I'm still trying to get my head around the Jason Brian Dalton murder spree in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He shot eight people, killing six, Saturday afternoon, following a crazed drive with an Uber passenger around 4:30 p.m.
What makes a seemingly ordinary person suddenly lose it like that?
What We Know
There Were Remarkably Few Warning Signs Until The Afternoon That The Incident Began
Apart from six tickets for speeding and two for driving without insurance/registration about fifteen to twenty years earlier, and erratic wild driving about an hour and a half before he lost it, there seems to have been absolutely no sign of what he would do. Indeed, he ran 14 Uber runs basically without incident in the midst of his killing spree.
He had no criminal record, was married 21 years and had two kids (age 10 and 15) at age 45 without incident, was an insurance adjuster, had run 100 prior Uber runs with bad reviews but with no real serious incidents over the previous month, and came across as half-empathetic at a gun store with a friend that same weekend (how many spree shooters have in tact marriages and friends immediately prior to flipping out). We doesn't seem to have been drunk at the time and went to an ordinary bar afterwards for a drink where he surrendered peacefully. Authorities believe that he wasn't under the influence of drugs or alcohol. He didn't have a history of mental illness as far as authorities can tell. He didn't have amnesia - remembering his killings. His moonlighting for Uber suggests that he was suffering from some financial stress, but there were no social media manifestos or recollections of anti-social behavior from neighbors. Yes, he apparently owned a pistol (probably legally) and some long guns. Perhaps his love of car repair could indicate a faint autistic syndrome but that's not a great fit to a long marriage, job as an insurance adjuster for many years and accounts of empathetic behavior in a gun store earlier that weekend.
Dalton played football, was on the track team and was on the wrestling team in high school where he grew up in Indiana.
Dalton was apparently a car nut, something that figured into his work life as well:
Gary Pardo Jr., whose parents live across the street from Dalton in Kalamazoo Township, described him as a family man who seemed fixated on cars and often worked on them.
"He would go a month without mowing his lawn but was very meticulous with his cars," Pardo said, explaining that Dalton, at times, owned a Chevrolet Camaro and two Hummer SUVs.
Progressive Insurance confirmed that he once worked for the company before leaving in 2011. Dalton was an insurance adjuster who did auto-body estimates and once taught an auto-body repair class at an area community college, said James Block, who has lived next door to him for 17 years.
"He loved to do things outside with his kids" like taking them for rides on his lawn tractor, Block said.His family is distancing themselves from him and his horrible acts in a statement released by attorneys whom they hired. Law enforcement and neighbors had initially feared for their lives, but Dalton's family was not harmed, although they may have left the family home for their own safety once they were altered by the sheriff.
Neighbors did say the Dalton had been acting paranoid before the shootings. James Block, a neighbor of Dalton’s noted the suspect increasingly referencing his gun in recent days while maintaining general even handedness.
It may have been Dalton's wedding anniversary, although the reports on this point seem to be inconsistent. He has no known connection to terrorist or extremist groups according to law enforcement sources.
Was This A Three-Phase Crime?
It kind of seems like there were two phases - one manic, racing, wild and maybe angry with an incredibly reckless 4:30 p.m. drive and then his first shooting at about 5:42 p.m. at a townhouse of a woman, Tiana Carruthers (who is expected to survive), multiple times in front of her children in an apartment complex parking lot, and then another tired, cold, and withdrawn four hours later after giving multiple Uber riders, closer to 10 p.m. when he carried out other murders, took another ride or two, and then quit and had a drink at a downtown pub eventually surrendering and confessing a couple hours after that, with a long break of dissociated "normal" during which he ran a dozen Uber rides, in between with him lashing out the second time in part because he knew the situation was hopeless after his first attempted killing that he may have believed resulted in a death in front of witnesses who could identify him eventually.
None of the shootings seem to be connected to the Uber fares.
