Convicted murderer Bob Bechtel with his biological daughter, Carrah, in a photo from the documentary The Killer Within. (Discovery Communications)
Bob Bechtel is an environmental psychology professor with a startling past. In January 1955, he was a student at Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College who felt he was being bullied by his classmates; among other things, he remembers them carrying his bed outside and urinating on it. When he decided he could endure no more, he drove 65 kilometres to his mother’s house, collected several guns and returned to campus intending to kill his tormentors. Bechtel, a hunter who had been known to strike his targets without first taking aim, fired six shots inside a Swarthmore dorm. One hit 18-year-old Holmes Strozier and killed him in his sleep. Bechtel pumped the others into a hall closet, harming no one else. He exited the dormitory and fled to a friend’s residence before surrending himself to police.
Bechtel was committed to a mental institution. Five years later, he was released, stood trial and was acquitted on the grounds that he was insane at the time of the killing. He married, adopted his wife’s daughter and fathered another. His past was largely forgotten until late 2004, when he publicized the incident to support an anti-bullying initiative for Arizona schools.Alston’s documentary explores the impact of Bechtel’s revelation on his own family. His biological daughter lives with constant doubt of whether she should have been born: Was her dad actually bullied? Should he have been convicted for Strozier’s killing? Does he feel remorse for his deeds? The Killer Within follows the Bechtels on a return trip to Swarthmore, where they retrace Bob’s steps on the 50th anniversary of his intended killing spree. Watching his family watch him yields a deep mining of the human condition.
The Killer Within screens at TIFF Sept. 10, 12 and 16.
Matthew McKinnon writes about the arts for CBC.ca.
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