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American Sheepdog Online CCW Resource Magazine - Shadow Figures: Assessing Criminal Threats
  • Shadow Figures: Assessing Criminal Threats

    Shadow Figures: Assessing Criminal Threats
    Bill Oliver

    In the early 1980s I set about to look the devil in the eye, to learn all I could about dangerous criminal behavior. After a twenty year odyssey of working with the most dangerous inmate-patients that the state of California had incarcerated, I learned some lessons that might aid the concealed license holder in understanding the mindset, motives, and methods of the "shadow figures" we are defending ourselves against.

    The first twelve years of this odyssey was at Atascadero State Hospital, which houses violent, mentally ill offenders. Then the odyssey led to a supermax prison, Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California, where I helped to open and operate the Psychiatric Services Unit (PSU) for five years. Before retirement, the road led back to Atascadero State hospital to work for four years with Sexually Violent Predators (SVP.) After thousands of hours of discussions with inmate-patients, studying the nature of the criminal mentality, I found a lot of valuable information about how victims are picked and the criminal's mindset at the moments leading up to, and during a violent assault.

    The very first piece of knowledge to pass on is that the devil never looks like the devil; he looks very ordinary in most respects. An effective predator will be a chameleon and fit into the environment he is hunting. Visualize the mentality a deer hunter must use to stalk prey, and realize that to some individuals, you are the prey.

    Violence is not personal

    To you and me, the idea of being targeted for victimization is very personal and life altering. But to the violent predator, you are an object to be moved out of the way to get his need met. He has spent a lifetime rationalizing his actions, and you are simply the means to an end. More often than not, the violent predator will be under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or psychological desensitization, which makes it much easier to do anything to you. To the criminal, violence or simply taking what they want by any means is a way of life. They are often victims of violence themselves, and they see it as a perfectly normal behavior.

    How often have you heard that it is safer to comply with the orders of a violent offender? "Give them what they want." My experience tells me that this is sound advice only for a short period of time in order to deceive the violent offender into giving you the opportunity to decisively turn the tables. The violent predator already perceives you as an object. The more compliant you appear to be, the more contempt for you he will overtly display.

    A multiple-murderer named J.A typified the motive of a lot of violent predators. He was robbing a convenience store in Texas and the woman teller complied with his orders promptly and offered no resistance of any kind. When asked why he shot her in the head if she was doing everything he told her to do, he replied in a cold, matter of fact way, "I killed her because I could; why leave a witness?" The fact that this woman had several children meant nothing to him. Most crimes are done because the criminal believes he can do it and get away with it. The overwhelming reason comes down to, "I killed because I could!"

    Violent criminals will commit crimes and generally see it as your fault that you made yourself vulnerable to them by letting your guard down. It would be great if all violent offenders pulled knives or guns and yelled from a hundred feet away as they ran at you, but that is not the case. Usually violent offenders have a history behind bars, and in prison it is a deadly mistake to telegraph your intent to be violent, so they learn that the best way to launch an attack is by being casual, smiling, and not drawing attention before the attack. This often means engaging in conversation or other interaction before a violent attack.

    In a conversation with Charles Manson, while he was housed at Pelican Bay, he talked about how he entered the unlocked home of the LaBianca family and was smiling and non-threatening as he let it be known that he was there to rob them. He was by his own words, "kind and even joked and reassured Mr. LaBianca" that his intent was not violent as he tied up Mr. Labianca. Mr. LaBianca was deceived by his inability to imagine his own victimization beyond being robbed.

    In his closing statements during Charles Manson's trial, Vincent Bugliosi recalled the testimony of Linda Kasabian, who testified that she had heard Manson say that he had tied the LaBianca's hands and told them not to be afraid, that he was not going to hurt them. He went on to say:

    "In addition to those instructions, ladies and gentlemen, Linda also recalls hearing Manson telling Tex, Katie, and Leslie not to cause fear and panic to the people She testified: "It keeps ringing in my head that he said, 'Don't let them know you are going to kill them.'" Now, wasn't that considerate, wasn't that considerate of Charles Manson?

    "Since Manson was able to leave Mr. and Mrs. LaBianca in their home all by themselves while he walked back to the car, we can assume that Mr. and Mrs. LaBianca believed Charles Manson when he told them that everything was going to be all right and he was not going to hurt them. If they didn't believe him, right after he left, it seems to me that one thing they could have done would be to run out of the house, to get help. There is evidence that Leno's wrists were tied. There is no evidence that Leno and Rosemary had their feet tied. So if they did not fall for Charles Manson's lies when he left the house, they could have ran out of the house for help, or they could have locked the door. Manson probably left them still alive with pillowcases over their heads, and they probably thought he was just some freaked-out hippie, and if they did everything he told them to do and did not resist him, no harm would come to them. To fool the LaBiancas, ladies and gentlemen, Charles Manson had to wear the same mask that he is wearing in this court, just a peace-loving individual. In assuring them everything was going to be all right, and not to be afraid, obviously Manson had to talk to Mr. and Mrs. LaBianca. Can't you just picture the scene, ladies and gentlemen, Leno and Rosemary with pillowcases over their heads, Manson saying to them: 'You two piggies just stay put, now, and everything is going to be all right.'

