‘Til Death Do Us Part is a series that began running in January on Dateline, NBC’s true crime television show. It tells the stories of gruesome cases, recently in the news, in which husbands have murdered their wives, and at least one wife has murdered her husband.
In the show Lady in the Lake, which aired January 2, Mark Unger was convicted of murdering his wife, Florence. She fell, or was pushed, off of a boathouse and fell onto a concrete dock 12 feet below. Although unconscious, she was still alive, until Unger pushed her into the lake and she drowned.
In Body of Evidence, which aired January 9, Sean Goff, a former evangelical minister who claimed he found evidence in the Bible for “Christian polygamy,” married and had children with two women. When one of them, Joy Risker, no longer wanted to be in the dual marriage, Goff stabbed her to death, smashed in her face, removed her teeth, cut off her fingers, and dismembered her body and buried it in the Arizona desert.
In A Shot in the Dark, which aired January 17, Kathy Augustine, a 50-year-old Nevada politician, died suddenly of massive her organ failure. Augustine had married a male nurse, Chaz Higgs, three weeks after her previous husband had died of massive organ failure. Higgs is accused of administering a lethal dose of a drug to Augustine, and he may have done it to her previous husband as well. Higgs is awaiting trial.
In Murder on Hearthglow Lane, which aired January 24, Piper Rountree was convicted of killing her ex-husband. With damning circumstantial evidence, the jury was convinced that she had lain in wait before dawn for her husband to walk outside his home for the morning newspaper and shot him dead.
Not once, in all four of these programs, was a personality disorder mentioned. The terms psychopath, sociopath or antisocial personality disorder were never used.
Let’s take a closer look at the accused in each of these crimes.
Mark Unger, in Lady in the Lake, had been addicted to prescription medication, alcohol and gambling. When a neighbor told Unger his wife was dead in the lake, he ran to her body, picked it up, then dropped it and left her in the water. While the police investigated, he appeared distraught, but when interrupted by calls on his cell phone, Unger was completely calm.
Unger and his wife were in the midst of a bitter divorce. Unger told Florence he would get custody of the children and the house, and she would get little alimony. Before she died, Florence told a friend that her husband was acting like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In the trial, prosecutors said that when Florence had fallen and smashed her head on the concrete, Unger left her there for up to an hour and a half while he put their sons to bed. Then he pushed her into the water.
Sean Goff was described as handsome, engaging, persuasive and deeply religious. He was also controlling of his two wives. Goff told a friend that his junior wife, Joy Risker, had become sloppy and lazy and that he was going to have to get rid of her. But he wouldn’t allow her to keep the kids.
Goff actually admitted that he killed Risker, but said it was Risker’s fault—after they just enjoyed a romantic dinner, she had come at him with a knife. Goff brutally stabbed her in self-defense. Then he said he had to get rid of the evidence because he didn’t want the children to lose both a mother and a father. So he chopped up her body, discarded the knife and took a shower.
During the trial, the jurors noted that Goff shed no tears. In a jailhouse interview after his conviction, Goff claimed he was the one who suffered.
Chaz Higgs swept Kathy Augustine off her feet, and they married three weeks after Augustine’s previous husband died. Later, Augustine confided to a friend that she had made a mistake. When Augustine died after massive organ failure, with a possible injection mark on her left hip, police looked into Higgs’ background. He had spent much of his career in the Navy, had three previous marriages and divorces and a string of bankruptcies.
The day before Augustine was stricken, Higgs allegedly told a co-worker at the hospital that a good way to commit murder was to overdose someone with succinylcholine, which paralyzes the respiratory muscles but quickly dissipates from the bloodstream. Traces of the drug were later found in the victim’s urine. The body of Augustine’s previous husband was exhumed so it could be analyzed for the drug.
Piper Rountree had totally lost a nasty divorce battle with her ex-husband, Fred Jablin, a college professor. Even though Rountree accused him of being an abusive narcissist in an e-mail sent to Jablin’s colleagues, the kids’ scout leaders and the PTA, Jablin got the house and full custody of the children. The judge even ordered Rountree, who had left her career as a lawyer to be a stay-at-home mom, to pay child support.
Prosecutors said Rountree came up with an elaborate ruse in which she pretended to be her sister, Tina Rountree, to commit the crime. But she didn’t cover her tracks very well—taking shooting lessons a few days before the murder and making cell phone calls that placed her near the scene. During the trial, Rountree showed no emotion.
Can anyone say “psychopath?”
The transcripts for all of these stories are available on MSNBC.com. I saw the first three shows on TV and read the transcript of the fourth. In my opinion, all of the accused are psychopaths. The traits are there—grandiosity, insistence on control, lack of emotion, bald-faced lies, cold-blooded murder. But the television audience might never know it, because it was never said.
The possibility that Sean Goff was a psychopath was mentioned, however, in a blog article by Keith Morrison, the Dateline correspondent who reported Body of Evidence. Morrison wrote about his jailhouse interview with Goff, describing him as kindly, friendly and engaging. But the murderer was not going to confess to the crime. Here’s what Morrison wrote,
Sean Goff, some members of the jury had come to believe, is a psychopath, incapable of genuine feeling.
Only in fiction
I do hear the term psychopath on television from time to time, but only on fictional crime dramas, and only in relation to perpetrators accused of the most bizarre acts—such as ritual killings and writing on the walls in blood.
Most psychopaths do not commit murder. Still, it would be good to identify the few who do. At least it would be a start toward educating the public about the most dangerous personality disorder of the human race.