In a career spanning three decades, forensic psychiatrist Steven Hoge has evaluated just a handful of people implicated in acts of cannibalism. It’s exceedingly rare behavior, he says, and clear answers are often elusive when it does occur.
“I understand people are looking for an explanation, but there are some things that don’t have any explanations,” said Hoge, who directs the Columbia-Cornell Forensic Psychiatry Fellowship Program in New York.
Hoge said he could not comment on the case of 21-year-old Alexander Kinyua, charged with first-degree murder in the killing of a man who was staying in Kinyua’s family’s Joppa home. According to charging documents, Kinyua told Harford County law enforcement officials that he ate his victim’s heart and part of his brain.
Drug use, psychosis or both have figured into past cases, Hoge and other mental health experts said.
In Miami, investigators are reportedly examining whether synthetic drugs known as “bath salts” played a role in the attack Saturday by a naked man who chewed the face of a homeless man and gouged out one of his eyes.
The Harford County sheriff’s office has consulted with the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit for assistance in the Kinyua case.
University of Arizona clinical psychologist Joel Dvoskin said he has talked to a “tiny number” of people who have engaged in cannibalism.
“Some of them can explain what they were thinking at the time, some can’t, and some, I’m not sure I believe them,” said Dvoskin, who has consulted for the Clifton T. Perkins psychiatric hospital in Maryland.
Dvoskin described the case of a man who was “very psychotic” when he was arrested for crimes involving cannibalism and ended up being committed to a forensic hospital. Although his mental state improved relatively quickly, he never gave a reason for his behavior.
“I don’t think he had an explanation in his own mind,” Dvoskin said. “It confused and scared him almost as much as it confused and scared everybody else.”
In the Harford County case, Dvoskin said, he expects that authorities will investigate whether Kinyua used mind-altering drugs and that psychiatrists will examine his mental state.
Accounts from officials at Morgan State University, where Kinyua was a student, classmates and social media postings paint a picture of a troubled young man. Kinyua was arrested in May, accused of fracturing a classmate’s skull with a baseball bat, and his Facebook page has commentary on “mass human sacrifices.”
One of the most notorious cannibals is the fictitious Hannibal Lecter of the movie “The Silence of the Lambs.” But another, Jeffrey Dahmer, was all too real. He confessed to killing 17 people before his capture in 1991. He ate some body parts and kept human remains in a refrigerator.
“He felt if he ate these people, they would become part of him,” said criminologist Eric Hickey, who directs the Center for Forensic Studies at Alliant International University in California and appeared in a British Broadcasting Corp. documentary on Dahmer.
Dahmer, found competent to stand trial, was convicted and sentenced to prison, where he was bludgeoned to death by another inmate in 1994.
Asked what notions or impulses could lead to cannibalism, Hoge said one view is that it’s an attempt to “capture the power or the spirit of their victim.” He said most cannibals are gripped by psychosis, a state of mind characterized by a loss of contact with reality.
“When someone is psychotic, they come to believe all kinds of very, very bizarre things,” he said. “There is nothing logical or coherent or expectable about the kinds of delusions that would lead someone to cannibalize.”