Dawn Perlmutter: Analyzing the Oklahoma Beheading Crime Scene

At approximately 1600 hrs. on September 24, 2014  30-year-old Alton Nolen was fired at Vaughan Foods in Moore, Oklahoma. He immediately drove to the front of the business, struck a vehicle and walked into the front office area. He attacked 54-year-old Colleen Hufford with a knife until he severed her head. Then he began attacking 43-year-old Traci Johnson with the same knife. He would have severed Ms. Johnson’s head if Mark Vaughan, an Oklahoma County reserve deputy and a former CEO of the business, hadn’t taken him down with three gunshots. Both Hufford, who was pronounced dead at the scene, and Johnson, who suffered multiple knife wounds, were random victims.

Nolen had a history of violence. He was convicted in January 2011 of multiple felony drug offenses, assault and battery on a police officer and escape from detention. But it was the murder MO and the fact that Nolen had recently converted to Islam and had been trying to convert people at Vaughn Foods to Islam that prompted the local police to call the FBI to assist in the investigation.

Nolen’s conversion to Islam, digital footprint and most significantly his decision to not just kill but behead his victim has prompted a heated debate over whether this crime is a case of workplace violence or lone wolf terrorism. Distinctions between the two are not based solely on the motivation for the murder. Forensics, victimology, weapons and crime scene indicators factor into classifications of violent crimes. Aspects that are consistent with workplace violence are that the incident occurred at a work place, was triggered by Nolen being fired, the victims were employees and that Nolen probably intended to die at the scene.

There are notable aspects of the homicide that are inconsistent with workplace violence. Nolen did not target the person who fired him or others who he perceived wronged him, he did not take hostages, the attack was not mission oriented and most significantly he did not use multiple firearms. Workplace homicides typically involve active shooters with an abundance of weapons (semiautomatic assault weapons), ammunition and other gear to support a sustained attack. Similarly lone wolf terrorist attacks typically are highly organized, involve specific targets, are preplanned paramilitary type operations and usually involve firearms and/or explosives. The victimology, crime scene, weapons, trauma and offender characteristics of the Oklahoma homicide technically do not neatly fit into either workplace violence or lone wolf terrorism categories.

The Crime Classification Manual (CCM), the standard system for investigating and classifying homicides and other violent crimes, has specific categories for every type of homicide. Workplace violence almost always is classified in the category of Personal Cause Homicide which is described as motivated from interpersonal aggression resulting from an underlying emotional conflict and is not sanctioned by a group. The most common workplace violence homicide subcategories are Authority Murder and Domestic Homicide. Lone wolf terrorist attacks are classified under the category of Group Cause Homicide which is described as motivated by ideas based on a particular political, economic, religious or social ideology. Lone wolf terrorism subcategories include Extremist Religious Homicide and Extremist Political Homicide. Although the motivation for this homicide category applies to the Oklahoma incident, Group Cause Homicide generally involves multiple offenders, multiple crime scenes and multiple victims. The Boston Marathon bombings were a classic example of lone wolf terrorism in the category of Extremist Religious Homicide.

According to the Crime Classification Manual (CCM) the murder of Colleen Hufford is a textbook case of Individual Extremist Religion Inspired Homicide which describes the motivation for the murder as based on a fervent devotion to a cause or system of beliefs and to further the goals and ideas of the group. The victims may be strangers or acquaintances of the offender and since many religious killings are relatively spontaneous, victims are most frequently opportunistic targets. A disorganized crime scene reflects the spontaneity and distress of the perpetrator. The homicide is intended to communicate some message on behalf of the group and the forensics demonstrate the calling card or signature aspect of the group. The killing may have ritualistic features such as religious symbolism, messages and particular corpse defacement and frequently involves uncommon weapons that have a relationship to religious symbolism. The offender may not be outwardly devout, but often evidence of traditional observance is found in the suspects home, including literature, pamphlets, symbols, writings and videotapes pertaining to the offenders belief system. Suspects may have experienced a recent loss or loss of self-esteem due to rejection. Committing the murder in the name of religion is a method to restore a sense of significance and respect.