The wild ride didn't begin at the start of the ride. It was apparently triggered by a phone call, followed about an hour later by the townhouse shooting which might have been in reaction to that phone call somehow.
Matt Mellen told CNN he rode in Dalton's car just before the shootings started. "We got about a mile from my house, and he received a telephone call," Mellen told CNN. . . . Dalton told the caller he had a passenger in the car and would call the person back, according to Mellen.
"Once he hung up with that phone call is when he started driving erratically," Mellen said, recounting side-swiping a car, running a stop sign and red lights.
"I was pleading with him to stop the vehicle so he could let me out. He was surprisingly calm the whole time."
Mellen said he was able to jump out of the car and call 911.According to Mellen: "He said Dalton introduced himself as "Me-Me" and had a dog in the backseat."
One could imagine an affair about to be revealed or some other threatened revelation that Dalton believed would imminently destroy his life spurring the crazy driving and subsequent first shooting. If it turns out that Dalton was not a stranger to this woman, that will explain a lot. My intuition is that once the relationship between Tiana Carruthers and Jason Brian Dalton (if any) is known, sequence of events will become a lot more clear.
A news report provides some hints, suggesting that the woman may have perhaps have been targeted out of frustration, when the true target was "Mazy". He may have been a stranger to her, but he was not a stranger to the apartment complex. It may be relevant that Carruthers and many other residents of the complex were African-American, while Dalton was white.
The first victim of the Uber gunman threw herself in front of children when the gunman opened fire and gave police crucial information to track him down.
Tiana Carruthers was outside her Kalamazoo, Michigan, apartment with several youngsters on a playground at around 5:00pm on Saturday when the suspect, who's been named as Jason Dalton, pulled up in his Chevrolet.
Sensing trouble, the mother put herself between the attacker and the children, and was shot multiple times as a result, but survived and was able to give the police vital evidence that helped them catch the suspected killer.
Joi Coleman, 12, and sister Megan were two of the children she saved. Joi was holding Carruthers' hand when Dalton started firing.
Her actions meant the pair were able to get inside one of the houses and call 911.
Travis Gettys and Devin Fletter, who live next door to Coleman's, told WWMT they saw Dalton earlier in the day talking to children in the neighborhood just an hour before the shooting [ed. i.e. at about 4:45 p.m., shortly after the "wild ride" and phone call with Mellen].
One person said he asked where 'Mazy' was, leading some to believe he was looking for someone specific.
When police arrived at her family's home after the shooting, they found 10 shell casings on the floor around Carruthers.
According to MLive, Carruthers was able to give deputies a description of the man who shot her at the scene.Another report noted suggests that Dalton was not known to Carruthers personally:
At the scene, Carruthers was able to give deputies a description of the man who shot her, describing him as an older, heavy-set white male with brown and graying hair.
Sparrow testified that Carruthers told deputies her attacker left in a silver sport-utility vehicle. Other witnesses told deputies the vehicle was either a Chevrolet Equinox or Traverse.
Sparrow said that deputies later learned that the vehicle, after leaving Meadows Townhomes was involved in a crash after it sideswiped another vehicle at the intersection of Gull Road and East G Avenue.
When she was shown a police lineup after the shooting, Sparrow said Carruthers identified Dalton as the man who shot her.So, Dalton was still in a rage when he left the complex, presumably because he hadn't found "Mazy" and had just shot someone multiple times for some reason related to his search for her, perhaps in a case of mistaken identity. What happened next?
There was a four hour time period between the first shooting at Meadows Townhomes and the second shooting at Seelye Kia, we are told police are trying to find out what he was doing during that time period, and revealed he made phone calls to several people.Presumably, all of those people will be interviewed as witnesses in the case.
Witnesses at the first scene think that asking for "Mazy" may have been a ploy, so Carruthers may have been the intended target after all:
"He was here to kill, like to shoot somebody.”
