What we can learn from the Cleveland Killer’s Desperation

You may have heard about the man on CNN who shot and killed another man on Easter Sunday, streaming it Live to Facebook. You may have heard he did so after having lost all his money gambling, and dealing with a breakup from his girlfriend. You may have heard his name as the Cleveland Killer, or known it as Steve Stephens. And you may have heard he was hiding out in Erie, PA (my current city). You may have also heard that the man was caught by a McDonalds employee, and that the Cleveland Killer turned the gun on himself and ended his own life.

Yesterday, I heard Steve Stephens was in the Erie area, hiding out near Harborcreek- not far from my current residence. At around 11am this morning, while at work, I saw multiple police cars zoom past. Usually, this doesn’t strike me as odd because the downtown Erie area is always bustling. But today, it seemed they had a bigger purpose, and I even looked up quizzically and went “Geez…”

Later, the news broke out that the Cleveland Killer, Steve Stephens, had been caught, and killed himself. Those police cars had just received the tip-off. The man who called it in, a McDonalds employee, was awarded 50K.

While I heard others discuss the man, and how heinous and ghastly his call for attention was, I couldn’t withdraw my empathy bone.

Many of the emotions he was feeling were universal- if not all. We don’t all go around shooting up the place, or killing strangers in response to these emotions… but in our own way we grieve losses. I’m in no way writing this post to take away from the crime this man committed, or the extreme loss both families are currently experiencing given this man’s decisions. I thought this was a good opportunity to review this man’s motives, and maybe see the root of it’s causes, to learn for our own lives and survival, and how best to cope in times of desperation.

And the root problems?

Emotions, the inability to know how to handle them, and fear of rejection when asking for help.

Desperation

The Cleveland Killer desperately cried out for attention online, asking the internet to tell him to stop. This was his (albeit disturbing) way of reaching out for support and guidance from his community. Perhaps he felt alienated and that no one could understand his desperate state. Perhaps he had never learned the tools on how to ask others for help. Perhaps he was not taught to share his emotions and so he bottled them up, and in rage it manifested. In a video, where he details some of his motives, he speaks about how he tried to talk to his mom about feeling suicidal and wanting to harm others, but he was ignored and dismissed.

Grief

Grieving the loss of his fortunes and girlfriend made him feel insignificant. Maybe he felt the only way he was relevant to the world is if he had money, or if he could support loved ones. And without his girlfriend (who he reportedly said drove him crazy) he was seemingly losing everything. He was going through his own grieving process. And in the depth of a depression, fueled by hate toward himself for losing the money, and losing the lady, he blamed himself for everything. Despite openly “blaming” everyone else in his video, he ultimately blamed himself, but was in denial to save himself from the burden of taking responsibility.

Wanting Connection

Haven’t we all felt disconnected and unloved? Haven’t we all wished someone sent us the occasional “hey, I care about you.” message or text, or wished someone could put a hand on our shoulder as we felt awful. The Cleveland Killer cried out for attention online- and because he felt disconnected and angry, insecure about asking for help, he shielded his intent and desires behind angry words “stop me if you can” instead of “Please give me guidance, I feel desperate,” – because it’s vulnerable to ask for help, especially if we might be rejected. Apparently the Cleveland Killer described and blamed his ex-girlfriend, and tried to ask his mom for help, but he didn’t receive the support he felt he needed

“When it comes to my shit, no one gives a fuck.” Stephens reported in his motive video, after killing Robert Godwin.

Steve Stephens blamed everyone for his problems, because he was scared to take all that responsibility on himself. He didn’t want to do it, it seemed like too much. He didn’t believe he could do it anymore.

Wanting To Be Significant. To Leave a Legacy

We all look for significance in our lives. Some of us go out to sell a best-selling book, other’s win the Nobel Peace Prize. Even at his wits end, The Cleveland Killer wanted to leave a legacy: Go out with a bang, that’s certainly how he wanted to go. He wanted to leave a mark on the world, so somebody- anybody would remember him, and feel for him… to understand him. Ultimately, he just wanted to be understood, which is why he made those videos, and why he did them in live time, adding to the urgency.

Facebook live- the New Crisis Line

When you’re depressed and suicidal, and attend therapy, they give you a Crisis phone number to call in moments you may harm yourself or others. These days, it’s so easy to record video and upload it to the internet- sometimes you don’t even have to click a button. The Cleveland Killer saw his opportunity for direct connection with others… and reached out. It may seem like he had decided to go on a killing spree, but he just wanted people to take him seriously. In his motive video, he describes having killed multiple people- but it seems to be all an act. There was no evidence of other murders. He may have said this so that people would take him more seriously, and be more concerned. He wanted to be seen as disturbed, wanting to be helped.

Forgive Him and Forgive Yourself

The victim’s family was able to forgive the Cleveland Killer saying, “I honestly can say right now that I hold no animosity in my heart against this man because I know that he’s a sick individual,” Debbie Godwin (told to CNN).

In my own experience, it can be hard to forgive people who do crazy, unspeakable things- including myself… actually, especially myself. Now, I didn’t try to kill anyone else, but I did attempt suicide multiple times. (Yeah, dark days…) In crazy, desperate times, I tried to end my life. Using similar tactics to find connection before I took myself off this planet, I sent text messages to friends, and shielded my sadness behind anger and blaming others. Ultimately, I just needed to know someone cared: “Someone tell me you care… someone please take care of me because I feel so lost and I’m afraid I can’t take care of myself.” I was afraid to be vulnerable and say “I feel sad like I might hurt myself” because it would be seen as weak if I asked for help. Or if I did ask for help, it didn’t get the attention it needed, and I would blame myself and be angry at myself for not speaking up and communicating better. My fear prevented me from speaking my mind honestly, so I hid behind denial and anger- leading me to take pills.

Luckily, people cared. Luckily, all my attempts failed and I can sit here with the knowledge of what it’s like to put loved ones through those ordeals, and come out the other end, being able forgive myself for doing so. And it didn’t happen overnight… and it’s still not a perfect system- Some days it’s hard to forgive myself for acting rashly. Somedays I blame myself for even asking for help and attention when I felt so desperate. But if I had been rejected in those moments of desperation-how would I have been able to pull myself out of that rut?

I probably wouldn’t have.

He’s a Mirror- But Don’t Be Scared!

I find the people that judge Steve Stephens the most harshly are looking into an uncomfortable mirror, resisting some aspect of themselves that they can’t forgive. Their own grief? Their own desperation? Their own fear? Certainly, not everyone gets to this point, killing another human, but it is fear that hinders our ability to forgive this man. If we forgive him for his heinous crime, does that mean we accept his crime?? Does that mean we will be seen as deranged ourselves? Are we capable of something like that?

Yes, we are all capable. Yes, we can all hit bottom. Yes, we can all be rejected when we hit bottom, leading to feelings of desperation and loss. Yes… it’s possible. And YES it feels TERRIFYING.

Taking personal responsibility, believing in our own strength and peace of mind is what saves us. Worrying that some big change in our own life could ruin us, bring us to the depths like it did Steve Stephens is what blocks our ability to forgive: Our own fear.

I know I’ve been there. But I also know I’m capable of surviving turmoil, though I know what it’s like to feel like I couldn’t (should probably just give up). I know that it is because of the grace and love of others that I am able to sit here today. I also see Steve Stephens inability to believe in himself and his ability to ask others for help and support.

It’s all such a shame really. If only he could have loved himself better, this would never have happened.

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