To decapitate a person — entirely sever their head from their body — is a savage and gruesome act and one which shows the ultimate disrespect for a victim. Most known within the stream of beheading videos posted online by terror groups looking to make their point and force acceptance of their demands, the public, while horrified, have a morbid fascination which they cannot deny. Outside of political and religious motivated beheadings, crime reports all over the world feature incidents of individuals under a range of circumstances and motivations choosing to decapitate another.
Last month 42-year-old Mikhail Elinsky, who has spent the last six years in a high-security psychiatric unit in Russia after murdering a young woman in 2011 and being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, attacked his 18-month-old grand-niece. Elinsky dragged the child into the kitchen of his niece’s home and began stabbing her repeatedly with a kitchen knife. When his niece tried desperately to intervene she too was stabbed and seriously injured. Mikhail Elinsky decapitated the little girl and according to reports in the IB Times, then roamed the streets of Astrakhan in Southern Russia holding her head before he attacked police officers wildly swinging at them with his knife. He was shot by police during the altercation and later died in hospital.
This is an extreme example of violence influenced by mental illness and it is very rare. Those who suffer from schizophrenia and similar serious delusional disorders are not generally violent despite popular belief. Scientific American reported in 2011 that a survey of the public revealed between 60 and 80% of people believed that those with a schizophrenia diagnosis posed a significantly heightened risk of violence within society and should be considered dangerous. Research has found that although their risk of violence is slightly elevated, the likelihood of violence is actually more influenced by external factors such as substance misuse and those who are mentally ill are in fact more likely to be victims of violence themselves than they are to carry out violence on others.
The case of the Russian psychiatric patient does sit within a number of other cases reported which all involve decapitation of their victims. Schizophrenic Will Baker, also known as Vince Li, stabbed and killed 22-year-old Tim McLean on a bus in 2008 in Canada after claiming he heard the voice of God telling him the man had to die. After stabbing him multiple times he decapitated Tim McLean and held his head up to show the cowering and horrified passengers. Arrested at the scene, he was sent to a secure psychiatric hospital being found not guilty of murder one year later due to severe mental illness. Will Baker has now been released under mental health supervision.
The Guardian reported a case in 2016 where 69-year-old Dempsey Nibbs attacked and decapitated his partner of 30 years and mother of his two children, Judith Nibbs, and flushed her head down the toilet in their home in East London on 10 April 2014. He cut off her head with a kitchen knife during an argument after he had found out she had been unfaithful to him. “Having decapitated his wife, the defendant began to break her head into pieces with a mallet and a metal bar,” the prosecutor told the court during his murder trial. Nibbs then wrote a suicide note and called emergency services telling them they would find two bodies at the house.
When police arrived they saw the headless body of Judith Nibbs through the letterbox, kicking the door down to gain access to the property and taking a gun away from Nibbs who was threatening to shoot himself. Despite no evidence of mental illness either before or after the attack on his wife, Dempsey Nibbs told police he decapitated his wife because he “thought she was a snake.” He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to a minimum of 21 years in prison. At age 69 when sentenced in April last year, there is little doubt that he will die behind bars.
In these crimes, the mutilation of the victim through decapitation has not been carried out as part of a process of dismemberment in order to dispose of or hide the body. The beheading itself in some cases is the cause of death. Decapitation, outside terrorist groups and tape-recorded beheadings for publication, is most often thought of as a criminal act carried out by the mentally ill, however, there are examples of people who have decapitated their victim with no clear mental illness driving their behaviour.
Edmund Kemper, the ‘Co-ed Killer’, was known to decapitate his victims. A psychopath and necrophile, he was an intelligent man with a history of childhood abuse to which he responded at 15-years-old by killing his grandparents.
After release from psychiatric care four years later he went on to murder six female hitchhikers, decapitating them after their death and sexually abusing their corpses. Dr. Scott Bonn writes in his Wicked Deeds blog on Psychology Today, “He collected their dismembered heads in his apartment and would later have sex with them also.” Kemper would go on to kill his mother and have sex with her decapitated head. Found guilty of multiple murder, he was sentenced to life in prison where he remains today.
“One side of me says, I’d like to talk to her, date her. The other side says, “I wonder how her head would look on a stick.”
According to Dr. Mike Aamody of Radford University, Ed Kemper was diagnosed as paranoid and psychotic aged 15 after he murdered his grandparents. At his murder trial, however, nine years later in 1973, his defense of insanity was not believed by the jury with an expert witness who “…claimed that Ed was not a paranoid schizophrenic. But was only obsessed with sex and violence and craved attention.”
To cut through the human neck with enough force to decapitate a victim is an abhorrent act which while thankfully rare within societal criminal behaviour, it is an act carried out for a variety of reasons often not being associated with a mental health disorder. Once an act only seen in history through capital punishment, modern history has shown us some shocking examples of decapitation featuring within brutal and barbaric criminal acts. Edmund Kemper, probably the most well-known serial killer associated with the decapitation of his victims once explained, “You know the head’s where everything is at….that’s the person. I remember being told as a kid, you cut off the head and the body dies. The body is nothing after the head is cut off…”