Dressed in a baggy orange prison uniform, her ankles cuffed together with a short chain, 15-year-old Kayla LaSala takes baby steps down the hallway of the Mercer County Courthouse in Princeton, West Virginia. As she approaches the courtroom, she sees her grandmother Betty Johnson sitting on a bench.
Betty calls out a greeting but doesn’t get up. Personal contact with prisoners is not allowed. At 5’3″ and 100 pounds, Kayla hardly looks like someone who could be capable of stabbing her father to death. Yet murder is the crime for which she’s about to be sentenced.
A Brutal Crime
Few crimes are as shocking as a child killing a parent. But this kind of murder, called parricide, is not as rare as you might think. The FBI reports over 200 parricides a year – and many of those killers are under 18 years old.
It’s true that everyone gets angry at her parents now and then and may even say harsh things in the heat of an argument like ‘I wish you were dead.’ But saying it and meaning it are two different things.
What drives a teen to actually murder her mom or dad? In most situations, says Paul Mones, a Portland, Oregon-based children’s rights attorney and author of When a Child Kills, they are abused teens who have been bottling up their frustration and fear for years.
“They’re typically not violent kids, but years of abuse or neglect builds up and results in brutality,” he explains, adding that research shows that more than 90 percent of teens who kill their parents have been physically or mentally abused by them.
That’s exactly what Kayla’s lawyer says happened to her. When Kayla was a little girl, both of her parents drank and did drugs. They’d get in physical fights all the time and Kayla would hide in the closet, terrified.
Her mom was arrested on drug charges when Kayla was 8 years old – and while her mother was in police custody, Kayla says, her father started molesting her.
When Kayla later told her mother what happened, she says, her mom didn’t believe her. “She said I was only saying that because I missed her and wanted her to come home,” remembers Kayla.
On February 24, 2004, when Kayla was 14, she woke up to find her dad pulling her shorts down, and something in her snapped – she couldn’t take it any more.
She managed to push him hard enough to knock him off balance, then ran into the kitchen and grabbed a knife from the counter. When she returned to her room, her dad was standing in the doorway. Kayla plunged the knife into his neck and continued stabbing him all over his face and body, 106 more times.
Searching For a Motive
It’s hard to understand how anyone could commit murder. Why didn’t Kayla just run away? Call for help? How could killing her dad be the only solution? Experts say that teens who have been severely abused, as Kayla says she was, often don’t feel that they have any other choice. They do the only thing they think will get them out of their immediate situation.
“Many teens consider running away but have nowhere to go,” says Kathleen M. Heide, Ph.D., a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, and author of Why Kids Kill Parents. “Those who do run often get picked up by the police and brought back home, or return on their own because they have no means to support themselves. Then they feel trapped.”
On top of that, Heide says, science reveals that all teens – even those who aren’t abused – have difficulty seeing the consequences of their actions because the part of the brain that controls rational thought isn’t fully developed yet. And teens who have suffered traumas, like sexual or other physical abuse, are even more likely to base their actions on impulse or emotion rather than on logic.
But not all teens who kill their parents have been abused. According to Heide, who has spent more than 20 years researching parricides, there are other categories that parent-killers fall into: Some kids might be mentally ill, to the point of being delusional and hearing voices.
Others might be what’s called dangerously antisocial. Heide says that these kids may never have learned how to deal with not getting what they want because their parents failed to set limits when they were very young. As a result, they have trouble accepting authority when they get older, and kill as a way to get something they want – like money or freedom.
No Easy Answers
It’s not always easy to tell which category teen killers fall into though. Take Nicole Kasinskas, for example. When the New Hampshire teen met 18-year old William Sullivan Jr. online in 2003, she fell in love and decided to drop out of high school so she could move to Connecticut to be with him.
Police say her mother told the 16-year-old that she had to stay in school. And that’s when Nicole decided the only way to get what she wanted was to get rid of the person who was standing in her way.
