Reason for the killing spree?

santa-claus-gun-game-25106This is not the Christmas story that I wanted to write about, today, but The Los Angeles Times has raised a question that makes it, for me, a must cover for this weblog.

But first, here is the top of the Associated Press report about Bruce Pardo, the man in the Santa suit who shot up that Christmas Eve Party in suburban Los Angeles.

COVINA, Calif., Dec. 25 — Stinging from an acrimonious divorce, a man plotting revenge against his ex-wife dressed up like Santa Claus, went to his former in-laws’ Christmas Eve party and slaughtered at least eight people before setting the house ablaze and, hours later, killing himself, police said.

Bruce Pardo’s ex-wife and her parents remained missing after the rampage, and it was feared their remains were among the ashes of the house. Pardo allegedly used a bizarre homemade device that sprayed flammable liquid before igniting the fire.

Pardo, 45, had no criminal record and no history of violence, according to police, but he was angry following last week’s settlement of his divorce after a marriage that lasted barely a year.

The emphasis in the lede for this story is on the best explanation for why this man did what he did. Of course, no one is certain at this point. The Associated Press did the cautious thing and quoted simply quoted authorities about this — tragically — logical motive.

Meanwhile, the New York Times report focused on the details of the crime and that was pretty much that.

COVINA, Calif. – A man in a Santa Claus outfit opened fire on a Christmas Eve gathering of his in-laws in this Los Angeles suburb and then methodically set their house ablaze, killing at least eight people and injuring several others, the authorities said Thursday.

Shortly after the attack, the gunman, identified as Bruce Jeffrey Pardo, 45, killed himself with a single shot to the head at the home of his brother in the Sylmar section of Los Angeles, the police said. In addition to the eight people whose bodies were found in the ashes of the house here, none of whom were identified, at least one other person was thought to be missing, and perhaps as many as three. Among the total of dead or missing were the couple who owned the home and their daughter, the estranged wife of the gunman, the police said.

Again, this is pretty standard material in early reporting about a tragic event that left the key participants dead. There is much work to be done to learn the details, let alone the motive.

As the local newspaper of record, the Los Angeles Times gave this story more effort and more space. It is not surprising that the editors and reporters found more details. What surprised me was the decision to base the lede on, well, the killer’s religious identity.

If there is a motive at this point, police are pointing at the breakup of this marriage. But in the Times we get this interesting choice for a lede, which sets the stage for the deadly party:

As he had in years past, Bruce Jeffrey Pardo volunteered to serve as an usher at his church’s midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Pardo, however, was miles away from the Holy Redeemer Catholic Church as the religious service got underway. He had driven a rental car from his home in Montrose to the Covina home of his ex-wife’s parents. Shortly before 11:30 p.m., dressed as Santa Claus, he approached the front door with a large, wrapped package.

What is the connection between the Mass and the killings?

Well, there really isn’t one, except for the fact that this symbolic details tells us something about how much Pardo appeared to have veered away from his normal life. The detail is valid, I think, a variation on the “He was such a nice man, I can’t believe that he did this” imagery that often appears in the wake of these kinds of tragedies.

Sure enough, the story offers these details near the end:

Recently, Pardo had been living in the Montrose home alone, said Det. Antonio Zavala. Court records show that his wife divorced him last September. He “was apparently going through a bad time in his marriage,” Covina Police Lt. Pat Buchanan said.

Neighbors said that Pardo had lived in the house with his wife, Sylvia, 43, and her three children for a few years, until she and the children moved out last spring. The family was often seen walking their dog in the neighborhood.

Pardo, several neighbors said, was a quiet, unassuming man who enjoyed tending his garden and regularly ushered at the evening Sunday Mass at Holy Redeemer.

“Bruce?” said an incredulous Jan Detanna, the head usher at the church, when told about the attack by a reporter on the phone. “I’m just — this is shocking. He was the nicest guy you could imagine. Always a pleasure to talk to, always a big smile.”

So here is my question: If you were writing this lede, which details seem to be the most crucial in setting the stage for this massacre?

Is it the painful divorce or his role as a Catholic churchman? In a longer story, the shocked responses of people at his church are important. I know that. But is this the lede? That’s the question, for me. This was a strange choice, to say the least.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Matt McLaughlin

    Reports reflect the man was churched and not Satan worshiper, or atheist.
    Many of these events are due to people over-estimating the ability of a man to support wife and kids after she hits the road. All the laws in the world(liberal, Protestant-based) promising the wife that divorse is ok(and macho cops enforcing such a notion) aint gunna save her. I recommend that women looking forward to getting married go-over the rules of the road w/ their wanna-be husbands. Ask, “Honey, if you knock me up, we have kids, and I hit the road, am I road pizza?”

