Late on the evening of Oct. 1, Casey Jordan’s phone lit up with a news alert that there had been a shooting in Las Vegas. She didn’t wait for the phone calls that would invariably come, and instead got in her car and started driving toward New York City.
For the past 20-plus years, the criminologist and professor at Western Connecticut State University had been making the drive from her home in New Milford to the city on nights and days and mornings such as this. In the city, she knew the cameras and lights and TV hosts would be waiting. “The bookers are going to want me there before my phone even rings,” she knew.
Jordan, 54, is a regular on CNN and other news networks to speak about mass shootings and true crime. Sometimes she gets paid for appearances, other times not. Sometimes, after dozens of unpaid appearances, she’ll ask herself why she bothers.
Then she remembers.
If she doesn’t do the on-air analysis, they’ll just call someone else. Maybe someone with an agenda, she thinks, maybe someone who’s just trying to sell their true-crime novel, maybe someone who gets it wrong or even exacerbates an ongoing manhunt by making inflammatory remarks about a criminal who could be watching.
She knows the networks need to fill the time slot with some commentary to get their ratings, “regardless of whether the pundit is accurate, experienced or ethical.”
She cares about the victims and what is said about the crime and she’s “seen too many wannabes who offer baseless assessment, or even worse — offer commentary based on crime novels instead of actual studies of offenders.”
And so, on nights like Oct. 1, she heads to the city to camp out in studio green rooms and be ready for the morning news. To offer academic analysis and, she hopes, insight in the face of the unspeakable.
And over the past year, the unspeakable was almost common:
Las Vegas shooting, Oct. 1, 58 dead, 546 injured. New York City truck attack, Oct. 31, 8 dead. Texas church shooting, Nov. 5, 26 dead.
And on and on ...
Many turned away, or lost track of the tragedies, not out of callousness, but out of something akin to compassion fatigue. Jordan doesn’t look away no matter how terrible the events are.
She is obsessed with finding the “why” behind these crimes. To that end, she is constantly studying violent crime from an academic perspective, interviewing perpetrators as well as victims.
With a prosecutor’s confidence and ability to distill facts into understandable concepts, Jordan is energetic and clearly passionate about her work. Able to cite statistics from memory, she also emphasizes the people behind the stats, the victims and their families. Somehow, she remains positive.
“When darkness falls, two words save me: perspective and prevention,” she says. “Real crime causes unspeakable devastation, which is why I talk to as many crime victims as I do offender-inmates.”
Speaking to victims gives her perspective and fuels her to work harder at prevention. “It drives me to pull up my bootstraps and keep studying those disturbing criminals, so that we can learn enough from them to try, at least try, to identify and foresee the perfect storm of causal factors that can lead to crime,” she says.
In today’s world this work may be more important than ever.
Though the number of mass shootings — often defined as those with three or more fatalities — has decreased, the amount of victims per incident is on the rise. “Stanford [University] follows the data and indicates that in the last year we’ve seen an additional 80-100 mass-shooting fatalities per year than we did a decade ago,” Jordan says. She adds that she believes the number of mass killings outside of public spaces are also on the rise “particularly in the category of family annihilations. This is tricky to track, since the killing of three or more family members by another family member is often overlooked in studies of mass murder.”
Jordan believes “family annihilators” are more predictable and therefore preventable in their patterns. “They are usually men in their 30s, killing their wives and children, and most often because of a break-up or financial problems. Honor killings and mental illness also play a role, but the bottom line is that these are usually revenge killings by men against their female partners, and they have been on the rise for the past 10 years.”
She says mass killings of all kinds are generally about control and power. “Forget the idea of a ‘snap;’ [the killers] don’t snap so much as implode from their perception that the world is unfair, that they were entitled to something. Fill in the blank: wife, house, job, pension, respect, smooth-sailing life, etc.; that they have done everything right and followed the rules, but they are being denied what is rightfully theirs.” She adds, “It’s a power play that happens at a moment of resignation, a last desperate act to show how much control they have over that which we take for granted, and how powerless we are to stop them.”
In the early morning hours of Oct. 2, as initial details emerged about the Las Vegas shooting, Jordan got ready to speak in front of the camera before the hundreds of thousands of viewers wondering the same thing: “why?”
As she always does with breaking news, she tried to sift through witness accounts, reported rumors, and confirmed facts before voicing any conclusions on the air. She likens the process to “doing your federal taxes and writing the great American novel at the same time.”
Then there are the ethical questions. Cover a violent crime too much and you risk sensationalizing it. Undercover it and there’s a disservice to the victims. Finding the right balance is not always clear-cut.
“You cannot imagine how much this issue haunts me,” Jordan says. “I do a lot of soul searching about what is the right thing to do, and it is more intuitive than black and white.”
She always sticks to the facts and her conclusions regardless of the pressures of a breaking-news environment. “There’s this ridiculous race in the media to be first, instead of to be right,” she says. “The good news is that there has been a backlash against this by responsible journalists and contributors. There’s a move, which most networks are respecting, to not say the name of the shooter more than necessary, if at all. The purpose is twofold: it spares the victims and their family members, whose names you will probably never hear, some level of anguish to know that the media is not giving undue attention and glory to the person who destroyed their lives. The second concern is about so-called copycat criminals who, in their own struggle for power and need for attention, might find inspiration in the perceived glory heaped upon a mass murderer by 24-hour sensationalistic news coverage.”
