troy, NC. All I had to do was get my letters of reference sent to the state guy in charge of prison psych services.
I dragged my heels for weeks, hoping that another job would pop up. I did get an offer from a mental health center in Caribou, Maine. I discovered that Caribou is about the farthest point north before you drop off the map and fall into Canada. The primary exports there appeared to be potatoes, broccoli, and alcoholism. I discovered that the mental health center there ran through psychologists so quickly, they had a standing help-wanted ad in the APA Monitor. I took a pass.
I finally found work in my field almost a year after finishing grad school, and in 1986 I was hired to be the clinical director in a twenty-four-bed locked facility for the most violent and dangerous teenagers in the state.
Yep. I skipped out on an adult prison job to wind up as the clinical director in a kiddie prison. Karma’s a bitch.
I was actually hired as a behavior analyst, which was sort of my specialty at the time. I walked in on the first day, and the administrative director welcomed me with open arms.
“At last!” he cried. “Our forensic psychologist has arrived!”
“Whoa!” I said. “I’m not a forensic psychologist. I’m a behavior analyst.”
“Not anymore,” he said. “We’ve rewritten your job description. Don’t worry, we’ll get you trained.”
Later that day, I attended my first sex-offender group therapy session, which was presided over by a wonderful woman who would later run the facility.
“Finally!” she said, as I walked into the room. “Our new sex- offender therapist has arrived!”
“There must be some mistake,” I argued. “I’m a forensic psychologist.”
How quickly we adjust to new titles.
I spent half of the next year working in the facility, and the other half jetting around the country to attend post-grad training sessions in forensics and sex-offender treatment. By the end of my first year there, I began to think of myself as a forensic psychologist, and that’s what I did for a living for the next seventeen years, the last decade as the court psychologist for a four-county area in North Carolina.
I retired from active practice in 2002. These days, I teach at a local community college. One of my courses is in Forensic Psychology, and all of my students know that I’m also a novelist and short-story author. Sometimes they embarrass me by bringing one of my books to class for me to autograph.
This is sort of a roundabout way of bringing up a question that one of my students posed to me in class today. We were talking about criminal profiling, and she wanted me to wax forensic on the Miranda Barbour case.
As I write this, it’s February 18th, and this case is fairly new. By the time you read this, a week or so likely will have passed. We live in a world where events spin to the tune of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, so by then we should know a lot more about this story, and I’ll either look amazingly prophetic or profoundly cynical. The good news? I’m cool with either option.
In case this is now last week’s forgotten headline, Miranda Barbour is the young woman who is accused, with her new husband, of luring a man named Troy LaFerrara to Sunbury, Pennsylvania, back in November by way of a Craigslist ad promising sexual favors for money. Once LaFerrara arrived, Barbour and her husband—a fellow named Elytte Barbour—allegedly murdered the man and left his body in an alley.
Miranda claimed in a newspaper interview that her husband wrapped a cord around LaFerrara’s neck, and she stabbed him multiple times. Her justification, she said, was that she told LaFerrara that she was actually underage, and he was still willing to have sex with her for money.
“If he would have said no, that he wasn’t going to go through with the arrangement, I would have let him go,” she said.
What makes this story truly interesting is Miranda Barbour’s statements after her arrest that she had killed more than twenty-two other people since age thirteen. Among other things, that would make her the youngest serial killer on record. She also claims to have been part of a Satanic cult in Alaska, where she became pregnant as a young teen and the cult forced her to undergo an abortion. Barbour’s mother has stated that later physical exams indicated no signs of an abortion.
“So,” my student asked in class today, “what do you think of her story?”
I told her I thought it was mostly baloney.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt her admission to killing Troy LaFerrara. The rest of her tale sounds more like a bad mystery novel.
Not that there aren’t plenty of examples of murderers luring victims with online advertisements.