That’s how Travis Gettys described the man suspected of shooting and wounding a woman at Richland Township townhomes complex . . .
At the Meadows Townhomes, tire tracks from the car taking off were still visible Sunday and spray paint marked where 10 bullet casings were found. Seven bullet holes could be seen in siding at the front of a near-by apartment.
Neighbors told 24 Hour News 8 that kids were out playing just before 6 p.m. Saturday when the shooter circled around the block before he opened fire. . . . .
Neighbors say the woman recently moved in to the Meadows and was outside with her kids when the shooter, believed to be 45-year-old Jason Dolton, asked if she was a woman with a different name. People who spoke to 24 Hour News 8 said they think it was a ploy to get her to come close to his car.
“She was talking about her kids, talking about, ‘He asked if I was so-and-so,'” said George’s mother, Tammy.
Witnesses say the victim’s three children were outside with her. Thankfully, they ran away and avoided being shot.
James George and his friends, who were playing video games, also avoided injury when four of the bullets came flying through the wall of his home.Authorities claim that the first shooting was random, despite the fragmentary evidence that seems to point to a contrary conclusion, such as the fact that Dalton came to the complex twice an hour apart and asked for a named individual before shooting, and that he seemed to have a purpose to kill from the outset.
Given the large time gap between the collision after the shooting at the apartment complex and the next time his whereabouts are known, Dalton may have spent part of that time hiding out, cooling down, or perhaps committing another murder, of "Mazy" that has not yet been discovered because there were not witnesses. Honestly, it wouldn't change the result of the criminal prosecution in any case (except possibly to provide evidence against the argument that he could claim an insanity defense).
According to a neighbor:
Block said Dalton was home ‘between the shootings’ Saturday because his niece saw Dalton pull out of his driveway about 7 p.m. The first shooting occurred about an hour earlier.
Perhaps the call that set off the first wild ride had him deranged and unbalanced, leading him to make the first killing (which might have been less random and more impulse driven), and then he sunk into guilt after hours of experiencing no consequences for the prior shooting and wild ride - causing him to become a classic "amok" killer knowing that his ultimate capture and punishment for the first shooting was just a matter of time (a scenario that wouldn't require any drugs or neurological condition at any stage).
Maybe the later two shooting incidents were not strictly random, but settled up otherwise minor scores that had exploded out of proportion for him because he was sure he had no future in the outside world after the first shooting which he believed had been deadly. Maybe as a automobile nerd, he killed the two Smiths because they were at a business that he believed had done him wrong in the past. Dalton seemed to have "hunted" them (as a girlfriend who was undetected watched). Maybe he lashed out at Cracker Barrel customers because he really, really hated that restaurant and wanted to include that as a final statement to the world. Maybe he went to the bar after that because he ran out of grudges and slights to settle and was so stunned that he'd gotten away with everything he'd done without consequences that he thought he might wake up with a hangover and find out that none of it had really happened and it was all just a bad dream.
Probably the only way that this could have been prevented in the real world would have been for police, with a decent identification from the wild ride victim who promptly called 9-1-1, to have made a prompt arrest based upon reckless driving charges. It isn't clear why police didn't make more of an effort to arrest Dalton at this point given how insane his driving had been reported to be by Mellen (who seems to have done everything possible to avert the tragedy under the circumstances).
If the multi-stage nature of the crime can shed insight into motive, then only the first stage becomes truly incomprehensible, and some shimmer of light can be shed on how even that could happen.
Was This Pre-Meditated?
Yet, there are traces of pre-meditation. He bought the jacket in which he concealed his pistol on a trip to a gun shop with a friend not long before the spree occurred (at about 3 p.m.), which suggests that the idea was already churning in his head at this point. Perhaps he suspects that he was about to be betrayed and armed himself as a result in order to carry out just the kind of shooting that he did at the townhouse, and then, having extra bullets and a gun on hand, was equipped to carry out random shootings in despair afterwards.
