Nova Scotia

Sexual predator William Shrubsall's case examined at Dalhousie

William Shrubsall was declared a dangerous offender in 2001 after viciously attacking women in Halifax. Now psychology classes at Dalhousie University are studying his case while discussing psychopaths.

Psychology professors use the case to discuss psychopathy

William Shrubsall was declared a dangerous offender in December 2001. (CBC)

A psychology class at Dalhousie University is revisiting the violent crimes of William Shrubshall, analyzing the role his diagnosis as a psychopath played in his journey through the justice system.

Shrubsall, now in his 40s, is serving an indefinite sentence after being convicted of a series of violent attacks on women in Halifax. His criminal record goes back to his teenage years in New York state. 

Instructor John Christie said he uses the case while teaching undergraduates at the Halifax university about forensic psychology and the interaction of psychology and the law. 

High school valedictorian

Christie said the classes look at Shrubsall's early history up to his designation as a dangerous offender in 2001.  

"He gets away with a lot of stuff and a lot of it has to do with his traits of psychopathy. It's not like he's coming in feeling guilty or bad about what he's done," he said

In June 1988, Shrubsall pleaded guilty to manslaughter for fatally bludgeoning his mother with a baseball bat in their home in Niagara Falls, N.Y. The attack happened the night before Shrubsall was due to give the valedictory speech at his high school graduation. 

Shrubsall, who claimed his mother had abused him, served 16 months behind bars. 

Christie said that sentence was the result, in part, of testimony from experts who believed the 17-year-old's behaviour was a "one-time thing." 

"It looks like we have this great kid, valedictorian at school, who turns around and loses it with his mom because she was just berating him that night," Christie told CBC Halifax's Information Morning.

"We had somebody who was showing a lot of psychopathic traits and he manipulated the whole system."

Fled to Canada 

In 1995, Shrubsall was accused of sexually abusing a woman and a 17-year-old girl in two separate incidents. But before the jury came back with its guilty verdict, Shrubsall disappeared, leaving behind a suicide note.

He was convicted in absentia and sentenced to up to seven years in prison; a sentence he has yet to serve. 

He was later arrested using an alias in Halifax, where he carried out more violent attacks. He was convicted in 2000 for viciously beating and stalking women.

... when they're interacting with the system, they're adept at manipulating people.- John Christie

Christie said Shrubsall's ability to fly under the radar in society "suggests he's pretty smart and relatively charming" — common traits of psychopaths.   
"It shows how hard it is to catch these guys. Not just because they're adept criminals, because oftentimes they're not," he said. "It's because when they're interacting with the system, they're adept at manipulating people."   

In addition to showing how crimes can escalate, Christie said the case is an example of how a diagnosis of psychopathy is used and treated in the criminal justice system.

It also highlights a gap in research, he said.

"We don't really know if you could treat psychopaths in a way that could solve the problem." 

Denied parole 

Because Shrubsall is serving an indefinite sentence, his case is subject to regular reviews.

Last month, the Parole Board of Canada denied his release from an Ontario prison, citing a report by a psychologist that determined keeping Shrubsall locked up would be in the best interest of public safety.

If Shrubsall ever does convince the parole board that his risk can be safely managed in the community, he would not be a free man. Instead, he would be deported to New York state to serve the seven-year sentence imposed there.

With files from CBC's Information Morning