COVER

A FAMILY AFFAIR

The young killer looked like a choirboy and had no obvious problems

PAUL KAIHLA August 15 1994
COVER

A FAMILY AFFAIR

The young killer looked like a choirboy and had no obvious problems

PAUL KAIHLA August 15 1994

A FAMILY AFFAIR

The young killer looked like a choirboy and had no obvious problems

PAUL KAIHLA

Down the maze of corridors in a Canadian hospital that doubles as a prison, there is a room with posters of Kim Basinger, Iron Maiden and sports cars neatly taped to the greenish walls. The inside of Robert’s quarters could be that of any teenager—an album of family photos even lies open on the desk. It has the obligatory wedding portrait of mom and dad, and a color shot of the smiling parents holding baby Robert and his brother in the sun—a young middle-class family full of hope and promise. “When I got these pictures a few weeks ago,” Robert says thoughtfully, “I could see the proof that they really did love me.” But that simple realization, which so many sons and daughters take for granted, was far beyond Robert’s grasp on Mother’s Day of 1992. That is when he took a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun and methodically killed his 17-year-old brother, 42-year-old mother and 49-year-old father at the home they shared. Robert had just turned 14.

The hardened homicide detectives who interrogated the young teen after his arrest that tragic night were shocked and baffled. Robert, whose real name cannot be used, looked like a choirboy, with his round face, chocolate-colored eyes and fair hair parted in the middle. He could not explain precisely why he killed his parents. He just said that he felt a pressing need to do so. According to doctors, the softspoken lad was not psychotic, nor did he suffer from hallucinations. There were no obvious problems at home: his parents were essentially decent, educated professionals who rarely drank or argued. “In all my life, I never hit anybody,” Robert told Maclean’s last month, in the only media interview he has given. “It sounds strange, but I’m not a violent person.”

Yet there is no question that Robert—who is detained in the maximum security hospital awaiting trial—was deeply troubled, and his troubles had a long history. One psychiatrist who explored the mystery of why the boy put his family to death says a key due lies in the personalities of his parents, two strict and distant lab technicians. That kind of adult, psychologists say, often makes a poor parent— particularly to an innately withdrawn child. Whether because of his own genetic makeup or his parents’ aloofness, Robert was not an exuberant toddler or the type who would volunteer a goodnight kiss to his mother. When his family moved when he was 11, the neighbors later recalled, his parents seemed cold: his father was more interested in fishing, flowers and wine than in his two children.

The apparent absence of love and warmth

had a profound impact on Robert, at a time when he was struggling with an acute identity crisis. Plagued by a growth disorder, the boy at the age of 6 was only the size of a threeor four-year-old. Classmates taunted him, and nicknamed him “Tom Thumb.” Specialists treated Robert with growth hormones, but the drugs had side-effects. By the time he had caught up to his age group five years later, he had sprouted facial hair— and small breasts. He was then in Grade 5 and enrolled at his new school. The other kids were hardly sympathetic about his deformity. They would squeal: “He’s got nice ones.”

Excluded, Robert rarely spoke or smiled. At home, he later told psychiatrists, his relationship with his parents was emotionally “dead.” In his small, private world, Robert felt like a freak and a weakling. He became obsessed with acquiring power. He tried weightlifting. He consumed books about Nazi atrocities, the occult and magic spells. He was deeply impressed by Hannibal Lecter, the fictional serial killer created by novelist Thomas Harris in the books Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. Robert watched the film version of the latter over and over. “Hannibal Lecter was so intelligent and in control of himself,” Robert says. “He was cold and detached.”

In Grade 6, Robert took up shoplifting and experimenting with drugs: hashish, LSD and cocaine. Robert says he wanted to show acquaintances at school that he was fearless and manly. And he knew just the way to do it. While every adolescent male seeks some form of liberation from his parents, Robert began talking openly about killing his.

That was not a new idea. He had meditated about murder for some time. To Robert, his parents were not simply a neutral presence, they were the very source of his misery. Their death would be the solution to all his problems, he figured. He felt like he could not breathe with them around. If he eliminated them, he could realize his dreams of power.