But, maybe he bought the jacket and carried the pistol for the same self-protection reason that anyone who deals with a lot of drunk people late at night might due so, and not because he planned to go on a shooting spree. Then, when he had a completely unanticipated psychological break, those ingredients just happened to be already in place.
The jacket may have made it feasible for him to carry the pistol with him, and then, because the pistol was present when he lost it in what otherwise would have been mere grist for the local newspaper or television police reports, became much more deadly.
Theories That Can And Cannot Be Ruled Out
Psychiatric and Neurological Conditions
Psychopathy starts to manifest in preschool and almost never emerges suddenly in middle age. Schizophrenia and bipolar usually hit you in your late teens or twenties (probably because the pruning of neurons that gives most of us more efficient but less plastic brains occurs then). ADHD manifests by elementary school and doesn't lead to the kind of cold affect he had during at least the second phase of the spree, and most "impulsive" criminals "age out" by age 45, but ADHD treatment could have afforded him access to amphetamines or something similar which in a massive OD might be consistent with the facts and with his prior spat of speeding violations at a much younger age. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) or PTSD might fit that profile, but there is nothing in his recent history to suggest he'd suffered either (or that he had any history of mental illness) - although I wouldn't rule out recent TBI (e.g. bonking himself on the head against a car or car part or tool while working on cars in his garage by himself), which often goes undetected and can happen at any time in ways that would be invisible to outsiders. It was too sudden to be any common form of dementia. It might be consistent with a recent TIA (i.e. a mini-stroke), or a brain tumor, that selectively severed some key aspect of mental functioning in middle age (I have a relative who suffered a serious farming accident leading to some sort of stroke who had a dramatic personality change afterwards, so I can sort of see that).
Possible Substance Abuse Causes
He lacked several of the symptoms of PCP usage, and isn't consistent with heroin or marijuana use either. Prolonged sleep deprivation made possible with amphetamines or meth or cocaine that he OD'd on late that afternoon might fit the timeline of crazy to relatively normal to depressed fairly well, and incidents of "losing it" in that fact pattern are not unprecedented. Or, maybe he could be flipping out on some other drug with which the public isn't very familiar. But, if there was a drug, something like alcohol or barbiturates or narcotics that impair motor function don't seem like a good fit given the amount of driving and accurate shooting he did during the spree with only one ride that seemed to be really wild very early on. On the other hand, addictions to many kinds of drugs can lead to paranoia which for a person in possession of a gun can lead to over-reactions that in turn might trigger despair and further kills later on in the spree.
The rapid up and down points more to some kind of PTSD or psycho-active drug, than to TBI or a TIA or a brain tumor.
On the other hand, the traces of pre-meditation suggest that the idea was already churning in his head at this point, which is inconsistent with a one time effect from drug use, although paranoia or psychosis triggered by sustained drug use might fit that profile and something like TBI or a TIA or a brain tumor is also a better fit to pre-mediation. But, if the signs of pre-mediation were not actually pre-mediated and were instead just ordinary self-defense preparations of an otherwise sane person, that simply happened to be in place when a psychotic break occurred (which was itself perhaps caused by a one time drug OD of some type), the gun and jacket to conceal it may have simply made it a much more potent (and tragic) incident.
Overall, at first glance, this is one of the most inexplicable mass murders that I can recall.
It is really hard to make sense of it if there is no brain impairment of recent origin, or drug side effect, to explain it. This is not a classic case of going amok from the start that involves an intent to commit suicide while taking as many people as possible with you without interruption in your spree.
There is no sense from the people who interacted with him on his later Uber runs that day that he was angry so much as he was tired.
Are The Theories Sufficient To Provide A Legal Defense?
Obviously, in the drug free, neurological defect free crime of passion followed by crime of suicidal despair scenario, there is no legal defense.
