Mass shooters don't fit one profile, experts say

For years, law enforcement and academia have searched for potential patterns when it comes to trying to identify people likely to carry out a mass shooting.

HOUSTON – For years, law enforcement and academia have searched for potential patterns when it comes to trying to identify people likely to carry out a mass shooting.

After years of study, this is what has emerged: While some common factors exist, no single profile can be used to describe a mass shooter.

Channel 2 Investigates spoke with the FBI, a psychology professor and the executive director of Texas State University's ALERRT Center.

Studies by the FBI, the U.S. Secret Service and ALERRT center show that more than 90% of these attacks are carried out by males.

However, each study showed a wide range in ages of the shooters. The FBI's study of mass shootings from 2000 to 2013 showed shooters ranged in age from 12 to 88.

Read: A study of active shooter incidents in the United States between 2000 and 2013 (a PDF)

Read: Active shooter incidents in the United States in 2016 and 2017 (a PDF)

"We see they come from every major racial and ethnic group in the country," ALERRT executive director Dr. J. Pete Blair said.

The ALERRT Center helps train police departments to respond to mass shootings and studies what may motivate mass shooters.

"Most of these attacks are not spontaneous things where the person just gets mad one day and decides to go launch the attack," Blair said. "As they get angrier and angrier, they start this downward spiral. They start to think about these things. They start to plan it out."

"Is there a way to prevent these?" asked Channel 2 investigator Robert Arnold.

"There absolutely is," Blair said.

The key to potentially stopping a mass shooting is spotting changes in a person's behavior that go well beyond having a rough patch in life, Blair said.

"When you're seeing a change in that person's behavior from what their normal operation is -- when they're starting to withdraw from people (and) when they're getting angrier, (that might be an indication," Blair said. "It may not always be obvious, but if you see something that's making you suspicious (or) making you think something is not right here, it's wrong. It's worth reporting it to someone."

Three years ago, Houston attorney Nathan Desai jumped in his Porsche and went on a shooting spree near West University. Ten people were shot, but no one died.

Friends told KPRC at the time they didn't know Desai was heading down a dark path. However, looking back, there were signs. Desai's law practice dissolved, police said he was having financial trouble and had a secret affinity for collecting Nazi paraphernalia.

Desai's behavior became increasingly bizarre. At one point, he stared down a roofing crew while carrying a rifle. Police were called, but no charges were filed and the matter was dropped.

FBI and Secret Service reports show nearly all mass shooters had a combination of several stress factors in their lives before an attack.

Read: Mass attacks in public spaces: 2018 report (a PDF)

In the FBI study between 2000 and 2013, 62% of shooters dealt with mental health issues.

Defense attorneys for the charged Santa Fe High gunman believe their client kept his mental health problems hidden.

"Nobody ever thought to themselves, 'This is going to be somebody who wants to hurt somebody,'" defense attorney Nicholas Poehl said.

Dimitrios Pagourtzis was recently declared incompetent to stand trial at this time by a trio of mental health experts.

Other common stress points include financial strain at 49%, job problems at 35%, conflict with a friend or peer at 29%; and 27% experienced marital problems.

Houston FBI Special Agent Michael Morgan works with corporations on how to identify these stressors and encourages companies to have programs that help employees.

"That, a lot of times, will help mitigate the stressors that an individual is going through and prevent them from reaching another trigger," Morgan said.

The FBI also reported 62% of mass shooters studied had a history of abusive behavior and most of those studied exhibited multiple types of concerning behavior.

Morgan said there's another big factor.

"About 79 percent have some form of grievance," Morgan said.

Grievance may have been a motivator for Seth Ator, the man who killed seven people and wounded more than two dozen over Labor Day weekend in Midland/Odessa.

Ator was killed during a shootout with police.

Police reports obtained by Channel 2 Investigates from the city of Amarillo show Ator's descent began at least eight years prior to the murders.

Amarillo police wrote Ator's mother dialed 911 to report her son was becoming increasingly delusional, and she believed he was a danger.

"It was clear that Seth believes the police and family are invading his privacy," officers wrote. "He believes that he is being stalked by government officials."

Officers further wrote they discovered that Ator had dug a hole in the living room of his apartment.

"Seth had burrowed into the earth in what appeared to me to be a dug out shelter/fallout shelter/strong hold area on the property," an officer wrote. "This alarmed me because of Debra's report of her son's mention of suicide by cop. There seemed to be some indication of some planned standoff with police."

Police in Odessa said Ator had been committed to a mental health institution in the past.

However, by the time the shootings occurred, Ator was living alone in a wood-frame shack with no electricity in Ector County and had trouble holding a job.

Read a case summary report here (a PDF)

University of Houston-Downtown psychology professor Dr. Kristin Anderson said early intervention is key when it comes to preventing someone from spiraling out of control.

"When we see someone exhibiting unpredictable behavior, we must reach out," she said.

Anderson said ignoring concerning behavior and allowing someone to isolate him or herself is risky because predicting someone's tipping point is almost impossible.

She said many people experience multiple stress points over the course of their lives, but never turn to violence.

"There's a lot of things we can do every single day," Anderson said. "We should not give up hope."

Anderson also said mass shootings can have a contagion factor for someone already struggling.

Research by the University of Arizona found mass shootings can have a similar contagion factor to that of suicide.

"A shooting seems like a more reasonable choice when you've seen it happen before," Anderson said.

This is why Anderson, Morgan and Blair all said the earlier the intervention, the greater chance of steering someone away from a violent path.

All said reporting troubled behavior is critical. In some cases, it helps law enforcement uncover plans for an attack.

"You oftentimes don't hear those stories because they don't result in attacks with people being hurt or killed," Blair said.

About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”