In Tucson, Solace From Relatives of Past Killers

In Tucson, Solace From Relatives of Past Killers
Published: January 21, 2011

TUCSON — Few visitors make their way past the cactus garden and into the dark ranch-style home where Randy and Amy Loughner have spent much time grieving alone. The rampage in which their troubled 22-year-old son is accused opened a fault line between them and the rest of this recovering city.

But beyond Tucson, two people who have never met the Loughners are now seeking them out, and others are likely to follow.

When Jared L. Loughner was identified as the gunman who shot 19 people here two Saturdays ago, his parents joined a circle whose membership is a curse: the kin of those who have gone on killing sprees. Now, others in this circle of relatives are beginning to issue invitations to the Loughners.

David Kaczynski, brother of Theodore J. Kaczynski, the Unabomber, left a message with Mr. Loughner’s public defender offering his ear if the parents wanted to talk to “someone with a similar experience,” he recalled.

Robert P. Hyde of Albuquerque had the same instinct. The brother of a mentally ill man who killed five people, two of them police officers, Mr. Hyde looked up the Loughners’ address and mailed them a letter inviting them to contact him. The gist of his letter, Mr. Hyde said by phone, was that “what happened is not your fault.”

After killing sprees in American towns and cities, the relatives of the gunmen face the intense scrutiny of neighbors who wonder how far the apple fell from the tree, or if the home environment was abusive, shaping a killer. Grief from these relatives can provoke a complex reaction as the outside world ponders whether they are victims in their own right, or the gunman’s enablers, or both.

While the actual victims of crimes and their relatives “have people pulling for them,” Mr. Hyde said, “we on the other side don’t want to even broach that subject. I will never say, ‘I lost my brother, too — I’ll never go fishing with him again.’

“It would look cold and callous,” he added. “People don’t understand. And you don’t want to offend anybody.”

So, he concluded, “you just suck it up.”

If that gets to be too much, the relatives of killers have been known to find comfort in one another, creating a fragile and fraught emotional network among the nation’s most isolated families.

After his brother’s daylong rampage in 2005, Mr. Hyde called David Kacynzski, by then a prominent campaigner against the death penalty. At the time, Mr. Hyde was in such a daze, so consumed with questions — How did this happen? What could I have done differently? — that he could hardly even get dressed in the morning.

“We talked,” Mr. Hyde, 50, recalled. “It was very helpful, a spiritual kind of thing. The fact is we were both brothers who had a brother who did this.”

A need for legal advice — such as how to help a brother or son avoid the death penalty — can prompt these phone calls. In 1999, William Babbitt, the brother of a mentally ill man on death row in California, contacted Mr. Kaczynski because he felt his brother should be spared the death penalty, just as Theodore Kaczynski had been.

The loose network among relatives offers the grim solace of knowing that others too have suffered the same curse.

Mr. Kaczynski recalls feeling reassured more than a decade ago — while his brother was still under prosecution — upon receiving a note from the parents of John C. Salvi III, who had murdered two abortion-clinic receptionists. “We’re thinking about you, we’re praying for you, and we understand,” was the message, Mr. Kaczynski said.

“At first, you feel like you’re the only person this has ever happened to,” said Lois Robison, whose mentally ill son was executed in Texas in 2000 for the murder of five people. “You’re no longer Ken and Lois Robison, the two schoolteachers. You’re Ken and Lois Robison, the parents of a mass murderer.”

Ms. Robison, 77, now regularly speaks with the families of other men the state has executed.

Reflecting on the Tucson shootings, Ms. Robison was reminded of her reaction to learning about her son’s rampage: she could not stop sobbing until she was given sedatives. She said she expected the Loughners now felt like “pariahs”; she, too, struggled with the feeling. After her son’s crimes, some parents sought to have their children transferred out of her class.

Even though the pack of reporters outside the Loughner home has gone, the parents still live in virtual hiding. Until Monday, when the Loughners emerged and stepped into a waiting car, there had been so few signs of life inside that neighbors had assumed the couple had left town.

Since then, Mr. Loughner, a tall man with a bushy mustache, has occasionally been seen speeding away from his house in a black El Camino. On Thursday afternoon, he had a baseball hat pulled low over his eyes as he hustled out of the car, hastened to his house and quickly disappeared behind a wooden gate without saying a word.

Capt. Mark E. Kelly, the husband of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, who was critically wounded in the attack, has told ABC News that he was open to the idea of meeting with Mr. Loughner’s parents, adding, “They’ve got to be hurting in this situation as much as anybody.”

Captain Kelly’s comments have prompted plenty of reflection among those who have already gone through this familiar healing ritual, in which the family of the murdered meet the family of the murderer.

Bill McVeigh, the father of the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh, in a phone conversation Thursday with Bud Welch, the father of a victim of that attack, ventured that “this was quite soon for one of the victim’s family members to be talking about that,” according to Mr. Welch’s account. In their case, Mr. McVeigh and Mr. Welch, who talk every few months, did not meet for more than three years after the younger McVeigh’s act of terror.

While Mr. Hyde and a few others sought out the relatives of other killers on their own, many do not. In fact, the relatives of perpetrators are such pariahs that it was a crime victims’ group that first organized a formal meeting of them. In 2005, a group of relatives of murder victims, all opposed to the death penalty, held a conference for the relatives of some 20 people who had been executed for capital crimes.

It was “the first time in the modern era there was ever assembled in a room a couple of dozen people who had all shared the experience of having a family member executed, and found a little empathy and solidarity for a group that has had none,” said Renny Cushing, the executive director of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, which organized the meeting.

Marc Lacey and Carli Brosseau contributed reporting.

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