Murder, Alcohol and Adoption

John Patrick was 21 years old when he hopped the fence of a minimum-security prison near Tucson and subsequently killed two people. He was arrested at age twenty for credit card theft and identity fraud and sent to prison in Douglas, but was transferred from there to Florence after it was discovered that he was having an affair with a female guard. The next transfer was to Tucson, his hometown.

The escape was almost a lark for John and a fellow inmate. They literally just walked away, without even a plan. The first night they alternated running and resting in a dry wash near the prison, and eventually split up. The next day John went swimming in a townhouse complex, then broke in to an empty home to use the phone. He tried calling friends for a ride or money but all he got was answering machines. He called his parents who urged him to turn himself in, and he ignored them.

The second night was also sleepless, and the next day he broke in to another townhouse and took a change of clothes. While passing the Smith residence he noticed a car in the driveway with the door open. The elderly couple was putting away groceries when John knocked on the door and asked to use the phone. Trying to call friends, he once again got answering machines and finally decided to call a cab. As he walked from the kitchen to the living room to ask the address and directions for the taxi, he saw his face on the television, and was hit on his side with a fireplace poker. From there it gets murky, but several things are true. Kathryn and Leicester Smith were bludgeoned to death. In the process, Mrs. Smith asked for her asthma medicine, which John brought to her along with wet towels to help with her bleeding. He left in one of the cars with the keys Mr. Smith had given him.

I know this story because I met John’s mother, clinical psychologist and university teacher Katherine Norgard, Ph.D., at a trauma workshop last month, and I just finished reading her book, Hard to Place, a Crime of Alcohol.

Katherine adopted John when he was sixteen months old, fifteen months younger than her biological daughter. He had lived in ten different foster homes. So how could this happen? How does a professional, educated, dedicated mother with a kind husband raise a son who kills people? I’ll tell you.

Even though he was developmentally delayed, the social worker assured them he would catch up, and Katherine believed that nurture would rule over nature. He was a sweet, loving boy, athletic, and musical who adapted easily to his new family, with just a couple of glitches. He had a difficult time with school, didn’t seem to be able to learn from his mistakes, took things that didn’t belong to him, and from the time he began talking at two and a half he lied.

Now Katherine is no novice to parenting theory. She says, “no matter what I tried- logical consequences, time outs, talking to him - I was always met with defeat. John would say he was sorry and would not steal (lie) again, but the ‘agains’ kept happening.” She took him to counselors and psychologists, had school assessments, tutors and special programs, even moved him to a private school, nothing helped. “When John was within arm’s reach he was fine … but my arms were too short and I couldn’t be with him all the time.”

Her nurturing wasn’t helping John. Whatever nature had given him was simply not going to be denied. In her quest for understanding Katherine located John’s biological family, and guess what? He has a sister and mother with similar problems regarding lying. His father had a long history of stealing and telling exaggerated stories, and school records indicated he was hyperactive. He was killed, shot in the back by a policeman, six years after John was born. But there’s more, it seems as if John’s biological mother drank heavily while she was pregnant with him. John has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

This situation could be described as an accidental experiment. The hypothesis (unknown to the participants) would have been that good parenting could override a bad genetic beginning, but in the end, the experiment failed. The genes won out.

I’m left with three thoughts, first, pay close attention to the genetic history of anyone with whom you plan to have children. Secondly, don’t drink if there is any chance you might be pregnant. And finally, follow Virginia Woolf’s advice and “arrange whatever pieces come your way.”