True Crime: Monsters Among Us

by B.W. Thines




Monsters are both made and born.  All of these monsters have on thing in common – they suffer from mental illness.

What causes mental illness?  Causes of most mental illnesses are not known but it is becoming clear through research that many of these conditions are caused by a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors.

Biological factors include genetics (heredity).  Mental illness sometimes runs in families, suggesting that people who have a family member with a mental illness may be somewhat more likely to develop one themselves.  Susceptibility is passed on in families through genes.  Experts believe many mental illnesses are linked to abnormalities in genes.  Mental illness itself occurs from the interaction of multiple genes and other factors which include: stress, abuse or a traumatic event which can influence or trigger an illness in a person who has an inherited susceptibility.

Certain infections have been linked to brain damage and the development of mental illness.  A condition known as pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder (PANDA) is associated with the streptococcus bacteria and has been linked to mental illness in children.

Prenatal damage is another factor.  Some evidence suggests that a disruption of early fetal brain development or trauma that occurs at the time of birth can cause permanent damage to the child’s brain.  Women who smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs while pregnant can cause permanent damage to the child they are carrying.  Child abuse, such as shaking a baby or severe blows to the head of a young child can cause brain injury and contribute to mental illness.

A child living in poverty is most likely to grow up with a developmental disorder due to poor nutrition and exposure to toxins, such as lead paint.

Monsters are also made from substance abuse.  Long-term substance abuse has been linked to anxiety, depression and paranoia.  People on drugs tend to use poor judgment, which leads them to commit various crimes.

Following are the stories of people who for various reasons became monsters among us.



Jimmy the Fuse Filiaggi


Jimmy was of Italian ancestry with a  pretty good upbringing.  But throughout Jimmy’s life he showed signs of a very short temper, the reason for his nickname.  Filiaggi bit off the end of his brother Tony’s finger and took a piece out of his school teacher’s hand.  He also attacked a nun which, not surprisingly, resulted in expulsion from school.  And yet he was also a smart kid who graduated with honors and went into finance.  On the night of January 24, 1994, Jimmy got really upset during an argument with his estranged wife and feeling threatened by him she called 911.  He shot her in the head.

Facing the death penalty Jimmy’s defense team brought in Emil Coccaro, a dynamic worldwide authority on serotonin and aggression.  A spinal tap and consequent biochemistry assay conducted by Coccaro convincingly demonstrated that Filiaggi had extremely low levels of serotonin.

And that was not all, Coccaro also found that Filiaggi had very high levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that promotes reward seeking behavior and drug abuse.  Filiaggi had the worst of both worlds: a combination of reward seeking behavior together with reduced inhibition from drug abuse.  His foot was pushing down hard on the accelerator for rewards and without inhibitions never applying the brakes.  It was this chemical imbalance, part nature, part ill-nurture that likely sent Filiaggi off the rails with the estranged wife he wanted back.  Most of us have neurochemical brakes at our disposal, not Filiaggi.

Filiaggi was found guilty.  The chemical defense did not work and Filiaggi was executed by lethal injection on April 4, 2007.



Phineas Gage


Gage was a well respected, well liked, industrious and responsible foreman working for the Great Western Railway.  One fateful day on September 13, 1848 he was organizing the destruction of a large boulder lying in the path of the projected railway track.  The work team had chiseled a hole into the boulder for the gunpowder and sand.  The gun powder was then poured into the hole.

The next step should have been an apprentice pouring sand on top of the gun powder.  Gage was standing by with a metal tamping rod that was 3 feet, seven inches long and 1.25 inches in diameter.  He was on the verge of using the rod to tamp down and compress the sand to prepare the explosion.  At that critical moment Gage was distracted by a coworker.  After a few seconds he turned back to the boulder believing that the sand had been placed on top of the powder.  The metal rod rubbed against the rock and created a spark that ignited the gun powder.  It transformed the tamping rod into a lethal spear that blasted its way right through the head of Phineas Gage.

Gage had been stooped over the hole as he tamped down with the rod.  The rod entered his lower left cheek and exited from the top-middle part of his head, creating an open flap of bone on the top of his skull.  The deadly missile flew through the air, landing 80 feet away, while Gage was shot to the ground.

All the railway workers thought he was dead as a door nail (or tamping rod).  But after a couple minutes he began to twitch and moan and they realized as only railway men can that he was still among the living.  They put Gage into an oxcart and took him to the nearest town.  He was carried upstairs into a hotel room and a doctor was called.  The doctor treated him with rhubarb and castor oil.

You would think that Gage stood not a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving.  But what a miraculous remedy rhubarb and castor oil turned out to be!  Gage lost his left eye but in no less than three weeks he was out of bed and back on his feet.  Within a month Gage was walking around town creating a new life for himself.  And it truly was a new life; he was not the same man as before the accident.  His friends, acquaintances and employers thought he was no longer Phineas Gage.

Phineas had been transformed from a well controlled and well respected railway worker into a pseudo-psychopath.  Like many patients with frontal lobe damage to the brain, he became impulsive, sexually promiscuous and a drunkard.




B.W. Thines is a 73-year-old retired person.  He is the author of the collection, Stories from the Elk Hotel.