by Heidi Hiatt
I was 10 years old the first time it happened.
She was found dead at a campsite in Eastern Washington.
I remember exactly where I was standing, what the weather was like, who was talking to me. I wasn’t sure how to respond. It was not surprising that the suspect was a family member in this case, but I was shocked at the brutal way in which she’d died.
The suspect was never arrested. They knew he did it, and eventually he was found dead somewhere himself, a topic for another time. But until I learned his fate from the lead detective decades later, that cold, vacant feeling never left me.
It was murder.
In this same time frame, a car plunged into a river and the only survivor was the father who was driving. His wife and children died. I remember them telling me, “he was reaching for a cracker.” I remember what happened in his life afterwards and why I regarded him with a growing suspicion.
He was never charged either. But even as a kid, even at that moment, my instincts would not allow me to dismiss those deaths as an unfortunate accident. The way the puzzle pieces fit together, the sequence of events– it didn’t work. But how, as someone so young, do you convince the adults or authorities that their puzzle pieces might be joined in the wrong places?
It could have been murder.
Fast forward far into the future as I’m standing outside a hospital entrance before a relative goes in for surgery. They spoke of a family friend. “He killed her and they think he’s coming here.”
That feeling again. That grey, creeping silent shadow that signals a life has been erased and one still among the living is responsible for it. It crawled past me, wispy like smoke in a shuddering paroxysm of slow motion.
The suspect did come here from two states away. He was apprehended two counties north after rolling his car. He left several children without a mother and also ended the life of the child still inside of her.
In this case he was sent to a mental hospital, a controversial decision that didn’t sit right with me. There was no question he did it. But the fact that he had killed his own wife had that same haunting feeling as the times before it that I’d learned of homicides. It’s a gaping, all-encompassing silence where there should be no silence. It is a yawing void that has no bottom.
More years went by. Like a light slowly intensifying as if on a dimmer switch, to my horror I realized that an acquaintance was in danger of death. I told others, “I know exactly how they’re going to die.” I pointed out patterns of behavior and the abhorrent Munchausen’s by proxy signs that were so obvious to me but others didn’t even seem to notice. Once the victim tried to drop hints.
I almost vomited the day I found out how they died. It was just like I said it would be. The authorities said it couldn’t be proven. The very factors and timing that made it suspicious were also the reasons that there was little physical evidence to go on and an accident was believable. All the steps a calculating criminal would take to cover their tracks existed and were to me so ridiculously logical.
That specter slunk in again, that gripping puff of sulfur that settles into an instinctive gut feeling which silently screams, “this isn’t right.” Safety experts tell us to always trust that gut feeling even when it doesn’t make sense and can’t be rationalized. In times like this we may tune into the still, small voice telling us that things aren’t what they seem.
It is a sick, frigid, empty feeling when you know it’s murder but it can’t be proven or the person responsible for extinguishing other lives isn’t arrested and punished. Can you relate? You might risk everything you have, even your life, to expose the truth, but the needed evidence for a charge or conviction just isn’t there. It’s a horrible place to be, a faint stench of decay that never wanders far from the perimeter of your senses.
Part of what motivated me to earn a degree in forensic psychology was this repeated pattern in my life of learning of a suspicious death, or abuse, or fraud, and seeing the perpetrators evade justice. My prolonged and repeated experiences with narcissists and sociopaths who know how to hurt others but appear as beacons of light pushed me to this. Many times in childhood, even, I found myself in the maddening position of having enough information to make a coherent argument in defense of a victim, but not enough to stand up in the legal system.
In time I learned how to testify as an expert witness and build a good case, but that doesn’t help the uncanny number of instances in my life it seems that justice could have been achieved already if someone had delved deeper into these questionable circumstances. Perhaps the police did everything they could each time, or technology hadn’t caught up with the courts yet. But how different life could have been for people around me if I’d found a way to articulate my suspicions earlier.
A common denominator weaves its way through the violence and crime I’ve seen in my life. The type of person who usually gets away with harming others– who even gets away with murder– is the one who maintains the self-sacrificing external image that most people would never question.
They’re the “nice guy” or the “family guy” or the “saintly caretaker.” They are self-sacrificial to excess. Those unfamiliar with sociopaths or who don’t believe one could exist in their circles are quick to believe that these dark souls are simply who they pretend to be. Sociopaths work hard at public relations, constantly cultivating a persona that seems hard-working, caring, involved in their community, giving– whatever scores them points in their professional and social orbits.
