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Van Zandt: When evil comes knocking

Former FBI profiler discusses the murder of Pamela Vitale

The trunk of the car was locked.  But the otherwise unremarkable blood stain across part on the inside of the car's interior left rear window forewarned what I was about to find.  A little fingerprint powder failed to raise any latent prints, so I jammed a rusty tire tool under the trunk lock, pushing and prying as hard as I could.  Real life is never like you see in the movies -- everything takes longer and is harder to do.  The lock was slow to surrender the contents of the car trunk, what the British would call the car's "boot."  When the lock finally yielded, and the lid popped open, my eyes met his open, but otherwise sightless eyes.  His complexion was pale, far different than a recent picture of him that I held in my hand.  But the eyes of the man stuffed in the trunk were what caught my attention, his eyes and the hole in the middle of his forehead, the entry wound for a small caliber, semiautomatic bullet.  He was dead, long dead.  Score: evil one, good guys zero.

The call had come in to our local FBI office earlier that day.  It seems that the night before someone had knocked on the front door of the home of a local branch bank manager.  Allowed to enter the home to use the phone, the distressed motorist quickly turned into a gunman who confronted the banker and then held him and the banker's housemate hostage throughout the night, tying them to overhead pipes in the basement of the house as the hours from night to morning slowly passed.   

The next morning the lone gunman told the manager to drive to his bank, take as much money as he could from the vault, and drop it alongside a remote road north of town.  "If you call the police," the manager was told, "your boyfriend is dead."  The bank manager did as instructed, taking thousands of dollars in cash to make the ransom drop.  However, as the bank manager left the bank with the cash, a bank employee called police and the FBI.  When we finally found the banker he told us his harrowing tale, but when we retraced his steps, the bag of cash, was not surprisingly gone.  The kidnapper had already cleared the drop site.     

We found the housemate's car that same day in the parking lot of an apartment building near his home.  We set up a surveillance on the car, hoping that the kidnapper or his victim would soon return.  After waiting a short time, I took another look through the parking lot and glanced inside the car.  When I saw the blood smear on the window I knew this case was not going to have a happy ending.  Instead of a homecoming there was going to be a funeral.    

Pamela Vitale
Some would suggest that an even worse case would be a victim brutally beaten to death with a scrap piece of wooden crown molding by some drugged-up, whacked-out teenage Satanist who for reasons known only to himself chose to carve a kind of cross in his victim's back.  The meaning of the cross is unknown but may represent the conflict between good and evil, between man and monsters, between God and Satan. 

Sixteen-year-old murder suspect Scott Dyleski may have come knocking on the door of Pamela Vitale's residence, or just let himself in.   He was said to be involved in a credit card fraud and believed the marijuana growing paraphernalia that he ordered had been mistakenly delivered to Vitale's residence.  No matter his reason, he is believed to have entered Vitale's home and engaged in a violent fight with her.  She probably knew she was fighting for her life, but evil won again and 52-year-old Pamela Vitale died.

Authorities suspect that Dyleski, who lived just down the hill from Vitale's residence, viciously struck her at least 39 times with his wooden club-like weapon that he probably found at the construction site of Vitale's new, soon to be completed, nearby home.  He is then alleged to have used some type of edged weapon on her, including the cult-like cutting of a type of Lorraine cross into her bare back -- something like a modern day Charles Manson might do. 

Some say that Dyleski functioned on the dark side of teenage behavior, trying as hard as he could to take on a Goth-like appearance.  His "look" was a combination of the black trench coated appearance of fellow teenagers Klebold and Harris, the 1999 Columbine High School shooters, while worshiping, as suggested by others, Satan himself.  Dyleski's black eyeliner and drastic hairstyle provided a living picture of a troubled youth -- something beyond "a mere phase."  But was he "evil" in what he did that night?  Was his alleged murder of Vitale the action of a young sociopath or something beyond criminal that crossed the line delineating "normal" human behavior from the indescribable, something beyond human understanding?

Murderers kill for many reasons.  Anger, frustration, fear, fun, accident, intention, compulsion.  They might say they needed to do it, it had once happened to them, it wasn't their fault, the victim had it coming, or their mother, their father, the guy down the street, their priest, or the devil himself made them do it.  You name the murder and state the motive, but know that the real reason that the killer killed may never be known.  After all, if the murderer himself does not fully understand his behavior, how can we comprehend one man's inhumanity to another?  But did the person who murdered the man I found in that car trunk and the young man suspected in the murder of Pamela Vitale plan their crimes, something a prosecutor might call premeditated murder?  And if not, was murder simply an artifact of the crime itself, as many murderers have told us.  "I had to kill (him/her/them).  He/she/they could have identified me."  Was murder really needed to complete the crime and allow the criminal to attempt to evade identification?

