Understanding Teen Killer's Mind: Your Questions Answered

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner answers questions about Jovan Collier.

Nov. 16, 2010— -- Jovan Collier was able to keep a dark secret: He had killed his adoptive parents and younger brother when he was 14 years old. For years, he lived under another name and led a seemingly normal life, until his deep-seated rage was awakened. Collier began to aggressively stalk his ex-fiancee -- vandalizing her home, allegedly threatening her, even sending her a dead piglet. Collier is now serving time in a Florida prison for aggravated stalking.

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner, who has not treated Collier, offers an expert perspective on the case, and answered viewers' questions about Collier's strange behavior.

Welner, M.D., Chairman of The Forensic Panel, is an ABC News Consultant. He is an associate professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and has worked in some of the most sensitive cases in America in recent years. Click here for more on Welner.

Cal asked: Based on his reported behavior, would you say that Jovan Collier aka Peter Zimmer is clinically a psychopath? Do you believe his claimed "abandonment issues" from childhood had any profound influence on the way he turned out, or is he exaggerating those issues to excuse his behavior?

Dr. Welner answered: You cannot tell Collier's diagnosis from the murder alone. Still, the brazenness of his sense of entitlement to the estate of the family he murdered, and the schemes of setting her up with unsuspecting sex website partners makes it realistic to ponder whether he actually is a psychopath. Brazenness is an exceptional "quality." When in the quality of lying or and having two wives unbeknownst to one another, when brazen in action, should inspire greater scrutiny.

Adolescents who kill have conflicts at home. Some have been abused; some are merely destructive characters who will not tolerate limits being set. Abandonment issues plague many, including those from intact homes. The choice of violence relates to how someone deals with abandonment or other life priorities and stressors, not adoption per se.

Emotional abandonment is not a trigger to familicide as much as material abandonment is, although issues ranging from abuse and threats to antisocial explosiveness to substance intoxication are all realistic possibilities.

When adolescent killers return to the community, it should surprise no one that they conceal their past as best they can. For every person willing to give them a second chance, there are many who are horrified at the notion that they, as killers, can be free to enjoy the simple pleasures their victims cannot.

When questions come from those who discover the frightening truth, and those questions are inevitable, killers often have rationalizations for explanations to put their behavior in a more understandable light. Not just for the rest of us – but if they have a conscience, sometimes for themselves.

Jean asked: How, after committing such a heinous crime at age 14, could he remain free from violent crimes (as far as we know) for 25 years? I'm sure during those years he experienced rejection or anger at some points, which should have triggered some sort of similar reaction. Why didn't these violent actions surface before now?

Dr. Welner answered: We don't know enough of Collier's movements for 25 years. Clearly he is effective at compartmentalizing the people in his life from others, such that the killings were only one of his important secrets.If he had remained non-violent for all of that time, and there are numerous cities, relationships, and stops along the way, he is an adult with a more fully developed sense of anticipating consequences and impulse control for example. The mistaken choices adolescents make would not necessarily be repeated in adulthood -- especially if a person is horrified by what he had done and punishment is strong enough to be a deterrent. But Collier's readiness to arm himself with a knife, even in public yet, and menacing Candy demonstrates that he has no qualms revisiting his destructive potential.

Your Questions About Jovan Collier Answered

Jyoti asked: What trauma did Collier experience to have him engage in such intense violence at such a young age? Why did he not receive intensive therapy after he was sentenced? Would he be diagnosed with borderline and anti-social personality disorder?

Dr. Welner answered: Traumatic experiences are not often directly associated with homicidal choices. Emotional trauma inspires withdrawal more than aggression.

Separation and attachment problems and deep emotional insecurities and alienation, however, are a particularly bad emotional outcome for some adopted children. Those individuals who have a frayed sense of attachment may never develop empathy or understanding for others' rights and needs.

This is where the stalking history comes in, especially the malice that accompanied it. That way of relating to an ex-love demonstrates poor boundaries and an entitlement, with no respect for the choices and emotional security another person deserves.

Were these the same dynamics at play in the familicide? Not enough information. But for someone who lost his birth family when given to adoption, and lost his adoptive family when he killed them, he would be expected to approach loss and threatened loss as much more of a destabilizing force. Key is his later unremarkable abandonment of his own adult family; for him to be so intense toward Candy in the face of her ending the relationship speaks more to his relating to her as property than the intensity of his "love." Stalkers in this sense are offended that they are rejected. The anger one sees is more a disrespect for the person rejecting the stalker than a longing for what is lost.

The antisocial individual has shallow attachments for his material benefit. The borderline individual has difficulty balancing separation and attachment, and dramatic behavior comes out under conditions of separation. Those dramatic actions can be antisocial violence -- borderline and antisocial features are not mutually exclusive.

Did he receive therapy? Or did he merely sit in sessions with a therapist and learn lingo like "abandonment" that meshed well with the same sweet and vulnerable manner he deceived Candy with? A person who can fool in love can fool a therapist and fool himself.

Theresa asked: Was Jovan suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness and if so how was he able to maintain a normal lifestyle for so many years? He must have been evaluated psychologically when he was in juvenile hall and was that information sealed?

Dr. Welner answered: Information is sealed to enable someone to move on with his life. The system that releases Collier is as invested in his leaving his life behind as he is, because it is a system that has pronounced him ready to go.Drugs and alcohol are also common contributors to teenage violence. Some mental illnesses, such as depression, may bring out violence in teenagers with rage and personality problems. Without more information about the events of his killing, and whatever he communicated to treaters, we have no way of knowing whether his emotions are as unstable.The only thing we know is that he doesn't have schizophrenia, or he would not have the social skills to develop and to deepen new relationships with others who experience him as "normal" so many years later. He would have been noticeably limited. And he would not have the joie de vivre of his life with depression.