The Moore Oklahoma murder meets all the criteria of Individual Extremist Religion Homicide. A symbolic analysis of the crime scene confirms the religious motivation. Colleen Hufford and Traci Johnson were not just employees they were also uncovered non-Muslim women, hence to a jihadist, legitimate targets. If the women were wearing hijab he would have moved on to other victims. Colleen Hufford was ritually murdered. Nolen picked up a 10 inch filet knife to stab her in the throat. He did not grab a hammer or pipe to inflict blunt force trauma he grabbed a standard knife used by employees and chose to completely sever her head from her body. Beheading in the context of Islam is symbolic of jihad.  Witnesses heard Nolen shouting in Arabic while killing her. He most likely was saying “Allahu Akbar.” Shouting Arabic phrases is highly symbolic and one of the calling card signature aspects of the crime. Quoting the Quran or praising Allah ritualizes and justifies the violence as a religious execution sanctioned under Islam. Body positioning, mutilation or dismemberment is an extremely significant identifier when analyzing crime scenes. Nolen may have taken a few seconds to position her head on the back of her body which is the Al Qaeda in Iraq/Islamic State forensic signature. This crime was tactically, symbolically and forensically different than other disgruntled employee homicides.

This is neither workplace violence, nor lone wolf terrorism; this is a new tactic in the global jihad that I have previously referred to as a Jihad murder M.O.  The distinction between lone wolf terrorism and Jihadist murder is important particularly when investigating active and cold case homicides that are not immediately recognizable as having links to Islamist jihadists.  Homicides with similar forensic trauma have gone unsolved and unrecognized such as the triple ritual murder of Brendan Mess, Erik Weissman, and Raphael Teken in Waltham, MA by Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston bombers, and Ibragim Todashev. The case was initially investigated as a drug deal gone wrong although all three victims were nearly decapitated on September 11, 2011. The reason these cases are difficult to solve directly corresponds to the prohibitions on law enforcement training that banned any references to Islamic jihad or Islamism as the underlying ideology motivating crimes. So when evidence involves writings such as “Sharia law is coming!!!” that Nolen posted on his Facebook page, officers have no idea what that means and cannot perform an accurate threat analysis.

Further impediments to homicide investigations is that there is no training in Jihadist murders and little if none in Islamist terrorist identifiers, although similar to gangs, they have emblems, symbols, hand signs, flags, graffiti, headbands and clothing. Nolen’s Facebook page has a photo of him standing between two men dressed in Muslim garb throwing the ‘Tawheed’ hand sign, the index finger pointing up that is the most popular hand sign of Salafi Jihadists. It represents the doctrine of Tawheed (monotheism) and their willingness to die as martyrs to attain paradise. Even tattoos, one of the most prevalent law enforcement identifiers have been compromised by political correctness and lack of training in Islamist ideologies. Nolen’s conversion from Christianity to Islam is written on his body. His tattoos include an image of Jesus Christ on his chest, RIP Lil Kris, Judah tattooed on his left arm, an image of praying hands on his right arm and tattooed on his abdomen as-salaamu alaikum,  Arabic for “peace be with you.” His religious tattoos are symbolic of a spiritual seeker who was ripe for recruitment. His Facebook page demonstrated that his radicalization was complete. His new Islamic identity included changing his name to Jah’Keem Yisrael and glorifying the ideals of global jihad.

Nolen was not simply a disgruntled employee seeking revenge, he envisioned himself as a Mujahideen warrior who was publicly dishonored by infidel unbelievers. Islamist propaganda that continually reminds young recruits like Nolen that they do not have to suffer the humiliation of non-believers prompted the murder. The shame of being fired triggered overwhelming emotions of disrespect that could only be alleviated by restoring his honor through violence.  Nolen understood that whether he lived or died beheading would increase his status and reputation among jihadists worldwide. The murder of Colleen Hufford transformed an ex-con loser who can’t hold down a job into a Mujahideen rock star who will be hailed as a hero on jihadist forums and by the Islamic State. This will inspire more Jihadist murders not more workplace violence.