Have you ever wondered what happens to the family members of convicted murderers? Imagine discovering your sibling, spouse, or child is a cold-hearted killer and you find yourself as surprised as anyone in the community. That must be a brutal experience itself. Then there’s living with the aftermath, becoming “that” family that raised a killer. Doubtless, people in the family of killers are ostracized to some extent and understandably.
Once I met a mother and her son who were volunteering in an organization where I was a member. They were going to be working with me. How nice. Not long afterward, the director thought it pertinent to let me know that the family’s elder son had murdered a taxi cab driver the year before, shooting him in the back of the head so he could rob him and of course, not pay the fare. I have to admit I wasn’t happy about working with this family anymore. I removed myself from the assignment. Fair? Probably not. But it was the only thing I could think of when I encountered the mother and son. She was so buoyant and happy. The kid was sweet-natured and probably just a good kid. The thought that ran through my head was how can this mother be so happy and act so normal when her son is a heartless killer? How could I be so judgmental? I didn’t have it in me to associate with the family of a murderer. And so I quit.
Keith Jesperson– Serial killer of eight women in Washington State. A long haul truck driver, his opportunities were plentiful. Usually Jesperson preyed on truck stop hookers. His crimes were particularly brutal and unexplainable. Jesperson was simply a misogynist who killed mercilessly and without provocation. For instance, one young woman he killed, who was slightly mentally handicapped, made the comment she “just wanted to get this over with”, when Jesperson insisted they have sex. This infuriated him and he strangled her to death. who knows?
His daughter visited him in prison “Missy, you need to change your last name,” the shackled man in the orange prison jumpsuit said into the receiver, staring blankly at his 15-year-old daughter’s tear-stained face. She was visiting her father in the Men’s Oregon Penitentiary before his conviction. “That’s when I knew that these things were true,” recalls Melissa Moore, now 33. She was devastated. Until that moment she knew the serial killer as her father who “tucked her into bed at night like a burrito.” Missy never visited her father again. At 21 she married and took her husband’s surname.
Moore is a part of an exclusive group, those who share blood relations with someone perceived by the public as a monster. With that unenviable tie comes isolation, guilt, grief, fear, disbelief, post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to a very public stigma. Friends drop away. Neighbours keep their distance. Paparazzi stock the survivors for a time. Life becomes an unbearable nightmare. Like the women or men a murderer kills, he victimizes so many more people than just one. Or several. Moore’s friends started making excuses not to hang out with her. She later found out that their parents instructed them to avoid her. Brown said the more horrendous the crime, the more isolated the family becomes.
In the aftermath of a massacre, questions and criticism are frequently directed at the parents, spouses and children of the accused. The public sometimes sympathizes, often criticizes and even blame family members. Yet people are hardwired to defend their kin, like Moore did before she realized her father’s guilt. “There will be strong psychological and emotional incentives to defend and remain loyal to the family member, and to delude and self-deceive themselves about the reality of their relative’s guilt.” No wonder family puts up a screen of denial between reality and themselves. Some criminals have actually maintained a good relationship with their kin. They love each other. The shock of an accusation is devastating. Denial, devastation, and an intense instinct to protect their accused loved one is a normal reaction. It can take time for family to accept the awful truth. Some people never do. They spend their lives visiting their kin in prison, vowing to secure that person’s release.
In Moore’s case, she looked back on her childhood; what had she missed? She remembered playing games with her wavy-haired father and going to laughter-filled meals with him and her siblings at the local truck stop. She also remembered a bitter divorce and her dad killing their pet dog by beating its head in right in front of her. She had to pretend not to be upset when her father brutally strangled stray animals in front of her. But I didn’t like to remember that. Just as odd was the reaction of adults around her: they ignored his cruelty against animals, along with other bizarre behaviours. Moore also recalls her father’s verbal abuse and as she entered her teens his explicit sex stories. From prison he wrote lurid letters, drawing obscene pictures of nude women. It seems odd to people who are not related to, and have never lived with, killers that Jesperson’s daughter accepted his bizarre behaviour without resistance. It makes perfect sense knowing that since Missy was 5-years-old the adults who associated with the family simply ignored it. The message was clear: if you ignore it, it didn’t happen.