  • Karen

    The two are clearly related. Being a devout Catholic would make his divorce a source of shame, and a Catholic man would naturally blame his wife for causing that shame. (Since was divorced he could not receive Communion, and the Catholic Church’s views on women will hardly make him a progressive on sex roles.) The reporter here fails by only hinting, instead of flatly stating that Pardo’s religion fueled his vicious rage against the woman who, in his mind, Ruined His Life.

  • Mark

    Karen:

    Not quite. Look at the details as we have them.

    The AP story says the marriage had lasted “barely a year.” The LATimes story says he, the ex-wife and her children had been living in the house for several years. Therefore, that tells me, if those two details are accurate, that they had been cohabitating outside of marriage.

    Not exactly the profile of a “devout” Catholic on whom divorce would bring shame.

    Secondly, on a more general note, being divorced does not get you banned from Communion. FYI. Remarriage without an annulment places you outside the sacrament, but not simply a divorce.

    Nice try with the agitprop.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Agitprop indeed.

    We can only hope that Karen is not a journalist. What a massive leap — of anti-faith? — to a conclusion not mentioned by any of the authorities in the articles.

  • Pamela

    Sidebar: Locally we have old time radio that plays on Sunday nights. This past Sunday night one of the episodes they aired was called Out for Christmas. It was a story that starred Raymond Burr as an ex-con that was let out of prison early so he could be home for Christmas. He finds out that his girl that promised to wait for him ended up falling in love with the man that put him in jail. He plans to kill them wearing a Santa suit. In this case the kids came out before he carried out his plans and softened his heart. The two decided not to press charges and let him go.

    I was absolutely shocked and heartbroken when I heard about this story. That is so sad, especially after hearing such a heartwarming story about redemption on the radio.

    Religion did not have to play into this act. SOME men want so much control over women that they will stop them using any means necessary, even murder. That happens regardless of religious faith. I think anyone that has lived more than 20 years should know this. I think the issue of religion being brought up in the story may bring something interesting into the discussion because at least in times past people did not equate violence with people that are serious about their faith.

  • Karen

    No, I’m not a journalist, but I don’t see why it’s unreasonable to conclude that a man who murdered his ex-wife’s family because she divorced him was a man who held retrograde ideas about the role of women in society. One bountiful source of such attitudes is the Catholic church. …

    And yes, I’m well aware of the fact that the church doesn’t officially approve of wife-killing. You cannot seriously argue, however, that it doesn’t teach that men and women have separate roles in society. …

    (edited to remove additional inaccurate statements about the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church)

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    Since the LA Times is writing for the local market that had already received the basic information, I understand that they wanted to do more/ better/extra. However, I think this should have been two stories. The story about his church should have been a separate little feature.

  • Ten14

    My heart goes out to the victims in this tragedy. My own father (who married my divorced mother when I was young) was asked to leave the catholic church because he was marrying a non-Catholic divorced woman with a child from the previous marriage. They did not honor him for wanting to provide love and support for me and my mother, or welcome us into the church. They just wanted to judge and ex-communicate. Having said that, I do believe no one should presume they can point fingers when they have no idea what went on in the mind of a mad man. You never know how crazy someone can be until such a tragedy happens. What a statement about the world we live in today. Haven’t we learned any lessons about “nice guys” in the Catholic church from all the victims of clergy abuse? Certainly there are good and bad people in all walks of life, but being a regular usher at the Catholic Church (right here in my neighborhood) doesn’t mean you’re incapable of violence. It’s just an easy way to hide the monster you really are/were. There’s a special place in Hell for his kind. I hope one day the victims and their loved ones find peace and blessings. What a horrific tragedy no matter who you want to blame. On Christmas, and dressed as Santa, no less. It would have been more accurate if he’d dressed as Satan…

  • mary martha

    I wonder… when Atheists, or Muslims, or Buddhists commit murder – is their faith (or lack of faith) used in the lede by this journalist?

    I think that including the information hat the killer was an active member of his Catholic parish is reasonable to include but don’t see why it is such a focus.