Evil Person, psychopath, or just out of his mind?      
"Evil" is a constant war that takes place between nations, between individuals, and even within a single person.  As an FBI hostage negotiator, I was one of a number of agents and local police officers that responded to an attempted airline hijacking in a large, sprawling airport terminal.  The subject/attempted hijacker held a handgun to the head of his eight-year-old male hostage, a boy whom he snatched from the hands of his parents when the hijacker entered the airport.  We worked to get him to surrender (our sniper had the chance of a shot, but the cocked gun to the boy's head vetoed the sniper's shot.)  The gunman/hijacker said he had a headache, but refused our offer of "a couple of aspirin."  We eventually agreed to give the hostage taker/hijacker a signed "promise" that he could fly away to the Middle East on the commercial airliner just outside the door that he stood near.  In reality it was a destination he could have simply bought a ticket for.  As he released his hostage, the SWAT team quickly disarmed him.  Hostage safe; hijacker in custody; nobody hurt or dead; case closed.    

A week later a psychiatrist examining the ex-hijacker called me.  "Did he tell you he had a headache," the psychiatrist asked?  "Yes," I replied, "but he wouldn't accept any aspirin."  "You might want to know this," the doctor said to me.  "He says that the reason his head ached was because 'an evil gremlin' was standing on his shoulder on one side of his head and 'a good gremlin' was standing on his other shoulder.  The evil gremlin was hitting him in the head with a small baseball bat, demanding that he kill the hostage and hijack the plane, while the good gremlin told him to listen to the negotiators."  "It's good you got through to his good side," the prison psychiatrist said, "for the bad gremlin was a killer."  In this case the score now stood at good guys one, evil gremlins zero....    

We watch cable television news as hurricanes and other natural disasters sweep across various countries, including the U.S.  We know that there are also human hurricanes and emotional earthquakes that can wreak havoc without our ability to accurately predict the path that the pathology of their acts of murder and mayhem may take.  But to be labeled as "evil," does one need to be a Hitler or would a simple Ted Bundy qualify for such a label?

We have seen far too many two-legged monsters kidnap, rape, and murder children across this country.  The "average" child sexual predator may have up to 350 or more victims, and one predator arrested in California this year may have victims that number in the tens of thousands.  Are these acts against children reason enough to call someone "evil," or is the term itself reserved for only the worst of the worst?  By this, do all other such seemingly inhumane behaviors qualifying only to be called "cold, callous crimes against man and nature," while "evil" transcends human nature into the supernatural, to evidence itself as the absolute "super bad or the super evil?"   

As we learn more about Pamela Vitale's alleged killer, teenager Scott Dyleski, we will look for reasons, like we looked for reasons after Columbine and many other youthful murderous acts.  We look for some reason to explain why some will wear black in high school and eventually graduate from college and own their own company while others, a very few others, will pick up a hunk of wood and bash in the brains of another human.  We would like to have a metal detector-like device that detected potential bad behavior.  We would set it beside the door of every school and office in the country and it would buzz and alert us to someone walking by that had an emotional/behavioral problem in the making, a CAT scan-like instrument that would point out the at risk members of a given population.  Such a device does not, of course, exist, but there are usually pre-incident indicators in acts of violence in homes, schools, and in the workplace.         

In the case of Dyleski, who if found guilty of an act committed when he was 16 will likely spend the rest of his life in prison, it could have been something as simple as talking to him, e.g., a parent, a friend, or a teacher, asking him what was up in his life.  Both his appearance and his behavior had changed in the last year or two, changes that should have been apparent to those around him.  Many nonverbal clues would likely have been apparent, including his change in clothing, in his hair, in his reading materials, and in his relationship to, or lack thereof, with others.  Something was going on inside of Scott Dyleski and those around him either missed it or simply failed to recognize and deal with it.  If he killed Vitale in the brutal, almost subhuman method portrayed in the media, was he evil, truly evil?  What else but evil could commit the murder and subsequent mutilation of Pam Vitale?      

As a kid I listened to radio (before TV).  One mystery program began with the phrase: "Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men?  The Shadow knows."  I don't think that "the Shadow" really knew the true definition of evil, nor do I think that such a definition is easy to come by.  Perhaps we are left to adopt former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's common sense test, in his case as related to the issue of pornography, when he said, "I know it when I see it."  Do you know evil when you see it?  Suicide bombers, terrorists using chemical/biological weapons, the KKK, the holocaust, the Manson clan in their murder of Sharon Tate, the slaughter of tens of thousands in Rwanda, the murders at My Lai, and on and on throughout history.  Did it start with Cain murdering his brother?  Have evil and murder always been a part of us? 

Our glass is really half full though.  We have the hope that's contained therein -- it's called personal choice and free will.  I don't think we are condemned to be evil.  I think that every person who lifts a knife, a gun or a busted piece of lumber against another can choose to drop it and move on, or to commit an act that falls somewhere on the continuum of human behavior that begins with "I'm sorry," and ends with "evil as I see it."  That's what I thought when I found the dead kidnap victim in the trunk of his car and that's the choice that any of us have.  How we make that choice is another matter.  Every person should realize, as a wise man once told me, that "the worst thing that we might ever do in life could still be ahead of us, and our choice will affect the course of history, at least where we are concerned."

But what about you?  How would you define "evil?"  Do you think that it can be detected before it acts out?  

Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed , a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."