Kim Rossmo, a Canadian criminologist, has established four primary approaches by serial killers. Hunters actively leave their homes in search of victims, with a clearly established plan to kill someone before returning. Trollers don’t go looking for victims, but rather suddenly decide to kill when they encounter a likely victim. Poachers tend to be transient individuals who kill sporadically and opportunistically (people like Henry Lee Lucas, for instance). Finally, there are Trappers, who set out lures for likely victims, such as Craigslist ads, posts in social networks, and the like.
If we are to believe Miranda Barbour, she sounds like a typical Trapper in Rossmo’s classification system. And, if this turns out to be true, she wouldn’t be the first. One of the most famous was Richard Beasley, an Ohio street preacher who posted farmhand jobs on Craigslist, and then killed the men who responded. He wasn’t caught until one of his intended victims escaped and told the police. Beasley is awaiting execution in Ohio now.
Two issues in Miranda Barbour’s story raise red flags.
The first is her age. As I mentioned before, if her story is correct, she would be the youngest serial killer on record, male or female, as she alleges that her killing career began at age thirteen. While someone has to be the youngest, it’s difficult to imagine a set of life circumstances that would place a child on a sophisticated serial killing path at such a young age. Serial killings tend to be the product of obsessive-compulsive tendencies bound up with violent fantasies of revenge and a pseudo-Freudian defense mechanism of displacement, atypical of people barely into adolescence. While teenagers can be among the most violent of offenders, because they tend to operate mostly on emotion rather than reason, and have not yet developed the intrapsychic moral inhibitions that control behavior for most of us, they don’t tend to engage in the cyclical type of compulsive violence that we associate with serials.
The other intriguing but doubtful feature in her story is her repeated reference to her involvement in murderous Satanic cults, which she blames for most of her purported serial killings. The existence of such cults has been a romantic notion for decades.
Bill Ellis, a professor of English and American Studies at Penn State University, in an interview with Fox News, stated, “I don’t think there’s any compelling evidence that Satanic cults exist.”
He, along with other experts, say that such stories are the result of a “Satanic Panic” that began in the late 1970s, and continues—especially in evangelical and charismatic circles—to this day.
The underlying premise is always the same. Innocents are abducted by Satanic cultists and indoctrinated into an evil way of thinking that discounts human dignity and the value of life itself. In extreme cases, individuals have told stories of children being conceived and delivered for the sole purpose of being sacrificed on a Satanic altar, and the more lurid accounts claim that these murdered children are later cannibalized. As is the case with most myths, it is very difficult to disabuse true believers of their delusions, and this appears to be one of those cases.
The FBI conducted an extensive study of over 12,000 reported cases of illegal activity by supposed Satanic cults. The results of their task force study indicated no evidence whatsoever that such activity exists. Similar studies in Europe have come to the same conclusions.
So why would Miranda Barbour claim that The Devil made her do it?
At some level, it absolves her of personal responsibility. After all, if head-turning, pea-soup-ralphing demonic possession makes you kill someone, it really can’t be entirely your fault, right? It may also provide a basis for mitigating circumstances when her case eventually goes to trial. By continuing to spout delusions that have been discounted by scientists and criminologists—repeatedly!—she may begin to establish a case for diminished capacity or even an insanity plea.
And, it’s even possible that she believes her own deluded story.
According to Barbour’s own statements, none of her nearly two dozen murder victims were entirely innocent themselves. She has said that she only killed “bad people.” In that sense, she may see herself as some sort of avenging vigilante.
Barbour says she knows where all the bodies of her purported victims are buried. Between the time I write this and the time you read it, it’s possible that these bodies will surface, and I’ll have to eat the baloney I made of her allegations.
I’m betting against it, though.
A very close friend of mine was a forensic psychologist, as well as godfather to my son. Sadly, he is no longer with us, but I suspect he would have enjoyed your piece as much as I did. During my career as a police officer, he was a wonderful touchstone in helping me to understand the workings of the darker side of the human mind. By the way, I remember sitting through a few seminars on satanic cults during the late eighties. Fascinating, but not of much actual use in police work. I also agree with you about the Barbour case–I doubt you’ll have to develop a taste for baloney.