Not only do these types ingratiate themselves to those who will blindly protect their false selves later, when some truth-seeker dares question their integrity, but they will do whatever it takes to grind their accuser into a pulp. Dr. Robert Hare describes this beautifully in his Snakes in Suits book. I was floored when I read that book– it described exactly what I’d been through. The closer I got to the truth in some of these situations, the more I was attacked and discredited so that no one would believe me if I tried to convince the legal system.
Sociopaths can and do kill to protect their alter egos. They can snuff out lives to get what they want, and who they want, and to ensure that the shadowy parts of their Jekyll and Hyde lives never see daylight. They are so utterly steeped in their false self that most people around them are convinced of their infallibility and goodness– they will readily join in the destruction of the “crazy” accuser who dares question their beloved saint.
In every case of alleged criminal activity, we must ask “cui bono?”– who benefits? Who has something to gain? Who has something to lose? What is the accuser gaining or losing by coming forward and standing against an alleged criminal? Is the alleged abuser or criminal fighting excessively hard against the person trying to put the blame on them, which could be a sign that they are hiding something? Why would someone risk so much to point out the sins of someone who seems so gracious and delightful?
To prevent dark souls from hurting or killing others, we have to be willing to look at each case objectively. We cannot rush to conclusions; we cannot function on assumptions. We need to be willing to investigate all possibilities, put all of those on the table, and take the time to connect the dots. Sometimes there are no dots to be connected, other times the dots can form a detailed picture of what actually happened.
Our society is quick to dismiss crime and violence because of a person’s job title, fame, or social status. In cases where it’s easy for a suspect to get sympathy, like the death of a loved one, we often let our emotions dictate our thoughts and convince ourselves that they are incapable of that level of depravity. We must listen to any pokes at our consciences, however, and then decide to examine these cases with reason and an open mind.
I can think of a number of cases in which a person’s death was ruled as suicide or as accidental instead of a homicide, but someone close to the victim is overwhelmingly convinced that the official record is not the true record. Talented investigators might have spent years working the case to arrive at their conclusions, but loved ones insist that they’re missing some of the puzzle pieces. I understand that. It’s why closed cases should sometimes be reopened and investigators should leave no stone unturned.
How different our world would be if everyone would find the strength to speak up about the nagging feeling that a death is more than it seems to be—and the authorities would at least listen to them. One of the most frustrating problems I have ever dealt with is trying to convince those in power to listen when I didn’t have tangible evidence to back up my theories. Or as a kid, trying to capture the attention of an adult who could right the wrong or protect those being harmed. Or as a civilian law enforcement employee, being cornered in the department hallway and having the words, “you have no idea what it’s like to be a cop” yelled into my face.
Knowing deep down inside that someone probably didn’t lose their life the way the official record said they did can be a lonely and tortured place. Sharing those suspicions can have a profound impact on how others interact with you, your safety, and even your livelihood. Personally I have faith that God will bring justice in His time and that even those who don’t get caught in this life will have to answer to Him in the end. There is peace in knowing that you’ve done what you can to expose the truth and God is in control.
Accepting some of these circumstances as “solved” though—it hasn’t happened yet. Perhaps we who question the “truth” are who God intends to bring justice through. There are times when I’m thinking through some of these cases and that old familiar translucent twilight sidles up next to me. In that particular kind of silence I’m reminded that something still isn’t right, and the truth might have yet to be found. It’s like a door hasn’t closed yet, or a window latch has come undone in a forgotten room and a breeze is rustling old, worn curtains that should have been taken down 30 years ago.
Pray for justice. Hope for solutions. Trust that God sees all. And if you, like me, find yourself nagged by the unsettling feeling that there is more to the story of someone’s death than you have been told, know that there are others who understand.
It turns out that an eerie type of chaos can lurk just behind a façade of order—and yet, deep inside the chaos lurks an even eerier type of order. –Douglas Hofstadtera
Heidi Hiatt, MA is as a Forensic Psychologist. You can read more of her posts at her personal blog, Truth, Justice, and All-American Allergen-Free Apple Pie Straight Talk in a Crooked World