Have you hired a psychopath?

Toxic corporate culture has been in the spotlight over the years with the more recent examples including Harvey Weinstein and the late, Jeffrey Epstein. The term, ‘Psychopath’ gets thrown around in the media with various books and academic articles exploring the subject. From popular TV shows like Dexter and Mindhunter, to documentaries like HBOs, The Jinx, society has become more familiar with the vernacular coined by health professionals to describe a person with an antisocial personality disorder. As a result, sociopaths and psychopaths often are identified as scary individuals who either look frightening or have other off-putting characteristics. In reality, they could be anyone—a neighbor, coworker, or even a family relation. Each of these seemingly harmless people may prey continually on others around them.

Antisocial personality disorder is described as an engrained behavioral pattern that consistently disregards and violates the rights of others. The most extreme examples of these are regarded as ‘sociopathic‘ or ‘psychopathic‘. According to Dr Robert Hare, 1% of the general male population are psychopaths, and 15 – 20% of the prison population are psychopathic. A clinical assessment of psychopathy is based on the person having the full cluster of psychopathic traits—at least to some degree—based on a pattern of lifetime behaviors.

This also means that there is a significant percent of the population that aren’t necessarily psychopathic but who do display some of the traits and still thrive in society. These types could be categorized as (BPD); Borderline Personality Disorder. Some of the traits include: narcissism, pathological lying, lack of empathy or guilt which, at worst, can still lead to violent crime or, at best, create a chaotic work environment. If you’ve ever been in the presence of someone with a borderline or full blown personality disorder, it’s easy to detect something is amiss without necessarily understanding the science behind their psyche. But what if you’ve ever been the target of such an individual?

Since moving to New York City in 2011, there were a few crimes that shocked me, however the shooting at the Empire State building in 2012 stood out from the rest. I was walking to my office building in Midtown Manhattan when I received an alert on my phone.

Jeffrey T. Johnson deceased at the crime scene in front of the Empire State building in NYC, 2012.

August 24th, 2012: the day of the shooting

Steven Ercolino was headed to his office inside the Empire State building where he worked as vice president of Sales at Hazan Imports. What he didn’t know was that his former colleague, Jeffrey Johnson, was hiding behind a white truck with a handgun, waiting for him.

Johnson fired the first shot at Ercolino’s head and the helpless victim crumpled to the sidewalk. Johnson then stood over the dying man and shot him four more times. Witnesses described the shooter as eerily calm, as he then walked east on 33rd Street and turned north onto the bustling Fifth Avenue.

Johnson, who was carrying a black canvas tote-bag, pulled out his .45 as he spotted two cops — who were posted outside the Empire State Building. The officers ordered him to “freeze” and drop his weapon, but Johnson raised his gun instead. The cops opened fire — hitting Johnson seven times. Johnson — who was dead at the scene — had no arrest record or history of psychiatric problems. He legally purchased his .45-caliber pistol in 1991 in Florida, while he was living there but never registered it in New York.

Before the carnage, an office grudge festered

Following the bloodshed, there was only one question on everyone’s mind: what was Johnson’s motive for killing his former boss? With no arrest record or history of mental illness, it’s difficult to understand or to have predicted his actions. The two worked together at Hazan Imports, which sells bags and belts, up until two years before the shooting, when Johnson was laid off. According to several people at the company, Johnson was a “meticulous” and “eccentric” designer who never got along with Ercolino, a “laid-back” salesman. Another Hazan employee who was standing next to Ercolino when he was killed, stated, “There was bad blood between Steve and Jeff, for no particular reason. Jeff just did not like Steve.” Said another, “You chalk it up to two guys being around each other too much.” Johnson and Ercolino’s bad relationship had gotten physical in the past, with the two regularly shoving and elbowing each other in the office hallways. Later, a few months after Johnson lost his job, he returned to the building and the two had a physical confrontation, with Ercolino grabbing Johnson by the throat and threatening, “If you ever do anything like this again, I’m going to kill you,” according to an eye witness.

His building’s superintendent and neighbors described him as a quiet and polite man who was seen every morning wearing a suit, greeting his neighbors and getting takeout from a nearby McDonald’s, then usually remaining in his apartment for the rest of the day. On the morning of the shooting, Mr. Johnson reportedly emerged from his building at the usual time and in the usual attire, said his superintendent, Guillermo Suarez, 72, whom everyone calls Bill. “He said, ‘How you doing, Bill?’ and he never came back to the building,” Mr. Suarez said.

Theories of crime, including Strain theory could be applied to this case; read (Merton, 1968), (Agnew, 1992), and (Blau and Blau, 1982), who describe various social-psychological factors which can trigger criminal behavior.

Was Johnson pushed over the edge? After feuding with Ercolino and eventually being fired by him, Johnson’s ego was bruised. His mother described conversations she’d had with her son in the year or so leading up to the shooting that illustrates a depleted man who was disappointed at how his life had turned out; he wanted to support his parents ‘as a son should’ and was unable to do so. He also mourned the loss of his favorite pet within the same year, and received an eviction notice after he couldn’t afford to pay rent. All of these factors, more than likely, contributed to his actions that fateful day.

