In three decades as a forensic psychologist—first with the Los Angeles Police Department, then as an FBI consultant—Dr. Kris Mohandie has met one-on-one with some of the most violent men ever to grab headlines. He reflects on his career in Evil Thoughts: Wicked Deeds, a book that’s part memoir, part safety guide to living in modern-day America.
Are there murderers you’ve evaluated who lingered in your memory, after your analysis was done?
Joseph Paul Franklin is a great example, because there were so many different layers of surprise with him. [Franklin’s killing spree, begun in the late 1970s, claimed the lives of more than a dozen Black and Jewish people, reflecting his white-supremacist views.] I’m not your prototypical example of racial purity, right? I’m mixed ancestry, Eurasian. So the first surprise was that he would even talk to me. His need to have an audience was more powerful than his racism.
How did he react when you met?
He said: ‘You’re kind of dark, ain’t ya?’ And I said: ‘Well, I just got back from Hawaii and I’m kind of tan.’ Which was true. And he said: ‘You didn’t even send me a postcard.’ And we moved on from there. He went into what was more important to him, which was bragging about the things he’d done [which also included attempts on the lives of Hustler publisher Larry Flynt and civil-rights activist Vernon Jordan].
The more shocking aspect of it was how outrageous his ideas were, beyond the racism. He saw himself as ‘better’ than a serial killer. He drew a big distinction between himself and psychopaths like Ted Bundy: ‘I was doing this for a reason,’ he said. ‘Those other guys were perverts.’ But those other guys were doing the same thing he was—killing innocent people. He said: ‘I don’t look at myself as a serial killer. I prefer the term ‘multiple slayer.” He said it with a sense of pride.
Who else do you think about?
Herb Mullin. He killed 13 people in the course of a year, because he thought he was ‘helping’ prevent cataclysms.
Natural disasters, like earthquakes?
Yeah… They’re interesting contrasts, Franklin and Mullin. One is this ruthless killer, who’s doing it for what he believes is a higher purpose. Not delusional, just a true believer in a cause. And then you’ve got Mullin. I went up to Mule Creek State Prison [in Northern California] and I’m in this room, waiting to interview him. And it turned out he was already sitting right next to me. He was this little unassuming dude. With the passage of time and being in there, he was cleaned up, for sure. He wasn’t wild-eyed. But it was shocking that he appeared so normal. They didn’t have him chained. They didn’t have any reason to. The idea that this notorious killer is the guy sitting quietly next to me… That was surprising.
We assume there are safety measures in place when you’re meeting someone violent. Has there been a time when, even despite those, you were scared?
Willie Woods was a City of Los Angeles electrician who shot four of his supervisors. I’d met him one time before and got a great interview. We were up at Pelican Bay [another Northern California state prison] for an interview that didn’t work out, and I said: ‘Let’s go talk to Willie again.’ The staff pointed us to the library where he was working and…well, I was just so overconfident. I got careless and had assumed that he was going to be the same as the first time that I met him. And he was not.
I said: ‘Mr. Woods, we’ve met before, and I’d like to interview you again.’ But then I repeated myself. He says: ‘I said, I remember you.’ There was palpable hostility. It felt like he was going to punch me. And (San Diego forensic psychologist) Reid Meloy was behind me, and we realized several other inmates were starting to converge on us. Reid said: ‘Kris, we have to get out of here.’
You wrote extensively about personal safety—ways a woman can protect herself if, for example, she’s dealing with a stalker. But what about random violence? Can we really guard against that?
The first thing to do is listen when you’ve got your ‘Spidey Sense’ and your bells and whistles going off, and to not disregard it when your body is reacting to a situation that you may not yet be able to put into words. It’s incumbent on us to trust some of those instincts, instead of disregarding them… And there are the more obvious things you can do, too, like make sure you’re not getting into cars with strangers, or meeting dudes off the internet at their private residences. You don’t go to bars by yourself. You have a buddy plan.
But can you correct someone intent on doing harm?
Yes, absolutely. Can you impact everybody? No. But you can reduce the universe of would-be offenders. How? Why aren’t they in that group anymore? Well, because maybe they’ve grown up in a culture where they’ve heard: ‘Dude, that’s a (jerk) move right there.’ Then they’ve experienced social rejection for a bad idea. So now what’s happening is an offender who might be starting to have those kinds of ideas is being dissuaded earlier in the development of the trajectory.
It’s always the ultimate question: Are criminals made or born? Some are made and some are born…but most are ‘combination platters.’ Most people who have been abused or had other dysfunctional experiences manage to transcend them. They do not submit. They do not end up offending. There’s free will in their decisions.