Inside the mind of one "American Shooter"

Before this Michican man shot his mother with a rifle, he experienced delusions while serving in the Navy

Published June 18, 2018 4:00PM (EDT)

"The Trigger: Narratives of the American Shooter" by Daniel J. Patinkin (Arcade Publishing/Shutterstock)
"The Trigger: Narratives of the American Shooter" by Daniel J. Patinkin (Arcade Publishing/Shutterstock)

Excerpted with permission from "The Trigger: Narratives of the American Shooter" by Daniel J. Patinkin. Copyright 2018 by Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

A Chicago native who attended high school in the inner city, author Daniel Patinkin has long been intrigued by some of the more persistent and pervasive problems in American society. His first book, "The Crippler: Cage Fighting and My Life on the Edge," profiled a world-class mixed martial arts fighter who struggled through poverty, incarceration, mental health problems, and opioid addiction. Patinkin's upcoming work, "The Trigger: Narratives of the American Shooter," dramatically recounts the biographical narratives of six demographically diverse individuals who have shot someone in America. His goal, which he discusses in the introduction, is to shine a light not only on the immediate causes and consequences of their acts, but also on the broader social and cultural phenomena that underlie gun violence in this country.

Chapter 2 of "The Trigger" tells the story of a Michigan man named John Frizzle, who, in 1989, assaulted his two brothers with a crossbow and shot his mother with a rifle. The event was the culmination of an extended period of psychiatric turmoil, which, in particular, featured erratic behavior and delusional thinking during John's brief service in the U.S. Navy. The following excerpt recounts some of what he went through during a deployment on the USS Enterprise, an aircraft carrier.

* * *

It began as a mental exercise during the quiet moments before lights out. John would contemplate ways to make a more consequential contribution to American military goals despite his lowly position within the naval hierarchy. At first he thought about how he might work hard to distinguish himself and thereby rise in the ranks. However, he quickly dismissed this notion. Diligence was never his strong suit. To date, he had never impressed a superior enough to earn an advancement of any kind, within the Navy or elsewhere. Furthermore, John did not have that kind of patience. To climb to an officer rank that carried any sort of influence would take years, decades even. Poor John could not imagine where he would be in life six months down the road, much less craft a long-term career strategy.

John shifted his tack. His move would have to be dramatic and immediate — something that would send shockwaves throughout the Navy, across the world even. His thoughts returned to public enemy number one: Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. One night, while staring at the ceiling of his rack, listening to jet wheels thump and screech on the flight deck one level above, John had a moment of clarity. His heart began to thump in his chest. The solution was both obvious and grandiose. He would singlehandedly track down and assassinate the Libyan leader.

This line of thinking evolved into a consuming, day-after-day obsession. The narrative began to unspool within John’s imagination. He would trek into Northern Africa, blend in with the local population, evade enemy agents. When the time was right, he would sneak into Gaddafi’s palace, quietly terminate a few unsuspecting guards, and, like a shadow, make his way to the Colonel’s bedroom. There he would find Gaddafi slumbering peacefully, perhaps draped with the naked bodies of two or three nubile concubines. John would steel himself and stroll up to the infamous revolutionary. He’d press the point of a bowie knife into the Colonel’s chin, and announce with a gritty drawl, “The gig is up, Gadaffi.”

Envisioning this bold act of vigilantism, John experienced a visceral giddiness that reminded him of when, as a child, he schemed to hunt down the fugitive Robert Taylor. But the Gaddafi plan felt much more tangible, more real — the burning desire to execute the strategy, more potent. John was old enough, man enough, and, he believed, competent enough to follow through on this gambit, however ­ambitious. If he succeeded, there was no doubt that he would go down in history as an American military hero.

The risks of the plan, John knew, were significant. He could, of course, be killed in the process. If not, discovery of the action — even the mere conspiracy to take this sort of action — would result in severe discipline, likely a court-martial. Also, there was a decent chance that the Navy would pursue John once they discovered that he was AWOL. This meant that John could not simply slip away during one of the port stops. He would have to throw the hounds off his scent. It became evident that he would have to fake his own death.

John decided that the most effective way to abscond would be to abandon the carrier while at sea. No one in his right mind would do that. If John turned up missing while the ship was steaming through the depths of the Mediterranean, there would be no reasonable conclusion other than that he had fallen overboard and perished. However, exiting a moving nuclear aircraft carrier is no walk in the park. The flight deck is sixty feet above sea level, nearly double the height of an Olympic diving platform. John could kill himself by plunging into the water at the wrong angle, or, once overboard, get pulled beneath the carrier by a current. Moreover, John was not sure he possessed the physical strength or endurance necessary to swim miles to shore. He might have to endure hypothermia, or severe sunburn, or dehydration. Also, he would have to make his move without being noticed by any of his fellow crewman.

