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A Sniper's Mind

This week we've all heard a great deal from cops and psychologists trying to analyze the mind of the Washington-area sniper. But rarely in these cases do you ever hear from a sniper himself.

Thomas Dillon was a serial sniper who terrorized Ohio in the 1990s. He used a high-powered rifle to randomly murder five people. When he was caught, Dillon confessed, and his thoughts on serial murder were recorded.

What is a serial sniper really like? If you're prepared to hear from a raving madman, maybe you're not prepared for Thomas Dillon. Scott Pelley reports.

Dillon confessed his crimes to the task force of FBI agents and sheriffs that finally caught him.

Dillon described one of his sniper murders: the shooting of a man he'd never met before.

"How far away was he from you when you shot him?" an investigator asked him.
"Seventy-five feet, maybe," Dillon answered.
Investigator: Where did you shoot him at?
Dillon: right between the eyes.
Investigator: Is that where you aimed for?
Dillon: Yes.
Investigator: Did you walk up to him and look at him?
Dillon: No. Didn't come close.
Investigator: But you're sure he was dead?
Dillon: Yeah, yeah. His hat blew straight up about 20 feet. I knew I - I had to blow his whole head off.

"What you see on the videotape is someone who looks and presents in a way that seems frighteningly normal, and the reality is that most of the people who commit crimes like those that Dillon committed come across just that way," says Jeffrey Smalldon, who may know the mind of sniper Thomas Dillon better than anyone. He's the psychologist the defense hired to figure out whether Dillon was insane.

Smalldon says that Dillon was "very smart, an IQ of around 135, in the superior range of intelligence."

But, Smalldon says, Dillon was not insane, because he knew what he was doing was wrong. What Dillon did: murder at least five strangers from 1989 to 1992.

You never would have picked him out of a crowd. He was married with a son, a college education, and worked 22 years as a draftsman. Everyone knew that Dillon liked to hunt; they just didn't know what he was hunting.

Dillon would find his victims along the byways of rural Ohio. There was no rhyme or reason to how he selected his targets, he just climbed in his pickup truck on weekends and would drive a 100 miles or more until he found someone utterly alone, a hunter, fisherman, a jogger. When he came upon them he would turn his truck around, pull out his rifle, take aim and, as he later told the police, he would never miss.

Investigator: "You only shot the two times? There were no misses in that particular shooting?
Dillon: Never miss.
Investigator: Never miss?
Dillon: Never miss.
Investigator: Basically you're a pretty good shot?
Dillon: That's why we're here, isn't it?

"Everybody was fearful," says Michael Miller, the prosecutor in the case, says the fear and frustration in Ohio was not unlike Washington today. "I mean, it isn't that you can stay away from these things because they were indiscriminate. You never knew when they were going to happen."

Dillon left little evidence, Miller says: "Some of the people who were killed obviously had the projectiles in them. Some didn't. Some were badly damaged. But he left virtually nothing so far as spent casings or anything of that nature. It was just not there nobody ever saw anything. Nobody saw automobiles, there was very little to go on."

In his confession he said that he shot his first victim 13 years earlier, a man sitting at home watching TV.

"So this guy with his back to the picture window of his house. He was sitting on the sofa. So, this thought came to me, he said, 'Stop back up, and said shoot this guy.' So, I shot at him through the picture window," Dillon said.

Why open fire? Dillon told the officers that in some shootings a voice in his head told him to take aim:

"This sort of voice in my head said, "go back and get him, go back and get him. I took my rifle, went down there, jumped the guard rail, went down through the pine trees, shot him in the back."

But this voice was Dillon's own, Smalldon says: "When I asked him about that, he finally admitted, well, like 'It wasn't another voice, I know it was me. It was my own voice. It was a voice in my head.'"

Dillon set more than 100 fires and killed more than a thousand pets and farm animals. Smalldon says he was living in a fantasy world of his own creation: "He talked on and on about the various fantasy roles that he had envisioned himself in over the years. They ran the gamut from being president of the United States to being lead singer for the Doors, or the Beatles, to being brought out of retirement by the Cleveland Browns to lead his team to the Super Bowl. But they were all linked together by the theme of power, prestige, influence and grandiosity.

"Now, I also found that his fantasy life has a much darker component than the examples that I've cited. Certain of his fantasies involved himself as a combatant in a war situation."

