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Thursday, May 27,2010

The Mind of a Murderer

The psychology of workplace violence and Boulder suicidal killer Robert Mongomery

By Jefferson Dodge


When we heard about it, most of us probably thought of their daughter.


We thought of Avery Griffin, 13, whose mother and father, the owners of Boulder Stove and Flooring, were gunned down in their Boulder store on May 17 by a disgruntled employee, Robert Montgomery.

But the second thought, after those heart-wrenching images of what that girl went through on that day, may well have been about Montgomery.

What could have made him do such a thing? Didn’t he think about what he was doing to Avery? How could he have justified killing others? How could he have rationalized killing himself?

Then the details emerge, in dribbles, via the media, in the following days. The victims’ names were Sean and Staci Griffin, who lived in the south Longmont development of Prospect, where yellow ribbons have appeared by the dozens around trees and lamp posts.

Montgomery had worked at the store since 2003. The Griffins bought the business in 2007, and recently made some changes to the bonus and commission policies that Montgomery didn’t like. He felt like he was getting a raw deal. Even though the store’s accountant told reporters he was actually making more under the new system, he thought he was making less.

He might have asked himself, “Who do these new interlopers think they are, taking away money that is rightfully mine?” Montgomery is described in media reports as being increasingly dismayed at what the Griffins were able to purchase, from vacations to expensive lunches to a new BMW.

He complained about them taking off and going to the movies, according to the Camera.

A co-worker described him as being obsessive and complusive, arranging his pens cap-forward and sorting his Post-it notes by color. He was reportedly meticulous about tracking his work hours. A friend told the Longmont Times-Call that he had about 600 books stacked and organized neatly in his house.

There were reports that he thought the Griffins were recording his conversations and monitoring his e-mail.

The previous owner who hired Montgomery at Boulder Stove and Flooring told the Camera that he was “rather aggressive” about getting the job, that he “would get hung up on the details of things and not let them go,” and that he was “not the most pleasant person.” A friend says that while he was normally happy, over the past five months, he was “not smiling. He was not laughing anymore. Things were turning serious.”

The friend told a reporter that he was socially awkward and didn’t have many friends. Montgomery lived alone in a four-bedroom home in Boulder.

He bought the gun 10 days before the crime.

According to these hand-picked anecdotes, he was a loner. A white male, age 50. Showing signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder and paranoia. Aggressive. Possibly depressed.

Fits the classic profile of a suicidal killer, right?

Maybe not.

Warning signs

Some experts say Robert Montgomery was exhibiting signs of someone on the verge of going ballistic. Barry Nixon, who founded the National Institute for the Prevention of Workplace Violence in 1994, has a list of “The Unlucky 13,” the early warning signs of potential violence at work. Montgomery’s reported behavior seems to display many of those signs, including being unreasonable, control-oriented, paranoid, angry, bizarre, obsessive and maybe depressed.

Of course, Montgomery’s friends and family would probably say he had wonderful characteristics, as well.

But in a world in which we generalize and categorize people, especially after they have killed two people and committed suicide, we hear from experts that the person exhibited classic signs of someone on the edge of violence.

After hearing about some of Montgomery’s reported characteristics, Nixon says, “Those fit right into some of the identified early-warning signs.”

He says most employees who become violent in the workplace have been employed at the business for more than five years.

Nixon adds that Montgomery living alone could have been another contributing factor. He asks whether the man belonged to a church or another local organization.

“The more anchors they have, the more they have to lose,” he says, citing “anchors” such as children, a wife and close relatives. “If the person doesn’t have much to lose, they can take themselves out.”

Michael Corcoran of The Workthreat Group, whose 34 years in law enforcement includes 10 years in the Secret Service, agrees that people who don’t have immediate family or a support system can be more susceptible to internalizing problems and acting out. “Here’s a guy who has put it all into himself, and only has the people who he thinks are screwing him,” he says.

Similarly, Operational Consulting International CEO Kris Mohandie, a former Los Angeles cop who has more than 20 years of experience in forensic psychology, paints a picture that sounds eerily like the description of Montgomery.

Instigators of workplace violence are often rigid in their views, paranoid, depressed and feeling disrespected, betrayed or mistreated, as if they are “morally entitled to something they haven’t gotten.”

