Understanding the Kill List- For Schools and Law Enforcement

By Lt. Joseph Pangaro, CSO, CPM

A Kill List definition:  A list of the names of people a person intends or desires to kill.

We often see “Kill Lists” discussed about a school shooting. In the course of the investigation after an active shooter attack has taken place the law enforcement agency will often find a kill list in the shooter’s belongings or at their house. Finding this after people have been injured and died is very unfortunate.

In some cases, the kill list is found before any violence takes place. This is a good thing and can save lives if the school and the police know how to respond to finding such a list.  

A little personal experience here to help explain the concerns.

About 5 years ago I conducted a training program for school personnel on the topic of identifying dangerous people by reviewing their writings, journals, drawings, social media posts, and other expressions that could indicate their mindset of violent intent.

One of the things we must understand is that when it comes to a young person considering violence such as an active shooter attack on a school, or an adult at a workplace, the people who do this very rarely wake up on a random Tuesday and decide they will kill their classmates or co-workers.

What we find from the investigations after an attack and the lessons learned in these cases is that the attacker often thinks about this activity for weeks if not months before they strike out. It is during this “Thinking it over time” that they can express themselves in ways that can give clues to their violent intent. If we can identify this intent, if we can see it, we can intervene to prevent a violent incident.

In this program, I talked about the concept of “leakage” as it relates to people who commit violence. Leakage is a term to describe the things a person planning violence often does, and that we can often see, as they prepare themselves for the attack.

Their intent or plans may be “leaked” out intentionally or unintentionally through their social media posted comments, pictures, drawings, journaling, or other forms of expression. We may see they have written a “Manifesto” or a written record of their frustrations, fits of anger, hatred, or descriptions of abuses they are facing, real or imagined. These manifestos often include tier plans on how to strike out at the person or people they hold responsible for their suffering.   

Leakage develops as the person falls deeper and deeper into the thoughts and plans for violence. These thoughts become ever-present and can overtake their lives. To vent these feelings, they can reveal their inner thoughts.

Looking for signs of leakage is a way to identify potential danger.     

Some of the leakages we look for or see can include making statements that sound scary, or dangerous, offering veiled threats to a person or group of people, posting pictures of themselves in their battle dress or displaying guns or other weapons, writing stories of violence with them as the attacker. 

The change in clothing styles is a sign of potential violence. The person might begin to wear things associated with a violent incident such as battle gear. Think of a Law enforcement SWAT team and how they dress. They wear BDUs (Battle Dress Uniforms), gun belts, camouflage, and military or police-style boots. All of these items have legitimate use in law enforcement and the military, but the average citizen does not wear such things for style or trends. These kinds of clothing items have a specific purpose that we all know from the News Reports of military or police action and from every TV show we have ever watched. You wear those things when you are going to battle.

This is something that many of the active Killers we are familiar with have done, both adults and juveniles. This of the Columbine Killers, wore BDUs, gun belts, boots, and gloves. The Parkland Killer wore the same things.  The adult killer of police officers and civilians in Dallas about 10 years ago wore the same things, and in recent times we saw the Covenant school shooter in Nashville wearing the same kinds of things- dressing up for the action is often part of the killer’s activity and it is a red flag if we pay attention it.  

The lesson here is simple, if you have a student or co-worker who starts wearing this kind of clothing or posting social media pictures of themselves dressed like this we must investigate.     

Their expressions through drawings often take the form of cartoon doodles or very detailed drawings depending on their skill level. These kinds of drawings often depict the person drawing in the first-person perspective. They draw themselves into the cartoons as the person committing the violence or punishing the people they consider as bad or evil.

Shortly after I gave this presentation, I had two teachers reach out to me with drawings they saw made by students. The first one depicted a very active scene with a central theme. The teacher took the picture from the student. 

This picture immediately got my attention and for good reason. The wording itself is disturbing- “Kill List” was the original title of the drawing, but the word list was scratched out and replaced with “Plan”.  To properly interpret this drawing, we have to see the movement and evolvement of the ideas and thoughts of the person drawing.

