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Suicidology Online 2010; 1:19-27.

ISSN 2078-5488

Soldier of Fortune. He went to shooting ranges with Brenda. His son James was caught exposing himself again and was sentenced to ninety days in jail. Wesbecker was so irritable that, when he had trouble with his lawnmowers, he wrecked them with an axe and drove his car over them. He often talked to his friends and co-workers about bombing the plant or “wiping the whole place out.” On September 7th, 1988, Dr. Lee Coleman got Wesbecker placed on disability leave, but Wesbecker believed that he had been cheated over the amount of his disability pay.

Wesbecker visited a funeral home and arranged and paid for his cremation. He deeded his house to Brenda, and he continued to accumulate an arsenal of guns. As 1989 passed, Wesbecker’s son James continued to get into trouble almost every week. In July, Wesbecker discussed suicide with his friend James Lucas.

Another example of a serial killer who chose suicide over prison was Leonard Lake. He and his partner, Charles Ng built a bunker in which to keep female sex slaves, and it is believed they killed 12 people. When apprehended for shoplifting, Lake took a cyanide capsule and died.

Some serial killers commit suicide after being sent to prison. Richard Trenton Chase suffered from paranoid schizophrenia when he killed and mutilated six people in Sacramento, California in 1978. Chase drank the blood of some of his victims because he thought his own blood was turning into powder. After being arrested, charged, and convicted of murder, he was sentenced to die in the gas chamber. Chase committed suicide in prison by taking an overdose of his medication that he had saved for several weeks.

Wesbecker’s grandmother, who had been a surrogate mother for him, died on August 5th, 1989, and a few days later Dr. Coleman switched Wesbecker to Prozac (Fluoxetine) and began to wean him off the other medications. Wesbecker told his friend Lucas not to go to work because he had a plan to eliminate the place. He had a list of seven people there he wanted to eliminate. Lucas swore (later in court) that he warned the managers at the plant but that they did not take the threat seriously.

On September 14th, 1989, Wesbecker arrived at the printing plant just after 8:30 am and began his shooting rampage.

What makes this mass murder of special interest is that those who were wounded, but who survived the massacre, sued Eli Lilly, the makers of Prozac, arguing that Prozac was responsible for Wesbecker’s rampage at the plant. The jury decided that Eli Lilly was not responsible, but the author of the book on the case, John Cornwell (1996) suspects that a deal may have been made “under the table” between Eli Lilly and the plaintiffs.

Serial Killers

In contrast to mass murder, serial killers are defined as those who kill three or more victims over a period of at least thirty days (Lester, 1995). No study had appeared prior to 2008 on the extent to which serial killers complete suicide, but the informal impression gained from studying the cases (e.g., Lester, 1995) is that suicide is less common among them. However, occasional serial killers do complete suicide.

For example, Herb Baumeister was a married man with three children who was suspected of killing 16 gay men by strangulation in Indiana and Ohio during the 1990s. An organized lust killer, he buried some of his victims on his property. Baumeister began killing when he was age 33. When Baumeister became a suspect in the disappearances of gay men in the area, and when his marriage fell apart, he drove to Ontario and shot himself in the head after leaving a two-page suicide note.

Some serial killers have made failed suicide attempts (e.g., Cary Stayner) before they embarked upon their serial killing. They appear to have turned their suicidal urges into murderous rampages.

Newton (2006) has provided a detailed listing of serial killers, and his data were used to explore the occurrence of suicide in his sample of serial killers in a study by White and Lester (2008). Newton listed solo serial killers and group serial killers. He also listed cases from around the world and back into the 19th Century. In order to make the sample comparable to the study of mass murderers in the United States by Lester, et al. (2005), the cases were restricted to solo killers, in the United States, from 1950 to 2002.

Newton provided data on age, sex, race, the year that the murders took place, and the number of murdered victims. The types of serial murderers were classified as nomadic, territorial or stationary. The motives were classified as criminal enterprise, personal causes, sexual and sadistic, and some killers were classified as having more than one motivation. The outcome was coded as suicide, captured, killed by police during attempts to capture, and other (including murdered by others and death from natural causes).

The sample consisted of 594 serial killers: 559 men, 31 women and 4 of unknown sex; 392 were white, 95 African American, 38 Hispanic, 5 “other” and 64 unknown. The mean number of victims was 6.4 (SD: 7.1) with a range of 3 to 70. Several cases were listed as having “numerous” victims and these were entered as “missing data.” Of the 594 killers, 26 committed suicide, 67 were executed, 481 others caught and processed by the criminal justice system but not executed, 8 were killed by police officers, 6 were murdered and 6 had missing data. By decade, 19 cases came from the 1950s, 66 from the 1960s, 162 from the 1970s, 196 from the 1980s, 134 from the 1990s, 13 from the 2000s, and 4 had missing data.

Three hundred and seventeen were classified as territorial killers, 27 as stationary, 246 as nomadic, and 4 had missing data. 29% were classified as having a criminal enterprise motive, 37% as personal cause,


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