On Dec. 14, 2012, when the Sandy Hook shooting occurred, Jordan had just started a three-week vacation in Costa Rica. She was contacted by various media outlets, and began conducting interviews over Skype, all while trying to book a flight back to Connecticut. Then she saw the live feed from Newtown and recognized friends and former students among the police and families. She broke down crying. Realizing the crime was too personal and she could not maintain her objectivity, she stopped offering further Sandy Hook commentary.
But to a certain extent, whether a violent crime takes place halfway around the world or in her proverbial backyard, crime is always personal to Jordan.
When she was 9 years old and living in Scotia, New York, her friend and classmate, Pennie Diamond, went missing while walking her dog on an August afternoon in the neighborhood in which she and Jordan lived. “My father was out for days with the search teams; my mother baked a casserole and took it over to Pennie’s family,” Jordan says. “They found Pennie dead a few days later on the shores of Sacandaga Lake, not far from where I went to Bible camp.”
Jordan would never forget her childhood friend.
After graduating from the University of Tulsa with a political science degree, she studied criminal justice in graduate school at John Jay College in New York. During her graduate studies in the 1980s, a stint working at the Libyan Mission to the United Nations confirmed her fascination with understanding the psychology and factors that motivate terrorism. She considered a career studying terrorism, but a professor at John Jay, a former CIA operative, told her that despite being the best student in his course on terrorism, she would never be allowed to be an authority on it because she had no military training, and more importantly, because she was a woman. “I couldn’t believe he was actually saying this to me. I was so insulted,” Jordan says. “But he did me a favor because he was realistic given the times.”
Jordan became an expert on violent behavior that is not necessarily politically motivated. She started teaching at WestConn in 1991 and over the years became a sought-after commentator on crime. Since the 1990s she has made more than 1,000 appearances on television, including segments on MSNBC and Fox News and shows such as Good Morning America. In 2008, she starred in the TruTV reality show Unsolved Murder Unit, and for the last five years has been the host of Wives with Knives on Investigation Discovery.
She is currently writing a memoir based on her career and working with producers for her next TV show or documentary project. She wants to produce a show that will truly record an “investigation without the old-style recreations.” She adds, “there are no lack of cold cases that haunt me.”
Beyond criminology and the justice system, Jordan is an antiques enthusiast and president of Beacon Preservation, a nonprofit dedicated to the historical preservation of lighthouses. Through the organization, she runs a summer program called Green Light Academy for Connecticut high schoolers from marginalized communities.
Her media appearances have never distracted from her academic work. She still makes time to meet with victims’ family members and interview perpetrators of crimes. She is still asked to consult with law enforcement on ongoing investigations. This real-world experience continues to inform her media work. She is also an attorney.
In the days following the Las Vegas shooting, some media outlets and commentators painted the gunman as unusual, but Jordan saw and sees much that is standard in him.
“The Vegas shooter is indeed a bit of an outlier, but only because his motivation can’t be boiled down to a particular triggering event — and with most mass shooters, unless they are politically motivated, you can usually identify the pivotal moment when they decide to commit mayhem,” she says. “What makes him different is that he was a truly intelligent and self-made man, and yet what makes him common is that he’s a social misfit who followed all the rules for success, and actually was successful, and became wealthy, but still could never be satisfied. I kept waiting for news that his girlfriend had dumped him, he had suffered total financial loss, or was diagnosed with a terminal illness, but no triggering event was ever identified. Instead, he’s unusual because it appears that a lifetime of overcoming adversity, all of his wealth and success, wasn’t enough. My best guess is that he wanted respect and praise for his accomplishments, but it never came. Money couldn’t buy his happiness, and he had nothing to look forward to in his declining years. I see the Vegas shooter as more of a disgruntled employee, taking revenge on the city where he plied his trade of gambling. Quite simply, the glitz was gone. And the fact that he didn’t leave a note or give us any clues as to ‘why’ is his ultimate message of power over society. In death, he has the upper hand.”
To prevent future crimes, Jordan believes common-sense gun reform must happen “if we are going to see change in the burgeoning pattern of mass homicide. Anyone who wants to argue otherwise is simply refusing to use logic to analyze the data, and, in my experience, often has serious personal issues with insecurity and control. I’m not naive enough to believe we can ever get guns completely out of our culture, but there’s no reason why laws can’t be updated and strengthened to put far more stringent controls on those who can own them, how guns are purchased and stored, how ownership is licensed, monitored and revoked, and what happens to those who refuse to abide by such new rules.”
Despite the grim realities she studies on a daily basis, Casey is cautiously optimistic about society’s ability to better predict and prevent crime in the future. It is this belief that prevention is possible that keeps her going. “We can’t measure prevented crimes nearly as well as we can those that are committed,” she says. But she “likes to think [analysis of crime] prevents far more crime then we realize.”
And always, no matter what, she remembers her childhood friend.
“It’s only been the past decade that I’ve fully understood that my drive to understand the ‘why’ behind the crime is all about analyzing known factors with a goal of prediction and prevention. I do it for Pennie, and the thousands of other crime victims who don’t have a voice. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
The trying nature of her job hasn’t caused her to burn out yet, but she acknowledges it’s a possibility. “There must be a limit for how much someone who interviews criminals and studies violent crime can take,” she says. “Obviously I haven’t reached it yet. I hope I never do.”
This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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