One night, at two, while the majority of the crew slumbered, John snuck out of his rack and headed down to the hangar deck. From there, a door opened out onto the stern of the ship. This gave John access to a steel service ladder that extended straight down the back of the vessel. John gripped the handrails and began descending toward the water level, some thirty feet below. The sea was placid, and a thick cloud cover shrouded the moon. As John progressed, he came closer and closer to the frothy trail of sea water churned up by the ship’s massive propellers. The wake was ivory white against the blackness of the sea and the starless, charcoal sky. It was all that John could see, the only source of illumination that provided him with any semblance of spatial awareness. He reached the tail of the ladder, just a few feet above the seawater, and there paused to contemplate his options. If he were to use this ladder as a method to abandon the ship, he most certainly would have to do so when they were anchored. There was far too great a risk that he would get swept under by the wake, maybe even somehow sucked into the propeller blades. Yet, as he gazed down at the bubbling trail of seawater and felt the low thrum of the carrier resonate in his chest, John was mesmerized. The rhythmic pulse of the propellers and the steady wash of the waves against the steel hull were siren songs beckoning. He felt a peculiar, almost irresistible desire to leap into the water right at that moment — to release and fall backward into the salty embrace of the Mediterranean. For what felt like an eternity, he stared into the hypnotic whirlpool spinning just below his feet. Then, his heart palpitating, his extremities tingling, John climbed back up.

John crawled back into his rack that night feeling conflicted. He was exhilarated by the prospect of his impending escapade, but also frightened. Hanging precariously from the back of the Enterprise, John had no longer felt as if he were in complete control of the situation. It was as if the two halves of his brain — the rational and the irrational — ­were at war with each other, or, if not yet engaged, then rattling their sabers. He began to worry that his quixotic sense of adventure was obscuring a more perilous reality. Was his scheme as insane as it was brash? Did he have a sound grasp of what it all entailed? Was he ignoring a subconscious death wish? John lay awake until sunrise trying to make sense of it all.

The following day, after completing his shift in the hangar bay, John sought out his executive officer in his office.

“Sir, I considered throwing myself overboard last night,” he blurted upon entering.

The XO, a rigid Norwegian from North Dakota with the surname of Hansen, looked up from his paperwork with narrowed eyes. “What the hell are you saying to me, Frizzle? I’m not in the mood to be trifled with.”

John immediately second-guessed the decision to come here. He stared at his feet as he continued with his confession. “Not, uh, trifling with you, sir. Last night, I woke up in the middle of the night, and . . .” He paused, not wanting to reveal the true nature of his conspiracy. “And I could not stop thinking about climbing up to the flight deck and taking a header into the sea. I think there might be something wrong with me.”

Hansen eyed John carefully, then set down his work and stood up from his desk. He came around to get a close look at his subordinate’s face.

“What’s going on with you, Frizzle? This is a serious thing you are telling me. You know that, right?”

“Yes, sir. It’s just . . . I don’t know what my issues are. I’m telling you this because I’m not sure that I can stop myself next time.”

The XO wrinkled his chin and thought about this for a moment. Then he turned to his desk and scribbled onto a small tab of paper. He folded the note and put it into John’s hand.

“Take this to sick bay. See Dr. Watts. Tell him what you told me. I want an update afterward.”

John stared down at the note, wondering if he had opened a Pandora’s box that would be very, very hard to close again.

The following evening, despite his reservations, John did as he was instructed. But, with more distance between the incident and the present moment, John had begun to feel that his existential crisis was not such a crisis after all. He downplayed the concern, explaining to Dr. Watts that he had experienced only a fleeting sense of hopelessness that now seemed to be fading. Nonetheless, Watts, a humorless clinician, ordered John to stay off of the flight deck for his own safety.

John’s fixation on the Gaddafi ploy waxed anew. And when, little more than a week later, the Enterprise anchored off of Sicily, he decided that the time was ripe. He spent a day refining his escape plan, which would require a two-mile swim to shore. If John took his time and did not wear himself out right away, he could complete that part of his journey in a single night. However, there were a couple of additional obstacles remaining. When the carrier was stationary, it was also at its most vulnerable. Typically, a whale boat was dispatched to monitor the ship’s perimeter throughout the night. Also, John still had not determined a suitable way to go overboard. He felt that the stern service ladder was too out-in-the-open.

