Plano mass killer fit a tragic mold

Those in his life say he had grudge, drink­ing prob­lem, ac­cess to guns

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By CLAIRE BALLOR and NANETTE LIGHT Staff Writ­ers

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.”

Jae S. Lee/Staff Pho­tog­ra­pher

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.


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