Plano mass killer fit a tragic mold
Those in his life say he had grudge, drinking problem, access to guns
Spencer Hight was the guy quietly sitting at the back of the party. The friend who drank too much. The one with the dark sense of humor who loved video games and guns.
But anything familiar about the 32-year-old vanished last Sunday, when he murdered eight people at a football watch party before a Plano police officer fatally shot
him to end his rampage.
His victims included his estranged wife — making his crime on the eve of their sixth anniversary an extreme example of domestic violence fueled by anger and isolation over a breakup.
Among the dead were close friends, who had no warning that they might be targets of his hate as he assaulted the home he’d once shared with 27-year-old Meredith Hight.
“The idea that he would go after his own friends is a twist that we’ve been trying to wrap our heads around,” said Sophia Hines, who knew the couple.
Experts say that although the intensity of the attack was shocking, they’re not surprised that someone like Spencer Hight would lash out.
No one should say his attack came from “out of the blue,” said Aaron Setliff, public policy director of the Texas Council on Family Violence.
“Power and control happen over time. When there is a fatality, someone knew something,” he said. “It may not have been violence. It could have been a stagnant world view, a sexist world view.”
Spencer Hight fit the mold of a domestic abuser who kills a partner. His wife had left him, he had easy access to guns, he had a short temper, and, his mother-in-law alleged, he had been violent with his wife.
“She had no idea how much danger she was in,” said Jan Langbein, chief executive officer of Genesis Women’s Shelter.
Meredith Hight’s funeral was held in Dallas on Saturday. Instead of flowers, her family asked that donations be sent to Hope’s Door New Beginning Center, a nonprofit that helps victims of family violence.
Despair and isolation
Friends said Spencer Hight was cynical, bitter and often seemed depressed.
“He always seemed to not have any hope for the world or America. Everything was shrouded for him,” said Elizabeth Smith, who was friends with the couple. “It was very rare that I ever saw him truly happy.”
His wife could make a rainbow from a dark cloud, friends said, but he couldn’t even find a silver lining.
“She just enjoyed life, and I think, in contrast, Spencer didn’t, and that was always hard for them to reconcile,” Smith said.
The couple, who had met as neighbors when they attended the University of Texas at Dallas, married in 2011.
About the time they bought their home in Plano in 2015, Spencer Hight lost his job doing contract work for Texas Instruments. His wife, who worked for CocaCola Southwest Beverages in Fort Worth, was paying the mortgage by herself.
Their friend Hines said that the couple began to drift apart but that divorce was not something they took lightly. They tried counseling to save their relationship.
The times when Spencer Hight did seem happy were when he seemed momentarily distracted from his everyday life — around a campfire with friends or at Renaissance festivals.
But as the pressures of unemployment and his failing marriage increased, he isolated himself from his family and friends.
His father often asked his oldest son to visit, but they hadn’t seen each other in almost a year.
“He had various excuses but promised he’d be down,” said Chester Hight, who asked that his location in Texas not be disclosed.
Alcohol and violence
Meredith Hight’s mother, Debbie Lane, said she believed her daughter had found a loving husband. But she began to realize something was wrong and later recognized that he had a serious problem with alcohol.
Friends said he would drink until he blacked out or nearly vomited on himself.
“And it would be volatile,” said the couple’s friend Smith. “It was hardly ever strictly volatile in front of other people, but it would come out in private with Meredith.”
Experts say friends should regard drunken behavior as an indicator of what might be going on in private even when the person is sober.
Alcohol “doesn’t cause someone who isn’t violent to be violent, but what it does is take away the social norm to behave,” said Paige Flink, chief executive officer of The Family Place, a Dallas-based shelter for victims of domestic violence.
It wasn’t until after Meredith Hight filed for divorce in July that she told her parents her husband had been violent with her at least twice — including a time last fall when she said he slammed her face against a wall.
But Lane said her daughter didn’t report the attacks to police, and she didn’t request a restraining order when she initiated divorce proceedings.
She wasn’t afraid of her husband, friends and family members said. She wasn’t in hiding, and the people around her didn’t see a reason to be concerned.
In the months before the shooting, though, Spencer Hight had shown his anger in Facebook posts about his estranged wife. He once shared a cartoon, titled “When your ex-wife is choking,” that depicts a man performing the Heimlich maneuver on a woman and then bending backward to slam her against the floor.
People shouldn’t ignore even joking comments like that, said Setliff, of the Texas Council on Family Violence. Anyone with concerns should call a domestic abuse hotline for guidance.
But among his friends, any “hint of darkness” in Spencer Hight was exposed only in his sense of humor, said Hines. “It looked like a perfectly normal divorce that was stemming from his depression and alcoholism,” he said.
However, experts said, Hight exhibited well-recognized risks for deadly domestic violence, including access to firearms.
It was no secret that he had a strong interest in guns. He was excited when he got a new highpowered rifle, Smith said.
Spencer Hight was known to debate almost any point, but Smith especially remembered arguing with him about guns.
She didn’t believe ordinary people needed powerful weapons, but he insisted it was his right to have any guns he wanted for selfdefense.
Studies show an abused woman is five times more likely to be killed if her abuser owns a firearm.
Leaving can be risky
After the couple’s separation, Spencer Hight’s drunkenness and despondency grew much worse.
Friends tried to find help for him, recommending counselors and rehabilitation facilities, but he wasn’t interested.
They said they didn’t choose sides in the divorce, but because he lashed out when they offered advice, they began to cut their ties with him.
Meredith Hight had done what everyone tells abused women they should do: She left her husband.
But ending a dangerous relationship can be risky, too. In 2015, more than a third of family violence murders happened after a woman left.
Spouses and partners aren’t the only victims of domestic violence.
In 2015, domestic violence led to 158 deaths of women in Texas. An additional 19 friends and relatives were killed after being caught in the middle.
A common impulse among murderous abusers: “I’m going to take out her and anybody who’s between us,” said Langbein, of the Genesis Women’s Shelter.
The violence in last week’s shooting was especially shocking because of its extent, but ultimately, experts say, Spencer Hight was punishing his wife for leaving him — and their friends for staying close to her.
The previous party Meredith Hight had hosted was one she and her husband had during the Super Bowl. The one a week ago was the first she’d planned since their separation.
“This is her asserting her independence, having a party with their mutual friends. There is likely some anger bound up in that,” said Natalie Nanasi, an assistant law professor at Southern Methodist University and director of SMU’s Legal Center for Victims of Crimes Against Women.
When he saw friends such as the one who had stood at his side at his wedding, he may have thought, “He was a groomsman, but he’s over here with her,” said Flink, of The Family Place.
“It was the ultimate act of revenge.”
Investigators entered the crime scene in Plano, where Spencer Hight killed eight people who were gathered to watch the Cowboys and Giants game. The group was at his ex-wife Meredith Emily Hight’s home last weekend.