    Karen – As a Catholic woman I will absolutely argue that the Catholic Church does NOT teach that women’s role is ‘passive and private’. You might consider finding out a bit more about the strong women in the history of the Catholic Church such as St. Catherine of Siena. It’s a good thing that you aren’t a journalist and you can only share your agitprop in comboxes.

  • FW Ken

    Court records show that his wife divorced him last September. He “was apparently going through a bad time in his marriage,” Covina Police Lt. Pat Buchanan said.

    A bad time? Ya’ think? Surely the reporter misplaced the quote , but why didn’t an editor catch the strange juxtaposition?

    As a Catholic, I don’t take the connection as prejudiced. Fortunately, my Baptist parents taught me that no Church membership is a guarantee of moral perfection. The Catholic Church, particularly, has 66 million Americans calling themselves “Catholic” and next-to-no quality control. As someone noted, the guy was apparently living with his girlfriend and still active in the parish. It doesn’t say if he was receiving the Sacraments, though, which would have been an interesting (to me) detail.

  • Doug

    Guys, it’s not religion. Loser was moving into his midlife crisis years; he lived in a lazy state (that being California, one of the states where you can fall asleep outside and not freeze to death); he was feeling all “ooh-boo-hoo-woe-is-me” over his personal life; and, being a lazy loser, he didn’t feel like dealing with his ex-wife on a longterm basis. I work as a legal editor; I see crap like this all the time (if, granted, on not quite as creative a basis. Extra bonus points for traumatizing that little girl by wearing a Santa suit, a-hole.). At least the piece of crap had the good grace to kill himself: we won’t be reading his sad, sick appeals from Death Row for the next twenty years. Oh, but just to put a religious spin on it: have fun burning in hell for all eternity, you filthy murder-suicide, you.

  • Dave2

    The comments on this post are alarmingly ghoulish and hateful.

  • Roberto

    It isn’t only the Times: for a while, Yahoo teased the story with a link that said something about the gunman and his church.

    The Catholic Church, particularly, has 66 million Americans calling themselves “Catholic” and next-to-no quality control.

    Absolutely! People call themselves “Catholic” and even hold themselves out as “experts” or at the very least knowledgeable about Catholicism long after they’ve ceased to have any meaningful connection to the Church. I’m not given (in fact, I dislike) to complaining about disparate treatment but it’s hard to imagine lapsed members of other faiths being accorded a similar status. Then, of course, there the soi dissant theologians like the current Speaker who hold forth on Catholic teaching when it suits their purposes.

    As to TMatt’s original query: I think the mention of his religion was superfluous, especially anywhere near the lede. The lede should provide a way to understand or at least enter the narrative and saying that he was a Catholic does neither. If they had led with something about loving Mexican food or being an Angels’ fan you would have had as much insight as to why he did what he did or at least some understanding of him as a person than saying he was an usher at his parish. All of these say “average Joe.”
    Try it: “A long-time Angels fan, possibly distraught over Mark Teixeira’s signing with the Yankees and leaving the Halos with a hole in their lineup . . .” I’m not being flippant — I’m pointing out how little information saying that someone is a Catholic conveys in this situation. In the population media imagination, people think they know what being a Catholic means and, more to the point, how it will affect a person. It’s just their imagination.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    I think everyone is reading too much into this because all we’ve got is a couple of sketchy quotes — from a cop, a neighbor and an usher — that may or may not be accurate depictions of anything in this man’s life.
    I don’t fault the reporter’s intent in writing the lede. It was a second-day story by then, and teh writer wanted to use more narrative. It was kind intriguing that he had signed up to usher, but never showed up because he was busy committing Mass murder.
    That said, I think some of the intemperate responses that I read above may reinforce the point that Bill Donohue of the Catholic League often makes about “altar boy” references. Donohue’s beef is that stories about men who commit crimes often mention, for no apparent reason, that the perpetrator had once been an altar boy. I haven’t always agreed with Donohue’s argument that there’s a sly anti-Catholic agenda, in that we rarely see references to criminals who spent time in Awana or the Royal Rangers or United Methodist Youth. I don’t believe the reporter in this case had an agenda — I suspect the writer would have done much the same if he was due to usher at a Baptist service. But the rabidly anti-Catholic responses that it produced would seem to indicate that Donohue has a point. Would these people be frothing at the mouth about a religiuos connection to the crime if Pardo had been an usher in a Presbyterian Church? I doubt it.

  • Susan

    #8 Ten14

    In the interests of clarity:

    People are not asked to leave the Roman Catholic Church if they have married “outside of the RC.” They are asked not to receive the Eucharist. People who are not members of the RC are welcomed but (again) they cannot receive the Eucharist.

