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Questions remain about Franklin Regional suspect's mindset

| Wednesday, April 16, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Alex Hribal, 16, is led away from the Export office of District Judge Charles Conway after being arraigned on April 9, 2014. Hribal allegedly stabbed 21 students and 1 adult at Franklin Regional High School.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Alex Hribal, 16, is led away from the Export office of Magisterial District Judge Charles Conway after being arraigned on April 9, 2014. Hribal allegedly stabbed 19 students and 1 adult at Franklin Regional High School.

What set him off?

What sparked a 16-year-old boy who is accused of swinging two kitchen knives to lash out at schoolmates, then tell authorities after his arrest that he wanted to die?

For the Franklin Regional community, which is struggling to process the April 9 attack that injured 21 people, the questions are unanswered — and might linger for several more months. Police say the accused, Alex Hribal, isn't talking to them, and Hribal's attorney hasn't revealed anything about his client's impulses.

Experts who investigate crimes or study the psychology of violence say there are countless reasons why someone viciously acts out.

Some offenders might be reacting in the moment to a major insult or even a minor slight, said John Cencich, director of the Institute of Criminological and Forensic Sciences at California University of Pennsylvania. But others' aggression might stem from a long-buried issue, he said.

“There's no absolutes in life, but if you look at the research, they don't just snap,” said Cencich, whose specializations include behaviorally-based threat assessments.

“They don't just become insane.”

At this point in the case, investigators haven't said if Hribal has any history of mental illness. As is common for defendants in violent crimes, Hribal underwent a psychological evaluation over the weekend.

Experts are quick to distinguish that a diagnosis of a mental disorder doesn't automatically explain an offender's violent actions. However, a Butler County-based pastoral counselor who works with children on anger-management issues says that the majority of children with anger issues also have some sort of mental-health issue.

“Most of these kids have told me they just don't know how to stop acting out the behavior,” said John Neyman, who has been a therapist for 30 years.

Dr. Bruce Mapes, a psychologist based in Chester County, said mental-health officials are seeing two types of profiles for violent incidents.

In the past, most of the cases were perpetrated by antisocial people who had previous run-ins with police, he said. Now, experts are seeing a rise in what he called “targeted-type offenses,” in which an offender lashes out despite not giving anybody many clues of problems before.

Often, these cases have a suicide component, although adults more often are involved than juveniles are, Mapes said.

“We need to be careful that we don't think that everyone ‘quiet' and ‘withdrawn' is trying to kill or we can get into witch-hunt types of things,” he said. “Some people just like to be quiet and withdrawn.”

With police locked in on Hribal as the person responsible for the bloodshed, prosecutors are building a case against him.

Though Hribal was charged as an adult with attempted homicide and aggravated assault, his attorney, Pat Thomassey, said he'll try to shift the case to the juvenile court system.

Bruce A. Antkowiak, a law professor at St. Vincent College, said the court will take a long look at whether the defendant would be served by the juvenile system by consulting a lot of psychological services.

“This is not a 12-year-old kid,” said Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor. “This is a 16-year-old individual, and the seriousness of the incident and the number of victims weighs heavily against the transfer of the defendant.”

Chris Foreman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8671, or

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