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Feelings, Emotions > Guilt
Killers’ Families Left
to Confront Fear and Shame
February 4, 2012
The New York Times
By SERGE F. KOVALESKI
PUEBLO, Colo. — On a summer night not long ago, Maureen White
sat alone in her living room staring at a DVD she had avoided watching for
On the screen was her older brother, Richard Paul White, the person who taught
her how to ride a bike and who tried to protect her from their mother’s abusive
boyfriend when they were children. He was confessing to murdering six people.
Toward the end of the videotaped police interrogation, Ms. White reached for a
razor blade and began to slice her left leg.
“I felt such rage and anger and so many emotions I did not know what to do,”
said Ms. White, 34. When she was done, she needed dozens of stitches and
Mr. White, 39, will spend the rest of his life in prison for three of the
murders, to which he pleaded guilty in 2004. Ms. White, whose life has always
been fragile, is still struggling.
Like relatives of other violent criminals, she has found herself ill prepared to
deal with the complex set of emotions and circumstances that further unhinged
her life after her brother’s crimes. Under treatment for anxiety and depression,
among other conditions, she has nightmares about serial killers and snipers. She
is startled by loud noises and gets nervous around strangers.
And for more than a year after viewing the video, she continued to cut herself —
something she had never done before.
“By cutting myself,” she said, “I wanted people to see on the outside how ugly
and bad I feel on the inside.”
In a society where headlines of violence are almost commonplace, the families of
the perpetrators are often unknown and largely unheard from. But now some
relatives have decided to share their stories. In interviews with members of
numerous families of varying social and economic status, siblings, parents,
partners, cousins and children of convicted killers recounted the hardships they
have experienced in the years since their relatives’ crimes.
In the flash of a horrifying moment, they said, their lives had become a vortex
of shame, anger and guilt. Most said they were overwhelmed by the blame and
ostracism they had received for crimes they had no part in.
Yet many of these families stay in close touch with their imprisoned relatives.
Nat Berkowitz, the father of David Berkowitz, the New York City serial killer
known as the Son of Sam, said he regularly talked to his son on the phone more
than 34 years after his arrest. “I am 101, and it still goes on,” he said.
A Cousin’s Livelihood
On Nov. 5, 2009, 13 people were killed and 32 others wounded at Fort Hood, Tex.
By the next day, the repercussions had reached a small law office in Fairfax,
Va. The head of the firm, Nader Hasan, is a cousin of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan,
the man accused of carrying out the rampage, and the two had grown up together
“Our phones went completely quiet, dead,” Mr. Hasan, 42, a criminal defense
lawyer, said at a large oak table in his impeccably neat office, where a
painting of the United States Capitol hangs above a fireplace. “It was
devastating since we relied on referrals. I lost dozens of prospective clients,
and it still happens.”
Internet accounts reported that the two men were relatives. An interview Mr.
Hasan gave to Fox News soon after the shooting in which he said his cousin “was
a good American” created an impression to some that he was condoning what his
cousin was accused of doing.
Soon after, Mr. Hasan said, a father in a custody dispute he was handling filed
an appeal to a lawsuit against Mr. Hasan in which he referred to him as “the
cousin of the Fort Hood shooter.” The appeal argued that Mr. Hasan should be
removed as guardian of the two children in the case and highlighted his link to
The petition was dismissed, Mr. Hasan said. But during the first few months
after the shooting, he said, he felt such humiliation that he was loath to
appear in court. “We got continuances on a lot of cases until the next year
because I did not want to be seen in the courthouse since I felt so
embarrassed,” he said.
The discomfort crept into his personal life. When he returned to a local school
where he had been a volunteer assistant wrestling coach since 2000, he said, he
was asked to leave because of his connection to the Fort Hood violence. He
By March 2010, Mr. Hasan’s situation was improving. Referrals were on the rise,
and his wife was pregnant with their first child. But he was agonizing about
staying silent about religious extremism. With a lawyer friend, Kendrick
Macdowell, he formed the Nawal Foundation, named after Mr. Hasan’s mother, and
set up a Web site to encourage moderate American Muslims to denounce violence in
the name of Islam. It was not an easy thing to do.