They often think that complaints or even lawsuits won’t make a difference, he says. “They feel morally justified taking matters into their own hands,” according to Mohandie. “They get tunnel vision and restricted to the idea that violence is the only way out. They talk themselves into that. They’ve justified it, that people deserve to be punished.”

Whether Montgomery’s journals, which are being withheld by police at least until the investigation is finished, uphold the stereotype of the suicidal murderer remains to be seen. Coroner Tom Faure says his autopsy reports, which may indicate whether Montgomery had any antidepression medication or other substance in his system, won’t be done for at least a month.

If Montgomery fit the classic workplace violence profile, Mohandie says, he would have been contentious with authority figures, prone to anger, narcissistic, egotistical, overly invested in his job and grandiose in his perception of himself at work, as in, “How could they go on without me?” Perpetrators are usually hypersensitive and paranoid that others are betraying them.

“And if you’re always looking for that, you’re going to find evidence of it,” Mohandie says.

Once that contrived “evidence” is found, he says, it can become a negative loop and a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” because the person’s reaction to that “evidence” often prompts the employer to exhibit the suspected behavior.

Not so fast

But despite our natural tendency to paint suicidal killers with a narrow brush, most experts seem to agree that one size does not fit all. It may be convenient, or even comforting, to put Robert Montgomery in that box, selecting his personality traits that neatly fit the profile. However, those who have made a career out of analyzing these murders and suicides — and attempts at both — say there is no single profile.

The scary part is, it can happen with anyone.

“There’s really no profile for workplace violence shooters,” says former FBI agent Ron Walker, who is now a senior analyst for the Threat Assessment Group. The common public perception, he says, is that the typical suspect is “a middle-aged white male whose job is his life,” but the reality is that perpetrators can be any age, race or gender.

Too often, he says, employers are keeping their eyes out for this profile only, and “don’t pay attention when they should.”

Similarly, forensic behavioral consultant Mary Ellen O’Toole, who spent 28 years in the FBI, warns that “every case is different.” Some employers may be on the lookout for “loners” or “disgruntled employees,” she says, but “most who are disgruntled or loners don’t ever act out violently. There are cases where people aren’t loners or disgruntled.”

She adds, “We want to look at someone and say, ‘You look like you could act out violently.’ But usually those who act out violently don’t look that way.”

Boulder Police spokesperson Sarah Huntley agrees. “It doesn’t sound like there were a lot of red flags,” she says of Montgomery. “There are a lot of people who are 50 and loners and who aren’t going to go shoot people and themselves. That’s the problem with profiles.”

Steve Foster, a federal expert witness on workplace violence and former Aurora police officer, is president of Greenwood Village-based Business Controls. “We pretend to think we know how people react and respond, and we don’t,” he says. “It’s like a bomb. You never know when it’s going to explode.”

“There isn’t any one single or even a group of red flags,” Corcoran adds, noting that probably 70 percent of the population displays warning signs. “It just doesn’t work that way. … It can happen anywhere, anytime.

“You can’t say that because you’re obsessive-compulsive you’re going to commit violence,” he says.

‘He just snapped’

When incidents like this happen, Walker says, often those interviewed by the news media say, “There were no warning signs.” Or, “He just snapped.”

Walker says those are fallacies.

“Nobody ever just snaps,” he says. “And there are always observable behaviors that lead up to the shooting.”

The process is gradual, whether it’s a matter of days or weeks or months. And while the warning signs are not always detected by the average person, the signs are there.

“There are red flags, but people don’t recognize them,” he says. “These people tend to leak a lot of their demeanor and character.”

This “leakage” of what is going on internally is key, experts agree. Is there anger, hostility, irritability or agitation? A decrease in performance? Intimidating comments? Is there talk of violence, weapons or being treated unfairly? Substance abuse? Is the person what Walker calls “a grievance collector”? Do they blame others for their failures or their pain?

Nixon says that usually there are other areas of dissatisfaction in the

shooter’s life, beyond work. He says a person’s issues can be simmering in the background for a long time. “Things have been building and building until there comes a point where it boils over,” he says. “Often there is a triggering event that pushes someone over the edge, like the final straw. … Often when someone’s under a lot of stress, one more stressor can put them over the edge.”

O’Toole says it is crucial to look at other aspects of the person’s life, beyond work, including their social and private lives.