It is quite likely that the substance use or neurological cause of Jason Dalton's spree, if it was one of the more plausible theories suggested above, would not be a meaningful legal defense to criminal liability in the form of life in prison without possibility of parole for Jason Dalton (which would include pretty much any sentence with a minimum parole eligibility after 35-40 years). If he ever makes it out of prison, it will likely be based upon compassionate release as he is on the verge of dying.
Even if one of these neurological or substance based causes existed, it isn't obvious that they would exonerate him from first degree murder, because they might destroy only his willingness to conform his behavior to right and wrong and not his knowledge of right and wrong - which seems to have existed at some level based upon his denial that he was the shooter to his last fare of the night whom he left unscathed for whatever reason.
Similarly, voluntary substance use is almost never a valid legal excuse, and even if drug use downgraded his offense from first degree murder to a lesser included form of homicide by depriving him of premeditation and perhaps merely classified him as reckless or as acting in the heat of passion, the number of people killed would produce a de facto life without parole sentence in any case from consecutive sentences to the lesser included multiple homicides in this case, given his age.
Since Jason Dalton surrendered peacefully to police when they came to arrest him, since he lives in Michigan which does not have the death penalty, and since he does not appear to be denying that he committed these acts (for which there are multiple witnesses and lots of other solid evidence to support his confession such as the fact that at least two of the shootings were apparently captured on video), it isn't impossible that we may someday know why he did this, unlike so many similar incidents in which the shooter either dies in connection with the spree, or maintains a strict silence afterwards to preserve his legal capacity to appeal.
A detailed confession and/or toxicology report may provide answers.
When his only possible defense is that his mind was broken or temporarily impaired, he has every incentive to cooperate in explaining himself, and his counsel has every incentive to try to find a neurological explanation (if there is one).
Should Any Of The Theories Provide A Legal Defense?
If Jason Dalton was suffering from some recent undiagnosed neurological condition that impaired his capacity to control himself, or made the once in a lifetime mistake of ODing on some sort of stimulant while he was harmed and in a car driving perhaps while sleep deprived as well, not realizing how badly that could mess him up, he looks a lot less culpable than he would otherwise (and certainly not a good candidate for some theory to try to apply the federal death penalty to his case).
But, once we've learned what he can do with no warning, should the public ever give him any opportunity to screw up again? This is certainly not a paradigmatic example of the insanity defense, and allowing Dalton a defense might leave too much gray area to allow a more culpable mass killer to go free, or for a jury to mischaracterize the circumstances that made him do what he did.
Deterrence Remains Irrelevant
One way that this mass killing is typical is that deterrence is irrelevant to this class of crimes including even this particularly inexplicable one.
The clearance rate in this mass killing, as in almost all mass killings except those incident to gang crimes, is basically 100%. The killer always either dies trying or is captured and doesn't deny committing the acts. The killer generally expects to be caught or killed at some point in the process of carrying out the crime. The threat of prosecution resulting in a certain conviction and never leaving a correctional institution except through death is credible and always carried out when the killer survives the incident. So, the usual logic of criminal justice is inapplicable to these cases. The only meaningful way to deal with mass shooting that don't involve gang crimes is to prevent them (or at least, to minimize the harm that they cause by swiftly interrupting an active shooter).
Implications For Gun Control
Of course, we care about the reason so we can prevent similar incidents in the future and preserve public safety.
According to a neighbor, Dalton bought a handgun a few years ago to deal with prowlers, and he did fire it a couple of times. One report said that Dalton had 11 rifles at his home which were not used in the spree killing. Another said he had many handguns and long guns, apparently all legally. One wonders if anyone who has that many firearms isn't a risk.
Uber prohibits both drivers and passengers from carrying firearms, on pain of being banned from the service.
But, the only gun control measure that might have been effective would have been an extreme ban on handgun possession or ownership by anyone not in law enforcement or a security profession. Almost any other imagine concealed carry regime would have allowed Jason Dalton to carry a concealed pistol.