The mysterious motivations of some people

California’s highway 101 runs north-south and in 2019 there was a mysterious spate of projectiles that were hitting cars traveling through a particular stretch of that road just north of Monterey where I live. Over 70 incidents were reported. There were no crashes or fatalities but six people suffered cuts and bruises when the glass shattered. It was unsettling and police found it hard to track down the culprit. I always assumed that it would turn out to be young kids who had nothing better to do and thought this was an amusing way of passing the time.

But in January 2020, police arrested a suspect and it turned out to be a 54-year old man Charles Kenneth Lafferty who was firing marbles with a slingshot.

After his arrest, he admitted to shooting marbles at traffic using a slingshot. Police seized a slingshot, a replacement band and 55 marbles from Lafferty’s vehicle the day he was arrested. He never provided the number of times he fired the marbles at cars.

Yesterday he was sentenced.

A man convicted of hurling projectiles mostly at moving vehicles on Highway 101 in late 2019 has been sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Charles Kenneth Lafferty, 54, was sentenced after guilty pleas to 28 counts of assault with a deadly weapon and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon on a peace officer.

He even hit a state highway patrol car.

Authorities initially thought, like me, that it must be a young person.

Monterey County Supervisor John Phillips, whose district includes the highway areas where the attacks occurred, had put up some of his own money to fund a $15,000 reward leading to an arrest in the case. In the end, the money wasn’t paid out because the case was solved by police work.

“It really instilled fear among people. It was so random,” Phillips, a former prosecutor and judge, said Thursday when informed of the plea. “It created a tremendous amount of angst and it was a crime so difficult to solve. Everyone thought it was a young kid doing it and it turned out how wrong we were.” 

At the time that he entered his guilty pleas, authorities still could not figure out his motivation.

And as Hood read off the charges, Lafferty responded “guilty” 30 times.

That’s the what. But Deputy District Attorney Matt L’Heureux said after the hearing that the “why” will most likely remain a mystery.

“In his interview, he said he didn’t know why he did it and we never found anything to indicate why he did it,” L’Heureux said.

In reading stories like this, the first question that comes to my mind is, “What was he thinking?” It really puzzles me why an older man would indulge in this childish but dangerous activity. He seemed to have gone to great lengths to do this, such as finding places which were close enough to hit cars with a slingshot and yet hidden from view. Young people may not fully think through the consequences of their actions but you would hope that adults would.

At first blush, 15 years in prison seems like a lot for firing marbles at cars with a slingshot. But on the other hand, things could have turned out very badly. It is lucky that none of the people hit crashed their cars and caused deaths. But it raises an interesting question about whether punishments should be based on the actual damage caused or the potential damage that might have occurred or the intent of the action. Was he trying to causes crashes and deaths or just getting a kick out of being a pest?

People can be so strange.


  1. says

    The US has 100 firefighter arsonists per year. Why? To get attention?

    The US averaged over 6000 laser pointer incidents (aimed at airplane pilots) per year since 2016. Last year was the second highest number of incidents despite fewer flights. Noise is one motive given for the crime, but why do others?

    I found a bunch of news stories (multiple countries) where road ragers forced other drivers into oncoming traffic. That’s three links so I can’t add any more, but there’s also increasing cases of road rage because of LED lights, the intentional use of high beams to blind people.

    The only commonality I see is a receding lack of concern for others combined with a reduced sense of personal responsibility for their actions.

  2. garnetstar says


    They say that 1% of American men are sociopaths, but not all of them get around to being serial killers early in life. Maybe this kind of murder appeals more? Some become CEOs and just murder large numbers of people with their companies’ cruelty.