Professionals describe a few generalities when it comes to warning signs. For one thing, it is statistically more common for men to commit homicide and then suicide. We’ve all heard the stories about men killing their wives, their children — or even their entire family — and then themselves.

Corcoran says some believe that phenomenon may be linked to the generations of men who were taught to hold in their emotions, who were trained not cry, for instance. Women, on the other hand, have traditionally been conditioned to be more comfortable expressing their feelings, which can be a healthy outlet. For men, he says, “when they get this upheaval of emotion, it’s too much for them. You can’t just let it go anymore.”

“Men tend to be more violent,” says Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. “And they have more ready access to a firearm.”

A man killing his spouse and then himself is often driven by a symbiotic love-hate relationship in which the woman is breaking up or threatening to do so, Berman says. The murder-suicide scenario sets up “as a last-ditch effort to control her, and then when she’s gone, there’s nothing left.”

In the case of workplace violence, he says, often “the employer becomes the spouse.” The employee can’t envision looking for another job, and once he kills his employer, sometimes he kills himself because he will no longer have that job. And he can regain some control by determining how he dies.

Corcoran says being obsessive and compulsive can be an aggravating factor, especially when someone “comes to a conclusion about something and you’re not going to change his mind.” A person may feel comfortable, and in control, if he sees things as black and white.

Walker says that when things fall outside of the comfort zone for someone who is rigid, obsessive or compulsive, it can be quite upsetting.

Foster adds that when someone has mental issues, their frustrations can solidify in their mind if they feel like no one is reacting or responding to them. “So they’ve got to fix the situation,” he says.

Mohandie describes the prime suspect as feeling powerless. Violence, he says, is seen as the opposite of helplessness, because it can help them restore their sense of order and reclaim their power.

The control issue is more important than gender or age or race, Corcoran explains. According to Corcoran, perpetrators who experience an unwelcome change at work sometimes withdraw socially, “because they want to protect themselves, and they want to be in control.” When the boss says, “Sorry, this is how it’s going to be,” they lose that control.

“And what’s the one thing they can control?” he asks. “Pulling the trigger on the gun.”

Corcoran recommends looking for changes in an individual. All too often, employers simply disregard changes in an employee, or chalk it up to “having a bad day.”

Get help

The experts seem to agree on one thing: When you see warning signs, tell someone. Get outside help. There are a variety of consulting firms that offer services ranging from management training to private investigations on individual employees who are exhibiting warning signs.

But O’Toole says there are other, less-expensive resources as well, like university programs, professional organizations, business associations and public services offered by a state or municipality. She even mentions Rotary Clubs.

Nixon suggests looking into the person’s background, even if it’s just re-examining a job application or the results of a pre-employment background check. He recommends learning more about the employee’s personal life, like whether there was a recent divorce, home foreclosure or death in the family.

Nixon also says moving employees around, to another area of the company, for instance, can sometimes put an end to interpersonal conflicts. Having police contact the employee is another option, because it can serve as a wake-up call, he says, but if the person has problems with authority or being challenged, that can backfire.

Corcoran says simply talking to the employee can help.

“They need someone to vent to, someone to talk to, and half the time no one hears them,” he explains. “No one wants to.”

But he adds that if it is apparent the employee has made up her mind that she is getting screwed, and can’t be talked out of that attitude, that may be a signal to get outside help.

O’Toole says that typically, employers are not equipped to do a thorough evaluation of an employee on their own. “It’s not fair to the employer or the employee to do assessments when you don’t know what you’re doing,” she explains. “It’s not that neatly predictable. It’s not that neatly explainable. Can we do it? Yes, usually we can.”

“We can interrupt them as they move down this path,” Mohandie says. “For every one of these incidents, there are dozens and dozens being interrupted.”

***** Perhaps it is human nature to put labels on Robert Montgomery, to make ourselves feel more secure when these incidents happen.

After all, if we don’t have any neighbors or co-workers or relatives who fit the description of the depressed, aggressive, paranoid, white-male loner in his early 50s who shows signs of OCD, it makes us feel like we are not in danger.

O’Toole agrees that when people try to make sense of these incidents, they tend to compartmentalize, or assign categories learned from newspapers or television. But it is arrogant to think we can actually “get inside someone’s head.”

“Who goes into a coffee shop or work and looks at the person next to them and says this person is going to act out violently?” she asks. “We’re not wired like that.”


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