Power Assertive Murder

Punitive anger sparks violence in killers like Todd Kohlhepp.

Kala Brown and Charlie Carver went missing on Labor Day weekend. Their friends looked frantically for them, but found no trace. Odd items popped up on their Facebook pages, but no one actually heard from them. Then, on November 3, police heard banging from inside a metal storage container. Chained and caged was Kala. She told her rescuers that Todd Kohlhepp, for whom she had worked, had killed Carver and others. She’d seen the graves.

Under arrest, Kohlhepp admitted that he had killed seven people in three separate incidents: four in a motorcycle shop where he’d tried out a bike, Kala’s boyfriend, and another couple. He buried three on his property. Officials are investigating other possible victims.

These murders, according to Kohlhepp’s mother after speaking with him, were reactive. People were mean to her son. He was retaliating. Supposedly, someone at the shop had teased the hypersensitive gun collector, so he'd returned and shot them all.

A convicted sex offender with no remorse, he was known for making threats and had even vowed to kill his mother – a woman who downplays his violence as “some bad things.” When he didn’t get his way, she admits, he acted out, often harming others, including animals.

“Behaviorally,” states one of his juvenile records, “he is demanding, self-centered and likely attempts to force others to do what he wants in order to meet his own needs.” His father had described him as a person who could express only anger.

The Internet reviews that Kohlhepp posted on various tools demonstrate a simmering generalized anger. He describes a dream of stabbing someone, a need for locks, the practice of beating people “old school,” and a stun gun as a “motivational tool.” All speak of annoyance and the desire for control, not of retaliation.

This case sparked much discussion, because we’ve grown used to serial killers motivated by sexual compulsion, and we know about mass murderers who strike out in anger, but we don’t often hear about the blend of these types: the angry killer who strikes on separate unrelated occasions to express frustration, exert control, or deliver payback.

Many mass murderers fail to digest life’s insults and thus allow rage to build. Similarly, some serial killers have tended these same hot embers. Some have described rage-fueled murder as a “red out.” They “see red,” and lose themselves in it. They reportedly need to act and cannot hold back.

Anthony Garcia, a former medical resident, is another multiple killer who murdered for revenge. He’d been fired from a residency program in 2001 in Nebraska, and faculty there had warned other facilities about him. In 2008, after failing to get jobs he sought, he stabbed the son and housekeeper of one of those faculty members. Five years later, Garcia killed another man and his wife. Evidence linked both double homicides, and he was convicted. Garcia had nursed his anger for years before acting.

Anger can arise not just as a reaction to a slight or humiliation, but also from envy and spite. In the Ukraine during the 1990s, “Terminator” Anatoly Onoprienko invaded several homes to slaughter whole families. Some experts attributed his anger to his awareness that his father had abandoned him at an orphanage while keeping his brother. Thus, he envied families who stayed together.

Fantasy is the cauldron. It blends emotional, cognitive, and behavioral processes, and provides a stage for rehearsal. Violent fantasies based in anger offer many things: a private world of narcissistic comfort, diverse scenarios for acting out, fuel for frustration, reinforcement for entitlement, and a way to relive their crimes. These killers don't just snap. They build toward violence, sometimes over a period of years.

Like mass murderers, anger-motivated serial killers seek control. They ruminate, feel mistreated, dwell on the past, and minimize their role while exaggerating blame. Those “others” who “caused” their distress become fantasy targets.

From within their deficient personalities, these killers believe they’re defending themselves against those who wronged them. Aggression is the armor that preserves their sense of safety. This idea could stem from deep insecurity in childhood, with parents who fight, split up, treat their children as burdens, or abuse them. The child feels safe only when acting out to harm, i.e., exert control.article continues after advertisement

Such insecurity can make even innocent words into threats that must be dealt with. In Kohlhepp’s case, the red flags were clear from an early age. They are present in the product reviews he posted online. His violent acts were not just retaliation; he was asserting his need to have power over others.


Ramsland, K. (2006). Inside the minds of serial killers. Westport, CT: Praeger.

About the Author

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., is a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University and the author of 60 books.

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