Charles Whitman: Why did he do it?
An expansion of an editorial by Gary M. Lavergne
Austin American Statesman
August 1, 2006
Since the publication of my book, A Sniper in the Tower, the question I am asked most often is "Why did he do it?" Whatever the question is that comes in second is so far behind I don't know what it is or what it could be. The book was a splendid critical success and I seldom hear any criticism of it except for very few challenges to my conclusion that, in the end, Charlie Whitman knew precisely and completely what he was doing when he ascended the University of Texas Tower and shot nearly fifty people. I know of no one with credibility who should be taken seriously who ever challenged the facts I presented or its pedantic documentation. But the question of "Why?" lingers.
Every non-fiction author suffers through unfair and incompetent criticism; it is as much a part of a book as its cover. For example, one reviewer of The Bad Boy from Rosebud, my book on serial killer Kenneth Allen McDuff, strongly suggested that I encouraged the murder of prostitutes. The truth is that in one of the first pages of that book I unambiguously said exactly the opposite. For Charles Whitman, those who say that from the start I was determined to make Charles Whitman demonic do not know me, because precisely the opposite is true. In the beginning I had accepted the theory that the brain tumor discovered during his autopsy triggered a seizure, of sorts, that overrode his ability to both control himself and discern the difference between right and wrong. Other Whitman apologists advance the “amphetamine psychosis” theory: that his abuse of Dexedrine brought about a psychotic episode. Then, there are those who advance his prior military indoctrination as the culprit: he was trained to kill. Other explanations include the fact that he was broke and had no immediate prospect for success, his parents were separated, his marriage was in shambles, he was taking too heavy a schedule at UT, and he had been spanked often as a child by an overbearing and dangerously surly father. These are all terrible things that anyone with common decency would not wish upon anyone else, but they are also common on all college campuses and workplaces. Rosa Eberly, a rhetorician at Penn State, in a journal forum saying she doesn’t want anyone to discuss “evil” because she doesn’t know what it is, conjectures that the fact that he faced these problems simultaneously might explain what he did. She should spend more time with her students: who among them, or us, has the luxury of dealing with one problem at a time? In terms of hardship, how does Charles Whitman compare to the survivors of the Holocaust or whole countries ravaged by Hitler or Stalin? These abominations did not produce generations of mass murderers. Whitman's problems tell us why he was angry and why he wanted to die, but they do not provide absolution for murder any more than jealousy excuses a delusional husband for killing his innocent (or guilty) wife. Such convoluted logic is consistent with saying a woman’s attractiveness and sexy dress changes a perpetrator’s crime of rape into a “disorder” and entitles him to sympathy. Another example: We know WHY those idiots in Jasper, Texas dragged a poor black man to his death--they were hateful and incorrigible racists--it doesn't entitle them to a pardon or turn them into patients innocent of murder.
Anyway, I ultimately concluded, and later the FBI’s premier profiler, John Douglas, would agree in his book Anatomy of Motive, that “[Whitman’s] actions speak for themselves.” Any cause-effect theory, whether organic (brain tumor), chemical (amphetamine psychosis), or psychological (military training or child abuse), embracing the idea that Charles Whitman’s judgment or free will was impaired, is not consistent with what he DID.
And we know, beyond not just reasonable, but any doubt, what he did, and how and when he did it. Sworn statements in the Austin Police Department files on Charles Whitman make it possible for competent investigators to reconstruct Whitman’s activities during the forty-eight hours prior to the sniping in the Tower. During that period no significant amount of time is unaccounted for. He could not have done what he did without controlled, thoughtful, serial decision-making in a correct order to accomplish a goal. Nothing he did remotely appears undisciplined or random. Indeed, if a commando had been assigned to do the same thing, he would have assembled much the same arsenal, packed the same supplies, and behaved the same way.
And if, as was suggested by a forensic psychiatrist on A&E’s Biography, his tumor might have affected the amygdala, which is believed to be related to rage, when did this rage or mental breakdown begin? Was he under the control of a tumor or drugs or in a state of rage when he went to a convenience store to buy the canned goods he intended to eat while on the deck? Right about that time he had lunch with his wife and mother at a cafeteria. He had begun his plans for their murder but didn’t kill them there? Is that not control? Or did this loss of control begin with a trip to Academy Surplus where he bought the knife he used to kill them and the binoculars he had strapped around his neck while shooting fifty people? He was planning murder. If not, why did he buy these things? The Academy Surplus cashier didn’t bother to check his I.D. because “he looked like such a nice boy.” How could an enraged or psychotic individual do these things?
