To David and Trisha Carmichael, the death of their cat Oscar is like the unsolved murder of a family member whose body was left for them to find.
To David and Trisha Carmichael, the death of their cat Oscar is like the unsolved murder of a family member whose body was left for them to find.
Jon Lagow

Disturbing personality

Linda Earnhart is still disturbed by what she saw the Thursday morning before Memorial Day, when her concepts of safe neighborhoods and the innocence of children were so balefully tainted.

"I woke up about 5 o'clock, and I just knew something was wrong," Earnhart recalls. "I knew my dog was sick, but I just had this gut feeling that something really awful was going to happen."

For weeks, her dog had grown steadily sicker. He was old, and fluid in his lungs made him wheeze. Lately he had been drinking lots of water, but because his kidneys had begun to shut down, he couldn't urinate. So Earnhart wasn't particularly shocked when she found him hiding beneath a pile of leaves in the back corner of the yard. She figured he went to the unusual spot to die.

With her husband, Stephen, gone to work, she loaded the dog into the car and took him on one last trip to the vet. When she got home, it wasn't even 9 a.m., and that's when the phone rang. It was a neighbor calling, wanting to know if she had seen OJ lately.

OJ. He was the orange and white tabby the Earnharts have had for 13 years, since he was a kitten. Earnhart hadn't seen OJ since around 10:30 the night before, when she let him out. At the time, she wasn't too concerned about the story she'd just seen on the TV news about a rash of unsolved cat killings in a nearby North Dallas neighborhood.

The neighbor gently broke the news.

"When she said he was in front of the neighbor's house, all the time I'm thinking, 'Oh, he must have gotten hit by a car or something.' When I went over, I still had no idea," Earnhart says. "I just was not prepared to see what I saw."

Earnhart recalls the ghastly images of OJ's body: a patch of green grass smeared red with blood. The sharp white edge of exposed ribs. A still heart lying off to the side.

"The police think it happened about 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning, because the cat was still warm," Earnhart says. "It was just like nothing I had ever seen. I'm just hoping they wrung his neck or something so that he didn't feel any pain, because I can't imagine them trying to do this while he was, you know, awake and everything."

Stephen Earnhart came home from work, and police soon arrived. The couple learned that OJ was one of six cats that have been mysteriously mutilated in North Dallas since the beginning of May. Worse, the police suspect the mutilations are part of a series of killings that took the lives of at least a dozen cats in the same area last summer.

The responding officer dutifully filled out a police report about OJ, listing the offense as cruelty to an animal, a misdemeanor. In the section of the report titled "property information," the officer wrote, "1 House Cat" and listed its value at $0. Overnight, the story on the TV news that had seemed so far away had hit Linda Earnhart at home.

"We always thought this was such a safe place," she says. "I can't imagine the kind of person who would do this kind of thing to a helpless animal." She pauses for a moment while she mulls over how disturbing it is to think about who the likely suspects are. Though leery of strangers, OJ would come running whenever you called him.

"I hate to say it, but I'm thinking it's probably children who are doing this."

If Dallas police are right about their hunch that last year's killing spree has resumed in the Bent Tree West neighborhood, then it ranks as one of the worst cases of serial cat mutilations reported in the United States in more than a decade. But the case is unusual in more ways than just the number of animals and the relatively confined area in which the killings took place.

The consistent and particularly grisly manner in which these cats are being killed, and the fact that their bodies are left on neatly trimmed lawns for neighbors to find, has sent police and residents the unmistakable message that whoever is doing this is deeply disturbed. Why the cats are being killed is a question that can't be answered until the killer, or killers, is caught. As Earnhart believes, the most likely suspects are children who live in or near the neighborhood, but police have few leads and little evidence with which to work. Worse, their limited resources and heavy caseloads have prevented them from making the misdemeanor-level case a priority.

As the weeks pass, cat owners are beginning to suspect the killer may never be caught. The rash of killings is an example of why many child psychologists and Humane Society officials say it's time for new laws that take specific aim at animal cruelty and emphasize treatment and prevention over punishment.