With the new friends he was making in his circle of petty crime, Robert discussed ways of killing his family. He floated the idea of stabbing them in their sleep. Other plots involved locking them in the cellar and flooding it with methane, or planting a bomb under the family car. He settled on shooting

them, and began asking enthralled friends and acquaintances to get him a gun. It seemed like the whole neighborhood knew of Robert’s intentions—except his parents. Even his high-school principal had heard that he wanted to kill his family, but she dismissed the talk and did nothing.

In March, 1992, Robert underwent cosmetic surgery to reduce the size of his breasts. The trauma seemed to fuel his desire to rid himself of his parents, particularly when they grounded him after a complaint from school involving drugs. A short time later, on May 9, a wish came true. Robert got a shotgun and ammunition from a friend. He told his pals, gathered in the local park, that this was the night—and rode home on his bike with the dark barrel of the gun protruding from a garbage bag.

‘When I arrived home, my parents were not there, so I hid at the side of the house for one or two hours,” Robert recalls, as he shifts about nervously in his hospital seat. “At first, I was in a panic. I thought, What are people going to say if I don’t do the killing.’ After a little while, I remember my mind went blank, blacked out. So I shot into the ground.”

Realizing that the gunfire would alert neighbors, Robert ran into the house. Upstairs, he found his brother reading a book in bed. The shotgun’s magazine held No. 6 shells, each containing 2,025 lead pellets. Robert brought the barrel to within inches of his brother’s mouth, fired and pumped a fresh shell into the chamber. He next found himself at the bottom of the stairs, poised to ambush his parents. He heard the car. His mother entered the house first. He fired into her right eye—and pumped the gun. There was blood everywhere.

The teenager calmly stepped over his mother’s body and faced his father, who was in the driveway, screaming. “What happened?” the father shrieked. “What are you doing?” Without answering, Robert delivered two blasts. His father crumpled on the asphalt, fatally wounded. Robert ran. He was on a nearby golf course, still clutching the gun, when he stopped. He felt relieved, he later recalled, almost euphoric. He felt like he had a new life. “I thought I was going to be the world’s biggest criminal,” says Robert.

Instead, he was soon in handcuffs. Neighbors had spotted him, and the police arrested him at gunpoint near the course’s fifth hole. They noted the slogan on his T-shirt “You think I’m weird? Wait until you see my parents.”

It was several months before Robert felt any remorse, he says. It came slowly, after he agreed to psychotherapy at the young offender unit, where he has lived since the triple slaying. “I’ve cried a lot,” says Robert, who speaks earnestly. “After four months, I began to accept that I had a sickness. I think I’m getting better, but I’m not completely OK yet. I can see now that my emotions at the time were too much for me. I was outside of reality.” Under Canadian law, a hearing is held for every teenager charged with murder to decide whether the accused should be tried as a young offender or in an adult court, where sentences are longer and served in a penitentiary. Robert’s case was transferred to adult court. And in an interview with Maclean’s, the psychiatrist who is treating him said he believes that was the correct decision. But that opinion brought angry rebukes from several of the doctor’s colleagues, who argued that Robert should have remained in the youth system because he was such a young teenager. If that had happened, however, Robert would likely have been out in three years, the maximum period of closed custody for a young offender convicted of murder. The psychiatrist maintains that such a brief sentence would not allow him enough time to treat Robert properly.

Robert, now 16, faces three counts of firstdegree murder and a possible life sentence. But it is unlikely that a judge will deal with him that harshly. Robert’s psychiatric assessment—obtained by Maclean’s—will recommend that he be found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. “He saw himself as helpless, worthless and completely dependent on his parents,” says the psychiatrist, “yet he saw his parents as preventing him from living. This boy had to take psychological steps to feel powerful and one of them was an obsessive need to kill his parents.” According to his doctor, Robert suffered from a “pervasive development disorder” with elements of paranoia.

Robert has his own ideas about what would constitute an appropriate punishment. “I don’t think it’s possible,” he says, “but if a judge wanted to give me the death penalty, I would accept that. I can’t die three times, but I will never have a normal life. What would I tell a girl who would want to marry me—‘By the way, I killed my parents two years ago’?” Robert will go on trial later this year. □