A new book by Northwestern Medicine® neuropsychologist Robert Hanlon, PhD, associate professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences and neurology, pieces together the circumstances that led a small-town Illinois teenager to brutally murder his parents and three siblings and offers warning signs that may prevent such tragedies in the future.
“Survived By One: The Life and Mind of a Family Mass Murderer,” written in part with convicted killer Tom Odle, offers rare insight at how child abuse, family dynamics, and a child’s antisocial behaviors and drug use can result in the ultimate act of domestic violence.
It was an extremely appalling and horrific case,” Hanlon said. “The mass murder of a family by one of the children, which is technically an act of parricidal familicide, is rare. Tom Odle was one of the eight individuals known to have been sentenced to death for this type of crime from 1870 to 2003.
Hanlon has spent decades researching the minds of murderers. His most recent published research focuses on intelligence differences of murderers who kill impulsively versus those who kill as the result of a premeditated strategic plan.
The book outlines warning signs to look for in someone capable of committing a crime such as Odle’s:
- A history of chronic physical, sexual or emotional abuse
- Worsening depression
- Social isolation
- Increasing drug and/or alcohol abuse
- Increase in aggressive behavior
- Increase in impulsive violence directed toward others or objects
- Recent loss of a job
- Recent loss of a friend or relative
- Recent romantic rejection
Odle murdered his family in 1985 when he was just 18 years old. One by one in the course of a single day, Odle either stabbed or strangled his father, Bob, mother, Carolyn, brothers, Sean and Scott, and sister, Robyn.
In the 1980s, Americans were not as in tune to the positive impact proper interventions can have on troubled families, Hanlon said. Yet, if more people would have spoken up and intervened, Hanlon believes that the crime could have been prevented then and such crimes can be prevented in the future.
“It is important to increase awareness and educate people about domestic homicides and warning signs,” Hanlon said. “If people notice the signs, take that step and report what they see, people’s lives can be saved.”
Hanlon met Odle in the early 2000s when Odle’s defense team retained him during an appeals process to conduct a neuropsychological evaluation of the then death row inmate. He found that Odle showed signs of antisocial personality disorder, something other neuropsychologists had already uncovered. His IQ was high, and his mental abilities were intact.
After the death sentences of all Illinois death row inmates were commuted in 2003, Hanlon received a letter from Odle, who was looking to better understand antisocial personality disorder and why he had committed such heinous crimes.
“Here was an individual who had been on death row for 17 years and then his death sentence was commuted to life without parole,” Hanlon said. “He was suddenly facing a future he never expected and was very interested in trying to understand why he had done what he had done.”
Through a series of letters, Hanlon guided Odle through a therapeutic exercise in which Odle recalled his struggles through childhood and adolescence.
He explained in detail what it was like growing up with a physically and emotionally abusive mother who didn’t allow him to have much social interaction and a father who was passive and knowingly let the abuse occur.
“His mother was very selective with her abuse and only directed it at Tom and his brother Sean,” Hanlon said. “Sean was briefly removed from the family home after he told school officials that he was often denied food and that at different times his mother had chained him and Tom to their beds while she went out at night. He was later returned to the home after the parents begrudgingly followed a parenting program from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.”
Odle also recalled his involvement with neighborhood theft, excessive drug use, feelings of depression and complicated relationships with women, friends, and family. By November 1985, his parents no longer wanted him to live in the family home, and the day of the murders was his deadline for moving out.
“This was a rebellious, oppositional, defiant, manipulative child, who endured years of abuse from his mother — without protection from his father — and in this final moment of abandonment, he ultimately retaliated and sought revenge in a drug-fueled execution of his family,” Hanlon said.