“There was a tremendous amount of family pressure on him to do nothing public,
to not remind the world we are related to the Fort Hood shooter,” Mr. Macdowell
Late last year, Kerry Cahill, a 29-year-old woman who lost her father in the
shooting, contacted Mr. Hasan to discuss the foundation, whose message she
liked. They met at his home for several emotional hours. She said that Mr. Hasan
was very apologetic and that she sensed he was burdened. She recently accepted
his invitation to sit on the foundation’s board.
“We are both angry at the same thing,” she said.
A Lover’s Remorse
Debra Kay Bischoff was not the woman who arranged for Ronnie Lee Gardner, a
career criminal with a history of escapes, to get his hands on a gun in a Salt
Lake City courthouse, a weapon that he used to kill a lawyer and wound a
sheriff’s bailiff in a failed escape.
But for the nearly 25 years that Mr. Gardner was on death row for that 1985
murder until his execution, Ms. Bischoff, who is his former girlfriend and the
mother of two of his children, felt a sense of responsibility for much of his
violence, including a previous killing of a bartender.
Ms. Bischoff cites her decision around 1982 to move from Utah to Idaho with
their daughter and son to get away from Mr. Gardner and start a new life. Though
she loved him deeply, she said, he had become terrifying to her.
Nonetheless, Ms. Bischoff, now 52, said: “I felt such remorse leaving. What if?
What if I hadn’t? He lost it because he lost us, the only people who ever showed
In a letter she sent in June 2010 to the prison warden and the state parole
board pleading for Mr. Gardner’s life about two weeks before his execution, Ms.
Bischoff wrote, “You see, he opened his heart to us and then we broke it, and I
honestly believe it was too much for him to take and he reacted in violent ways
to release his anger and hurt.”
That Mr. Gardner died by firing squad — a method he chose over lethal injection
— has left her with an even heavier conscience. And she says she has misgivings
that her husband of 27 years knows how deeply she loved Mr. Gardner.
“I never did get over Ronnie, and I don’t know it ever ended with him,” she
said, adding that she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work and
volunteering at a youth program, all to help troubled youngsters so that they
may have a better upbringing than he did.
Ms. Bischoff, her husband and the son she had with Mr. Gardner, Daniel, 31, live
in a one-story house they built next to potato and grain fields in a
middle-class neighborhood in Blackfoot, Idaho. Soon after the execution, Mr.
Gardner’s brother Randy and his daughter with Ms. Bischoff, Brandie, were
allowed to observe the bullet wounds in his chest to make sure he had died as
quickly as the authorities said he would.
“To look at his face and chest has haunted me,” Randy said. “I have night sweats
As for Brandie, 34, who works at a bakery earning $8 per hour, the fact that her
father had been absent virtually all her life has left her bitter and
distrustful of men.
“I wanted to be a daddy’s girl, but I did not have a guy to raise me or a first
guy to love, and that affected my relationships with men,” said Brandie, who had
an eight-year marriage that fell apart. “I have kept myself walled off so I
won’t get hurt again by any man.”
Brandie was in alcohol rehabilitation by the time she was 14, she said, and more
recently was charged with felony domestic battery after fighting a man while
drunk. “I have been destructive like a tornado because I have been so mad,” she
said. Soon after the execution, Brandie said, she attempted suicide by downing
large quantities of pills and washing them down with beer. She ended up in the
hospital for about three days.
Less than a month later, she was drinking Jack Daniel’s and swallowing more
“The last time I tried to kill myself, honestly, I felt like I was done,”
Brandie said, standing in a bedroom of the worn bungalow she rents on a
tree-lined street in Idaho Falls. In her hands was a plastic box containing some
of her father’s ashes.