It’s also probable that Johnson had a borderline personality disorder that went unnoticed throughout his life and during his interview process at Hazan Imports. Instead, he was dismissed as ‘eccentric’ by his colleagues. But his particular set of personality traits, coupled with a hostile work environment ultimately caused him to react with violence. After considering the testimonies of former colleagues and acquaintances, police determined that revenge may have been Johnson’s primary motive.

Fahim Saleh: beheaded and dismembered

After a chilling crime was committed in July this year, the words ‘reserved’ and ‘non-violent’ were used to describe 21 year old murderer, Tyrese Devon Haspil. His aunt expressed he was “sometimes troublesome but never having shown any inclination toward brutality,” after he tased, stabbed, beheaded, and dismembered his employer, Fahim Saleh, in his Manhattan apartment.

LEFT: Personal assistant, Tyrese Devon Haspil. RIGHT: Entrepreneur and Tech CEO, Fahim Saleh.

According to Paul Babiak and Robert Hare’s book ‘Snakes in Suits‘, and mentioned in a 2019 Forbes article, it is estimated that the rate of psychopathy in the executive suite is 3.9%. Since the release of the book there has been much disagreement over the extent of the presence of psychopaths in corporate America with most other estimates landing between 8% and 12%. People with these traits are good at “impression management” and know how to get people to like them. Studies show that some are quick to anger, though when climbing the corporate ladder they are more likely to use charm and flattery on superiors in order to propel their careers.

Haspil’s background revealed that his family history includes mental illness. And after his mother died, he was passed around family members until finally being placed in foster care as a young teen, after which, his father passed away. Haspil is described as, “never showing his emotions,” and it’s noted by his aunt that, “His behavior, the way he was, he acted nonchalantly. He would do whatever he wanted.” Travis Hirschi’s Social Bond Theory states that persons who have strong and abiding attachments to conventional society (in the form of attachments, involvement, invest- ment, and belief) are less likely to deviate than persons who have weak or shallow bonds. The theory provides some insight behind Haspil’s extreme decision since, as a child and adolescent, he failed to form these these bonds which are imperative for building relationships and understanding consequences of one’s actions.

Ryan Andres, a classmate of Haspil at Valley Stream Central High School on Long Island, said he never saw any flashes of violence or anger in his former friend. “As far as I can recall, he was always pretty friendly with everyone,” Andres, 22, recalled.

The day of the crime

Police believe that 21 year old Tyrese Devon Haspil murdered his boss, 33 year old Fahim Saleh on Monday, July 13th after following the tech CEO to his Lower East Side penthouse in New York City, immobilizing him with a taser, and stabbing him to death. Surveilance footage revealed that he returned the next day, August 14th, to conceal the crime. But not before using the victim’s credit card to rent a car, and purchase an electric saw and cleaning supplies. His plan was interrupted that same day when the victim’s sister visited the apartment to check up on her brother, and Haspil ran off. The electric saw used to dismember Saleh was still plugged into an outlet, and some of the remains had been stuffed in bags, according to NYPD officials.

So what was Haspil’s motive? After investigators read text messages exchanged between Haspil and his employer, Fahim Saleh, it was revealed that he had embezzled tens of thousands of dollars from the former tech CEO. And to their surprise, Saleh offered Haspil an out, stating that if the money was paid back in full he would not report him to the police.

This detail, investigators believe, was the deciding factor in Saleh’s death. Haspil most likely determined that murder was his best course of action in a twisted version of what economists call a cost-benefit analysis. In his situation, he believed that committing a violent crime was easier than paying back the money he stole. Unfortunately, it’s clear that Saleh hired and trusted the wrong person; a stone cold psychopath.

Haspil being led out by detectives in NYC after killing his boss.

Conclusion

How can we predict anti-social behaviors in society and, in this case, the workplace? Are there specific markers identifiable early in childhood or adolescence? Awareness and education is where it needs to stem from, particularly if and when children are not receiving the mental nourishment and positive stimuli required for healthy thought and decision-making processes. The sad reality is that the system is broken, and people who truly need help are not receiving it. It should be a societal and individual requirement to understand or better yet, possess a certain level of emotional intelligence in order to maintain a peaceful existence. After all, aren’t emotions what make us human?

Where do we start? By developing and introducing in-depth EQ tests into schools, beginning at nursery level and continuing into elementary as a way of identifying EQ (emotional quotient) levels. These should transpire into adolescence as a continued form of measurement in order to positively assess and improve areas of cognitive development into adulthood. Higher education should require students to study behavioral sciences, just as they’re required to study english and math, in order to learn the importance of hypothetical reasoning and hone the skills needed in key decision making.

Mental health awareness and support networks need to be considered ‘essential’ in the workplace. Therapists or in office counselors should be available to provide a safe space for employees when needed with regular in-person check ups during key personal/career oriented transitions. Upper management must be carefully selected and educated in these areas including a wide range of sensitivity training.

If we can achieve these positive societal steps hopefully, the stigma surrounding mental health will lift and eventually fade once it’s recognized as a serious issue and tackled accordingly. Increasing awareness through continued education at all stages of life is the best way to enact positive change.

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