If not for his parents, Robert Aaron Long — the 21-year-old suspect in the Atlanta spa shootings, which left eight people dead on Tuesday — might still be out there. Instead, he is currently detained without bail. That’s because it was his own mother and father who turned him in to authorities.
"We were contacted by members of the family indicating that may be their son, so we met with them," Cherokee County Sheriff Frank Reynolds said at a press conference on Wednesday, adding that Long's parents called the police after seeing surveillance footage posted to social media. "They were very distraught, and they were very helpful in this apprehension."
It's not hard to believe they were distraught — or torn, confused, guilty or ashamed, says Elizabeth Jeglic, a professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York.
"There are conflicting emotions" for people grappling with whether or not to turn in loved ones, Jeglic tells Yahoo Life, who says people will often ask, "Are they causing harm to other people? If they are doing something against your own family values and are a danger to others … people often feel an ethical and moral responsibility [to tell]."
For parents of people who commit crimes, in particular, "there's also a lot of guilt and shame," she says, and while parents are not responsible for a child's criminal behavior, "as a parent, one feels responsible for a child's behavior. … But still, you want to do the right thing, because it’s what you try to teach your children."
A 2019 study found that people are more likely to protect their loved ones who have committed crimes than turn them in, opting to preserve their relationship over the good of society, surprising researchers. There have always been exceptions — particularly with recent high-profile crimes, including the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, which pushed many people to turn in family members, friends and ex-spouses to the FBI.
More than a year before the December 2020 Nashville bombing by Anthony Warner, his girlfriend alerted police that he was building bombs in an RV trailer. Eleven years earlier, April Balascio turned in her dad, serial killer Edward Wayne Edwards, after years of putting the pieces together — just as David Kaczynski contacted the FBI about his brother Ted, the Unabomber, after reading, and recognizing the voice in, his manifesto. David wrote about his anguish over the 1995 situation in a 2016 memoir, Every Last Tie: The Story of the Unabomber and His Family, and has credited his wife, Linda Patrik, and their practice of Buddhism to leading him in the direction of justice.
"In addition to the moral arguments that Linda used to spur me to action (that my brother was creating incalculable harm, and that we'd share the moral responsibility for his actions if we failed to stop him) she also invoked the Buddhist idea of karma — that a person who hurts others actually does more harm to himself in the long run," David said in a Duke University Q&A tied to his book’s publication. "In this way, she helped me to understand that Ted was damaging himself morally, psychologically and spiritually with each act of violence. We needed to stop Ted for his own good as well as to protect others."
As Patrik, a professor of philosophy, told ABC News in 2016, "I'd thought about the families that were bombed. There was one in which the package arrived to the man's home and his little 2-year-old daughter was there. She was almost in the room when he opened the package. Luckily, she left, and his wife left. And then he died. And there were others. And so I spent those days thinking about those people."
While it's too soon to know any specifics about Long’s parents' decision, Jeglic says there is much to be learned from David Kaczynski.
"I think we can draw on a lot of what [he] went through when he turned in his brother. I think he had suspicions, and he felt conflicted, initially, because [Ted] had said he would stop, initially, if his demands were met," she says. "But he wanted to protect the safety of the public … and so any danger he could potentially cause outweighed him being a family member."
Jeglic, who has expertise in crimes of sexual abuse, says that particularly when turning in a family member for a sex crime — as happened in Wales in 2020, when Jonathan Evans escorted his 18-year-old son to the police for raping a girl — there can be "a lot of shame." That's because "sexual crimes, in our culture, are viewed as some of the most heinous crimes, so if you're the relative of someone who committed one … you feel shamed, for being associated and somehow responsible — but at the same time, you want to do what is right." And sometimes family members decide not to report because of various circumstances, such as if the victim is a shared child and incarceration of the perpetrator could leave the other parent bereft of financial support. "There is guilt, shame, responsibility," she says. "They are not easy decisions, and there is often long-term fallout."
Fallout can come with any instance of turning in a loved one, particularly within a family, as people will often not be in agreement. "It can cause fallout with the child [who is turned in], at least initially, with potentially forgiveness down the road," she says. "And it's rare that everybody's on the same page … but there's a struggle, and conflicting emotions, even if you know it’s the right thing to do."
Regarding theoretical studies on the topic — for example, considering 2019 findings that most people believe they’d protect those close to them — Jeglic believes it may be impossible to predict for sure unless faced with the reality of such a wrenching decision. "I think it’s one of those things," she says, "that's important to experience in order to really know."
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