Phil Chalmers calls himself “America’s leading authority on juvenile homicide and juvenile mass murder.” He is the author of two books on the subject, Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer and The Encyclopedia of Teen Killers.
Much of my research is based on interviews with mainstream, non-incarcerated teens and adults who had a deep interest in controversial media when they were teens. I wanted to interview Chalmers to get a better sense of these media and the role they play in the lives of teens who commit violent crimes.
Chalmers was willing. However, as you can see from his responses, he didn’t really address many of my questions. Fortunately, he does back up the idea that for most teen convicts, it was personal and psychological factors — not entertainment — that provided the main impetus for their actions. Chalmers emphasizes that violent media does have its place in these kids’ lives, though. Certainly it came up in many of his interviews with teen killers. Does that mean the general public should be concerned about such media? He wouldn’t say.
In addition, he didn’t address the fact that all types of violent crime among teens are on the decline. In addition, he implied that these rates might be down because more criminals are behind bars, but the juvenile arrest rate is also on the decline. In a second round of questions, I asked him to clarify, but he didn’t respond.
Chalmers gives presentations on the topic of youth killers — and their warning signs — to schools, youth ministries, and other places where kids congregate. On the one hand, it’s important for parents, educators, and ministers to recognize the real warning signs of trouble for kids on the brink of violence. On the other, I’m deeply uncomfortable with Chalmers including media as a warning sign, since I suspect for even violent teens such media serves as a harmless outlet, rather than an instigating factor.
Needless to say, he doesn’t agree.
What made you interested in writing about teen killers?
I spent 25 years speaking to teens on destructive decisions, and because of my interest in juveniles, I kept an eye on teen murder and school shootings, and began interviewing those killers, attempting to find out why they did what they did.
Why don’t we currently have a better understanding of why teens commit violent crimes?
The reason most experts are unsure why teens kill, is they don’t spend the time needed interviewing these offenders. I have spent 25 years getting to know these killers, then picking their brains. Most people, including you, have an agenda, and they try and get these cases and these causes to fit into their agenda. When I do my research, I have no agenda or political bent, I just let the killers speak, and research thousands of cases.
Do you think the lack of information about teen violence makes parents more worried or fearful about their own teens’ potential for violence?
In the introduction to your book, Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer, you say that teen violence is “out of control.” The United States Department of Justice says juvenile arrest rates for murder, aggravated assault, and forcible rape have been on the decline since the mid-1990s. In what way is this violence “out of control?”
The murder rate may be down, but teens are trying to hurt each other, and trying to kill each other at an alarming rate. Because most police departments are under pressure from politicians, they are downgrading crimes, and making it look like crime is down. Same goes for the murder rate. We have gotten good at saving people, and have incarcerated over 2 million bad guys, so due to these and more factors, the murder rate is down. But that doesn’t mean people are less violent.
You talked to hundreds of teen killers, many of whom told you about the warning signs in their lives. What were those signs?
The warning signs are in my books, and my live seminar. The first 4 signs are bedwetting, animal cruelty, fire starting, and peeping tom. Then there are 25 warning signs in my book, including fascination with deadly weapons, fascination with violent media and porn, obsession with other school shootings, depression and suicide, interest in books like Anarchist Cookbook and Hitler’s book, and many, many more.
What role did violent media play in the actions of the teen killers you interviewed?
Violent media is a pretty large part of these crimes, and almost always a part of the crime. If you read my books and attend my trainings, teen murder is a multiple-cause crime. Which means it can never be one thing, like violent video games, drugs, or guns. But when you have 3 to 6 of the causes, then you run the risk of a violent assault or a murder.
When you interviewed “Matrix killer” Josh Cooke about the murders he committed, he told you that “he committed the crime because of his rage and insanity.” If that was his main motivation, why is his story a good example of the dangers of violent media?
Josh had numerous problems, but his obsession with his favorite movie pushed him over the edge. The FBI reported that this media can push kids over the edge, and I agree with them.
You wrote that school shooter Luke Woodham started listening “obsessively” to Marilyn Manson and other bands before his grades dropped significantly. He told you the music made him angry, even murderous. Do you think the music really had an influence on him – or was something else going on that simultaneously affected his school performance and made him crave angry music?
Luke Woodham had 8 of the ten causes in his life, and violent media was just one of them. If I was to pinpoint to ONE CAUSE, or ONE SIMPLE THING, it would be Fatherlessness. That’s what many of these killers have in common. Luke was bullied terribly, and that was probably the major cause. And he was severly depressed.
You also discuss the Devin Moore case as an example of a killing spree inspired by Grand Theft Auto. Why did you do so, when Moore’s gaming habits were not admitted as evidence in court -– and Jack Thompson’s lawsuit against Rockstar Games, representing Moore’s victims, was dismissed?
I have spoken to Devin numerous times, and he was OBSESSED with GTA. And his crime he committed pretty much mimicked his game. But he had other issues as well. Again, a multiple-cause crime.
In my interviews with average teen gamers and heavy-metal fans, almost all of them said these media were a source of stress relief and enjoyment for them. Do you think games and music serve different purposes for healthy teens and for those who are prone to violence?
That’s funny. So killing people is stress relief. Well, I would say bike riding, exercise, lifting weights, and taking long walks would be good stress relief. But killing people, killing cops, and having sex with hookers before you kill them, and saying that relieves stress, now that’s pretty funny. I would disagree with that, and say that we must enforce the laws of our country, and do our best to help raise our young people in the most positive atmosphere possible.