Secret Service: Mass attackers, including Oregon District shooter, share traits

We honor the nine victims of the Oregon District Mass Shooting on Aug. 4, 2019.

A U.S. Secret Service report released Thursday analyzed the 34 targeted attacks in the U.S. last year that took place in public places — such as the Oregon District shooting — to seek common themes and opportunities to prevent future tragedies.

It found in most cases, the perpetrators said or did something before the attack that elicited concern from others. About half had a history of drug abuse or violence. Just under half had threatened someone in the past.

All of these applied to Oregon District shooter Connor Betts. In high school he was accused of making lists of people he said he wanted to kill and rape. He talked about wanting to hurt people and showed a fascination with mass shootings. He had a history of assaulting women. He did drugs and died with Xanax and cocaine in his system.

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ExploreDayton Shooting: Oregon District gunman left decade of red flags

“We know that individuals who are likely to engage in mass violence rarely keep that solely to themselves,” said Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl, who gave a presentation Thursday as part of the report’s release.

“They are somehow communicating that in some fashion to individuals around them, or on social media, so it’s not as if nothing is known about their potentiality in most cases,” Biehl said.

Violent misogyny

An FBI investigation into Betts’ possible motives is ongoing. Shortly after the shooting, FBI agents said they found evidence he was exploring “very specific violent ideologies” before the attack.

The Secret Service report does not identify Betts by name, but says two attackers last year “shared traits consistent with incel ideology, including an intense animosity toward women.”

“For example, one attacker often referred to women by derogatory slurs and, while in high school, had composed a ‘rape list’ of girls who had turned down his advances. He also fantasized about sexual violence against women and had choked females on multiple occasions in adolescence,” the report says.

People who knew Betts say he got in trouble for having a rape list in high school, that he told a classmate he fantasized about tying her up and slitting her throat, and attempted to choke another classmate.

“Those tasked with assessing threats and preventing violence will benefit from familiarizing themselves with the incel movement,” the Secret Service report says.

“Incel” is short for “involuntary celibate” and is an online community of mostly men “who view themselves as undesirable to females and therefore unable to establish romantic or sexual relationships, to which they feel entitled,” the report says.

ExploreWhat is an ‘incel?’ A look at the anti-women movement behind multiple terror attacks

Incel websites commonly promote misogynistic views and promote animosity and violence toward women. These sites are part of an online “manosphere” that includes other male supremacy ideologies, the report states.

“While some discussions in the manosphere involve topics of ‘men’s rights’ and ‘fathers’ rights’ that sometimes dehumanize women, other discussions attempt to legitimize violence against women outright,” the report says.

The report notes another attacker last year referenced “red-pill threads” in a manifesto posted to 8chan before he killed one person and injured three more at a synagogue.

That reference to the movie “The Matrix” is used widely in not just manosphere forums but other far-right and alt-right communities, experts say.

“The main character in that movie is given the choice between a red pill and a blue pill. Those who take the red pill choose to wake up to the harsh truths of reality, while those who choose the blue are shielded from the truth and remain oblivious and complacent,” it says.

A number of mass attacks have been linked to people who identify with incel ideologies. The Anti-Defamation League says law enforcement officials believe violent incels have murdered at least 47 people in North America in the past six years, and five self-identified incels have been arrested this year for killing or plotting to kill women.

Jessica Reaves, editorial director at the ADL’s Center on Extremism, said incels self-identify as being part of the community and use a unique vocabulary that provides clues about their involvement.

For example, a “black pill” references a “nihilistic worldview where nothing is ever going to change their situation, nothing is ever going to improve, they’ve essentially accepted that either suicide or outward facing violence is the only option,” Reaves said.

Reaves said part of taking the incel threat seriously is “getting law enforcement to take threats of violence against women much more seriously,” including things like online harassment and cyber stalking.

‘Troublesome path'

The 34 mass attacks last year analyzed by the Secret Service were carried out by 37 people. This is an increase from the 27 attacks identified in 2018 and 28 attacks in 2017.

The Oregon District shooting lasted only about 32 seconds before Dayton police shot and killed Betts. But still Betts killed nine people and wounded dozens of others. Nationwide, the attacks in the Secret Service report left 108 people dead and 178 injured. Nearly half of them lasted less than five minutes.

Biehl said what’s needed is to stop these rampages before they happen.

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“The greater challenge is how do we properly inform and educate the public about behaviors that should be of concern,” he said, “and if someone sees those behaviors, (they should) be reported to authorities.”

