When does imitation lead to tragedy?

r Experts say recent workplace shootings highlight the dangers of copycat crimes.

Two tragic workplace shootings in recent weeks highlight what experts see as an insidious and growing element of violence in America - the copycat crime.

The incidents are putting renewed pressure on businesses to devise suitable prevention strategies. The imitative nature of the crimes is also raising questions about the responsibility of the media in chronicling such events.

"Absolutely, there's a copycat aspect to workplace violence," says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "There's a copycat aspect to virtually all high-profile, high-visibility crimes."

Experts say imitation crimes have become an unfortunate byproduct of a media-saturated age and are a contributing factor in everything from school shootings to teen suicides.

But the workplace is an area where they have attracted some of the most attention. On Monday, William Baker drove up to a factory gate where he used to work outside Chicago, saying he was returning a set of golf clubs to a friend. When the guard wouldn't let him in, he held a revolver to her ribs, entered the building, and began firing an AK-47 assault rifle he had hidden in the bag.

When it was all over, four employees were dead and another four wounded at the Navistar engine plant in suburban Chicago. Baker then killed himself.

The shooting follows an incident in Wakefield, Mass., six weeks ago in which a troubled worker allegedly sprayed gunfire in an office building, killing seven.

Past may be prologue

While there were specific circumstances that may have motivated Baker, experts like Fox believe imitation may have been a factor, too. The copycat connection in other workplace-violence incidents has been more explicit.

* When Joseph Wesbecker, who killed eight employees at the Standard Gravure Corp. in Louisville, Ky., in 1989, departed from home on the day of his rampage, he left behind a Newsweek magazine story about Patrick Purdy, who gunned down five children at a Stockton, Calif., school. Mr. Wesbecker even used the same model rifle as Purdy.

* After George Hennard crashed his truck into Luby's cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, in 1991 and sprayed it with gunfire, police entered his home and found a video in the VCR - a documentary about the mass murder at a California McDonald's.

Fox says the profile of a copycat workplace killer is the same as a noncopycat - a life filled with frustration, failure, isolation - except for one thing.

"The originals have some catastrophic event in their lives that inspires the killing spree: the loss of a job, or the loss of a relationship," he says. "The copycat doesn't need that catastrophe;. They use their hero's example as their catalyst."

Still, experts acknowledge that a litany of factors could trigger a homicidal rampage in a killer disposed to commit such a crime.

In some ways Baker, who committed this week's murders, didn't fit the traditional profile.

Perpetrators of workplace violence are typically white men between 20 and 55. Baker, 66 and a 39-year veteran of the plant, had been fired by the company six years earlier for stealing diesel engines and components. The attack occurred one day before he was scheduled to begin serving a five-month federal sentence for conspiracy to commit theft.

According to Lynne McClure, a Phoenix-area consultant and author of "Anger and Conflict in the Workplace," the traditional profiles are of limited value anyway. She advises clients to watch out for eight behavioral clues. If managers see a worker exhibiting the signs with regularity, she advises counseling and training.

An unholy trinity

Park Dietz, founder of the Threat Assessment Group, a consulting firm in Newport Beach, Calif., that specializes in preventing workplace violence, sees an unholy trinity between mass murder, suicide, and copycat crimes. Sociologists have long worried about the copycat appeal of suicide, sometimes manifested as a cluster of teen deaths in a town.

Mr. Dietz says that in his interviews with surviving mass murderers, many say the same thing: "I saw no alternatives available, and I intended to die or force the police to kill me."

He estimates about half of all mass murderers either commit suicide or force police to kill them. Given the connection between copycat incidents and suicide, Dietz says the link between workplace murder and its mimicry is unchallengeable.

"Mass murder is a suicide fad, the frequency of which is determined more than anything else by news coverage," he says.

He notes that in three appearances over the years on CNN following mass murders, he has predicted another incident within two weeks. Tragically, he was right each time.

Experts believe the press and police attitudes toward mass murder need to shift so that workplace violence is viewed as a form of suicide prone to imitation. A lowering of the volume of coverage, they say, might result in fewer incidents.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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