Derek Ward jumped in front of an oncoming train after decapitating his mother. Photo via Flickr user Adam Moss
For the last ten years or so, the fact that Derek Ward’s mind was slipping would have been clear to anyone who paid close attention.
A resident of Farmingdale—a suburb about 45 minutes outside of New York City—the 35-year-old had been arrested by Nassau County police for criminal mischief, drug possession, and possession of a firearm. He was also reeling from the death of his paternal grandfather last August. The local cops described him as suffering from a “history of psychiatric and drug issues.”
A strange amalgam of these emotions, or some other nefarious motive that remains under the radar, is what police believe drove Ward to murder and then behead his 66-year-old mother, Patricia, outside her Farmingdale apartment early Tuesday night. According to witnesses—who first thought they were watching a Halloween prank—Ward dragged his mother’s lifeless body outside, kicked her head 20 feet down the street, and left the scene around 8:00 PM. He would later be found dead a mile away, after jumping in the path of an oncoming Long Island Railroad train.
The day after the horrific events, Nassau County police told reporters that no domestic issue had ever been reported between the two. Patricia Ward was a popular assistant English professor at nearby SUNY Farmingdale for more than 25 years—“well liked, well known, and well respected,” as university official Patrick Calabria said in a statement. “People loved her, and it's tough on the campus today. There were a lot of tears.”
So Derek was the problem, but why? This was a 35-year-old guy with a troubled past, sure, but a criminal record doesn’t necessarily explain matricide. Besides, he had no specific psychiatric condition. So what could have driven a man to commit such a gruesome act?
Barbara R. Kirwin, a leading forensic psychologist, has seen eight or nine cases in her career in which a son has decapitated his mother. “This isn’t just restricted to terrorists," she told me.
Kirwin explained that matricide usually involves a “Norman Bates” dynamic: An absent father leads to a severe attachment to the mother. “The only one who stands by the son is his mother,” Kirwin said. “The mother is usually in denial of how mentally ill her son is. She sees him as caring, and she pays the ultimate price.”
According to Kirwin, this could have all been averted had Derek been checked into some kind of psychiatric facility for help. Instead, he was allowed to reach a violent breaking point, in which the mother is seen as protecting but at the same time overbearing by the son. “The mother becomes a prison guard, and the target to deflect onto,” Kirwin said. “So when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong.”
Thus decapitation, which has deep symbolic value. The public removal of the face and the brain—or the expression, and the mind—takes away “what makes them a person," as Kirwin put it.
Matricide is extremely rare, comprising only one percent of all homicides in the US. (According to a report conducted by the Department of Justice in 2011, a person is twice as likely to kill his or her father.) But on a weekly basis, at least five parents are killed by their children, and between 1980 and 2008, the frequency of these acts increased by more than three percent. “Children killing their parents is the fastest growing type of family homicide,” Mario Garrett wrote last year in Psychology Today.
In true Oedipal fashion, these killings are committed primarily by sons. Reasons can vary: self-affirmation, perceptions of a domineering mother, a hostile-dependent relationship, an absent father—the list goes on. But Derek Ward doesn’t quite fit the trend, as most of the men who do this are between the ages of 16 and 19, not in their mid 30s. And as sons grow older, their likelihood of committing matricide declines.
Brutality has its exceptions, however, and this grisly pre-Halloween slaying is one of them.
John Surico is a Queens-based freelance journalist. His reporting can be found in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Village Voice, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter.