What one author learned about evil from Lindsay Souvannarath

The author of a new book about Lindsay Souvannarath says understanding the lives of criminals can help dispel myths that glorify people who plan and perpetrate mass shootings.

Souvannarath pleaded guilty in 2017 for her part in a thwarted plot to open fire inside the Halifax Shopping Centre on Valentine's Day two years earlier. She was sentenced to life in prison.

She met her co-conspirator, James Gamble, through Facebook and the two shared an interest in the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., that killed 15 people in 1999.

"What I really tried to do was just show Lindsay, and to a lesser extent James, as these kind of sad, alienated, ineffective teenagers that they were," Rachel Monroe, author of Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime and Obsession, told CBC's Information Morning.

"I think that when we see how these plots can come together, getting some insight into how they're built — how the ideology works — I do think that's useful."

Monroe, a Texas-based journalist, said she's long been interested in the internet subculture of young women who are fascinated with the Columbine shooting and idolize those behind the massacre.

"I was horrified by their expression of affection for these murderers, but I also felt like there was something more going on there," she said.

"These girls, I think, maybe had a hard time talking about their own anger or their own experiences with bullying and alienation, and so instead of saying this happened to me, they obsessed over these famous alienated boys."

Emma Rogers/Submitted by Rachel Monroe

Monroe said it wasn't until she learned that the foiled attack in Halifax originated in these dark online forums that she understood their true danger.

"This really made me confront the fact that there's not … so much of a big gulf between what happens online and the real world," she said.

Souvannarath, who had flown into Halifax from her home near Chicago, Ill., and Gamble were stopped in 2015 thanks to an anonymous tip to Crime Stoppers that alerted police. As officers closed in on Gamble's suburban Halifax home, he took his own life.

Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press

Randall Steven Shepherd, described as a "cheerleader" of the attack, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2016.

Monroe said it's hard to know just how close the three came to carrying out their plans, especially since as far as anyone knows, Souvannarath had never before touched a gun.

"It was a very virtually planned massacre whereas the Columbine shooters went to firing ranges and learned to handle weapons and kind of trained," Monroe said. "She watched a YouTube video about, you know, how does a gun work."

Monroe said she wasn't able to interview Souvannarath, but the writer and criminal did exchange letters. 

While Monroe said many people in prison are eager to share their stories, whether to set the record straight or to combat boredom, Souvannarath was different. She had a "very flat affect" and hardly revealed anything.

This, said Monroe, is the reality about famous criminals that few people see.  

"We have to reckon with the fact that as a broader culture we are also obsessed with these stories of murderers and are often looking for an answer, for some sort of compelling truth. You know, why did you do this?" Monroe said. 

"There's not some grand deep fascinating answer. Evil is often really … banal and not all that compelling."