    Also for clarity, no one cares or even notices if someone is not receiving the Eucharist. There are many reasons and they are no one’s business.

  • FW Ken

    Oh, but just to put a religious spin on it: have fun burning in hell for all eternity, you filthy murder-suicide, you.

    Not a religion related to Christianity in general or Catholicism in particular. As a Catholic, I hope that this man, and his victims all share in a cleansing hope of their own. As someone who spends his days with men who have done terrible things, I can never forget they are more like me than dislike me, or my own soul enters into real and immediate danger. The man who did this terrible thing is not something other than human, in the same way I am human, and everyone reads this is human.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It is sad how a horrible tragedy also lets loose the dogs of bigotry and prejudice in the media and in comboxes. As can be seen in so many cases of violence in the news the marital and sexual anarchy that reigns in our country is at the root of much of our violence. But the Catholic Church has been one of the strongest voices against this anarchy. So, naturally, those who love this anarchy for whatever selfish reasons have got to scapegoat the Church lest Americans begin listening to the Church’s message of marital fidelity and stability. A message she received from Christ Himself and is clearly written in the pages of the Bible.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    Although I believe in accuracy, and not going for the slam dunk emotional hook if you can find another lede, I also feel for the reporters who cover these stories, and have to make sense of the senseless. As much as we end up knowing, and tragically many of the people who could have told us are dead, we will probably never know what turned a man who sounded so ordinary into a person who took nine innocent lives. I’ve had occasion to interview murderers in prison and I’m not sure that they can always explain why they killed.

  • Jen Deaderick

    This is a forum to discuss media coverage of religion, not to debate the relative merits of religious view points. Clearly that has been forgotten, which saddens me.

    Last night, as I was driving home with my family, including my four year old daughter, from a lovely Christmas get-together at my mother-in-law’s, I had to jump to change the radio station before my daughter heard the the word ‘Santa” in combination with the phrase “shot and killed several people.” This morning, as I mulled this over in the shower (my quiet, meditative time), I wondered why this was covered as major news at all. Pakistani troops on India’s border, economic upheaval continuing, Harold Pinter and Eartha Kitt passing: all major stories.

    This was a major story because not only was it a horrible shooting incident, but it happened on Christmas Eve, and the killed dressed as Santa. Those two facts connect this story to religion. They are “ghosts,” as you say here. Because of that, his religion and religious activity is pertinent. If he were a non-Christian religion, and had gone to his ex-wife’s family’s Christmas party to kill people, that might hint at a motive.

    Knowing that he was a Catholic that regularly ushered at his church adds a further layer of sad mystery as to why he would do this horrible thing.

  • http://www.soilcatholics.blogspot.com Peggy

    I’m glad you’ve covered this. The first or 2nd thing I heard about the killer on TV/radio reports was that he was an usher at Midnight Mass. What’s that got to do with it..?

    It might be an interesting slice of life data point, but not something we all needed to know. You don’t have to be holy to usher people to seats, though it would help.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    the story even made the news here in the Philippines.

    But actually, saying that the man ushered at a Catholic church brings up several things.

    One: not a fundamentalist. Catholics tend to be more laid back.

    Two: He lived with the woman for several years, but only was married for one year? Again, suggests he wasn’t even a legalistic Catholic…

    Three: by pointing out that the man had connections with a church, it suggests he wasn’t a paranoid loner, a violent druggie, or a sociopath, but an ordinary guy who snapped.

    (nice guys sometimes hold anger inside, and then drugs, alcohol or anti depressent medicines lowered his ability to control his anger…or sometimes they just “snap”)

  • the pest

    Mark obviously has a point regarding Karen’s comments. She seems to have missed some crucial facts. Nevertheless,I think it is somewhat distasteful that Tmatt so anxiously piles on. I mean, really, for one of the writers of “Get Religion” to accuse someone of “agitprop” is a bit rich. Physician, heal thyself! About 20% of this website is agitprop.
    On another note, if Mark is correct that only remarriage without obtaining an annulment places one outside the sacrament under RC canon law, then I wonder how Nicole KIdman was recently married in an RC church in Australia. Did she abstain form communion during the ceremony? Would the chruch deny her communion, but allow her the sacrament of marriage? Or did she get an annulment? What about Clarence Thomas? Hasn’t he returned to worship in an RC church? Does he receive communion? Did he obtain an annulment?