In its original incarnation, he makes a statement about what the drawing is, it is a  kill list, but over time, as his thoughts evolved, and he was drawn deeper into his suffering he updated the drawing and changed the stamen to “Kill Plan.”

This change tells the investigator that the person was dwelling on this concept, the kill list had power and he was trying to develop a way to express his feelings. When he changed it to “Kill Plan,” that told me he had advanced his ideas from a mere expression of anger, hatred, and victimization to a plan of action to fight back against that which was hurting him.

Looking closer we can see that after changing his statement to a plan of action he asks “How”.  How would he do the things he was considering, assuaging his negative feelings or emotions?

We see his answer to How he would do this- “A Gun.” Finally, he made a declarative statement- “No More”, his actions were solidified, and his plan was created.

This tells me that these thoughts and ideas were percolating, developing, and evolving in his mind over time and his burgeoning plan was now taking tangible shape.

I visited the school and asked the principal to find the student and bring him to the office, with the caveat that he should be separated from any backpack or bag he may have with him.

This was done and the student sat before us in the office, he was a freshman boy.

The interview.

Once the young man was seated the principal explained why he was in the office and who I was. We produced the picture, and I asked him if he drew it. He said he did draw it.

I asked him to explain to me what the picture was trying to say. He looked down and shook his head saying, “I’m not sure.”

I prodded him gently saying I believed he knew what he was expressing and that it was ok to tell me, I told him it looked like he was sad and angry. He shook his head yes.

I had to build up to what I knew the picture was saying so I started with ancillary parts of the picture. I pointed to the “Cage” depicted in the top left corner of the drawing and what looked like four people in the cage.  He had labeled them as:  “Misery, Hate, Sue, and Sick”

I asked him who these people were. He said they were kids in his class. He had been a part of a month’s long class project and the people in the cage were kids on his team for the project.

The young man was not a classic bullied kid, but he was not well-liked he was considered “Different” by other students, a loner, he dressed differently, and he was more solitary than other students. He was excluded from many activities for these reasons.

I asked him why they were named Misery, Hate, Sue, and Sick. He said “Misery” was a name he gave to one of the girls on the team that made him feel miserable about himself. The by he labeled as “Hate” was another young man who treated him very badly and he hated him, He said “Sue” was not a girl’s real name, she was the least offensive team member who simply went along with the poor treatment, so he wanted her to be sued and go to jail. And finally, “Sick” was another young man that he felt was sick in the head of the horrible things he said to him about his clothes, his family, and other personal things.

I then turned my attention to the other characters depicted in the picture, the ones at the bottom of the page. These appeared to show young people being shot with a handgun, Ex’d out, and some were saying “No” as if terrified.

I asked him who they were, and he said they were the kids in schools that he hated for how they made him feel, including his project team.

I then turned my attention to the central character in the drawing, a stick figure of a young male. This character was larger than the others and centrally placed.  Notably, the eyes of this character were Ex’d out and closed.  I think it is an expression of a dead person when we see their eyes ex out and closed.

I asked the young man who the person in the middle was. He began to tear up and said- “That’s me,” I said are you dead in this picture, and he said, “Yes, After I kill them, I’m going to kill myself, I can’t take it anymore.”

This picture was filled with information about the young man’s state of mind, his stresses, his thought process, his intentions, and his plan of action. The investigator who can interpret this information can take action to prevent tragedy.

The teacher who saw this picture was moved to action because she was given the information before she saw the picture to understand it had important meaning and she took action. She told me that if she had not had the training and understanding about what drawings can tell us, she might have just taken it and ripped it up, advising the boy not to draw such ugly things anymore.

What else was this drawing besides an expression of pain by the young man who drew it?  It was also a kill list, it said so in the title. It told us so because specific people were targeted (His project) even if not named by their real names. It showed us the progression of his thoughts and actions.

