Is there anything to be learned from the case of Alyssa Bustamante?
The phrase “boys will be boys” has taken on ominous overtones of late. In reference to the underclass, the phrase conjures up images that can be quite terrifying. And only slightly less sinister is the expression “girls will be girls.”
Take the recent case of Alyssa Bustamante, convicted this month of murdering her 9-year-old neighbor Elizabeth Olten. The crime has been portrayed as a “thrill kill” and doubtless there was an aspect of that to the murder. Bustamante, fifteen years old at the time, set out to murder two children; she had excavated two graves in a nearby woods days in advance. The teen then used her younger sister to lure Elizabeth from the Olten home. At that point Bustamante beat the nine-year-old, stabbed her, slit her throat and carried her corpse off to the woods. An incredible feat of strength for a slight girl of 15.
Bustamante certainly seemed like an excellent candidate for, if not murder, then a life of crime. The teen’s father was in prison convicted of three counts of felony assault. Her dope fiend mother had been AWOL most of her life. As is so often the case when parents are absent, Bustamante and her siblings were raised by a grandmother. And yet in this way she was not so different than many of her schoolmates in the town of St. Martin’s, Mo., where ten percent of residents live below the poverty level, and many others suffer from the more general culture of poverty.
Bustamante told detectives she wanted to know what it felt like to kill someone — the standard reason thrill killers give for their deeds. Even more disturbing were excerpts from the teen killer’s diary that came out at trial where she described what it really did feel like to murder someone. Wrote Bustamante: “I f——ing killed someone. I strangled them and slit their throat and stabbed them now they’re dead. I don’t know how to feel atm [at the moment]. It was ahmazing. As soon as you get over the ‘ohmygawd I can’t do this’ feeling, it’s pretty enjoyable. I’m kinda nervous and shaky though right now. Kay, I gotta go to church now…lol [laugh out loud].” She then reportedly set off for a youth dance at her local church.
THRILL KILLING APPEARS to be a relatively recent phenomenon. The first documented case occurs in 1924, in the famous Leopold and Loeb murder case (often dubbed The Crime of the Century). Nathan Leopold, 19, and Richard Loeb, 18, were University of Chicago students and lovers, who were greatly influenced by Nietzschean philosophy. The pair believed themselves “supermen” who by dint of their extraordinary intelligence were exempt from ordinary laws, including laws against homicide. A half-century passed before another thrill killing occurred. By then they began to take place in rapid succession. However, Nietzsche’s influence had been superseded by slasher films, drugs, industrial metal lyrics and a puerile fascination with the occult. You might say the superman had been supplanted by the lowlife.
Olten’s murder has many remarkable similarities to at least three other thrill killings from the 1980s: the 1987 bludgeoning death of Steven Newberry, 19, of Carl Junction, Mo., by three 17-year-old friends; the 1986 bludgeoning death of Shaun Ouillette, 14, by Rod Matthews, also 14, of Canton, Mass.; and the 1988 stabbing murder of Sharon Gregory, 18, by Mark Branch, 19, of Greenfield, Mass., all of whom admitted they wanted to experience what it felt like to kill. The list could go on.
Predictably many commentators are asking if there weren’t obvious signs that were missed by professionals (presumably ministers, teachers, and the doctors who treated Bustamante for manic depression). In hindsight, they note that such signs were in plain view, for instance Bustamante’s YouTube profile which listed her hobbies as “cutting” and “killing people.” But in today’s society, where teens are often part of subgroups like the lesbian vampire subculture or the goth subculture, where so many come from broken homes steeped in abuse, violence, drug use, alcoholism, neglect and unemployment, you might say that the girl’s behavior before the murder was not that terribly different from most children who live in America’s cultural wastelands. Indeed, a therapist who had counseled one of Steve Newberry’s teen killers — shortly before the murder — had insisted that his former patient’s fascination with drugs, Satanism, and animal torture was just a normal phase kids go through.
No, the signs were not missed. They were right under our noses. The problem is there are so many warning signs coming from so many underclass children that warning signs have become the new normal.
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