Establishing the cause of a crime is fundamental in developing preventative measures. However, law enforcers and criminologists are always confounded by the complex nature of crime especially when it comes to understanding the mindset of a criminal, socio-cultural disparities and changing times. In some cultures and social settings, activities which seem mundane such as alcohol consumption are criminalized in some cultures and societies. Additionally, time changes have seen activities that were criminalized decades ago have been decriminalized in the present era. This complexity in understanding crime has seen the development of various theories with the primary objective of understanding the motive behind the crimes and ultimately preventing and reducing crime levels. This paper will discuss the recent homicide case involving an army veteran who killed three women at a Yountville veterans’ center in California. This will be done with the view of establishing the context, correlates and theoretical grounding of the crime.
Brief Summary of the Crime
When Albert Wong was kicked out of Pathway Home, a veterans’ center in Yountville, California few would have imagined that he would return on 9 March 2018 and kill two executives and a psychologist before turning the gun on himself. An Iraq and Afghanistan wars veteran, Wong was honored for his services during the war with an Expert Marksmanship Badge. While he sought help for posttraumatic stress disorder at the center, unbeknown to many was the extent to which the war had traumatized him. Therefore, when the home’s clinical director Jennifer Golick expelled her from the program, it set off a chain of events which began with him slipping into the complex in the morning unnoticed while armed with a gun. He took the employees of the center including Mrs. Golick, Jennifer Gonzales Shushereba and Christine Loeber, clinical psychologist and executive director, respectively hostage. While he released the rest of the hostages, Wong refused to release the three women during a day-long hostage situation that soon turned tragic with their gruesome murder. He later committed suicide before the law enforcement officers could diffuse the situation (The Guardian n.pag).
As many sought to come to terms with the gruesome murder of the three women, one of whom was pregnant, those who knew Wong were shocked at his actions. While noting that the war traumatized him, her childhood guardian Cissy Sherr reiterated that Wong was calm and expressed hope that the posttraumatic stress program at the center would help him. Wong lost his father when he was young while his mother had help problems. He was therefore raised by a legal guardian (The Guardian n.pag).
Context of the Crime
Effective and accurate determination of the cause of death is a critical undertaking in any crime investigation. Using legal procedures and guidelines, the cause of death can be ruled as natural, suicide, homicide or accidental. In this case, the death of the three women is preliminarily considered as homicide. Albert Wong willfully took the lives of the three women with malice afterthought. While he initially took many employees at the facility hostage, he released most of them and remained with the three women one of whom expelled him out of the facility’s post-traumatic stress program. The remaining two women were the executives of the center. Therefore, the murders were pre-meditated and planned. While there was an elaborate effort to enter the facility, evade law enforcers and negotiators during hostage negotiation, he did not face the law. Albert Wong instead opted to willfully take his own life.
This was a typical crime of a mentally disturbed war veteran suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder who was kicked out of a program which he hoped would helped him and returned to the facility to exert revenge on the center’s leadership and the person who expelled him from the program. As an indication of his mental problem, Wong not only killed the three women but also committed suicide.
Crime Correlates and Theories
Albert Wong, like up to over 34 percent of war veterans, was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PSTD) (Xue et al n.pag). According to U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, between 11 and 20 percent of military veterans who were deployed during the Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF), like Wong, suffer from “PSTD in a given year.” This is compared to 15 percent and 12 percent for Vietnam War and Gulf War veterans, respectively (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs n.pag). For many military veterans returning from service and others recovering from a traumatizing event, this psychological condition is manifested through difficulty in readjusting to civilian life, emotional numbness, anxiety and emotional disconnection. These individuals are sometimes on the edge emotionally and could panic or explode at the slightest provocation. According to research, PSTD is one of the leading causes of homicide and suicide among military officers on active duty and those returning from military service. And susceptibility to suffering from PSTD following deployment increases among individuals who suffered adverse life events like Wong who had a traumatizing childhood (Xue et al n.pag; Sreenivasan et al 263 – 265).