For an epilogue, I can say that he did have access to guns, and he told me that he was going to act on it sooner rather than later. When pushed he said “Maybe two weeks”

The young man was removed from the school that very day for psychological evaluation. His parents were not aware of his feelings or intentions or his suicidal ideations, they were shocked. He did not return to the school but reports I’ve gotten indicate he is doing very well; he no longer has a desire to hurt anyone including himself. He got the psychiatric help he needed and in the 10 years since he drew this picture and harbored thoughts of homicide and self-destruction he has thrived. Education and observation saved his life and his classmates as well.

First-Person

While the young man in this first example drew in first person and the drawing was about him and his plans my second example is a bit different, but just as important for police investigators and school personnel.

A short time after I received the first picture a different teacher in another district sent me another drawing of concern.  She also attended one of my training sessions on the topic of interpreting drawings.

This teacher said she saw a young man, a high school sophomore, drawing in his notebook and the picture scared her.  She took the picture and sent me a photo of it. I responded to the school and met with the student and the principal. 

This drawing depicts a young man with an axe attacking the Kool-Aid Guy. The Kool-Aid guy is injured, he is bleeding out, and his face shows fear, distress, and pain and he says, “Oh No!”. The young man depicted appears to be smiling.

You can see why the teacher was concerned. It is a violent picture.

When I interviewed this young man, he said he drew the picture. When asked what was happening to the Kool-Aid guy he said, “That guy is annoying, he breaks through walls yelling “Oh Yeah!” so somebody got sick of it and shut him up.

I asked him if he was the person with the axe attacking the Kool-Aid guy?

The Young man smiled and said “No man that’s not me that’s just some dude who’s sick of his nonsense”

After some other conversations and a review of the young man’s history, it was clear that this disturbing picture was not a threat to anyone veiled or otherwise, it was simply a cartoon.

This drawing was not in the first person, the attacker was not even the drawer, and the injury was not to a person but to a real cartoon character. The attacker was smiling. A carton in poor taste, yes, but not a threat.

I spoke to the teacher and thanked her for sending it to me and for paying attention to signs of potential violence. The takeaway here is similar to the first teacher, with information and knowledge we can get people to report potential problems or threats so we can act.   

Journaling, Writing, and Social Media Posts

Journaling and writing can also be expressions of our inner thoughts, concerns, anger, and joys. Many people of all ages journal to keep a record of their lives or activities. What we look at with young people is the time and place of journaling and writing, the topics, and the action that takes place in the writings.

As anyone who deals with children as they grow and mature, we know that they can experience the world in different ways at different ages. Little children can draw things that are scary to them, we know that some abused children will draw horrific pictures of the abuse or how it feels to them. These pictures are often the only way they can express these feelings since writing might not be a mastered skill yet.

When an investigator or teacher sees these kinds of pictures, they will often set off alarm bells and initiate some kind of investigation by school personnel, doctors, parents, or guardians. This is appropriate because it is information that tells us something is not right.

In little children drawing a picture of abuse or of sexual organs at ages under 8 or 9 is not the normal thing of childhood. Of course, there can be legitimate reasons that some kids might draw those things and not be victims, but we would investigate nonetheless because it is out of the ordinary expectations of what young children are experiencing in a normal healthy life experience and it would draw our suspicions.

We also know that around the age of middle school, 11-15 or so, a young person’s understanding of the world around them begins to change and expand. This change comes from heightened awareness of the world around them, increased intelligence, and exposure to TV, social media, and other outside stimuli of the adult world.

At this age, a young person can understand that family members and friends get sick or die for many reasons, including the modern phenomenon of teen suicide which is on the increase.

When a young person begins to see these kinds of things, they will often reflect that in their writing or journaling. They begin to see the dark side of life and they can internalize that by drawing dark themes or writing stories with dark themes as a way to deal with this new understanding that the whole world is not the safe place of mom and dad’s house. This is normal in most cases where young people journal and write about darker themes. But it is here that we can also see signs of potential violence growing.

