Someone should have known

October 9, 2006


How can anyone harbor a deep-seated grudge for 20 years without anyone being aware that his rage might one day explode into mayhem and murder?

On the surface, Charles Carl Roberts IV was a doting dad and a loving husband. He was attentive to his family and cared for his three children, along with his wife of 10 years. Questioned after his murder-suicide spree, family and acquaintances said they were at a loss, totally surprised. You have to wonder how that could be. And yet, apparently, as in so many other cases, a man can be in torture, and plain horror, and stockpile the means of horror, without anyone seeing, or knowing, or suspecting.

Consider what he did and how he did it. Last Monday, he dropped his children off at the school bus as he did most mornings. But on that day, Roberts, 32, moved methodically. He backed a borrowed pickup truck to the doors of the West Nickel Mines Amish School and casually unloaded his frightening cargo. He carried his 9mm handgun, a 12-gauge shotgun and a rifle onto the school grounds and then retrieved from the truck 600 rounds of ammunition, a stun gun, two knives, and two cans of smokeless powder, according to police. He also carried into the little school several planks of lumber, plastic-and-wire twist ties, rolls of tape, K-Y lubricant, assorted tools, and a change of clothing.

Roberts, who left suicide notes for his wife and children at his home, was prepared for a long siege. As of this writing, no family member or acquaintance has come forward to say he or she saw or feared something.

He allowed 15 boys to leave the school, along with a teacher, a pregnant woman, and a few mothers with small children. One 9-year-old girl slipped away with her brother. Then Roberts calmly took aside and bound the girls. He shot most of them at close range. Police said Roberts took his own life. Authorities said that the surprising thing was he had a clean record.

Some of Roberts' suicide notes expressed hatred for himself, for life and for God. And Roberts had told his wife, Marie, that 20 years earlier he had molested two family members - between ages 3 and 5 - when he was 12. Mental-health practitioners could only guess as to why a seemingly rational and harmless man would suddenly go berserk.

Rogers Wilson, a psychiatrist at Friends Hospital in Philadelphia, was reluctant to discuss Roberts' specific explosion, because, he said, "I don't have all the facts."

However, in many studies of workplace violence Wilson has often found that people with impulsive behavior, military backgrounds, low self-esteem, or aggressive impulses will explode without warning.

"There are many sources of unspoken and hidden despair, and once an individual goes over the edge, his or her behavior may appear to be a random act," Wilson said.

For her part, Marie Roberts steadfastly characterized her husband as a loving spouse and a caring father, not a homicidal killer. She asked people to pray for the families of the dead - and for her own family as well.

Wednesday, dozens of Amish families gathered to pray for Roberts' forgiveness. Other sympathizers, who were not Amish, joined in the prayers. They will need that strength, because acts like these surpass understanding. Perhaps we don't see these things growing up among us because we can't possibly imagine them ever happening. Thus, we don't look, we don't see.

I keep coming back to that familiar refrain - that Roberts' act came as a complete surprise to everyone who knew him. Or so they said. It's hard to know for sure. Family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances often can see warning signs and say nothing. I'm not suggesting that anyone around Roberts has spoken anything but the truth as they know it. And if it's true - if a man can hide such methodical, explosive catastrophe behind the veneer of normality, without anyone suspecting him - it makes you realize how very, very distant one person is from another.

- Claude Lewis is a retired columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


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