Due to their emotional fragility, war veterans suffering from PSTD are more susceptible to suffering from negative emotions due to their diminished capacity to perceive and maintain positive emotions. As a result, PSTD could easily magnify slight provocations into full blown guilt, shame or even fear. They are also emotionally reactive and jumpy and hence are highly susceptible to being easily irritable. War veterans suffering from PSTD also tend to hyper vigilant and high tempered and could easily lash out at the slightest provocation (Sreenivasan et al 267).
This is manifested in Albert Wong’s behavior: he had high hopes of receiving help from Pathway Home. He invested emotionally. However, for reasons unbeknown to the general public, he was expelled from the post-traumatic stress recovery for war veterans program by the home’s clinical director Jennifer Golick. Unable to control his anger and irritation, the emotionally reactive war veteran plotted to retaliate. His diminished ability to process the expulsion and experience positive emotions such as motivation for behavior to gain admission into another facilitate saw him kill two executives of the facility, a clinical psychologist before turning the gun on himself.
Albert Wong’s behavior is classical manifestation of the social disorganization theory of criminology as proposed by sociologists Clifford R. Shaw and Henry D. McKay. The theory holds that criminal behavior is as a result of the dynamics in their social and physical environments (University of Glasgow 3). The behavioral choices that he made stemmed from psychological problems resulting from the trauma he experienced while on active military service in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a result of the traumatizing environment in the battlefield, Wong became easily irritable and emotionally reactive as well as hyper vigilant. Consequently, he failed to draw any positives from his expulsion from the home’s program. Additionally, he perceived it as an act of aggression and responded by retaliating; a criminal behavior resulting from his battlefield conditioning. He perceived the women as enemies and struck back. His emotional instability due to environmental conditioning also drove him to commit suicide after killing the three women. He was unable to deal with his reckless behavior and deal with the consequences of his actions and therefore opted to commit suicide.
On the other hand, Albert Wong’s behaviors fit within the constructs of right realism or rational choice theory of criminology. When considered within the constructs of this theory, Albert Wong was a rational actor who made a choice to commit murder and suicide. He weighed the potential benefits and risks associated with his actions. Being caught and punished was outweighed by the satisfaction of avenging his expulsion from the veterans’ program. He opted to serve his self interest and satisfy his thirst for revenge. By committing suicide, Wong justified the rational choice theory holding that he was acting rationally in mind. Suicide was his rational decision of avoiding punishment after enjoying the benefit of his action (University of Glasgow 7).
In conclusion, the gruesome murder of three women working at a veterans’ home in Yountville, California by Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Albert Wong was a grim reminder of the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PSTD) especially among war veterans. It added to a growing list of homicides committed by war veterans battling PSTD. When analyzed within the confines of criminology theories, there are two opposing theories that can explain Wong’s actions. Proponents of rational choice theory would argue that Wong was a rational actor. On the other hand, social disorganization theorists would argue that he was not; that his physical and social environment directed his actions. The theoretical underpinning of his actions notwithstanding, there is need to tackle possible causative factors associated with such crimes to avoid losing valuable lives.
Sreenivasan, Shoba et al. Critical concerns in Iraq/Afghanistan war veteran-forensic interface: Combat-related postdeployment criminal violence. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 41(2013):263–73.
The Guardian. Army veteran who killed three women ‘hero who clearly had demons’ – mayor. The Guardian, 11 March 2018. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/mar/11/yountville-veterans-home-siege-gunman-victims
U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. PTSD: National Center for PTSD. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 2016. Available from: https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/basics/how-common-is-ptsd.asp
University of Glasgow. Theories and causes of crime. n.d. School of Education. Available at: http://www.sccjr.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/SCCJR-Causes-of-Crime.pdf
Xue, Chen et al. A meta-analysis of risk factors for combat-related PTSD among military personnel and veterans. PLoS One., 10.3(2015): e0120270. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4368749/