“We thought he had moved on….”: The Sudden Tragedy of Tail Risk Cases

Reid Meloy, Ph.D., ABPP & Stephen White, Ph.D.
Fall, 2018

In this feature we discuss the issue of “tail risk” cases and
call for your possible participation in a study we hope to conduct.

On August 26, 2015, a former anchorman at WDBJ TV in Roanoke, Virginia, murdered two of his former coworkers, a reporter and her cameraman, who had complained about his work ethic and defensiveness. He did this while they were conducting a live interview in an outdoor setting. Later that day he committed suicide. He had been terminated for a number of reasons and the meeting to fire him did not go well. He was irate and uttered veiled threats. He never got another media job. In assessing and managing targeted violence risk we are usually dealing with someone who has currently or more recently experienced some “unbearable” rejection, such as a job termination, dismissal from academia, or other acutely-felt humiliation. But the WDBJ anchorman attacked his victims two and half years after being fired. He had attempted legal action against the station, and had other civil complaints, but he did not make any direct threats toward the TV station during that time.

Although in our opinion we should never completely “close” the file of an individual of concern, in most of our cases we recognize some moment in time, sooner or later, when the individual no longer poses a risk of harm, or the level of concern has dissipated.  We can catch our breath and move on. Or can we? Cases such as the one at WDBJ TV are very rare, but they are particularly troubling because of the implicit operational issue of not knowing who should be monitored and how closely over an extended period of time.

Tail risk cases

We call these “tail risk” cases, defined as an attempted or completed multiple murder at least two years after an identifiable occurrence or onset of a “personal grievance.”  We define a personal grievance as a loss in love and/or work combined with humiliation, anger and blame.

Other examples of tail risk cases include the 2006 Goleta, California US Postal Service mass murder, six years after the female former employee was given a mental disability separation; the 2011 Tucson, Arizona attempted assassination and mass murder by Jared Loughner, nearly four years after his perceived rejection by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords; and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, killing three and injuring hundreds. More recently in 2018, was the spree killing by a disgruntled father in Scottsdale, Arizona, of six legal and mental health professionals connected to a child custody case which began years earlier; and the murder of five members of a local newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, by a citizen who had been the subject of the paper’s published criticism of his actions over a period of years.

Possible risk factors

There is no formal scientific study of the behaviors associated with tail risk cases. But from our anecdotal review of such events and our own consulting experience (both preventive work and post-event criminal litigation work), we suggest these possible indicators:

  • Public shaming during the rejection: During the termination or similar event, others witnessed a particularly “bad process” or outcome
  • Pathological fixation: the individual remains preoccupied with the source of his or her grievance, and appears incapable of letting go or showing insight; devaluation of the target is continuous
  • Anger turns to hatred and target dispersion: Anger intensifies and evolves into a generalized hatred for the target(s) and related symbolic targets
  • Paranoid ideation: Conspiratorial thinking continues or worsens, so that the belief in “treachery” remains and an active plot against the individual is ordained
  • Hypervigilant narcissism: Extreme self-centeredness and entitlement protects his or her fragile self-esteem; the individual is wounded again and again by new “insults”
  • Chronic life failures: The individual has not re-engaged in work or positive life pursuits and is spiraling downward
  • Increasing isolation: Whether or not isolation and a lack of positive social bonds were present earlier, they are worsening
  • Threats of suicide or history of attempts: Suicidal thinking or actions, especially if escalating, implies a “nothing to lose” mind set which in the presence of other risk factors will contribute to intent to harm others
  • Continuous leakage and direct threats: Over an extended period of time the individual communicates an intent to harm to third parties and direct threats to the target

Not all of these indicators need be present in every case, and their relevance may vary. Definitions may overlap or one may lead to another. For instance, paranoia leads to isolation, which may further increase paranoia as well as fixation. The rigidity of severe narcissism contributes to chronic life failures, which can feed anger. The task is to attempt to understand how any constellation of these static and dynamic risk factors may lead to a particular individual’s intent to harm way down the road.

Potential research and your assistance

We want to conduct a formal study of this phenomenon, and are attempting to gather cases of tail risk violence. The criteria for inclusion in the study are these:

  1. A reasonably identifiable date and description of a personally “wounding” event and accompanying personal grievance (loss, humiliation, anger and blame)
  2. Actual or attempted multiple homicides at least 2 years later
  3. The attacks are clearly related to the personal grievance
  4. Reliable diagnostic, demographic, and risk factor-related information on the perpetrator is potentially available

If you have professional experience with any such cases —or know of one— and would like to contribute to this study, please contact Dr. Meloy at ReidMeloy@gmail.com.  Even if it is a well-known case, and you are certain we know about it, please send it to us.  We may have missed it. We are developing a code sheet to record data for each case. You will be acknowledged as a contributor if you wish to be.

Implications for practice

A common question posed by threat assessment teams is, “How long and how much do we monitor someone?” Thinking about tail risk cases can inform our ongoing assessment strategies and intervention decision making. Can any evidence for the indicators above be detected before an individual is separated from an organization, and considered more carefully for their implications down the road? Is a direct face-to-face interview by a threat assessment expert justified and prudent? Organizations still make the mistake of the hasty termination, not slowing down to consider developing a stronger data base. They also mistake or confuse discipline with risk management, terminating someone for making a threat without adequately assessing whether they actually pose a threat. Who should be conducting potentially volatile terminations and are they properly briefed and personally prepared for what, even under the best of circumstances, is an inherently humiliating ritual? Tail-risk violence cases are indeed a challenge. Networking with outside agencies, particularly law enforcement, should be a standard practice when concern is present and remains high. The more we know about an individual before he or she is separated from the organization, the more we can consider a range of immediate and ongoing strategies to provide support, monitor for changes, or intervene at points of escalation.