While North Dallas residents have various ideas about why their cats are being killed, they agree that one of the most disturbing aspects of the case is the possibility that the killer may soon become bored with cats and begin stalking a different prey -- people.

A few years ago, that concern might have sounded absurd. But not in 1999, when teen violence has become national crisis and Americans are clamoring to know why. Anyone wanting to know the relevance of animal mutilation to this problem need look no further than Littleton, Colorado.

When details of the lives of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold surfaced after the pair turned their high school into a shooting gallery, many wondered how their parents, friends, and neighbors could have failed to act on the odd behavior that foreshadowed their suicide mission. Among the "warning signs" was the boys' talk of mutilating animals, about which students told reporters only after their 12 classmates and one teacher lay dead. Similar belated reports of animal cruelty surfaced last year following teen-shooting rampages in the Oregon town of Springfield and in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

In his diary, 16-year-old Luke Woodham wrote about how he had beat his dog to death shortly before he killed his mother and two classmates in Pearl, Mississippi. An adult had witnessed Woodham's attack on his own dog, but neglected to report it.

In April, the reports prompted officials at the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C. to issue a national warning about the importance of reporting cases of childhood animal cruelty. The warning was based on years of scattered research that has identified animal cruelty as a common trait in the early lives of people who go on to commit violent crimes, particularly sexual homicides and serial murder.

Yet child psychologists are just beginning to understand why kids who are cruel to animals turn violent against people, and they say research in this area is still in its "infancy," much the way research on domestic violence was in the 1960s and 1970s.

Back then, medical researchers identified "Battered Child Syndrome" as a pathology defined by a cycle of violence with specific stages. The breakthrough, announced in a landmark article published in 1962 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, "awakened the medical and human services communities not only to the fact that child abuse exists, but that it is a serious public health problem requiring a coordinated, interdisciplinary response," according to the authors of a new book published by Purdue University Press.

The book, Child Abuse, Domestic Violence, and Animal Abuse, is a collection of recent academic research and articles written by psychologists, police, lawyers, and other human-services professionals.

Although the idea that animal cruelty leads to human violence is a centuries-old concept, most states still rank animal abuse in the same category as a property crime. That standard was established more than 100 years ago, when New York state adopted the nation's first anti-cruelty law, setting penalties for the abuse and neglect of specific animals, namely horses, which were protected chiefly because of their commercial value.

Many psychologists and Humane Society officials argue that unless that standard changes and animal cruelty is taken more seriously, many violence-prone teenagers won't get adequate help in time.

Some North Dallas cat owners have taken up the cause. They warn that the mutilation of their pets is a sign that must be heeded before someone gets hurt.

The Bent Tree West neighborhood lies just east of the Dallas North Tollway off the Frankford Road exit. Rows of brick security fences, floral gardens, and trimmed shrubs create an aura of safety and comfort. People of all ages live in Bent Tree West, but the Mitchell Elementary School's location in the heart of the neighborhood suggests a place with young children in mind. A white Rolls-Royce is parked across the street, a sign that the middle-class residents occupy the upper end of their class, or at least like to think they do.

That a chaotic personality capable of such grotesque violence is feeding on Bent Tree West contradicts the very idea of the neighborhood.

"We think these people are evil, and we don't want them to know who we are," says one woman, the owner of a cat whose death marked the beginning of this year's attacks. She asked that her name be kept private because she, like other neighbors, is afraid of retaliation. "We think the person doing this is in the neighborhood."

The woman's cat was found just a few blocks away from the school in the 4300 block of Bretton Bay Lane. It was attacked sometime after midnight on May 4, according to police.

Around 7 a.m., the woman's neighbor went outside to retrieve the morning newspaper and discovered the cat's back end. She appeared to have been cut twice -- once across the midsection, severing the body, and then vertically, exposing her entrails. The piece was left stomach-up, and the small intestines were unraveled in a straight line which extended about six feet from the body. The next day, another neighbor found the animal's head and one of her front legs in the yard of a house across the street. The rest of the remains have not been found.

