Trying to Fathom the Unfathomable
For who knows how long, C. J. Jones had been sending out flares.
In front of his home and at a Staten Island pool, he had apparently been lighting fires, flashes of heat and light that spoke, it turned out, of something more than just a fascination with flames. Inside, he burned.
The heat of that rage consumed the 14-year-old boy and left in its place, it would seem, an all-too-mature murderer. Early Thursday morning, so early all should have been still, he used a razor to slash the throats of his two younger sisters, Brittney Jones, 10, and Melonie Jones, 7, investigators said. Before he slit his own throat, they said, he set the fire that would take them all: the girls; C. J.; his brother, Jermaine Sinclair, 2; and his mother, Leisa Jones, 30.
Before the mind can try to grasp why, it stops at how. Were his younger siblings, the same ones he shuttled back and forth to school or day care, sleeping so soundly they made his work with the blade easier? Had he thought so far ahead that he intentionally set the fire near the door, as The Staten Island Advance reported, to ensure no one escaped? How could someone so young be so skilled in what criminologists call “family annihilation”?
Familicide — they also call it that — is common enough that a profile exists for those who commit it: usually white, a bread-winner, older. “It’s typically a husband or father who has suffered some major stress,” said Jack Levin, a sociologist and criminologist at Northeastern University. “He has lost his job and is deeply in debt or lost money in the market, and he thinks he’s protecting his family from suffering. Or he’s in the throes of a nasty divorce and decides to get even with his wife by taking what she loves most, which is the children.” In the few cases where it is a child, he said, the child is usually at least 16.
For the young adolescent who destroys himself and the family that surrounds him, no such profile exists; the numbers are too small for there to be anything typical. (Paul Mones, a children’s rights lawyer who has worked on hundreds of cases involving intrafamilial homicide, said he had seen only a few involving siblings killing siblings.) We can take comfort in such numbers, although small numbers are also discomfiting: With no profile, there is no way to predict when another comparable tragedy might occur. Who is the troubled fire-setter who will go on to other petty crimes, and who is the troubled fire-setter who will go on to commit a massacre?
Even if the experts cannot predict, they usually can explain. “The statistics would suggest there was probably family discord, disorganization, chaos — strife between family members and within this boy,” said Bradley Peterson, chief of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Columbia.
The neighbors saw mostly a happy, well-adjusted family; but then many also saw, in C. J., a loyal helper to his mother, a responsible young man who regularly ran his younger siblings to the pool and park. There was clearly more to C. J. than they could see, or even imagine in their darkest nightmares; the family’s life may prove equally surprising, and similarly troubling.
At a minimum, there was tremendous financial tension: one near-eviction after another. And this week had been a tough one for C. J.: On Monday, he was suspended from school.
“You’re the man of the house,” a family friend reminded him, suggesting that he behave accordingly.
It’s the rare 14-year-old who is up to that untimely challenge. For C. J., whose psychological problems had recently been noted by school officials, that challenge would seem even more overwhelming, especially given the family’s crumbling finances.
Ideally, even though the boy died with the crime, the police should conduct a psychological autopsy to shed light for mental health researchers, said J. Reid Meloy, an expert in forensic psychology and a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego. That would mean talking to loved ones, friends and teachers about the events leading up to that grim Thursday morning.
Maybe C. J. confided his plans or his problems at home, if he had any, to someone else. But in a family considered private, those secrets may have burned along with those who held them close, leaving the rest of us to wonder in the dark.