A Brother’s Fears
Ever since Aug. 18, 2005, Robert Hyde has been leery about what perils may lie
outside, beyond his home near the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
That was the day his older brother, John, long plagued by mental illness,
embarked on a homicidal spree that spanned about 18 hours and left five people
dead in scattered parts of the city, with two police officers among the victims.
Mr. Hyde had never known his brother to be violent or cruel. He understood that
John, who like himself was adopted but from different biological parents, had
been paranoid and odd, but he did not think John was prone to violence. Knowing
now that John had descended into such savage behavior has changed the way Mr.
Hyde perceives people.
“The world is darker to me now; I am more nervous when I go out,” Mr. Hyde, 51,
said as classical music softly played in the living room of his modest Pueblo
revival-style house. “Who knows who else is out there somewhere who could change
so drastically?” he said. “Maybe anyone could.”
The first time Mr. Hyde traveled after the shootings, on a trip to a lake with
his girlfriend, they feared that others there might assault them. “It was
paranoia,” he said. “It was a degree of post-traumatic stress.”
Then there was simply the matter of his last name. He was self-conscious when it
was called at a doctor’s office. His son, he said, a high school senior when the
shootings occurred, endured nasty taunts from fellow students: “Are you going to
go Hyde on me?”
Not long after John, now 55, was arrested, he told his legal guardian that he
wanted to kill Mr. Hyde and their cousin Christian Meuli, a recently retired
physician. “I was so scared John was shrewd enough to escape that I was prepared
to flee from my home,” said Dr. Meuli, 60. For the next four years, he carried a
3-by-5 index card on which he had written phone numbers and other critical
information he would need in case he had to disappear.
Mr. Hyde used to work in the field of substance abuse research and now makes a
living selling antiques and other collectibles. He has devoted time to speaking
about the need for better access to quality behavioral health care and greater
communication between providers. He says he believes that could have made a
difference in his brother’s mental health and possibly in preventing the crimes.
“I have tried to get more involved in this issue, but I don’t have the power,”
Mr. Hyde said. “My last name is a hindrance.” A Sister’s Guilt
In 2003, life looked promising for Danyall White, another sister of Richard Paul
White. After a difficult childhood, everything seemed to be falling into place.
She was studying to be a court reporter at a school outside Denver and had a job
answering phones for a pay TV provider.
For about a year, though, her brother had been telling her that he had killed
women throughout Colorado. But Mr. White, then 30, often “said off-the-wall
things,” she recalled. She dismissed the morbid claims as fantasies.
One day Mr. White told her that he had fatally shot a close friend by accident,
another tale that she considered imaginary.
That was until he showed her a newspaper article about his friend’s death. The
article said it might have been suicide, but Ms. White, imagining the guilt the
victim’s parents might feel, decided she should inform the police about her
brother’s claim. He was arrested on first-degree murder charges. Soon after, Mr.
White confessed to killing five women he believed to be prostitutes (though the
police found the bodies of only three of them).
Now, Ms. White is grappling with her own guilt. “It wasn’t just the guilt of my
brother being behind bars, but the guilt of watching everybody’s life falling
apart because of what I did, the phone call that I made,” said Ms. White, 37.
“Some of my family shunned me, and it ate away at me.”
Soon enough, Ms. White said, she found “a friend and confidant” who never left
her side: alcohol. For several years, her days were soothed by Jack Daniel’s and
dozens of bottles of beer.
After the arrest of her brother, Ms. White abandoned her studies and was
dismissed from her job because, she said, the company told her it could not
assure her safety against colleagues’ threats and insults.
When her ailing mother died, Ms. White could barely function. She said life’s
toll since turning in her brother had led her to attempt suicide four times.
In 2010, Ms. White entered an alcohol rehabilitation program and says she had
been sober for 20 months before briefly relapsing recently. “I told no one in
rehab who I was, that I was R. P.’s sister,” she said. “In sobriety, I have
realized that I was taking responsibility for someone else’s actions. A lot of
the guilt has subsided.”
Research was contributed by Jack Styczynski,
Toby Lyles and
Killers’ Families Left to Confront Fear and
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