According to news reports, on August 6, 2003, Nicole and William put in action the plan they’d been devising for months: While Nicole acted as a lookout from a nearby 7-Eleven, William entered her house and stabbed her mom to death.
When Nicole pleaded guilty to planning the murder, neighbors were horrified, telling local newspapers that they always saw her as a good kid who was really close with her mom. Why, they wondered, would she kill her just so that she could move in with her boyfriend?
From the little released about Nicole’s case at press time, it could look like she selfishly killed her mother in order to get the freedom she wanted. But experts warn against making quick judgments about teens’ motives in crimes like hers. “Often when you dig deeper in these cases,” says Heide, “you find out that there was something else going on.”
Such is the case with 16-year-old Rachelle Waterman of Craig, Alaska. On the surface, Rachelle’s life seemed average: She came from a middle-class family, was an honor student, sang in the choir, and played on the school’s championship volleyball team. So in November 2004, the community was shocked when her mom’s body was found bludgeoned to death and burned in a minivan – and Rachelle was charged with her murder.
But as police investigated the crime, they uncovered something disturbing. Like many teens, Rochelle had kept a blog, where she posted entries about her everyday life that anyone could read on the Web. Called “My Crappy Life: The Inside Look of an Insane Person,” Rachelle’s blog shed some light on what may have been going on in her mind for the months leading up to her mom’s death.
Rachelle often wrote about the alleged verbal abuse she endured at home. According to her blog, Rachelle’s mom would ground her if she got a B on her report card, and frequently kicked her out of the house.
She also claimed that her mom constantly criticized her looks and forced to diet, even though she was average size. (She posted pictures of herself to prove it.) Just before prom in the spring of 2003, Rachelle wrote in her blog: “I have this awesome black velvet Japanese dress … though female parental unit spent a while on how I’m ugly and then went on to how I couldn’t pull it off. “
A year and a half later, police say, Rachelle convinced two ex-boyfriends to murder her mother.
Was Rachelle severely mentally abused by her mother, or is she a cold-blooded teen killer? Her dad, a real estate agent who was away on business at the time of the murder, has claimed publicly that he thinks Rachelle exaggerated on her blog, but that he’ll support her during the trial, which was scheduled for late August as of press time.
In the meantime, some people are making their own judgments about her online calling her “an insufferable little brat” and “scum.” Those close to her are just plain confused. “Whenever she’d tell me about fights with her mom, I’d think, ‘Who doesn’t fight with their mom?'” one friend, who didn’t want to be named, told a local newspaper.
Sealing Their Fate
The reality is, whether or not any of these girls was abused, they each committed a terrible crime according to the law. And the law says they have to pay. Attorney Paul Mones says that kids who are charged with parricide are usually convicted and go to prison for years – even if there is proof that they were severely abused by their parents.
Since Nicole pleaded guilty, she faces 40 years to life in prison. And if found guilty after her trial, Rachelle could get a life sentence as well.
On April 13, 2005, Kayla learned the consequences of her actions. At her sentencing hearing, a West Virginia judge listened to Kayla tell her story. “I killed my father,” she admitted. Then she went on to describe how he raped her the first time when she was 8: “He came in my bedroom when I was playing and he put me on the bed and had sex with me.”
But members of Kayla’s father’s family were in court, too. They told the judge she hadn’t been abused at all. One at a time, they stood up and begged the judge to send Kayla away for the maximum sentence of 40 years. “She stabbed my uncle over and over and over again,” said one of Kayla’s cousins. “She had a choice, your honor. Her choice was to murder him.”
The judge didn’t go for the maximum, but he did sentence 15-year-old Kayla to 25 years in prison. Unless she’s paroled early, she’ll be 40 years old when she finally has the chance to start putting her life back together again.
If you’re being abused, you may feel trapped, but there is help. Call Childhelp USA’s National Child Abuse hotline at 800-422-4453 to talk to someone confidentially. If you’ve run away and need shelter or other assistance, call the National Runaway Switchboard (NRS) at 800-RUNAWAY (800-786-2929).