  3. Bruce says

    For any crime, each society faces the question of whether to respond through the justice system or otherwise. Some societies would fine him all of his assets and let him die of hunger, a “free man”. In past decades in the US, he might have not been arrested, but “merely” been sent to a state mental prison for the rest of his life, where he would be “free to leave” as soon as he could prove to the doctors why he did it and why he wouldn’t do it again.
    Should society respect the rights of the individual to throw rocks at people in traffic? How about the “right” to try chemical or nuclear experiments up at the reservoir?
    Unlike the guy who shot Reagan, Lafferty could be out of prison on parole in a decade, and could kill any of us by doing the same thing where we are driving.
    If sociopaths exist and we don’t know how to cure them, must we let them buy slingshots or rifles or grenades?
    If a man checks in to a Las Vegas hotel room with a good view, and brings several bags full of rifles and ammunition, but has never had a mental health check-up, should we do anything? In case he feels like killing dozens of strangers?
    The guy may have used a slingshot because he guessed bullet holes would make him look bad, but slingshots and marbles just look like toys, and so he might never have been caught, or never have been convicted.
    I agree that there is no clear bright line to tell society how to minimize risk fairly and without abuse. I would like some protection, even though I accept some risk. I wouldn’t want to be hauled in for a mental health exam, or to be arrested for having a slingshot, or to be hauled in because a conservative thought my progressive views needed a mental health exam by his pals. But if security cameras of the highway saw a guy with a slingshot near a road with accidents, I think he should have gotten a mandatory health exam. I don’t know if that would have stopped him from causing fatal car crashes.

  4. flex says

    I disagree with Intransitive only on a single point, I don’t know if these types of actions are increasing or only being reported better. People have been doing really stupid things which show no concern for others combined with a reduced sense of personal responsibility for a really long time.

    Why do people do this? I’m certainly no expert in psychology, but I know the question has been asked before and I don’t think anyone has a convincing answer.

    IIRC, it was in the 1930’s where the propensity of young men to do stupid things was first identified as a fairly common psychological trait. The belief started around that time that the brains of young men do not ‘mature’ until they are into their twenties. What they meant by mature is that the consequences of an action would not occur to men in their late teens while the action was being contemplated, but would occur to women at those ages and to older men. This was actually the point of Burgess’ novel, A Clockwork Orange, at least the English edition. The American edition left off the last chapter, which changed the meaning of novel significantly. While this idea is, I guess, biologically possible, I’m not certain I buy it. It suggests that we should forgive young men their violence and other anti-social actions, but hold young women and older men responsible. And this is true, society does tend to forgive violence tendencies of young men. Yet this is not entirely true. It is true that young men are often given greater forgiveness for their actions, but not based on their being young men, but based on their social class. Young men from a different social class are often treated very differently, as are women. So this argument may be more about looking for evidence to justify an existing disparity in society than something based on discernable biological differences. Of course the man in the OP is not a young man, but not everyone grows up.

    Then, in the late 1960’s, early 1970’s, there were a flurry of reports about how over-crowding could result in reduced empathy and increased violent tendencies. John Brunner used this idea in Stand on Zanzibar. However, most of these ideas were based on studies of over-crowding in rat populations, so it’s unclear how transferrable these studies were to human beings. Of course, these studies were also used to justify and promote racist beliefs, i.e. urban populations are more violent and care less about law than rural populations because of population density. That conclusion removes some agency from city-dwellers, as well as suggesting urban dwellers are less empathetic and thus less trustworthy and less worthy of success. When I say urban dwellers, you know which racial and ethnic groups they were referring to. Utter crap.

    Recently there has been some suggestions that exposure to lead during childhood development (exposure through things like eating paint chips, or breathing leaded gasoline fumes), disrupts the development of understanding the consequences of an action through changes in brain structure. I’ve seen some evidence for this and I find it very interesting, but at the same time I’m waiting for better evidence. This is much like the earlier developmental delay theory, so we’ll need to be careful to avoid using it to justify existing cultural differences.