Stories about killing or hurting people, first-person or otherwise, can be an indicator of a developing problem or potential danger, attack, or suicide.

When reviewing the writings, journals, and social media posts of anyone we must look to the essence of what their expressions are about. In some cases, it will be clear such as the journaling and writing of the Columbine Killers.

They left detailed journals describing their anger, hatred, and self-doubts as well as their plans to attack and kill their classmates. Several years ago, in Long Island NY, a young man was journaling about attacking his school and hefted the journal behind at a fast-food restaurant. It was found and turned over to the police who intervened and thwarted his planned attack.

And recently in the Covenant School shooting in Nashville Tennessee, we know the killer had a detailed Manifesto describing why he was angry and what he wanted to do.  Had someone found this document it could have prevented tragedy.      

As for Social Media posts, many people who harbor feelings of violence will post those feelings as a way of expressing them or threatening those they dislike. The Shooter in the Virginia Tech attack created and posted a video manifesto, the Parkland school shooter also posted threats and plans on social media.

The lesson here is this, the need to express these negative feelings, threats, and plans is fairly common. We must be aware of them and try not to stay ahead of any potentially dangerous act as best we can by looking for leakage and investigating properly.

Using digital assets like “Geo Fencing” can help. Geo-fencing is the use of software that can be focused on social media posts that have keywords about violence attacks killing etc. The Geo-Fencing can be targeted to a school property, a busy or an entire town. When the specified keywords appear in a post notifications are sent to whoever set up the Geo Fencing. This is usually the school district or the local police. In many cases they split not cost, it is a good, but underused technology that can help us keep our communities safe.  

While monitoring Journaling and writing might be harder because they are more private. As law enforcement and school personnel, we should encourage the parents and guardians of our children to review their writings and drawings and provide them with training to recognize the signs to look for.

As I conclude this piece, I want to cover the actual Kill list and how it should be investigated by schools and law enforcement. This is an area of action that is often not handled correctly by either group.

First, some problems I see that can lead to improper investigation or reaction by schools and law enforcement.

Many people see a kill list as simply an inappropriate activity by a student. Something unpleasant, rude, or, scary, but not life-threatening. The reaction by this group can be to destroy the kill list and admonish the student not to do it again. There is no proper follow-up with parents or law enforcement. I have seen this happen in real life too many times even today with our heightened awareness of the dangers of attacks on schools.

When Law enforcement is notified, many officers don’t understand the significance and investigative value of getting the kill list before violence happens. I have seen officers take the list and throw it away, leave it with the teacher, and not follow up any further. As professionals, we have to train our people to treat the kill list very seriously and do the follow-up that is needed to save lives.

How do we do this?

First create a school policy that requires training for staff to recognize potentially dangerous writings, drawings, journaling, or social media posting. Then include a requirement that any identified writing, drawing, journaling, or social media post be preserved and kept by the school. Then include a provision to ensure local law enforcement is called and responds to the school to conduct a follow-up investigation.

Schools should add that any student who creates any potentially violent writings, drawings, journals, or social media posts will have their lockers and backpacks searched (Follow local and state law for guidance) for weapons or other evidence of potential violence. 

Create a tip line where a student can report dangers anonymously and include how the tips will be followed up. Develop a training program for properly investigating threats.

These steps can help prevent violence. We have seen many incidents where students have come forward to report potentially violent students and this reporting has prevented attacks.        

For Law Enforcement

Train your officers to take kill lists and other threats very seriously and investigate them properly. A Kill list investigation should include parental notification. A police officer visits the student’s home to inquire about weapons, a request for consent to search the student’s room (or a search warrant if Probable cause exists), and, take into custody any evidence at the home or from the school.

These may seem like simple things, but they can make a huge difference.

A Kill List is an important red flag we must all recognize it as such and respond properly.