I used to waffle on the death penalty. But if the kidnapping, rape, and apparent planned murder of Tamara Brooks and Jacqueline Marris this week doesn’t illustrate why the death penalty is sometimes necessary, I don’t know what will.
More details of Roy Ratliff’s sorry excuse for a life will undoubtedly surface in the days and weeks to come. He committed his first crime before his final two victims were even born. He jumped parole last year, was accused of raping his stepdaugher, then went on one final spree, stealing cars at gunpoint, threatening the drivers with death, and finally, kidnapping and raping two teenaged girls young enough to be his daughters. The girls’ rescuers were convinced he was looking for a place to kill and bury them when they shot him dead.

I’ll be perfectly honest: I’m glad the two deputies shot Ratliff dead. It saved a messy trial, saved the girls undue pain (they’ve been through enough), and it eliminated the chances he’d get off on a technicality, or that he’d play the same game that Leonard Smith played. Smith killed baseball star Lyman Bostock with a shotgun blast in Gary, Indiana in 1978. He pleaded insanity. Twenty-one months after Lyman Bostock died, Smith was a free man again, on grounds that he was no longer insane.

Crime is addictive. I saw it as a teenager. I knew people who started off with little crimes. It started off with pirating cheap computer games. Then they started stealing long distance so they could pirate more cheap computer games. Before long they were stealing credit cards to get more computer equipment. I know of one person who got caught in this mess and started selling drugs so he could pay for all the long distance calls he’d made illegally.

Not everyone gets to that stage. I pirated some computer games as a teenager. As a matter of fact, I don’t know anyone who had a computer when I was a teenager who didn’t pirate software. But for some, the allure of getting away with something was just too much. I never got far beyond casual copying. I figured out how to crack a manual keyword-based protection scheme with a sector editor (I just changed all the words to the same word, then changed the screen to tell you to type that word), but I just passed copies of the game to a few friends. I wasn’t willing to upload seven disks’ worth of stuff at 1200 bps. I had better things to do. I found ways to justify pirating software to myself–for a time–but stealing long distance or stealing credit cards was wrong.

But not everyone thought so.

I’m not saying all those guys I know about are destined to become serial kidnappers or worse. But a tangle of crimes can easily become just like a tangle of lies. You get caught, and you have to commit a bigger crime to get yourself out of the mess the last one got you into. Just like Bill Clinton and his lies.

And that seems to be what happened to Ratliff. You can certainly see the pattern of behavior. He stole a car. The car developed a flat tire. So he stole a truck and attempted to torch the car he’d stolen before, to cover up the evidence. And that seems to be what he planned to do with the two girls he kidnapped–once he’d gotten what he wanted from them, keep them from testifying by putting them in the ground.

Maybe I’m wrong to assert that Ratliff was beyond help, beyond rehabilitation. But when it comes to serial rapists, I’m not interested in finding out. When someone rapes more than one woman or murders a child, I think the best thing to do is send him to God and let Him figure out what to do with him. Maybe God will show him what it’s like to be intimidated and destroyed by someone who makes him look powerless by comparison. Maybe He won’t. At that point it’s His business.

We’ll never know what drove Ratliff to his final deeds. Maybe he thought he could get away with this just like he’d gotten away with previous crimes. Maybe he just needed a bigger sick thrill. Maybe he sensed his end was near, and he was going on one final binge of his addiction before going down in a blaze of glory. That phenomenon was well documented in World War I airmen, whose life expectancy on the front was literally measured in weeks. They drank and slept around like there was no tomorrow, because in many cases there wasn’t.

There’s no sure-fire way to predict which guys who traffic in speed will ultimately end up harmless and which ones will end up like Ratliff. Knowing more about their history, you can profile them, but no one can predict the future.

And you can’t tell a crook just by looking at him. Yeah, Ratliff looked like an unsavory character. But so did one of the interviewees in the first video project I ever participated in. But Joe cleaned up. And now Joe dedicates an awful lot of his spare time helping other people clean up.

I don’t know if the recent rash of kidnappings is really a change in reality or just a change in the way news is reported. Face it, kidnapping is a big story right now. Murder was a big story a century ago, and many newspapers operated under the mantra, “if it bleeds, it leads.” This might just be the 21st century’s answer to that.

I’m not a big fan of teaching your kids not to talk to strangers. I was taught that, and I never got over it. I still have the hardest time talking to people I don’t know. But considering the alternative, it’s an easy choice. Tell your kids not to talk to strangers. Prevention’s a whole lot less painful than rehabilitation.

And while you can’t spot the dangerous criminals of today by looking at them, you stand a chance of being able to predict the dangerous criminals of tomorrow. Kids who steal at a very early age without any remorse and who torture and kill small animals are at very high risk for developing far worse antisocial tendencies when they get older. But when a kid’s age is still measured in single digits, there’s still hope for them. Exert some positive peer pressure on the parent(s) to get the kid straightened out.

You owe it to your grandchildren.