Killers Among Us

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Mary Richardson's only public statement on the state of her marriage came in the form of a divorce suit she filed on September 8, 1999. The Sunday of her murder was her husband's appointed day to vacate the house on Colgate.

The psychiatric term for sudden, explosive murder in the absence of any violent history is catathymic ("in accordance with emotion") homicide. Forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy, who writes at length about catathymic killings in his book Violent Attachments, says these crimes "usually are preceded by much dark rumination. Often, [these killers] have a personality disorder, such as narcissism, with quite fragile self-esteem. They easily suffer humiliation, which tends to be quickly converted into fury."

Meloy continues: "They are never conscious of being angry. Then one day the defenses collapse and there is this upsurge of rage. Afterward, they report a curious relief. Often these guys look very normal the next day. It seems almost impossible that they did it.

"Typically, the head of the victim is attacked. A lot of the time there's overkill, such as multiple stab wounds. He'll use a couple of weapons, too." In one recent case of catathymic rage, says Meloy, the husband used a paint can, a clothes iron and a rock to dispatch his wife.

At trial in May 2000, after Richardson entered a surprise guilty plea, his attorneys tried and failed to convince his jury that Mary's murder was a crime of "sudden passion" (and therefore a second-degree felony punishable by no more than 20 years in prison). One obstacle was their client's detached courtroom demeanor. "One day when we were filing out," says jury foreman Tim Nunnery, "I stopped and stared at him on the witness stand. He had dark, dark black eyes. No expression, no nothing. I thought to myself, 'You're a cold-blooded son of a bitch. You have no feelings about anything whatsoever.'"

Richardson received a 60-year sentence and could receive significantly more time if convicted of charges that he later tried to have his in-laws murdered.

He told the jury that he walked home alone from church that morning to discover two articles of furniture that belonged to his recently deceased mother resting on the front porch. What happened next is open to dispute. Richardson recollected to the court that he was sitting with Mary Beth at the family piano when his wife abruptly kicked over his mother's table and snarled, "Get your goddamn mother's shit out of the house. You're supposed to be leaving."

Such epithets apparently were not Mary's style, especially in front of the kids. But what she said may not have been the point. "Turning the table over was like watching her push my mother down the stairs," her husband told the court. "I grabbed her. I don't remember what obviously happened."

Paramedic Jason Salisbury testified that when he entered the family den a few minutes later he discovered a silent, impassive Tim Richardson "dripping with blood" as he leaned over his wife's mutilated body. Corporal Curtis Ellenburg of the University Park police told jurors that the suspect showed no emotion at his arrest and appeared to fall asleep on a cot after he was booked.

There is no evidence whether John Battaglia or Steven Loss took any notice of the Richardson case, which received intense media attention. Yet psychologists recognize that well-publicized violent events--teen suicides are a good example--tend to occur in close time proximity. Meloy and a colleague have researched this so-called "contagion effect" and call the first in such series of killers the "initiator."

"He tends to be much more spontaneous than the later ones," Meloy explains. "It's interesting that of your three cases the one who was most affective, spontaneous and emotional was Mr. Richardson, and his crime came first. The other two show much more planning."

John Battaglia, who faces capital murder charges at trial in April, differs from Tim Richardson in fundamental ways. Friends and business associates describe him as affable and friendly, yet he has a rap sheet stretching back to the 1980s for assaults and at least one gun possession charge. In 1988 Battaglia attacked his first wife, Michelle LaBorde, knocking her unconscious as he broke her nose and fractured her jaw. At the time of the murders, he was on probation for slapping Mary Jean Pearle on Christmas Day 1999.

Shortly after his arrest, Battaglia told News reporter Steve McGonigle that his divorce from Pearle, which became final in August 2000, sent him into a financial and emotional funk, and that he'd begun drinking heavily because of the stress. Battaglia declined comment on the shootings themselves, except to say that afterward, "I was really out of it."

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Stephen G. Michaud