    Then there is the work of Robert Sapolsky, and all the related primate studies. I think the people who study interpersonal power dynamics also fit into this category. Power in a social group seems to be about social standing. And that is displayed by dominant or submissive behavior. But these social standings are also very dynamic, they change all the time. People who are forced to be submissive by more dominant personalities may crave dominance in some area of their life. So otherwise normal people start doing something to show their dominance in some fashion. Often subversively because they know they will be in trouble if they are caught, and in trouble with the people they are dominated by. There is a lot of evidence that baboons behave in this fashion. And primate behavior may be more transferrable than rodent studies. I really think this is a fascinating and promising field of study, but I’m not convinced this would explain the behavior of the man in the OP.

    So take your pick:
    -- Developmental deficiency
    -- Overcrowding
    -- Lead exposure
    -- Suppressed dominance desire
    -- We don’t have any idea

    Oh, and I’ll throw in one more possibility. He didn’t think of the cars he was shooting at as vehicles carrying fragile people at all. He saw them only as difficult to hit, moving, targets. He was good enough with his slingshot to hit stationary targets, but not good enough to hit a flying bird. He doesn’t know now why he shot at the vehicles, because now that the connection was made for him that there are people inside he can’t forget it. Neither can we. But he didn’t reach that conclusion at the time. They were simply better targets for his recreation.

  5. says

    Who cares why, all that matter is that he was caught!

    (Though personally, I lean towards a combination of developmental delay and society’s tendency to shrug off white male violence as “that’s just how men do”.)

  6. John Morales says


    IIRC, it was in the 1930’s where the propensity of young men to do stupid things was first identified as a fairly common psychological trait. The belief started around that time that the brains of young men do not ‘mature’ until they are into their twenties. What they meant by mature is that the consequences of an action would not occur to men in their late teens while the action was being contemplated, but would occur to women at those ages and to older men.

    A bit simplistic.
    Less simplistic (but still simplistic) is that the brain is the hardware, and the thinking patterns are the software.

    In short, some people have the right hardware, but the software is… um, not fully updated.

  7. garnetstar says

    flex @4, that’s interesting re developmental delay. Wasn’t that the defense in the 1930’s Leopold and Loeb trial, where they murdered a kid just to see what it felt like?

    And, Intransitive and flex discuss features that are labeled “socipathic”, in “receding lack of concern for others combined with a reduced sense of personal responsibility for their actions” and the need for dominance in some way as the motivation of a lot of serial killers and the like.

    These developmental/personal causes are all sort part of the same syndrome, and I don’t know if it moves us forward at all to just label it “sociopathy”.

  8. flex says

    garnetstar @7, the developmental delay theory has been around a long time and there is some clear evidence that children mature mentally and emotionally at different rates. See the work of Jean Piaget for a lot of good insight into how that happens.

    That being said, I am personally more inclined toward the results of primate studies and also what we are learning about the nature of consciousness. The work on primates, and in fact a lot of other animals, suggests that humans really do have a vague hierarchal social standing system which develops as they mature. This could be due to a couple factors. It could be that because of the extreme plasticity of our brains, we learn both about social structure and our place in it as we develop. It could also be that there is a genetic element encouraging humans, and human societies, to adopt a hierarchal social system. Years of watching chickens being raised from eggs without other chickens around to teach chicken culture suggests to me that it’s probably a combination of both. Chickens naturally form a pecking order in a flock. This does not mean the behavior is genetic, but it does mean that the brains of chickens accept the status they have learned.

    Clearly human beings are not chickens, so the lessons from observations from chickens alone does not predict human behavior. But studies of other flock/pack/herd/troop animals also reveal that most social animals develop a hierarchal society. The hierarchy may change over time, but the structure exists.

    This is where the studies of interpersonal power dynamics start. In a hierarchal system, there are individuals with more power than others. And we are not talking about physical prowess, or mental acumen, but only of standing in that structure. This power is not something mystical, it’s the power to control the behavior of people lower in the hierarchy. But that should be frightening enough. Children learn about physical power difference fairly early, older children can force younger children into actions the younger child wouldn’t do on their own. Stronger children have the same advantage, and they often take advantage of it. If there is ‘delayed moral development’ I submit that the delay is in recognizing that just because they are stronger or cleverer than another child they are not granted authority by the social hierarchy to do anything they desire to that child. In other words, there are limits in the power the social structure gives to people operating within that social structure, and protections as well. Step outside of those limits and you will get punished.