Kevin Loring had the extreme misfortune of intruding on Dillon's delusions. He took his family on vacation from Massachusetts to visit relatives and to hunt in Ohio. He's the one Dillon bragged about shooting right between the eyes.

Why did Dillon shoot Loring? "I don't know, just something came to me, you know, I just, spur of the moment thing," he told police.

If Dillon didn't care about his victims when they were alive, he became fascinated with them after they were dead. He went to Loring's hometown in Massachusetts to learn about the man he murdered.

"I went to New England last year with my wife and I looked up the microfilm on the Plymouth Library where that guy lived and everything, he was from Duxbury area, I just read you know, see what, who the hell he was, I didn't know who he was," he said to police.

Dillon visited the graves of those he killed. He even wrote this anonymous letter to a newspaper describing his murder of Jamie Paxton. He writes, "I am the murderer of Jamie Paxton…I felt the Paxton family should know the details of what happened. I thought no more of shooting Paxton than shooting a bottle at the dump."

"I heard a voice that just said, 'Do it,' you know. I just, I got out. I had a rifle with me. It was a 308. I got out. He came off the hill for me. I just, I opened fire on him," Dillon said.

What compelled him to write to the newspaper? He told the officers he felt bad that Paxton was only 21.

Dillon said to investigators: "I felt bad about the kid, you know, I didn't know he was that young. I couldn't see how old he was from a distance. I thought he was 30, 35. I didn't know he was that young…. blew that kid away you know, he had his whole life ahead of him and I blew him away, you know, I felt sorry for him."

Smalldon thinks there was another reason that Dillon wrote: "He was drawn by the urge to inset himself into the investigation. To, in effect, say 'Here I am' and he brags in that letter, not just 'Here I am but here I am, catch me if you can.'"

They might not have caught him, if it hadn't not been for two strokes of luck. A friend of Dillon's ultimately became suspicious of him.

"He had read about the killings. He knew that Dillon liked to drive around those areas and weekends and so forth in his car. He knew Dillon had weapons. He knew Dillon had shot and killed animals. He felt that Dillon was the type of person who could do something like this," says Miller.

A sniper task force followed Dillon for months. Eventually they arrested him on a weapons charge. That put his picture in the paper. And a gun dealer remembered he once bought from Dillon, a gun called a Mauser.

"When he saw his picture he remembered the individual. He still had the Mauser and he called the task force. That Mauser was ultimately taken to the FBI lab and it was confirmed that it was used in one of the homicides," says Miller.

Miller offered a deal. Plead guilty and confess and the state wouldn't seek the death penalty. The videotaped confession goes on for nearly four hours. At one point, a sheriff offers some photographs. Dillon is eager to see.

Investigator: You want to see the autopsy pictures?
Dillon: "Just - I want to see 'em all. Show 'em all to me."
Investigator: Alright.
Dillon: I never saw 'em in color. What the hell.
Investigator: Okay, we'll show you some pictures.
Dillon: Not the neatest job in the world, was it? Hmm.
Investigator: The shooting? And-- yeah, it's not--
Dillon: No, this autopsy. Geez. Dirty job, i'll tell 'ya.

Still, when they ask why he killed, Dillon never seemed to have an answer. Asked if he had any feelings toward his victims, Dillon answered: "No feelings whatsoever. They were just there. The wrong place at the wrong time."

"I think he's holding back because he wants to remain a puzzle," Smalldon says. "He would ask me 'Have you ever met anyone as complicated as me? Can you understand this? Am I, is this behavior as perplexing to you as it is to me? There's never been a crime like this in Ohio has there? No motive. No contact with the victims. How could you figure that out?' And then he would shrug and say 'I don't know.'"

"I really think that he felt he was something special," says Miller. "And when he was arrested and the plea and so forth, he's not a guy that used a jacket to cover his head, you know, he looked into the camera almost with a smirk on it. I mean he was proud of himself and proud of his period of fame. And I think he would have done it again."

That's what Dillon told the task force.

Investigator: If you had not been caught, more than likely there'd be more victims.
Dillon: Probably.

From prison, Dillon has continued to write Smalldon. He now says he wishes he'd gotten help when he needed it, and he's sorry for how the murders ruined his own family, at least.

Still Smalldon says many mysteries remain: he thinks there is "a good chance that he may have" committed other murders.

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