Abigail Trafford - Author, Journalist and Public Speaker


Not Too Old To Do Wrong -- when men and women of certain age commit crimes.

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Shocking, you say, that the man charged in the shooting at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum is 88! Could an octogenarian really commit such a horrific, hate-filled crime?

We don't know the full story of James W. von Brunn. But our surprise reflects a widespread misperception about aging. We like the image of sweet old gramps rocking on the porch, but this stereotype of older people as docile, feeble and powerless is false.

To be sure, many older men and women are frail and vulnerable. As a group, older Americans are much less violent than younger people. As Post reporter Neely Tucker pointed out last week, people 65 and older committed just under 1 percent of the 17,040 homicides in 2007. Teenagers are responsible for three times that many.

But as more people lead longer, healthier lives, they are fitter and have fewer disabilities than was true a generation ago. So it is not surprising to see older people doing what younger people do, including being violent.

Three years ago, great-grandmother Lena Driskell of Atlanta was convicted at age 79 of shooting and killing her 85-year-old boyfriend. She said she found out he was cheating on her -- a reminder that passions can be as acute and uncontrollable at 79 as at 17.

Other silver-haired criminals may be cool and calculating. In California, Olga Rutterschmidt was 75 and Helen Golay was 77 when they were sentenced last year to life in prison for the murder of two homeless men as part of a $2.8 million insurance scheme. (They took out policies on the men, then ran them over with a car.)

Nursing homes are sometimes crime scenes. In Colorado, Ralph Ridenour was 91 when he was arrested for the attempted rape of a nurse; he died before his case went to trial. A few months ago in Oklahoma, a 94-year-old man was charged with raping a 67-year-old woman who also lived in the facility.

One form of violence that actually increases with age is suicide. White men older than 65 have the highest suicide rate, for example. And when older couples take the end of life into their own hands, it makes a familiar headline: A few months ago in Louisiana, police found Rodney Ory, 73, and his wife, Rosalie, 72, dead in their home of gunshot wounds in an apparent murder-suicide. In most such cases, guns are the means of death and the man is the perpetrator.

Meanwhile, the soft violence of white-collar crime seems to be an older men's club. Perhaps some have been corrupt all along and are now living long enough to get caught. Bernard Madoff, the glitzy financier, was 70 when his Ponzi scheme imploded.

But it's important to remember that all these elderly crimes are relatively rare. Overwhelmingly, most men and women who are breaking through the "geezer" ceiling are redefining aging in positive ways. They show off their physical stamina: George Bush the elder just celebrated his 85th birthday by parachuting out of a plane in Maine. They draw on their experience and do "give-back" work in their communities, staffing schools, running social service programs.

Just as it is no longer an anomaly to see a woman in law school, it is no longer strange to see older people run marathons, write a first novel, fall in love, campaign for political office, get divorced, get married, walk the Appalachian Trail, start a business, open a food bank.

And, as we were too tragically reminded this month, commit crimes.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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