  • mary martha

    I know this is totally off topic but I can’t resist answering. Nicole Kidman’s first marriage was a Scientologist wedding and was never recognized byt he Catholic Church. She was free to marry in the Catholic Church – no annulment required. Clarence Thomas requested an annulment from his first marriage when he returned to the Catholic Church in the early 90s.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    People, people!

    Back to the topic of the post! Please discuss the content of the news stories and the decisions concerning the various ledes.

    Oh, and if you want to state information about the teachings of a major religious group — especially if you cite information while attacking it — please list a URL showing a source of your facts. Do not just spout opinion about the religious views of others.

  • dc

    Let he who is without Sin cast the first stone. If there was as much thought put into prayer as there was in this motive.It would be better for all. Follow your heart and lead your brain. Thank You for allowing me to comment.

  • http://www.followingthelede.blogspot.com Sabrina

    I don’t believe this is an anti-Catholic lede — I think it is justifiable in terms of its newsworthiness and has a pretty effective hook. What makes it newsworthy is precisely that Pardo was scheduled to usher at the Midnight Mass at the time he was committing this crime. If he had been a nonreligious person who volunteered at a food bank on a weekly basis and was scheduled to take part in the holiday food distribution for the needy that night –at the same time as he was on his murderous rampage — it would have also been newsworthy enough to make the lede.

    My disappointment with the story as it stands is that, after committing to that lede, the reporter doesn’t actually manage to secure enough comment from Pardo’s religious community. Ushering is considered one of the ministries at the parish, just as lectoring or serving as extraordinary minister of holy Communion is, so Pardo’s engagement with Catholicism (whatever we may think about the quality of that commitment) was not casual. Where is the pastor’s comment? Pastors can’t know all of their parishioners, but they certainly know the ones active in ministry. Was Pardo involved in any other ministries or events at the parish? The parish community is supposed to be a family, and I would have wanted my reporter to get more than one comment from the “family” after that lede.

    I’m an editor at a Catholic newspaper. If one of my reporters had written that lede, I would have fought to keep it — though, I’ll grant you, the rest of the article would have been quite different. It is easy to identify instances of anti-Catholic bias in mainstream (and not-so-mainstream) media but I think we have to be careful about flinging that particular accusation around so frivolously.

  • http://vagantepriest.blogspot.com/ FrGregACCA

    Until reading the piece above, I had not been aware that the Santa shooter was active in his Roman Catholic parish. That bit of information did not make the NPR reports I had heard and my knowledge of this story had previously been limited to what I had heard on the radio.

    That said, I think tmatt is right. This is, for better or worse, merely a variation on the “he was such a nice guy” theme as with, for example, the President of his Lutheran parish who turned out to be the “BTK killer” in the Midwest. I don’t see anything more to it than that. Beyond that, well, bad marriages/broken relationships often incite people to do crazy things, regardless of the person’s sex; witness the pastor’s wife in Tennessee who gunned down her husband, and there are plenty of other, less spectacular examples involving people of all religions or no religion.

  • http://knapsack.blogspot.com Jeff

    Ann’s point is the same as our problem in the Boy Scouts of America — any molester who had any connection no matter how long ago and unrelated to Scouting then and now is mentioned in the story as “a Cubmaster” or maybe, if we’re lucky “former Cubmaster” when the perp was a den leader or even just helping parent 22 years ago.

    The BTK killer was justifiably discussed as inexplicably average and decent in his ongoing and active church involvement, but no one (that i read) even hinted at Lutheran propensities towards terror murder. But “altar boy,” “Catholic,” or “Scout leader” carry a heavy load of implication — the rationale being, i suppose, that if there’s twenty times the Catholic leaders than liberal Protestant leaders, then you’re likely to have twenty times the child molesters turn up in court and the newspaper stories, which becomes a self-fulfilling expectation. Ditto Scouting, which is big and pervasive enough to ring the bell quite often.

    I’d love to read a story about the amazing job Scouting has done on Youth Protection Training and largely eliminating incidents at and in Scout-related settings over the last twenty years, but that’s not going to happen.

  • http://www.followingthelede.blogspot.com Sabrina

    FYI –

    Here’s the Catholic News Service headline and lede for the story:

    California man in Santa suit kills eight, then self; was church usher

    COVINA, Calif. (CNS) — A man dressed in a Santa suit who opened fire at his former in-laws’ Christmas Eve party in Covina then set the house ablaze, killing at least eight people, had been an usher at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Montrose.


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