The following Tuesday morning, David and Trisha Carmichael learned that their missing cat Oscar also had become a victim. The killer cut him from neck to tail, removed his organs, and wrapped the intestines around his neck before tossing the body over a fence onto a vacant lot across the street from the Carmichaels' home. In the last two weeks of May, another four cats were found similarly mutilated.

Oscar's case was particularly ominous because the Carmichaels live almost a mile north of Frankford Road. Of the dozen cases reported last year, all took place within the square mile bounded by Frankford Road to the north, Trinity Mills Road to the south, Midway Road to the west, and the Tollway on the east. The majority of those cases are clustered on or around one street located at the southern end of the section. The death of Linda Earnhart's cat OJ on May 27 suggested that the killer was expanding his territory. The Earnharts live east of the Tollway and north of Frankford Road.

Police aren't sure where the killings are actually taking place, because no one has reported any unusual people or strange sounds at the time of the attacks, which appear to occur between midnight and sunrise. The cats, which are sometimes re-positioned as if they were whole, are left in or near their own yards, and there is little blood near their bodies. The animals likely are being killed nearby, perhaps in the fence-lined alleys behind the homes, and later placed in yards for neighbors to find, says Sgt. Larry McGowan of the Dallas Police Department's North Central Operations Division.

"I'm still amazed they even can catch these cats," McGowan says. "I can't see why somebody would want to cut a cat open and take its organs out. Of course, I'm a conservative guy. Is it some crazy person or some type of ritual? We're still kind of at a loss as to why they are doing this."

Police aren't investing too much time in meticulously logging the details of each crime scene. While that task would be essential in a homicide investigation, McGowan says it becomes far less important to police when the victim is a cat.

"We don't insist [cat owners] make offense reports. It's obvious what was done to [the cats], and very little physical evidence is left," McGowan says. And that's in cases where the police can get to the bodies before neighbors throw them away or have them removed. Because many people who discover dead cats instinctively throw them away, the body count is probably underreported.

Police could spend $500 per cat to obtain autopsies in hope of uncovering more evidence, such as whether the animals died from lacerations or were shot first. That might ring a bell with parents or teachers, who may have noticed that little Billy has taken a new interest in a toy dart gun. But McGowan says the reports would probably only confirm what police already know: A person, not an animal, is the guilty party.

"Is the cost of getting that evidence worth the value of getting it? That unfortunately is one of the questions you have to ask," he says.

While the police aren't ruling out any suspects, adult or child, male or female, the few details that are available are enough for Dr. Randall Lockwood to outline a general profile of the suspect. Lockwood is a psychologist with the Humane Society of the United States. Last year, he and Frank Ascione, a psychologist at Utah State University, co-edited the most comprehensive book to date examining the psychological reasons why people are cruel to animals.

The book is a compilation of academic research and other writings that have been published in various journals this century. Collectively, the articles illustrate that animal cruelty is one of the basic traits found in the early lives of people who go on to commit violent crimes, and that those offenders very often come from chaotic homes in which domestic violence is present. Often, the research shows, people who abuse animals are victims of abuse themselves, though that is not always the case.

"If the evidence does point to a human perpetrator, then we are probably looking at a young adult male, probably in his late teens to early 20s," says Lockwood. While the boy could be younger, he most likely isn't a mature adult. Because the killings are taking place within a confined area, chances are good the killer lives nearby. It's also likely he's acting alone. "The animal killings we see attributed to groups of guys are often a little bit more brazen -- shooting horses, cows, things like that. Occasionally dogs."

Cats are sometimes singled out by solitary perpetrators, particularly those with sexual conflicts, because the animal is surrounded by a "sexual mystique" that Lockwood says makes them seem sneaky and deceitful. Just as rapists seek to gain power over their victims, so do some kids who target cats.

"On the one hand, [cats are] soft and cuddly. On the other hand, they bite and scratch," Lockwood says. "To a conflicted adolescent mind seeking to get power and control over an innocent victim, cats can be an attractive target."

While he understands the police department's need to prioritize its spending, Lockwood says the specific details of each case are important in order to understand the breadth of the case and the nature of the killer. Although it is impossible to say when or even if the suspect's behavior will grow worse, noticing details like a change in the type of mutilation could warn investigators that the suspect is getting bored. In this case, Lockwood says, recent evidence that the killer is escalating the attacks to two a week and is possibly expanding his territory are ominous signs.

