In 1967 when he was fifteen, James Gordon Wolcott lived in the central Texas town of Georgetown, the home of Southwestern University. His father, Dr. Gordon Wolcott, headed up the university’s Biology Department. His mother Elizabeth, an outgoing woman, was active in the religious community. James and his 17-year-old sister Libby attended Georgetown High School.
At ten on the night of August 4, 1967, James and Libby returned home after attending a rock concert with friends in nearby Austin. Just after midnight, James sniffed model airplane glue to give himself a “boost.” Armed with a .22 rifle, he walked into the living room and shot his father to death by plugging him twice in the chest. In Libby’s room, James killed his sister by shooting her in the chest and in the face. The teenager found his mother in her bedroom where he shot her twice in the head and once in the chest.
With his father and sister dead, and his mother in her room dying, James hid the rifle in the attic crawlspace above his bedroom closet. After he disposed of the weapon, James ran out of the house and flagged down a car occupied by three college students. After telling these students that someone had killed his family, they returned with him to the house. Inside the dwelling, the students found Mrs. Wolcott hanging onto her life in her bedroom. One of the young men called for an ambulance and the police. (This was pre-911.)
On the front porch of the Wolcott house, James kept yelling, “How could this happen!” He, of course, knew exactly how it happened. When it occurred to the college kids that the killer could still be in the dwelling, they fled the scene.
Later that morning, Elizabeth Wolcott died at the hospital. A minister who happened to be a Wolcott neighbor took James to his parsonage. A few hours later, when a Texas Ranger asked James if he had killed his family, the youngster said, “Yes, sir.” At that point James had the presence of mind to describe in detail what he had done. At the killing site, he showed police officers where he hid the rifle.
When asked the obvious question of why, James said he hated his family. He later told psychiatrists that his mother chewed her food so loudly he had to leave the room. His sister had an annoying Texas accent, and his father made him cut his hippie hair and wouldn’t allow him to wear anti Vietnam war buttons or attend peace rallies.
Several psychiatrist interviewed James at the Williamson County Jail. From the young mass killer they learned that he had been sniffing glue for several months. James also told the shrinks that he had contemplated suicide. He said that his parents and sister had tried to drive him insane. He killed them before they had a chance to murder him.
Although James and members of his family did not have histories of mental illness, the psychiatrists concluded that the boy suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. (There may have been doctors who disagreed with this conclusion.) One thing was certain, with an I Q of 134, the kid was no dummy. Notwithstanding the diagnosis of schizophrenia, the psychiatrists declared the defendant mentally competent to stand trial as an adult.
As could be expected, the murder defendant’s attorney, Will Kelly McClain, set up a defense based on legal insanity. In October 1967, following a short trial, the all-male jury found James Wolcott not guilty by reason of insanity. The jurors believed that James had been so mentally impaired he had no idea that killing his family was wrong. (Since the Wolcott verdict, only a handful of Texas murder defendants have been declared not guilty by reason of insanity. This rarely happens because there is no such thing as a mental illness so severe that it completely destroys a killer’s appreciation of what he is doing. In the history of Texas jurisprudence, the James Wolcott case is an anomaly.)
In February 1968, the trial judge sent James Wolcott to the Rusk State Hospital in Texas. He was to be incarcerated there until he regained his sanity. That sentence placed his fate in the hands of psychiatrists.
In 1974, seven years after the mass killing in the Texas college town, Rusk State Hospital psychiatrists declared the 21-year-old killer sane. The young man had made a remarkable recovery for someone who had been so mentally ill that he didn’t realize that shooting his family to death was wrong.
As the only surviving child of his deceased parents, James Wolcott inherited their estate, and started receiving a monthly stipend from his father’s university pension fund.
Upon his departure from Rusk State Hospital, James took up residence in Austin, Texas where he enrolled at The University of Texas. Just two years later, he had a Bachelor’s Degree in psychology.
At some point in the late 1970s, James Wolcott changed his name to James David St. James. In 1980, Mr. St. James, having acquired his Master’s Degree, began his doctoral work in psychology at the University of Illinois. In 1988, Dr. St. James began teaching psychology at Millikin University, a Presbyterian liberal arts institution in Decatur, Illinois. No one at the school knew that the psychology professor had shot three members of his family to death twenty years earlier. Had he included this relevant background information on his job application, it is doubtful the university would have hired him. Having been declared criminally insane, even in the field of academic psychology, is not a job-hunting selling point.
In July 2013, a Texas journalist named Ann Marie Gardner published an article that revealed Dr. St. James’ homicidal past. When the story broke, the academic, who did not have a family of his own, headed the Behavioral Sciences Department at Millikin University. While the secretive professor’s colleagues and students were probably shocked, no one at the school voiced disapproval. In fact, at least in academic circles, Dr. St. James emerged from his exposure as a hero, a poster-boy for the power and glory of the behavioral sciences. (Had he been working for a plumbing company, he would have been fired.) If the professor’s colleagues and students were stunned by the creepy irony of Dr. St. James’ story, no one has said so. (University campuses, ground zero of extreme political correctness, are not places where students and professors can speak freely.)
There are probably members of the Wolcott family who are still psychologically scarred by James Wolcott’s killing spree. There was no indication, however, that what took place that night in 1967 had any lingering affect on the killer himself. And there was no evidence that Dr. St. James is still schizophrenic. This was interesting because the disease is incurable. (All of the homicidal schizophrenics I have written about–including the subject of a book–struggled with the malady their entire lives. One of these men who couldn’t take living with the illness eventually killed himself.)
One possible explanation for James Wolcott’s rapid and apparent total recovery from this devastating disease is that he wasn’t insane in the first place. Following his arrest, James told his interrogators that he had been thinking about killing his family for a week. Moreover, if he wasn’t aware that what he had done was wrong, why did he hide the gun? Is it possible we was a brilliant sociopath who pulled one over on the psychiatrists, the criminal justice system, and academia?
In 2013, as politicians clamor for Millikin to fire Dr. St. James, The Daily Beast published a lengthy plea from Joelle Charbonneau, a writer who took two of his classes as an undergraduate at Millikin. She hopes that Dr. St. James can keep his job and that the situation demonstrates for people what happens when the system actually rehabilitates someone.