What Drives Some Addicts to Violence?

By Jeff Deeney 03/25/13

The "junkie Bonnie and Clyde" who caused carnage in New Jersey recently aimed to "go out with a bang." But stories like theirs are atypical; can we ever anticipate them?

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The couple in happier times Photo via

Every cop knows there’s no such thing as a routine traffic stop. But police officer Sekou Reid-Bey, who pulled over a jeep in Camden, New Jersey, on the morning of March 5, could hardly have anticipated what would happen next. From nowhere, a young drug addict snuck into Reid-Bey’s squad car behind his back and drove off in it, breaking the officer’s leg as he sped away. The addict circled the block, stopping to pick up his girlfriend, who was waiting nearby. Then the pair tore off, leading police on a high-tension, high-speed chase across state lines into Philadelphia, which was captured on camera by local news helicopters and became the Internet sensation of the day.

Law enforcement officers at this early stage were laying odds on the couple being high on PCP, locally known as “wet.”

After roaring across the Ben Franklin Bridge pursued by police at speeds of up to 100 mph, Blake Bills, 24, and his fiancée Shayna Sykes, 23, were finally pulled over in North Philadelphia. Unbelievably, while the cops were apprehending Bills, Sykes managed to slip away and steal a second police car. She led law enforcement on another dangerous chase, this time through a residential neighborhood, where Sykes ping-ponged off parked cars before bailing from the wrecked vehicle and making a brief run for it as cops swarmed her.

"It's a bizarre case," said Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Ross at a press conference. "I've never seen anything like this before."

In a Philadelphia courtroom yesterday Sykes recounted talking to Bills about getting clean in the days before their blowout spree. “Ok,” Bills told her. “Let’s go out with a bang.”

Some drugs are known to produce outrageous, criminal behavior. And some addicts are more prone to committing crimes than others. It can be difficult to anticipate when a drug run will go haywire and wind up in the news, or to what degree addiction or other factors determine how events like this unfold. Researchers assure us that the relationship between addiction and criminality is highly complex and variable, involving individual brain chemistries interacting with individual substances—all of it dependent on individual addicts’ childhood and current environments. But after a rocket ride across the front page, the public is usually left to think that addicts are just unpredictable criminals who are liable to do anything for a hit. How to explain why some drug runs go spectacularly wrong?

Criminologists have wrestled for years with the question of why some addicts commit major crimes (other than drug crimes) and others don’t. Researchers have identified three different types of relationships between crime and drug use.

Firstly, there are crimes committed because the user is under the influence of a drug that creates a type of intoxication that more often leads to crime.

Secondly, there are crimes committed against person or property because an addicted user needs money to buy more drugs.

Thirdly, there are crimes linked to the drug trade, perpetrated by traffickers settling scores against one another.

In the case of Sykes and Bills, law enforcement was anticipating the first type of association: the “pharmacological” link. When psychosis is induced by a drug like PCP, for instance, it may cause a user, suffering paranoid delusions or hallucinations, to commit a crime they likely wouldn't have committed had they not been under the drug’s influence. Alcohol has an even stronger correlation with violent crime than PCP; heroin and marijuana show weaker correlations. Researchers theorize that alcohol’s impact on neurotransmitters may cause a small subset of heavy drinkers to become violent, and there's also a correlation between violent crimes and proximity to drinking establishments or liquor stores. Meetings of recovering addicts are filled with remorseful anecdotes about pharmacologically-linked crimes, where otherwise law-abiding drug users come out of blackouts in handcuffs and staring down major legal consequences.

There were no doubts from almost the start of the Sykes-Bills investigation that drugs had driven the duo’s crime binge, but which substance they'd been high on was a matter of bemused speculation for both the media and law enforcement. The day after their arrest, their exploits were water-cooler material at Philly’s probation building, where authorities were awaiting information from the duo’s bail interviews. Law enforcement officers at this early stage were laying odds on the couple being high on PCP, locally known as “wet,” a hallucinogen that has recently been a major driver of crime in Camden, including some horrific murders. When news leaked that the couple had instead been on a four-day heroin run, many law enforcement officers were surprised and a bit dismayed; heroin users aren’t known for engaging in high-profile violent crime.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.