"It's possible the perpetrator is not getting what he used to get out of it," Lockwood says, "and at some point he will either increase the frequency of the attacks or he will escalate to something that gives him a greater sense of power and control, which might certainly be a human victim."

McGowan says he understands Lockwood's concerns, and he is aware that kids who harm animals sometimes grow up to be more violent criminals. But that doesn't change the facts of the case with which he's presented.

"We don't have any serial murders," McGowan says. "All we have is a bunch of dead cats."

If it weren't for David and Trisha Carmichael, chances are few people would know what's happening to the cats in their neighborhood. The Carmichaels, who moved to Dallas last year, didn't know the neighborhood had a history of cat mutilations until after Oscar was gone. As they gathered more details, the Carmichaels brought the story to every television station they could think of, generating a rash of coverage.

"We," Trisha says, referring to society as a whole, "are kind of desensitized. It has to happen six, seven times before it gets anyone's attention."

On this Monday evening, the Carmichaels have again opened their house to a reporter. Two weeks have passed since the couple last saw Oscar. Now, his ashes are contained in a small gold box that rests on their mantel, surrounded by sympathy cards. A cat toy -- a kitty fishing pole -- still juts out from behind the cushion of an easy chair.

To the Carmichaels, Oscar's death is like the murder of a family member whose body was left for them to find.

"Granted, he was just our pet, but it would have been much easier to understand if it were an accident or something," Trisha says. "To remove the organs and wrap the intestines around his neck, that's a whole new ball game. We're talking about a sick, deranged person living in this neighborhood."

Trisha has never laid eyes upon the autopsy photographs of Oscar's body, and she excuses herself while David arrays them on the dining table. David thinks the photographs could be useful evidence if the killer is caught. Besides, they help people overcome their tendency to blame the attack on other animals -- an explanation the Carmichaels have heard several times now.

"My first reaction when I saw the cat was that he had been attacked by a dog," David says. "When I started to look closer, there was no blood or fur around the carcass. And I could see the blade line down his fur where it was a clean cut. Things like the heart were removed. An animal didn't do that."

David's face turns red, and he buries it in his hands to block the images before him.

"I just can't get over my anger," he says. "I'm particularly angry that he may have been tortured beforehand, because he trusted me -- he trusted people -- and it was people that killed him. That disturbs me. Somebody did this on purpose, and I want them to be caught."

The Carmichaels know that some of their neighbors may think they are overreacting, but their reaction is rather typical, says Dr. Christopher Thomas, an associate professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston who specializes in antisocial behavior among children and adolescents.

"If we hear about a fight between two people, we think, 'Well, maybe somebody did something to egg somebody on.' When we hear about somebody going and torturing a dog or cutting up cats, we think the animal is a pure victim," Thomas says. "We usually think that animals don't provoke us and that animals are less capable of defending themselves."

Incidents of animal mutilation like these are rare, though reports of smaller cases usually show up in newspapers around the country about once a year, especially at Halloween -- a time when most animal shelters put moratoriums on the sale of black cats because of an annual increase in demand. Though the nature of the abuse varies, the one thing that almost always accompanies the stories is fear that the perpetrators are members of Satanic cults.

Not surprisingly, some cat owners in Bent Tree West believe that Satanists are at work in their neighborhood. Nobody is more convinced of this than "Pat," who is locked inside the house on a sunny Thursday afternoon, the shades drawn as Pat thumbs though a stack of newspaper reports that document cases of animal cruelty. The pile is fortified by articles about Marilyn Manson, Goth fashion, violent video games, and what Pat thinks are other examples of Satanic activity. Pat is a pseudonym, and it's being used because Pat doesn't want to be identified, including by gender, for fear of retaliation.

Since losing a cat, Pat has searched for information that might explain why anyone would do something as unthinkable as mutilating a cute, helpless cat. After newspaper articles introduced Pat to the subject, Pat became convinced Satanism was involved after reading a book titled The Secret Diary of a Satan Worshipper, by Joel French. The book, which is noticeably short on references and evidence, tells the story of a young boy who gets drawn into a Satanic cult that is part of an impenetrable conspiracy controlling the world's major corporations and all of its governments.

