That remains the question on many minds six weeks after the deadly workplace rampage at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.
It could be months before investigators discover what set off the worst mass shooting in the region’s history.
In nearly one-fourth of similar tragedies across the country last year, no motive was found, according to a U.S. Secret Service report released last week.
And if investigators do find something — the spark, the thing that pushed DeWayne Craddock over the edge that day — it still won’t make sense to the rest of us. Because, thankfully, the vast majority of humans would never — could never — do what he did, under any circumstances.
Plumbing the depths of a mass shooting is a minefield.
Details are painful for families and friends. Co-workers and community are traumatized. Media outlets grapple with how much to even utter the shooter’s name, concerned about awarding the notoriety some killers might seek.
But examining these episodes and the people behind them is the only hope.
“Fail to dissect,” said Jason Parker, a psychologist and senior lecturer at Old Dominion University, and society is doomed “for history to keep repeating itself.”
In the aftermath of each, familiar debates emerge.
Firearms advocates, concerned about the possibility of more gun control, point to mental illness as the culprit.
Mental health advocates, concerned about stigmatizing the millions of harmless people with some form of mental illness, point to the easy availability of guns.
Both arguments oversimplify what just happened, said Frank Farley, a former president of the American Psychological Association and more recently, the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence.
Craddock, a public works engineer, turned his workplace into a war zone — killing 11 of his colleagues and a contractor, and wounding four others before dying in a hail of police gunfire.
“In my long career, I’ve found it’s nearly always due to a recipe with more than one ingredient,” said Farley, who teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia and is an internationally recognized expert on extreme behavior.
Shooting sprees erupt when firearms are blended with a rare type of mental illness that Farley says no one truly understands.
The go-to reference in his field — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — contains 400 categories of mental illness, and “some people are very willing to slap a diagnosis on these kinds of mass shooters,” Farley said. “But the problem is those diagnostic systems were not developed using mass murderers as subjects because most of them wind up dead — killed by their own hand or the cops — so we can only study them post-mortem. The fact is, we don’t have a really significant, valid diagnosis for people like this at this time. We haven’t been able to get between their ears.”
There’s no accepted profile either. Most have been male, like Craddock, and 20 to 40 years old. He was 40.
But while most have been white, Craddock was black.
“That’s unusual,” Farley said, “but then again, the country is mostly white. Too many broad categories. We’re really just thrashing around.”
Researchers have collected enough data, though, to loosely sort mass killers into three basic “reason” groups.
One, referred to as “expression,” includes perpetrators who believe there are no solutions for their problems so they explode, releasing out-of-control emotions on random victims.
Another, labeled “manipulation,” includes those who use violence to try to control others or get something they want.
The third — “retaliation” — covers payback scenarios, when killers target victims they feel have hurt them or someone they love.
Based on what is known about workplace shootings and the information that has been released about this one, Farley speculates that Craddock found fuel in some sense of retaliation. In the Secret Service analysis, nearly half of last year’s attackers had apparently selected their targets in advance. Craddock bypassed some co-workers while shooting others. Nine of the 12 he killed were shot in the head.
“That strikes me as very precise,” Farley said. “Seems like the idea was to put them down and know they’re not getting up.”
Whatever beef Craddock might have had — real or perceived — he was almost certainly severely mentally ill.
“Lots of people lose it — maybe they even punch someone — but they lose it short of killing,” Farley said, adding that anyone who would do what Craddock did is “a sick individual. We just don’t know enough about his sickness.”
So far, Craddock is even more of an enigma than most mass shooters. Warning signs usually precede such episodes — alarming behavior, run-ins with the law, frightening manifestos posted on social media.
According to the Secret Service, nearly all of the perpetrators in 2018 had made threatening or concerning comments before they struck. Two-thirds had known mental health problems. One-third had a history of serious domestic violence.
Little of that has surfaced with Craddock, at least publicly. Three of the victims’ families are asking the city to release his personnel record — one victim told her husband she was afraid of Craddock — but the city has refused, saying his performance at work was “satisfactory” and he was an employee in good standing.
Most of his co-workers who’ve been interviewed described him as quiet, polite and professional. No obvious red flags in his personal life.
On Friday, May 31, Craddock spent hours out on a job site, like normal. He did resign that day — the city hasn’t said what time he sent that email — but even that clue contained no hint of what was to come.
“It has been a pleasure to serve the City,” he wrote, saying he was quitting “due to personal reasons” and giving the standard two-week notice.
By 4 p.m., he was armed with two .45-caliber handguns, a silencer and multiple extended magazine clips — all legally purchased. Witnesses said he showed no emotion as he walked through Building 2, calmly pulling the trigger. His eyes appeared blank. Co-workers who encountered him between shots thought he was trying to help them. They had no idea he was the gunman they were desperately trying to escape.
Farley called it “one of the coldest mass shootings I know of. He wasn’t screaming or ranting or raging. He knew the people and it was face-to-face. Close-range and messy. And yet he kept going. One after the other after the other. It’s like the ultimate heart of darkness. A lack of human goodness of any sort.”
Considering that coldness, “some would say he was a psychopath, and that’s probably one ingredient in the recipe,” Farley said, “but how difficult any diagnosis of this behavior would be. It’s just light years beyond normal.”
Craddock didn’t stop until his magazines were empty and he’d been mortally wounded by police.
“Once again, the key player is dead,” Farley said. “We desperately need more research in this area, but the only insight we can get into this guy now will be second- or third-hand.”
Figuring out the real why is complicated but critical. Mass shootings aren’t a new phenomenon — the phrase “going postal” was born decades ago after a rash of shootings carried out by postal workers against their colleagues. But the number of rampages has steadily increased over the past 30 years, according to statistics published in the Public Library of Science journal.
And even though mass attacks account for only a tiny fraction of violence-related deaths in the U.S., they have a disproportionate effect, sending a ripple of despair far beyond the communities where they occur.
The Secret Service did its analysis “in an effort to better understand how such attacks unfold and how to prevent them,” according to the Associated Press.
In a nation where people don’t get locked up before they commit crimes, intervention will always be tricky.
“But if we knew the majority of ingredients that go into it,” Farley said, “maybe we could force them into treatment. It would have to be solid though. I can imagine the debates that would go on.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.