By Jesse Coleman
How does a person go from being an angry but law-abiding citizen to ruthless killer?
There are no clear-cut answers to this question, but there factors both within and without a person can take him or her over the edge, experts say. One thing is clear to at least one expert. There is no wide psychological chasm between a normal citizen and a killer.
Such was the case for Troy Kell. Kell”s story began outside Las Vegas, where in 1986, he and two accomplices lured James Cotton Kelly out into the Nevada desert. One of the defendants, 15-year-old Sandy Marie Shaw, claimed she wanted Kelly to be beaten for forcing her to have sex with him. Kell took it a step further and shot him six times in the head.
Apprehended by the police, Kell was remanded to Gunnison Prison in Utah, where in 1994, he attacked fellow inmate Lonnie Blackmon. In a well-planned operation, Kell made a homemade weapon and with a key he obtained from a fellow inmate, escaped from his handcuffs and stabbed Blackmon 67 times in the face, neck and chest. Through help and ingenuity, Kell bucked security and murdered a man who he claimed threatened his life.
Today Kell is on death row in the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Draper, Salt Lake County, and has recently appealed his death sentence. His behavior, however, has changed little since 1994. Two weeks ago, Kell managed to escape from his cell and beat fellow inmate Jacques Miranda before being brought under control.
According to Corrections Representative Jack Ford, Kell remains the most dangerous man on death row.
What could lead a person to commit such vicious crimes?
According to Criminology Expert Dr. L. Kay Gillespie, there are no clear lines between a killer and the rest of society in terms of psychological makeup.
“Any one of us could kill given the right circumstances,” Gillespie said. “There”s a false assumption that murderers are somehow different from the rest of us. That”s not the case. They are our brothers and our sons just as much as anyone else.”
Gillespie, who has studied life on death row for the past 15 years and has interviewed Kell, said prison institutions go a long way in creating a criminal.
“Once people become incarcerated, it becomes a whole new world. Prison becomes a society of its own. The better you adjust to prison, the less able you are to adjust to the outside society,” he said.
Gillespie also said gang membership and group loyalties play a large part in criminal behavior.
“Sometimes survival and group loyalties become an essential part of life,” he said.
This was certainly the case for Kell. He is currently the head of a white supremacist group in prison and directs the actions of two other groups. With 1,200 gang members in 5,500 member prison and the largest groups being white supremacists, Kell wields considerable power.
“If he said, I want this guy taken care of, they would do it,” Ford said.
Another possible motivation behind Kell”s murder of Blackmon may have been the mentality of kill or be killed.
Criminal Justice Expert Dr. Paul Johnson said oftentimes killers think in extremes.
“They have a him or me mentality and haven”t learned any measure of control. The anger comes quickly as soon as you find a scapegoat,” Johnson said.
Racial hatred has definitely played a major part in Kell”s criminal activity since entering the prison systems in 1986. Right after Kell”s murder of Blackmon in 1994, he stood up and strutted around the room chanting “white power.”
In Kell”s most recent attack on Miranda, the prison warden conceded it was racially motivated.
Johnson said that much racial hatred is motivated by fear.
“They believe they are under the heal of some amorphous power and identify with a certain race or religious group. Many that are motivated by this hatred are threatened and fear the power of others,” he said.
Those that know Kell in prison say he is a perfect gentleman, very sharp and articulate. Kell would described himself in a personal ad as “a man of compassion and romance. I love affection and closeness. I”m salubrious, refulgence, eclectic, high-spirited and adventurous.”
Yet, according to Ford, the officers in death row say, “whatever you do, don”t turn your back on him.”
According to the Attorney General”s Office, Kell deserves nothing short of death.
“This is a case where guilt is not an issue,” said Attorney General lawyer Laura Dupaix. “To not give him death is to give him a license to kill. Mr. Kell is a poster child for the death penalty.”