The information contained in the book is similar to the books, audio cassettes, and videos that preacher Bob Larson -- "The world's foremost Christian authority on cults and the occult" -- peddles to his followers, one of whom is Pat. The information has left Pat petrified.

"It," Pat says, referring to Satanism, "was visited upon me. I didn't attract it. I didn't want this, and I don't want to do this [research]. But I don't want to sit back and play dead, though I may be dead at the end of this."

People tend to believe Satanism is behind animal mutilation because they frequently hear about it through the media, although these reports rarely contain any evidence to substantiate the claim. Tom Deats, an Arlington police officer, knows this better than anyone. A specialist in animal cruelty investigations, Deats has offered scattered police courses in investigating cult activity. Not surprisingly, the courses have attracted media attention that sensationalized the danger of Satanic cults, even though Deats stresses he's never encountered any organized malevolent cults around Dallas.

"For some reason, they [reporters] always call me when they need an expert," says Deats, who adds that Bent Tree West residents shouldn't be afraid that cult members are killing their cats. "It's easier to blame Satanic cults as opposed to just some kid in the neighborhood that likes gutting cats."

The more important aspects of Deat's work involve teaching his fellow officers how important it is to view animal cruelty as a serious offense. "They'll look at the body as just an animal mutilation," he says. "They won't look at it as a crime scene, and they won't look around for other evidence."

Dallas child psychiatrist Jerry Lewis III believes one reason people so easily embrace far-fetched explanations for animal cruelty is because the more likely explanations, those rooted in psychology, are far more disturbing to consider.

"Most of us would like to think it couldn't happen to me or it wouldn't happen to my child, and so we try to put ourselves at some distance from this and say, 'These people are from another planet or they're possessed by Satan.' They're trying to create some distance between themselves and that person, but these are some of the really ugly, underbelly behaviors of human nature," Lewis says.

But identifying those behaviors and, more important, figuring out what combination of them would prompt a kid with a taste for carving up cats to turn on humans, is an area of academic research that psychologists say desperately needs to be expanded.

By now, most everyone has heard stories, both fiction and non, about how serial killers practiced their crimes on animals before they moved on to human prey. The stories are old, dating back to reports about Albert DeSalvo, the notorious "Boston Strangler," who liked to trap cats in orange crates and shoot them with arrows before he murdered 13 women in the early 1960s. Nowadays, when people in Bent Tree West wonder who the killer is, they're prone to say "he's a Ted Bundy in the making."

But it wasn't until the 1980s, when Alan Felthous, then an associate professor at the UT Medical Branch in Galveston, published a series of ground-breaking articles that convincingly identified cruelty to animals as a trait common in the early lives of violent criminals. In his study, which included interviews with prison inmates and non-criminals, Felthous found that the most aggressive criminals commonly had histories of severe animal abuse, while the behavior was virtually absent among the non-criminals.

Ultimately, Felthous was able to identify nine reasons why the criminals abuse animals. Some do it to retaliate against the animal itself or against a person with whom they were upset, and others do it to impress or shock people. Some did it to improve their aggressive skills, while others did it just for pleasure.

Felthous also discovered that cats were commonly hated, and therefore tended to fare worse than other animals the criminals targeted, mostly because they're viewed as "sneaky," "creepy," and "treacherous."

"One subject admitted to a variety of cruelties against cats because he did not like them, another exploded his girlfriend's cat in a microwave oven, [while] a third alluded to running a cat over with a lawn mower," Felthous wrote in 1985. "In contrast, no subject reported any categorical hatred of dogs."

Felthous' work raised a new awareness of the relationship between animal cruelty and later violence against people, but it dealt only with criminals who discussed their past behavior in hindsight. When the tables are turned and psychologists are faced with kids who are abusing animals, they see a baffling array of factors that makes predicting their capacity for future violence nearly impossible.

"Animal cruelty is not going to be a silver bullet that allows us to solve all the problems of violence, but we sure need to add it to the other information we have," says Ascione, the Utah State University psychology professor.