Others are prone to protect their own reputations and disassociate themselves from the killer to avoid being ostracized. They experience anger at the relative for putting them in such a conflicted position. Relatives of killers can be categorized into two groups: the family members who recognized the pathological nature of the violent perpetrators and those who did not. The more psychopathic they are, the better they are about hiding it. “When I was growing up, my dad had put so much pride in my last name, and he gave me lessons on how to be a good citizen,” Moore said. “My name was now known for these horrific murders, and it started to make me wonder if I was like my dad. I would check out ‘Death of a Loved One’ kind of books. That was the most relatable help I could get because I was going through this death of his identity,” Moore said. Emotional conflict arises with the realization that there are happy times and rituals worth preserving in every family.
Family members can be overwhelmed by grief and loss but don’t feel they have the right to those emotions. They may not reach out to support groups, like those for suicide survivors, because of the effect their relative’s hellish crimes have had on their community, according to Brown. More than a decade after the school shooting that left 12 students and one teacher dead, the parents of Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold remain largely silent. Susan Klebold opened up in a 2009 issue of Oprah Magazine with a personal essay titled I Will Never Know Why.
“Through all of this, I felt extreme humiliation. For months I refused to use my last name in public. I avoided eye contact when I walked. Dylan was a product of my life’s work, but his final actions implied that he had never been taught the fundamentals of right and wrong. There was no way to atone for my son’s behavior.” She also revealed that in one newspaper survey, 83 percent of respondents said that “the parents’ failure to teach Dylan and Eric proper values played a major part in the Columbine killings.” “I expected to find an explanation for why Dylan had grown up capable of doing something so horrific. What I found instead was more bewildering.”
It’s difficult to grasp the reality that a family member could cause nationwide sorrow, said forensic psychiatrist Helen Morrison, who has profiled dozens of killers. Also hard is the realization that it’s not the family’s fault. It’s imperative to get the individual to talk about their experience, their feelings, their doubt, their anger, their distress and try to put that in a perspective that finally leads them to say, “It’s not my fault.” It seems to me this is a journey that will take a long time, and in fact may never truly end.
James and Lynda Carson
Sometimes relatives are terrorized by family members who later become killers. Clearly, these people aren’t entirely surprised when the family bully is arrested one day for murder. However, the news isn’t any less devastating and the family is still left to deal with the aftermath.
Two young co-eds fell in love and not long afterward, married. After the marriage, Lynne Carson was dismayed to discover a different side of James; he became depressed, easily angry and he began to abuse her physically. Eventually the two had a baby daughter, Jenny. The marriage healed and they were happy again. However, not long afterward, James began dealing drugs. His temper returned and he returned to battering her. Oddly, he maintained his affection toward Jenny, who was never victimized by her father. Lynne took her daughter and escaped from James one night. Jenny, 3-years-old, missed her father and cherished his visits. Then Susan Barnes, a wealthy divorcee, entered their lives and Jenny experienced difficulty adjusting to her stepmother. No wonder: Susan physically abused the child. Lynne and Jenny went on the run again, moving to California. In an effort to keep Jenny safe, Lynne spends her life staying one step ahead of her ex; ultimately she succeeded.
Murder Most Foul
Over the years, the weird couple murdered two men and a woman. They were eventually caught and James was imprisoned for life. For Jenny Carson, the news was devastating. “It was like somebody had taken a pen and popped one of the Macey’s Parade Day floats….I felt like someone had reached in my chest and pulled out my heart.” Now a young woman, she visited him in prison. “To me it was a funeral, I was visiting my dad’s grave. I was you know, just seeking that closure…We sat and he talked for three hours. And I thought, my daddy’s not in there anymore. I don’t know who’s in there but it’s not him.” Jenny became an advocate for Children of Parents in Prison (CPP). She still misses her father. She still feels sad. In that moment I felt he’d also murdered himself not just those other people. He’s also murdered himself. And Jenny. And Lynda.