By nightfall, John had come up with an alternative. One of the aircraft elevators — a hydraulic platform that transported jets from the hangar deck up to the flight deck — was locked in place at the flight deck. The shaft of this elevator opened to the sea on the starboard side of the carrier. Hanging over the side of the carrier, near the elevator, was a small motorboat known as the “captain’s gig.” It was lashed via a thick mooring rope to an iron cleat. John determined that he could use the rope to climb down to the base of the shaft and then drop the final ten feet into the water from there.

Once again, John waited until the middle of the night to make his move. He equipped himself with two hundred dollars cash, a switchblade, and two large, plastic trash bags, which he planned to inflate for flotation. Sailors were each assigned a “float coat,” which they were required to wear while on the flight deck. However, John realized that he had to abandon that essential item in order to make it seem as if he had died from a tumble overboard. While the rest of the vessel slept, he snuck out of his rack and crept along a gangway to the elevator. He took hold of the mooring rope and carefully shimmied down a steel guide column. That column was covered in slimy graphite grease—a lubricant for the elevator. By the time John reached the bottom of the shaft and stepped out onto a ledge overhanging the water, he was covered in the noxious stuff.

John collected himself and peered out toward the horizon. The lights of Naval Air Station Sigonella flickered like so many distant candles. He spotted the whale boat with its flashing beacons slowly trolling toward the bow of the carrier. John crouched and prepared to drop into the water. However, just before he made his move, his mind began to race. There were sharks in those waters, he suddenly realized. Why had he not thought of this before? Perhaps they would leave him be as long as he was not thrashing or bleeding. But what if he was wrong about that? John noticed, too, that the stern of the carrier was drifting out toward the open Mediterranean, not toward shore. This meant that the current was flowing in the wrong direction! Even if he swam vigorously for hours, it was more likely that he would get swept out to sea than reach dry land. And, just like that, John arrived at the sobering awareness that he was jammed between a rock and a hard place. If he jumped in, one way or another, he would almost certainly die. His hunt for Gaddafi would have to remain on ice until another opportunity arose. Only God knew when that would happen.

John grabbed hold of the rope and attempted to climb back up. However, because his hands and clothes were slathered in greasy lubricant, he could not get a proper grip nor find purchase with his feet. He could hardly ascend five feet, much less the forty feet that he had to climb to get back to the deck where his rack was located. John was stuck, and hopelessly so.

He remained perched on that overhang for over four hours, shivering in the brisk pre-dawn air. Finally, at about six, during one of their routine passes, the sentries on the whale boat spotted John. For a time, they kept their distance and observed John through binoculars. Given the severity of the security breach represented by John’s actions, these men would have been within their rights to shoot the suspicious subject clinging to the side of the carrier and then ask questions later. They took a more diplomatic approach and radioed to the carrier bridge. Within minutes voices came from above. John looked up to see a group of crewmen peering down at him. Among them, notably, was John’s XO, Hansen.

“Frizzle, what in the hell are you doing?” Hansen hollered.

“I don’t know,” John replied sheepishly. “I’m stuck!”

Satisfied that John was not a saboteur, the patrolmen motored over to a position on the side of the carrier, just below John’s ledge. John lowered himself onto the deck of the whale boat. Then the patrolmen escorted him back onto the carrier to account for his bizarre behavior.

The Master of Arms, a stout, ruddy-faced man, barked questions at John and demanded prompt answers. John claimed that someone had pushed him off the flight deck into the water below, and that he had been able to pull himself back up onto the elevator ledge. His clothes, however, though greasy, were conspicuously dry. The Master of Arms informed John that his actions constituted a serious crime, and that he would be investigated for sabotage, and potentially face a court-martial.

“Or you can tell the truth, and we can try to help you,” the Master of Arms continued. “I spoke with your XO. He told me that you thought about killing yourself last week, that you were going to throw yourself overboard. Is that what you were up to this morning?”

John did not like that his neuroses were becoming common knowledge. However, he recognized that the Master of Arms was throwing him a lifeline, and that affirming this dubious narrative could get him out of hot water. The truth — that he was attempting to go AWOL, to trek to northern Africa and assassinate Gaddafi — would have had far more disastrous consequences. He owned up to the suicidal thoughts.

John was helicoptered to Sigonella for processing and then flown to Naples, Italy, for assessment and treatment. John spent ten days, including the Fourth of July, 1986, in a barracks there. He was given free rein to come and go as he pleased — odd, considering his recent erratic behavior. He briefly considered skipping town. Soon, however, the attending psychiatrist filed a report diagnosing John with a personality disorder and recommending an honorable psychiatric discharge.

By Daniel J. Patinkin

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