    Which, to my mind, explains why ‘othering’ is so important to authoritarians. By othering a person, or a class of people, people of that class are placed outside the social structure and they can be harassed, attacked, wounded, and even killed with a certain amount of impunity. It allows an authoritarian to establish the dominance they desire without changing their standing in the social structure. Whereas if they attacked someone superior to them in the social structure they would be punished, and lose standing. Even if they attached someone below them in the social structure they may be punished because the structure developed to provide some protections to even the lowest member. If a chicken sights a hawk, the alarm is given to all chickens, the weakest chicken is not excluded.

    So I’m not really sold on the developmental delay theory. As I said above, I suspect that this theory may be an attempt to explain a social phenomena which exists because young WASPs start out pretty high on the social standing, and some abuse the power that their hierarchal standing gives them. So a theory was created to justify the leniency that is shown to people of that social standing, but the same leniency is not granted to other young men who are lower in the social hierarchy. That being said, the developmental delay theory is popular and has support from a lot of scientists who do study this phenomenon.

    So take my opinion that primate psychology and dominance hierarchies are better explanations with a large grain of salt. I feel I am fairly well read on primate psychology, but I don’t work in the field and I am no expert. Nor do I work in the field of interpersonal power dynamics, and I am not particularly well read in that field, although I’ve read a good bit of developmental and behavioral psychology. I did spend a good bit of time studying neurology and the nature of consciousness, but not formally so my knowledge is likely fragmented.

    Which brings me to my second observation, and that’s about the nature of consciousness. I believe, along with a number of more skilled scientists, that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain. There is no location in the brain where we can say, ‘this is where consciousness resides’. The mental model I use for consciousness is one of thousands of Legos. Each Lego represents a group of neurons, and a cluster of Legos creates a function for the control of the body. When enough Legos are connected from the right clusters, consciousness occurs. But, consciousness doesn’t require all the Legos in the brain to be connected, only some fraction of the total. I have no idea what that fraction would be, but it’s less than 100%, and may well be less than 50% based on how consciousness can form even with large sections of a brain removed.

    There are undoubtedly some clusters of Legos which are necessary to develop consciousness, and many which are optional.

    Now, let’s say for a second that the cluster of Legos which identify moving cars as necessarily having people in them isn’t connected to the man in the OPs consciousness when he was firing his slingshot at the cars. That particular bit of knowledge probably isn’t necessary for consciousness to occur, but it’s rather important for him to realize to avoid causing damage and potentially deaths. Or, maybe that bit is in his awareness, but the next connection between hitting a car and the possible death may not be engaged. Once these connections are made, suggested to him by an outside source, he no longer can understand why he was engaged in that activity. Thus you get excuses like, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” after doing something stupid, or “Hold my beer” before doing something incredibly stupid. And the “Hold my beer” isn’t as much of a joke as you would think, because we know that lots of things, including alcohol, will alter consciousness. We can say alcohol removes inhibitions, but I see it as disengaging some of the Legos. I don’t know that my model has any more explanatory power.

    Should this be occurring, it does not exonerate him from his actions. I’m glad he is caught and will receive a lesson to not do this again. I’m not suggesting that he should just get a talking to. The justification, nature and impacts of punishment are an entire different topic and too long for this already extremely long comment.

    But I agree, just calling this sort of behavior sociopathy is no better than saying they’ve got a screw loose.

    The model I use, which is almost certainly wrong, explains some aspects of sociopathy. But it doesn’t provide any good suggestions on how to correct it. My model does suggest why some psychotherapy gets results, whether it is behavioral modification or psychoanalysis or even a whipping (which I do not in any way advocate). The missing connections are made, and strongly reinforced. But I fear that until we have a better understanding of how consciousness forms we will not have reliable treatments for sociopathy. And even if we do have reliable treatments, there is a real ethical problem in applying them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *