Twinkling lights, presents wrapped up with bows, spending time with family…and murder.
For some, the holidays are not the most wonderful time of the year. Here, we’ll look at several famous Christmastime murders and the psychology behind the killers to find out why such a merry time of year for some, can bring out deadly rage in others.
The Covina Massacre
Covina, a Los Angeles suburb, was a grisly scene on Christmas Eve, 2008. The killer, Bruce Jeffrey Pardo, showed up at a holiday party wearing a festive Santa Claus costume. The problem was, he wasn’t invited. And he was out for blood.
Pardo opened fire on his ex-wife Sylvia Ortega Pardo and approximately 25 of her guests—including an 8-year-old girl who answered the door—before unwrapping the gift he had brought: a homemade flamethrower.
“Because the winter holidays have a strong promotion of being ‘family’ holidays, murder during these times is often associated with the killer having recently lost a loved one, having anger toward a rejecting former lover or spouse or [being] resentful of a family that appears to ‘have it all,’ ” explains Dr. Reneé Carr, a clinical psychologist.
Pardo’s divorce had just been finalized the week before, and police speculated this was the trigger that led to his massacre of nine people, including Sylvia and her parents. Though Pardo carried a plane ticket that pointed to a getaway plan, he took his own life shortly after the attack —but not before starting a fire that consumed the house.
The blaze, ignited by racing fuel and fed by the festive light in two fireplaces, took 80 firefighters nearly two hours to extinguish; many of the victims had to be identified through dental records.
Carr says often the psychopathology behind holiday rage and murder is a lack of empathy for the lives of other humans or living things. “This is most likely borne from a childhood of the murderer—[if they are] severely neglected or abused psychologically, emotionally and/or sexually,” says Carr. “As an adult, [the person] will unconsciously transfer these feelings and thoughts into rage that, ultimately, can lead to aggression and possibly murder.”
The Dallas Christmas Killings
Another killer Santa, Aziz Yazdanpanah—who donned the festive red-and-white outfit in anticipation of his rampage on December 25, 2011—entered his estranged wife’s Dallas, Texas home and began shooting the family. They had just finished unwrapping presents.
All in all, he murdered six people, including his wife and two children, before killing himself. The victims and two handguns were discovered in the kitchen and living room, with presents and wrapping paper littering the floor.
Yazdanpanah had been dealing with financial and marital issues, which detectives believe contributed to his mindset before the murder-suicide. Like the Covina case, it’s likely the suicide was a last-minute decision when the killer found himself overwhelmed; the crime scene showed attempts by Yazdanpanah to frame his brother-in-law by placing one of the guns in his hand.
According to Carr, people who commit violent acts during the holidays are often consumed by feelings of rejection, usually by a love-interest or former lover or even just someone they’ve been flirtatious with. “Typically, they targeted their victim specifically and their violence is a direct expression of their frustration, anger, hate or rage toward that person,” says Carr. “These attackers are often fixated on the fantasy of holidays being synonymous with love, family and fun. They believe their intended victim to be the reason they are suffering and deprived of an ‘ideal’ holiday.”
The Lawson Family Murders
On Christmas Day in 1929, tobacco farmer Charlie Lawson killed his wife and all but one of his seven children at his Germanton, North Carolina home.
Just days after getting the family together for an expensive family portrait and shortly after he and his eldest son, Arthur, went hunting, Lawson hid by the barn and ambushed two of his daughters, shooting and then bludgeoning them. Walking back toward the house, he killed his wife on the porch and then hunted down his oldest daughter and two youngest sons, who were hiding inside. Then, he went into the woods, where he killed himself.
The sole survivor of the massacre was Arthur, 16, who had gone into town for some extra ammunition after their morning hunt.
Although we still don’t know why Lawson killed his family, Carr says murders, in general, are more likely to be committed by someone in the victim’s family than by a stranger.
“People who murder their family or a family member during the holidays are likely to have repressed anger, harbored hostility, jealousy or frustration with that family member—or what [they] represent,” says Carr. “Because holidays are expected to be happy times and family-filled, unhappy family members may experience a psychological ‘break’ where they can no longer repress their uncomfortable thoughts or feelings of rage. Murders of this type are often reactive and unplanned.”