I hesitate to credit him for having a normal life until we know more about his work and relationship history. He has the appearance of normality and is likeable enough to draw others to him; the wreckage of his life even independently of the killings it is therefore more indicative of severe personality disorder. Getting more specific is difficult because of how elusive he has been; how does one appreciate him more than as a person who slips through your fingers?

Joe asked: Jovan (i.e. Peter) says he was abused and in some ways tries to blame his actions on being adopted. Why would he kill his younger brother who was also adopted?

Dr. Welner answered: Collier's younger brother was not abusing him, and as he killed his younger brother, he was alienated from him rather than aligned. Collier may well have been abused. But the death of the younger brother speaks to more to the story.

Abuse is a reality in some adoptive homes. Statistically, we cannot generalize about whether it is the nature of the adopted home or the alienated lethality of the teenager who elects to kill. The dead cannot return and tell their side. The explanation that a teen killer provides, "I was abused," is realistic, sometimes manipulated, and often hard to disprove even when illegitimate.

Your Questions About Jovan Collier Answered

Elisa asked: This story terrifies and fascinates me. I recently finished my mental health rotation in nursing school. Something that really stood out to me is that it seemed like his affect was inappropriate during much of the interview segments that were aired. Can you discuss the things that really stood out to you in that regard during the interview and what clinical disorder(s) you think he may have?

Dr. Welner answered: Affect is hard to interpret from a television appearance. The inappropriateness of his nonchalant expression may just be a sign of immaturity and discomfort acknowledging fault. What you learn from is whether those in his life, off camera, experience the same inappropriateness to his expression and reaction.

What one can see is that he is neither intellectually disabled or manifesting a severe psychiatric illness. Sometimes the scariest diagnosis is one with no diagnosis at all.

Something in his manner prompted his birth mother to look at him more closely, though. Perhaps it was being his mother, knowing his father, or feeling that unexpected and unwanted unease herself.

Billy asked: What behaviors are seen in young adoptive children to denote that instances like this will occur in teen and adulthood?

Dr. Welner answered: We still do not know whether what made Collier homicidal speaks to the adoption experience or what caused him to be placed up for adoption in the first place.

A psychopath has a demonstrated risk for future violence. Some teenagers with evidence for psychopathy mature beyond their manipulative, brazen, dishonest, cold, and antisocial personalities. Others do not. Redirecting adolescents onto the right path is an important mandate for adolescent psychology.

Those teenagers who have callus and unemotional personalities have more ominous prognosis. As parents and elders, we owe it to society to focus toward minimizing risk.

Shea asked: After watching the segment on Collier it seems like a big problem he was having was controlling his frustrations when he encounters instability in his life. At some point it seems like any person must have the self-awareness to be able to realize they need to build real relationships in order to have stability. He was tricking himself into thinking that his relationship with Candy was a "real" relationship, but the simple fact that he didn't tell her about the biggest thing that had happened in his life essentially meant the relationship was built on a lie. My question is, for a guy like Collier, who's entire mind-set is based on having stability and support in his life, why do they feel the need to lie about their life in the first place? I realize that it isn't easy that to tell someone you committed a heinous crime when you were young, but if you don't, and you have frustrations like Collier, then your entire life will either become a broken record of relationships or a similar reaction, like that of his murder, is bound to happen again.

Dr. Welner answered: I think you are approaching this logically, perhaps too logically. We know how uncomfortable Collier is with his past. As he buries it, however, he prefers not to deal with it in any way, in name, where he lives, the history he takes on. It may be the only quality of attachment he is capable of, having already lost at least three families.I cannot help but contemplate those who meet pen pals and romantic partners while they are locked up for murder, as Jovan did with Belinda. Beyond the psychology of those relationships and what brings each side together, consider that the relationship begins from an orientation that the significant other knows an acceptable amount about the past. Some think they want to know, but do they? Do we know that a partner can deal with the notion that he was "abused," but would not be able to live with his having committed a more predatory and malevolent triple homicide? Love may mean acceptance, but there is still that pressure to see the unrealistic best in whom one loves.

We also know how comfortable he is with lying as a means of navigating his world. That approach brings short term escape. But lying as a way of navigating one's environment and relationships begets other lies to cover the earlier lies. Hoaxters, psychopaths and others for whom lying is fundamental collapse spectacularly when at long last, the house of cards can no longer support itself.

Benjamin asked: Jovan seemed obsessed with his ex's affirmation and his birth mother's attention. This seems to indicate pathological narcissism (malignant form) rather than a full-on sociopath who would not necessarily need the attention. Do you suspect he is a sociopath or malignant narcissist? If he is a pathological narcissism is it possible for him to recognize this and learn sympathy/empathy?

Dr. Welner answered: That is an interesting diagnostic question. The problem with pathological narcissism is that when confronted with shortcomings, the pathological narcissist will run from therapy and from other threat of emotional wound. That fragility makes it so much harder for the narcissist to come to think outside himself.

For a person with a dark secret, always on the run, emotional self-reliance only reinforces a remoteness from what therapy can reach. The best hope in such circumstances is a corrective intimacy, either through a relationship of emotional and material interdependence. Sadly, these circumstances may present only years after many personal failures, and sometimes not at all.

Because the individual's sense of attachment is so shallow, he does not experience enough pain in that loss to be approachable to change.

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