The one thing psychologists do know is that kids who abuse animals almost always display other types of antisocial behavior, including truancy, arson, vandalism, and aggression against siblings. Whoever is killing cats in North Dallas may not grow up to be a serial killer, but Ascione says chances are good they've already crossed their parents and teachers or the police.

The Humane Society's Lockwood argues that the details of animal abuse cases -- often ignored by police -- are essential to understanding a person's motivations for cruelty and, ultimately, finding ways to successfully treat their conduct disorder. Lockwood recalls the case of a Kansas City teenager who was convicted of setting fire to a dog, an act he and his friends had videotaped.

"One of the things I found particularly disturbing in that video is one of the boys saying, 'Man that's gotta hurt.' Here's a guy who's intentionally setting fire to an animal, fully aware of the pain he's causing it, and laughing while he's doing it," Lockwood says.

While Felthous worked with inmates, Lockwood and his colleagues brought new understanding to the way animal cruelty relates to family violence.

In his landmark 1983 study, Lockwood examined 57 pet-owning families under treatment for domestic violence in New Jersey and found that in 88 percent of them, at least one member had abused the family pet. In two-thirds of the cases, the batterer had injured or killed the animal, while children were the abusers in the rest of the cases. Oftentimes, the batterers attacked animals as a way to intimidate their wives or children. In some cases, the battered person killed his beloved pets to spare them pain and suffering. The findings have been supported in more recent research.

Just as the research into family violence led to new laws, including those establishing mandatory reporting requirements, Lockwood says laws that require cases of animal cruelty to be "cross-reported" to other social service agencies could uncover new cases of domestic abuse and ultimately save lives. But so far, Lockwood says, California is the only state where animal cruelty investigators are trained and required to report domestic abuse.

"Over the last 30 or 40 years, what's happened is our response to violence has become very fragmented," Lockwood says. "We have the child-protection people, the domestic-violence people, adult protective services people, and animal-care societies who are often dealing with exactly the same perpetrators, [and they] are not working together."

Though the effort to enact new laws grinds slowly forward, some gains are being made. Today, Ascione and his co-editor Phil Arkow, chairman of the Latham Foundation's Child and Animal Abuse Prevention Project, report that some 21 states have made various types of animal cruelty felony-level crimes.

For now, Lockwood says police and mental-health professionals would benefit by asking animal abusers better questions so they can more effectively measure their mental state, and thus, their capacity for violence.

"One of the things that distinguishes animal cruelty as a warning sign is the frequency, the severity, and the use to which that violence is put," Lockwood says. "If it is this kind of experimentation, 'Gee, I wonder if I can pick that bird off the wire,' that's one thing. But if you routinely stalk the neighborhood blowing birds out of trees, that's very different."

And sometimes, Ascione notes, taking animal cruelty cases seriously when they happen can pay off immediately. As an example, he points to a 1997 case in which a 14-year-old boy in Kobe, Japan, stunned the world when he decapitated an 11-year-old-boy and placed the head in front of the school gate for his classmates to see. Using FBI profiling methods, the local police zeroed in on the boy after investigating reports of animal abuse in the area. As it turned out, the boy had a habit of killing small animals, including cats, and leaving their corpses at the school.

Back in Bent Tree West, David Carmichael is doing his part to spread the message that there is, as he puts it, "a wacko living in the neighborhood."

In recent weeks, he has spent hours distributing flyers door to door, hoping to raise neighbors' awareness about the case and let them know there's a $15,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer. He figures there's always the chance the information may jar somebody's memory about some weird behavior they've witnessed.

At the very least, they might be convinced to keep their cats inside at night. Better yet, they might think twice next time when they see some kid taunting a cat.

Carmichael has also helped organize a group called Neighbors Against Pet Cruelty and Abduction -- a community crime watch, of sorts, for pets. The group's members are collecting money to increase the reward, and they're raising awareness about the importance of taking animal abuse seriously.

In the process, Carmichael says he's done something he should have done months ago. "I met all my neighbors since this cat thing happened."

It's a hell of a way to say hello.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >