Suicide by cop: the Chris Raper incident.
Lessons: Some opponents aren't afraid to die, because they came to the scene to do just that. Training and decisive response can keep you from becoming fuel for the "blaze of glory" in which he wants to depart.
The revolver is a Smith & Wesson Model 66, an early one with no dash suffix in its model number, its .357 Magnum chambers recessed and its barrel pinned to the frame, just the way S&W collectors like them. It began its existence as a round butt snubby, and wears round butt Pachmayr Compac grips. However, S&W installed a 4" barrel on it to better fit its owner's needs. The owner, a police detective, felt the 4" barrel and the rounded K-frame butt gave him optimum feel and balance. It has the Ranger trigger, three-quarters the width of a target trigger and smooth surfaced, and its action has been worn in slick from range work and dry fire.
And if it could speak it might tell of the day when it saved its owner's life.
In the early evening hours of August 3, 1983, Detective Chris Raper was at home and on call. He had been with the Wilson, North Carolina Police Department for a decade. Prior to that he had spent five years with Wilson County Alcoholic Beverage Control, and earlier had been a USAF Security Police member serving in Vietnam.
The phone rang. It was the PD, telling him that a man he'd been looking for as a suspect in an after-hours bank break-in was at the station and ready to talk to him. Chris said he was on his way, and grabbed a jacket. Almost as an afterthought, he grabbed his round-butt, 4" 66 and strapped it on in a plain black Roy Baker Pancake hip holster.
He did not know then, that this simple act would preserve his life in the next hour ...
Facing The Enemy
At the station, Raper introduced himself to Larry Alan Lamm, age 22, and ushered him into a tiny interrogation room, the size of a small cell with a table, a few chairs, and a mirror obviously made of one-way glass. Lamm was tall and almost skeletal, standing six-feet-three but weighing only 150 pounds. He was wearing a Grateful Dead tee shirt, and was carrying a small paper bag. The detective examined the bag and found only a can of soda and a packet of Nabs crackers. He explained Lamm's rights to him, and the suspect signed the form indicating that he understood them. Lamm dated his signature and marked the time at 6:18 PM.
The soft-spoken detective told Lamm that he had been seen in the vicinity of the bank in question at about the time it was burgled. He had also been identified as having spent distinctive silver dollars consistent with some that had been taken in the burglary.
As he listened to the cop, Lamm grew fidgety, moving his legs aimlessly and beginning to perspire, even though the room was not hot. The body language told Raper that he was on the right track.
The tall man said, "I knew police officers were smart, but I forgot about detectives being smarter." Then he asked Raper, "Would I be shot if I ran?"
That was a new one. "No," Raper answered, hoping to calm him down. "You're not even under arrest. You're free to leave any time you want to."
Lamm stood up, facing the mirror. Sudden movements are not uncommon among people in these situations. Sometimes they signify a change of mood, a sense of "I may as well confess and get it off my chest." Raper waited expectantly as Lamm fiddled with the shade on the one-way mirror. Lamm asked, "Is there anyone on the other side?"
"No," answered Detective Raper. "There's no one here but us."
Sensing a rising tension in his suspect, the seated detective decided to calm him down with some small talk. He said, "Larry, tell me about your tee shirt. You like the Grateful Dead?"
His back still to the detective, the tall man gave a chilling answer.
"That's what I am," he said. "Grateful dead."
And then, everything seemed to go into slow motion as Lamm fumbled for an instant at the front of his belt area, and then turned toward the detective.
There was a small, chrome plated semiautomatic pistol in Lamm's right hand, his finger on the trigger, and he was bringing its muzzle up toward Chris Raper.
The words that go through Chris Raper's mind are, "I'm dead." But in a moment beyond cognitive thought, the reflexes instilled in his police and military training have taken over. Rising to clear the arms of the chair in which he's been seated, he goes for the gun on his hip. The Smith clears leather, and on autopilot, the officer takes his familiar two-hand semi-crouching stance and begins to fire as fast as he can.
As the bullets strike the tall man, Raper can see him jerking spasmodically, arms and legs akimbo. Lamm staggers back against the mirror and slides downward, slumping into a sitting position in the corner of the tiny room, one leg straight and the other bent.
It is over already. A thick miasma of gray smoke from the gunshots seems to fill the room. Lamm is still holding the pistol, but both he and it are still. Blood pours copiously from the chest area of the Grateful Dead shirt, and a river of it seems to flood down the right arm.
It flows over the motionless pistol, turning its silvery finish completely red.
Standing over the man he has shot, no more than five feet away from him, Raper keeps his gun on the antagonist. He knows that the door to the interrogation room is open three or four inches. He waits for someone to rush to his aid.
No one does.
After a time, Raper knows he has to go for help. His first instinct is to separate the man from his gun, but the threat seems to have passed and he worries that the action will be interpreted as altering evidence. The detective steps out in the hall and goes to seek assistance. He discovers that he and dispatcher Terry Adams--who has not heard the shots-are the only people left in the building. Raper tells her, "Terry, call Rescue, call the watch commander, call the chief. I just shot somebody."
The rescue squad arrives quickly. There is nothing they can do. A team member says gently to the detective, "Chris, he's dead." The words hit Raper hard. In some small part of himself, he has wanted the man he has been forced to shoot, to survive.
When the watch commander arrives, Raper hands him his Smith & Wesson, a privately owned/department approved weapon. It just seems like the thing to do. Shortly thereafter, Chief Tom Younce gets to the scene. Seeing Chris without a gun, the chief simply takes off his own .38 and holster and hands it to the detective. It is a simple, sincere gesture of trust and confidence and support for which Chris Raper will be forever grateful.
Raper had discharged four rounds of the ammunition he was required to carry, department issue Winchester Silvertip jacketed hollow point .38 Special. At the morgue, it was discovered that Raper had hit Lamm with all four shots. Two of the 110-grain bullets had entered the left chest, tracking through the heart and the right lung. One stopped in the back muscles, mushroomed. The other broke the eighth rib in the back and stopped there, undeformed.
The other two bullets had hit their target, but not vitally. During his jerky dance of death as the police bullets hit him, Lamm had apparently lifted his right leg; one bullet had grazed that limb and then hit his gun arm. There was a graze wound on the scalp, probably from the last bullet as the dying man's body began to collapse out of the policeman's point of aim.
Investigators determined that the pistol retrieved from Lamm's dead hand was fully loaded with .25 ACP ammunition, including a round in the firing chamber. It had not been fired. They were unable to trace the gun to its source. However, Lamm was implicated in a number of burglaries in the area, giving reason to suspect that the weapon--like so many guns that are used in crimes was probably stolen.
Examination of the corpse turned up something else. In Larry Lamm's pocket was a suicide note.
Larry Lamm seems to have been one of those intelligent people whose emotional demons drove them in the wrong direction. Without going into detail, his burglary of the bank--tacitly admitted to in writing the dead man left behind--showed the sort of ingenuity one sees in "big caper" movies. The man was homeless--he lived in the woods behind a shopping center--yet a man who was obviously educated wrote the suicide note. I could not detect a single misspelled word, or much syntax error when I read it, and I've been in the writing business for 37 years now.
Lamm liked to call himself "Captain Larry," a homage to the comics he apparently read voraciously. There were clippings from comic books on his person at time of death.
"There is so much I want to say, but I just can't seem to find all the right words," the suicide note began. "I am not afraid of dying. It seems that I've felt I would for so long that I hold no fear of death. I could tell that the police are closing in on me and it would
only be a matter of time before l would be caught for something anyway. My plan was a simple one. I am going to cut through the lock on the power box as l hide in the bushes surrounding it. Next I plan to climb up through the outside, pushup ceiling, crawl around until I get directly above the night deposit box ..."
The letter then turned chilling. "I wrote all this down because if at any time I feel I may be apprehended I will kill myself. I don't even know if this gun will work but if it doesn't I will deceive some cop into killing me. Why? I want the money to quietly start a new life. I once heard that the road to Hell was paved with good intentions. I guess l will become another case history to apply to this theory. I enclose the last photograph of myself and a couple of clippings out of comic books, which I felt, were in conjunction with myself. Any last words? Only that you may choose a destined path or follow a path that fate has chosen for you."
The letter concluded, "I can't really explain why I did this but I will try. I realize that the police want me but I don't care about that. All I know is that I've been getting worse every day. My mind can't take it anymore. I realize that l must sacrifice the good side of myself to destroy the evil side, which has almost taken over. That's the only way I can explain it. I have lost touch with family, friends, and even reality itself. Please forgive me but I do what I must. Now is the time I must die. Goodbye."
Larry Alan Lamm
PS: After writing the above letter I put the gun to my head but I couldn't pull the trigger. I must die. So I am going to create a do or die situation. I shall attempt to steal the weekend moneybags from the bank. That is impossible. I know I will be forced to shoot myself. So as I already said I am sorry but I hate myself too much to carry on."
Long Term Aftermath
The evidence was clear, and the suicide note capped it. The district attorney's office ruled Lamm's death a justifiable homicide and didn't even waste the grand jury's time on it. No lawsuit was ever filed in relation to the matter.
Detective Chris Raper tried to get on with his life, but things were different. His sleep was troubled for some time after the incident, an almost universal occurrence in matters such as this. He also experienced what Dr. Walter Gorski dubbed "Mark of Cain" syndrome, the fact that after being in the news for killing a man, people treat you differently. In the small city where he lived and worked, he found himself being stared at, heard people whispering "That's the cop who killed that guy at the police station!"
He discovered that some friends and acquaintances were avoiding him after the shooting. "I realize now that they just didn't know what to say, or probably thought I wanted some solitude, but at the time, I felt somewhat abandoned."
In the months and years after the shooting, there was some hyper vigilance. Leaving his gun at home was no longer something he even considered. He remained constantly armed, 24/7. On the other hand, before the shooting he had enjoyed handgun hunting. A couple of months after the incident, he went afield with his Ruger Mark I pistol and dropped a squirrel with a carefully placed .22 bullet. "What I saw, I didn't like," Chris says softly today, remembering. "From that day on, I didn't hunt again. I never bought another hunting license."
Deeply grounded in strong religious faith, Raper was troubled by a sense of having violated the Sixth Commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill. "I went to my pastor," he relates, "and he said, 'Chris, in the early Hebrew the word kill meant to murder. You didn't murder that guy. You were entitled to self-defense.' From that day on, I started getting better."
Today, Chris is happily retired from a long and distinguished career in law enforcement. He, along with his wife, Dianne, own Concealed Handgun Carry, Inc., and once a month teach the North Carolina Concealed Handgun class to qualify private citizens for concealed carry handgun permits. They find it rewarding. They're both excellent shots with their matched pair of Springfield Armory XD 9mm Sub Compacts. In fact, Chris shot a perfect score on qualification when he went through Lethal Force Institute. But his experience on that terrible evening a quarter century ago is something he draws upon when he explains to his students the grave responsibilities and consequences attendant to the carry and use of lethal weapons.
When the proverbial smoke had cleared, Raper at the time described the experience as something like being in the Twilight Zone. He is certain that he fired from eye level but has no memory of seeing his sights or even his gun as the shots went off. He was aware at the time of the deafening reverberation of the gunshot reports in the small, enclosed space, yet noticed no hearing impairment then or later. Like most survivors of gunfights that go past a couple of shots, Raper was not able to count the rounds he fired. He had been carrying no spare ammunition. When his antagonist fell dying, it was with a fully loaded semiautomatic pistol in his hand, and Raper was down to two .38 rounds left in his revolver. He'd had no spare ammunition on his person. Two-thirds of his ammunition had gone toward his opponent in no more than one second.
Shortly after the incident, the department adopted as standard the SIG-Sauer P226, holding sixteen rounds of 9mm Luger. Later, the department upgraded to new pistols, the same brand in the more powerful .357 SIG chambering.
Says Chris, "I went to the departmental psychological counseling. That was helpful. It allows you to debrief with someone you can trust, and it's not going to rise up and bite you." He likes the idea of today's post-critical incident debriefing groups that allow the officer to partake in peer counseling with others who've "been there and done that."
"Suicide By Cop"
In the old days, when this sort of thing happened, the headlines merely said "Man Slain in Unexplained Attack on Police." By the latter third of the 20th Century, some mental health professionals were calling it "schizophrenic suicide," not because a diagnosis of schizophrenia was necessarily involved, but because the individual had involved another person, unwillingly, in the instigators own death. In the 1990s, top homicide investigation experts such as Vern Geberth, NYPD Retired, and the FBI's Clint Van Zandt had popularized the term that stuck: "Suicide by Cop."
Larry Lamm himself made it clear in the words he wrote shortly before his death. We're talking about someone who wants to die, doesn't have the strength to kill himself, and therefore forces another to do it for him. Despite the "suicide by cop" terminology, the phenomenon is not limited to provoking police officers. I've seen a couple of cases of "suicide by armed citizen" in which the despondent man attacked an ordinary person he knew carried a gun and had the resolve to protect himself from a lethal assault.
The Real Victim
The true victim of this phenomenon is the good person forced to pull the trigger. They have, afterwards, a bitter sense of having been manipulated into unwillingly ending the life of another human being. Their situation is very similar to that of a rape victim: they have been forced by another to commit an act they consider repugnant, or even unnatural, to survive.
A particular cruelty of this phenomenon is that when the shooter realizes it was suicidal, he will always wonder if he was really in danger when he fired, if he really had to shoot at all. The answer seems to be an unqualified "Yes, you damn well did have to shoot." The man who has decided to die tends to be resentful toward the authority figures he has picked to carry out his death for him. Often, his attack will be a genuine one. He wants to depart, not as the pathetic loser he perceives himself to be, but as a valiant warrior killing those he perceives to be stronger than he.
He wants to "go out in a blaze of glory." At that point, all the person he has threatened with his weapon can hope to do is to avoid becoming fuel to be consumed of that sick, pathetic, pyric fire.
When Chris Raper pulled the trigger of his Smith & Wesson--when any true victim of "suicide by whomever" does the same--it is because the self-destructive person they face has given them prudent reason to believe they'll be killed or horribly crippled if they don't shoot. Lightweight yuppies may not grasp that, but logical, thinking people do, and in the end their opinions matter more.
One hopes that Larry Lamm found his peace. He did so at great emotional expense to the man he forced to kill him. Yet, ironically, the incident left behind a cop who retired after a distinguished career, and who has since helped other cops to cope with such experiences, and who now helps good people learn to protect themselves.
Some good has come from that terrible, unforgiving second inside the little police interview room in North Carolina.