The Shocking Discovery
When Rebecca Babcock was 16– years old, she learned the truth behind
her adoption. Her biological mother, Diane Downs, was convicted of first degree murder of her own 7-year-old daughter, and attempted first degree murder of her two other children. Downs was driving on a rural road outside Springfield, Oregon, when her three children—Danny, three, Cheryl, seven, and Christie, eight—were shot. Cheryl died from her wounds, Danny was paralyzed and Christie suffered a disabling stroke. Downs claimed that a lone gunman with shaggy hair had tried to kill her children while attempting to steal her car. Prosecutors found evidence that proved otherwise; her motive was that the man she had been dating didn’t want kids. Chained and visibly showing, Downs was a head-turning beauty who smiled for the cameras and wiggled her hips on the way to the courtroom. Reporters who covered the 1984 trial was struck by how much she enjoyed the attention. Before being incarcerated in the Women’s Oregon Correctional Facility, Downs gave birth to Rebecca. She was permitted a few hours with her infant before she was taken to the penitentiary, never to see her baby again. Perhaps for Rebecca that was a good thing.
Before Rebecca even knew her mother’s identity, her adoptive family were already affected by the knowledge. The couple watched their new daughter for signs of emotional disturbance. “I think we kind of maybe subconsciously watched for any signs of anything unusual,” said Jackie Babcock. Jackie thought it best to give her daughter vague answers to the questions about her heritage. “I told her that her mom was in jail,” said the adoptive mother. “I didn’t give her any details as to why. That’s too much for an 8-year-old to take on.”
After hearing about her notorious mother, Rebecca watched Small Sacrifices, a made for television mini-series starring Farrah Fawcett as Downs. When Rebecca saw it, she fully realized the horrible thing her mother had done. “It’s one thing to hear about it, it’s another to see it.,,,Disgust, sadness. It became real at that point. The part that shows when I was born it’s as close as I’d ever come to witnessing my own birth. And to be born of a monster is… not something I’m proud of.” Babcock said that once she knew the blood of Diane Downs was inside her she began to mimic her birth mother’s impulsive behavior. “Throughout my teen years, I was wild… and after the movie, it escalated,” Babcock said. “I dropped out of high school. I slept around with a lot of people. And I did a lot of harsh drugs. I had no concern for myself.”
Things got so bad that Jackie Babcock kicked Becky out of the house. Even Becky’s closest friend, Kaylee Hammond, worried that nature was winning over nurture. When Becky was 17, she got pregnant and became a teenage mother, as Diane Downs had been. When her son, Christian, was 3 years old, Becky got pregnant again. During her second pregnancy, Becky Babcock was broke, homeless and living in a women’s shelter. She decided to put her baby up for adoption. “I couldn’t raise another baby and do that to the son I already had,” Babcock said. “We picked the most amazing family I could possibly think of.”
Babcock felt lost after the adoption, she said. She began to think about her birth mother. Had Downs felt this same emptiness when she gave Becky away? For the first time, Babcock felt a need to connect. “I thought about, you know, Diane and that was the one and only time I have ever had compassion for that woman,” Babcock said. Babcock decided to reach out to Diane Downs, her birth mother, whom she calls a monster, in prison. Soon after she contacted Downs by writing her a letter in prison. Downs, thrilled to hear from her daughter, began a regular correspondence. Her first letter was welcoming and warm. But after several letters Downs’ tone changed. Over the course of six letters Downs’ paranoia and psychosis came into full view. “Just know that someone very powerful has been watching over you all your life for me,” Downs wrote in one letter. In another she wrote: “If you love your little boy, you’ll take him far from here.” Babcock decided to cut off all contact.
“I wish I was born of my real parents,” she said. “My adopted parents. But I was born of a child killer. People judge me for that.” But Babcock realized that she was nothing like her mother. She said she could never imagine hurting a child.
James Fredrickson – Downs’ Brother
Fredrickson was interviewed and gave information that a man named James Hanes was responsible for the crime. Fredrickson takes the supportive stance toward his murderous sister: “we know that she didn’t hold the gun…in the U.S. I thought that if you didn’t hold a gun, you didn’t fire a gun, you wouldn’t be convicted of shooting somebody.” Hanes was a biker that ran drugs. Hanes was the supposed enforcer. Fredrickson claims Hanes has 100s of friends who know about his crime of shooting the Downs children. Further, D.A. Horton is alleged to have protected Hanes; after Downs’ conviction Horton left the D.A.’s office and became a criminal defense lawyer for Hanes’ biker gang. This information hasn’t been verified. it is quite an incredible story. The Fredrickson family, like many families of dangerous, incarcerated killers, is grievously erring on behalf of their convicted kin.