    "And then silently snaking, snaking out of that residence to go down and get his bloodthirsty robots. Mr. and Mrs. LaBianca had no way of knowing that Charles Manson and his soft voice, his soft demeanor, was preparing them for their horrible death."[1]

    It is a common occurrence for a violent offender to use deception to mentally disarm a potential victim. Serial killer Ted Bundy would pretend to have a broken arm and be in need of assistance, knowing full well that people tend to see injured people as being harmless. He then used the cast on his hand as a weapon. The theme of needing assistance is used often to get close to and mentally disarm a potential victim.

    Using a woman or child to distract you and have you let your guard down is not that uncommon. I worked with one individual who would use his wife and child as bait to abduct women whom he imprisoned in his basement. He would rape and kill these women in his private torture chamber while his wife was fully aware, but complied out of fear for herself and child. Some predators manipulate women or young teenagers to become willing partners in the crime. Take nothing at face value too quickly.

    While working with the Treasury Department in the mid 1970s, I heard about a woman who was carjacked and abducted. The abductor forced her to drive out into the country. She realized she had to do something to prevent being raped and probably murdered. She decided to fake a seizure. She flopped her head into the abductor's lap and began shaking and trying to throw up on the guy, spitting and gagging. The abductor became distracted with trying to control the steering wheel as the car was free wheeling down the road. The abductor got control of the car and stopped it on the shoulder, then jumped out of the car to see if she had thrown up on him. The woman slammed the door and quickly drove away while the abductor stood on the side of the road, totally rattled. The woman used deception to take control of the situation and used her wits.

    It is perfectly all right to pretend to comply with a violent offender until such time as you can distract, deceive, or get distance from him, prior to using anything at your disposal to turn the tables, and if required, use a lethal response. His violence is not personal, and your response must also not be personal--but it must be decisive.

    Actual danger or paranoia?

    We have numerous unexpected interactions; rarely will an interaction be of any danger to anyone. But not all interactions are as they seem. Being aware of all possibilities, even the extreme ones, will give you more mental tools to assess all possible situations. Even some potentially dangerous interactions do not require the use of a lethal response. I carry two wallets so that if some mugger is foolish enough to want to rob me, I may give him the wallet in my right pocket which carries nothing of real value. The other wallet carries those things I hold more valuable. The reasoning is that if I determine that a mugger is not interested in anything but money, I may well give him my fake wallet rather than resort to lethal force. To fake compliance will tend to disarm him mentally and give me the advantage no matter what my decision is. Being a big, ugly, biker type, I seem to rarely attract aggressiveness but it might well be worth giving a foolish mugger a worthless wallet rather than deal with the issues involved with use of lethal force, if it is not absolutely required.

    A killer's mindset once the tables turn

    So what do you do when you have no doubt that you are being confronted with a violent assault and you have bought yourself, by accurate assessment of a criminal's dangerous intent, a few seconds to react? The predator will not be looking for a fair fight. He will be vulnerable by believing that he has caught you unprepared. He will not be debating the right or wrong of taking your life, and he will not be slowed down by any moral conflict. He has committed himself to making you his victim. The predator will not be concerned about what some paper will write tomorrow or what some lawyer will say. The situation has moved to the absolute here and now, with no yesterday or tomorrow that needs to be considered.

    I have talked with people who express some doubt about being able to shoot another human being, and it is good that they have empathy for others. However, when I ask them how long they would hesitate to shoot someone who was killing their child, or mother, or husband, there's no hesitation and doubt at all. Most people would hesitate out of denial that their own life was at risk, but they would not hesitate to shoot to save the life of a loved one who was in the exact same situation.

    Train for motor skill, train to improve speed, and train to improve your ability with a gun or other weapon. But more vital: train your mind to realize that you are learning to shoot so that your family is protected from the violent predator that would destroy the lives of all who love you by causing harm to you. To save the life of your child, wife, husband, mother or father you must find that which will momentarily bring out the killer instinct in every sheep dog. The article is called Shadow Figures because the violent predator has little more in common with a real human being than the silhouette target you use to practice.

    Your handgun is the final argument in a life and death altercation. Do not rely on it before you use the weapons of your wits, observation ability, and creative thinking to assess and avoid if at all possible, danger in any situation.


    Bill Oliver is a retired forensic Psychiatric Technician from California who worked twenty years at Atascadero State Hospital and Pelican Bay State Prison. Currently he works part time as a Psych Tech for the state of Colorado. He has six years of college, majoring in Psychology. He has a concealed carry permit for Colorado and for Utah. His favorite carry handgun is a Kimber Ultra CDP2/ 45. This is his first submission to USCCA. Bill Oliver can be reached as "Bebo" at both USCCA and American Sheepdog forums, or at


    [1] Partial Transcript of Linda Kasabian and Vincent Bugliosi closing statements:
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Shadow Figures: Assessing Criminal Threats started by Bebo View original post
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. kenlefeb's Avatar
      kenlefeb -
      Fantastic article, Bill!

      Thanks for taking the time to put this together for us!

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