This happened in October, when a woman called Riverside police and reported her son had pulled a gun on her and assaulted her the day before over an argument about him buying a large amount of guns and body armor.

The man, John Reese, was reportedly on the FBI’s radar for making violent threats online. He had a history of violence, charged with domestic violence in 2017 but pleaded down to a disorderly conduct charge. Another domestic violence charge in 2013 was dismissed.

Riverside police and the Greene County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team responded to his house, where Reese killed himself at some point during a 13-hour standoff. Reese had stockpiled more than 20 guns, 1,000 rounds of ammunition, body armor and other tactical gear.

ExploreMan in standoff acquired weapon arsenal, body armor, was being watched by FBI

“It’s hard to tell what’s going on in a person’s psyche,” said Riverside Maj. Matt Sturgeon after the incident. “But because of what we knew about him, we could see a propensity for violence.”

“When you look at the ballistic vests and the weapons, you know it certainly is eerily familiar to someone potentially considering a mass casualty attack,” said Biehl about the Riverside incident.

It was potentially prevented, he said, “because someone called about their concern.”

The Secret Service report lists several recommendations:

  • Organizations such as police departments, workplaces, military installations, government agencies and schools can implement “threat assessment teams” to identify and intervene with individuals who might pose a risk to themselves or others.
  • Enforce existing firearms law, since the majority of the attacks — 24 — were carried out using firearms, and in at least 10 of these cases, the gun was possessed illegally.
  • Provide crisis intervention, drug treatment and mental health treatment.
  • Criminal and violent behavior should rapidly escalate assessed risk. Thirteen attackers in the report committed prior acts of domestic violence, but only seven of them were arrested for it.
  • Encourage reporting of concerning behavior.

The Secret Service report says two-thirds of attackers last year engaged in prior threatening or concerning communication.

“On August 4, 2019, a 24-year-old male opened fire in a busy nightclub district, killing 9 (including his sibling) and injuring 20 before officers shot and killed him,” the report says. “The attacker had a history of concerning communications, including harassing female students in middle and high school, making a hit list and a rape list in high school, telling others he had attempted suicide, and showing footage of a mass shooting to his girlfriend. Months before the attack, he went to bars and would tell his friends that he could have ‘done some damage’ there.”

Recent red flags reported after Betts’ attack weren’t relayed to any law enforcement prior to the shooting.

“The fact is that (Betts) was not on law enforcement’s radar at all,” Biehl said. “We had an individual who was progressing down a very troublesome path that had strong themes of violence associated with it and that was allowed to progress over time without any intervention.”

Mental health crisis

The Secret Service report notes that the vast majority of people with mental illness symptoms do not commit acts of crime or violence. The report says fewer than half of the attackers last year had mental health symptoms prior to their attacks.

But the vast majority of attackers had some sort of significant stressors in the five years before they struck, the report says. This includes a break-up or divorce, being abused, the death of a loved one, being bullied in school, or disciplinary actions at work or school.

Half of the attackers had a history of financial instability, which led in some cases to eviction or homelessness.

Experts say this means that a key in preventing mass violence is identifying and intervening when someone might be facing a mental health crisis.

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Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services Director Helen Jones-Kelley said her agency offers free training called Mental Health First Aid, which aims to identify and intervene in mental health crises in adults and children.

“There’s a whole list of life crises that can create some mental unwelleness or that whole sense of my world being shaken. It can be divorce, it can be something like failing in school, the loss of a loved one, loss of a pet — there are a variety of things,” she said.

Signs that something is awry can include sudden changes in behavior, she said, or giving away prized possessions.

“You have to be able to have the strength to ask a person if they’re thinking of killing themselves or someone else,” Jones-Kelley said. “Typically they will tell you if they’re in a mental health crisis.”

If you are concerned that someone might become violent, she said to call the police and ask if they can send a crisis-trained officer.

Betts died with mental health counseling receipts in his pocket from months prior. In an open letter after the shooting, Betts’ former girlfriend Adelia Johnson said she believes Betts wasn’t getting the treatment he needed for his mental illness.

“He knew he was the product of a failed system,” she wrote. “A system that stigmatized mental health and recovery. A system that makes the mentally ill feel broken and unworthy of help. He didn’t want to seek help because of the stigma, he just wanted to better and he didn’t know how.”

Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services offers free training identifying and addressing mental health crisis in youth and adults. The training, Mental Health First Aid, is currently provided virtually. Find a list of ADAMHS training offerings at www.mcadamhs.org/trainings_and_events.

ADAMHS also offers a free GetHelpNow app with resources for addiction and mental health services.

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