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A cautionary tale: Rock star psychologist gets it wrong

“When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail.” — Abraham Maslow

I have a book in my library by J. Reid Meloy, Ph.D., called The Psychopathic Mind—Origins, Dynamics, and Treatment. I struggled through about half of it, and finally gave up. Meloy is a forensic psychologist, and the book appears to be for professionals in the field—he’s written 10 books and authored or co-authored 180 peer-reviewed papers. Meloy’s specialties include stalking, violence, threat assessment, mass murder, serial killing and sexual homicide.

When mass murders go on a rampage, the media often turn to Meloy for commentary. After the Fort Hood shootings in 2009, for example, ABC news quoted him:

Mass murderers tend to come in two types, according to academic articles authored by forensic psychologist J. Reid Meloy. One type is predatory, premeditated and emotionless. The other acts out from anger, fear, or response to a perceived imminent threat or trigger.

Timothy Masters case

Back in 1999, Meloy testified in the case of a murder that took place in 1987 in Fort Collins, Colorado. A 37-year-old woman named Peggy Hettrick was killed, and her body sexually mutilated. Twelve years later, Timothy Lee Masters, who was 15 at the time of the murder and lived next to where the body was found, was charged.

There was no physical evidence connecting Masters to the crime—the case against him was purely circumstantial:

  • Masters was the first person to see the body lying in a field, but he did not report it. Masters said he thought it was a mannequin, and a prank.
  • Masters’ mother, who had red hair like the victim, had died, and the murder took place close to the four-year anniversary of her death.
  • Shortly after the murder, police searched Masters’ bedroom and found 2,200 pages of writings and drawings depicting violence and gore. Masters said he created them because he wanted to be a horror writer like Stephen King.

But J. Reid Meloy looked at some of those drawings, and testified in court that they were a “fantasy rehearsal” for the crime. Masters drew a picture on the day he saw the victim. It depicted one figure dragging another that appeared to be wounded or dead. The body being dragged was riddled with arrows.

Ignoring the arrows—there were no arrows in the actual murder—here’s how Meloy interpreted the picture, according to FortCollinsNow.com:

“This is not a drawing of the crime scene as seen by Tim Masters on the morning of Feb. 11 as he went to school,” Meloy wrote. “This is an accurate and vivid drawing of the homicide as it is occurring. It is unlikely that Tim Masters could have inferred such criminal behavior by just viewing the corpse, unless he was an experienced forensic investigator. It is much more likely, in my opinion, that he was drawing the crime to rekindle his memory of the sexual homicide he committed the day before.”

Based in a large degree on the testimony of J. Reid Meloy, Ph.D., who said he fit the profile of a sexual predator, Timothy Masters was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Cop indicted for perjury

This story is in the news again because Lt. Jim Broderick of the Fort Collins police department, the lead investigator in the 1999 case against Timothy Masters, was just indicted on eight counts of perjury.

The indictment includes exactly what Broderick wrote in his application for an arrest warrant for Masters about his obsessive fantasies, the impulsive nature of the crime, the fact that the teenager was a loner. The indictment says that although Broderick wrote the statements in the arrest warrant application, he did not believe them to be true.

Masters had served nine years in prison, until 2008, when he was released. DNA evidence proved that he had nothing to do with the murder.

Later that year, Masters filed a civil suit against Broderick and the Larimer County prosecutors in the case—Terry Gilmore and Jolene Blair, both of whom had become judges. The suit charged that they withheld evidence from the defense team and other experts, including Dr. Reid Meloy.

Larimer County settled the suit for $4.1 million. The city of Fort Collins settled for $5.9 million. The two judges were reprimanded.

And now, Broderick may go to jail.

Forensic error

Why did Dr. J Reid Meloy get it so wrong in this case? For one thing, the police apparently did not give him evidence that might have cast doubt on Masters’ culpability. For another, Meloy never interviewed Timothy Masters in person. He based his conclusions on Masters’ violent short stories and crude drawings.

For more on the role that the famous psychologist played in this tragedy, read The Tim Masters Case: Chasing Reid Meloy on FortCollinsNow.com.

For more about the doubts other police officers had in the case, read Police split over conviction in Colorado slaying, on CNN.com.

Be careful

Why am I writing about this terrible miscarriage of justice? It is a warning to all of us to be careful. If someone like J. Reid Meloy, Ph.D., the respected forensic expert, can be wrong, so can we.

Knowing that psychopaths exist, and being able to spot them, is important. It can save our lives. But we have to be careful in deciding who is a psychopath, and who is not. I clearly remember receiving e-mail from a woman, and a separate e-mail from the man she thought might be a psychopath. After reading the e-mails, I could not tell who was the abuser, and who was the victim.

Personally, I think Meloy’s mistake was that he did not meet Masters. Perhaps if he had, he would have felt that something was amiss—Masters never deviated from his claim that he was innocent, and never deviated from his story.

Our intuition is probably our most accurate tool in evaluating the possibility danger. If we listen to it, without clouding it with preconceptions, it will steer us in the right direction.

But in order for our intuition to work, we need the right input. Whether we’re reading police reports, news stories or comments in the Lovefraud Blog, the information our intuition needs may very well be missing.



48 Comments on "A cautionary tale: Rock star psychologist gets it wrong"

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  1. Ox Drover says:

    Dear Gem, I think you have fenced it in! That sounds like a great description of Meloy’s writing. It may be that more learned people than I can decipher his messages, but I sure can’t see a lot of sense in it.

    Are you getting warm down there yet? Oh, how I wish I could come spend the winter in a WARM OZ but at least I am not arse deep in snow (yet anyway) like ErinB! LOL If I was wealthy I would follow the good weather around the world and always live in temperate climates, not too hot, not too cool! Oh, how I wish I had been born rich instead of so good looking! LOL ROTFLMAO !!!!

  2. geminigirl says:

    Oxy, you ARE RICH!
    Rich in gifts, personality, warmth, friends on LF, pluck, guts,brains,talent,stickability,common sense.humour.
    We on LF couldnt manage without you, you are a SHINING LIGHT!
    Yes, we are in Spring, its getting nice and warm, lots of rain and then lovely sunny days. All my zuccini plants are flowering, glorious huge, orange flowers!{Alll in giant pots.}. I also have columbines, galdioli,begonias,herbsa re doing great,bees everywhere. I feed my Lorikeets every day, we have up to six or more at a time feeding. They LOVE chopped apple, cucumber, and lettuce.
    Figsa pearing,{but we havent discovered a way yet to stop the bugs getting in them!}
    lots of Love, Gem.XX

  3. Ox Drover says:

    Dear Gem, you are right, I am wealthy beyond belief in the blessings I have every day! Would be nice to have some money too, though! LOL Oh, well…LOL

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