Maybe the tumor or amphetamine psychosis kicked in when he bought his shotgun at Sears, where he asked the attendant about whether there was metal in the stock he intended to saw off later that morning. He wasn’t in an uncontrolled rage when he asked that question. He didn’t kill anybody at Chuck’s Gun Shop. Whatever “disorder” he is reputed to have didn’t seem to affect his shopping skills: He bought the right ammunition for appropriate weapons he intended to use and he even knew he was writing bad checks for all of it. For two days there is premeditation and no evidence of brain malfunction, psychosis, or rage. While investigating this case was I supposed to believe that Whitman happened to be alone with his mother, and separately alone with his wife, when these unavoidable rages surfaced and that he happened to have a large hunting knife with him?
Even if what is described above is remotely possible during rage or some other seizure or psychotic condition, was he out of control when the killings started and afterwards? After he beat and stabbed his mother to death he wrote “I have just taken my mother's life” in a note he left on her dead body. Then he forged a note with her name on it asking that she not be disturbed. If he was in a state of rage or under a seizure of some sort, or even if he was mildly delusional, how is it that one or all of those conditions disappeared a few minutes later when he calmly manipulated the doorman to keep people out of her apartment? Why didn't he kill the doorman? When he called his mother’s employer to tell them she would not be at work, he knew not to tell them she was dead because he had just murdered her—or are we to believe he thought she was really sick?
And when did this sinister force that took his consciousness force him to kill his wife? The day before, his best friends had a pleasant time with him only moments after he typed what he INTENDED to do: “It was after much thought that I decided to kill my wife, Kathy, tonight after I pick her up from work at the telephone company.” Only minutes after he typed that sentence those friends arrived unannounced and for the next sixty to ninety minutes he entertained them. Those friends drove away alive thinking he was as well-adjusted as they had ever seen him because that was what he wanted them to believe. For the entire visit, the note on the coffee table Whitman planned to leave on his wife’s corpse already included the phrase, “…I don’t want her to have to face the embarrassment my actions would surely cause her.” What was she to be embarrassed about? How could he write that and not know what he was doing and that it was wrong?
What some dilettantes do with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to explain the Whitman murders is truly astonishing. It is beyond remarkable to me how some of Whitman's apologists dwell on the portion of his notes where he [Whitman] claims to not appreciate what he is planning to do: "I don't understand myself these days... I am the victim of irrational and unusual thoughts..." These disciples, some with cult-like reverence, evidently believe it is possible for Whitman to be conscious enough to diagnose himself as mentally ill while suffering so profoundly from his own diagnosis that he does not know what murder is.
Enough! I could go on and I haven’t even gotten him to the Tower yet. Imagine how much more a good district attorney in a court of law could add to further expose this nonsense. Suffice to say that after three years of searching for what made this “all-American boy” a mass murderer, I could not delude myself any longer. How big a chump does a person have to be to swallow this “all-American boy” stuff?
On July 31st and August 1st of 1966, Charles Joseph Whitman was a cold and calculating murderer. Those who say they can’t believe he would commit such a monstrous crime are only admitting that they didn’t really know him. They never saw the dark side of Charles Whitman because he didn't show it to them. But it was there; “a nice guy” doesn’t shoot fifty innocent people.
My views are not as rigid as they may sound. I accept the limitations of my conclusions. None of us knows with absolute certainty that we won't one day be eaten by a cannibal. We go about our business anyway; otherwise our lives will become paralyzed and meaningless. It is in that context, I maintain, that no one knows, with absolute certainty, why Charles Whitman became a mass murderer. However, I am satisfied and much more than reasonably certain that had he been taken alive, in any court of law, Charles Whitman would have been found guilty of murder with malice, what we refer to today as capital murder, for the death of Austin Police Officer Billy Paul Speed. Prosecutors would have chosen that victim because at that time he was the only casualty (a police officer) that qualified Whitman for the death penalty. Whitman’s defense attorney would first offer a guilty plea for a lesser murder charge to save his client from the electric chair. The Travis County District Attorney, then or now, would never entertain such an offer. The defense attorney would then have had to do what Whitman did in his notes; he'd resort to a pathetic attempt at sympathy as part of an insanity defense. (He could not have argued that he was innocent, or that it was an accident, or that he acted in self-defense.) A mediocre, junior Assistant District Attorney could have shredded that defense. Charles Whitman would have been sent to death row, to be spared the “chair” in 1972 by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Furman v Georgia decision. Today, he’d either be alive in a Texas prison or dead and buried in “Peckerwood Hill” in Huntsville, Texas.