Tuesday, June 3, 2003

'Matrix' influence examined in slayings

By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

After seeing The Matrix in 1999, DeAnna Beckman remembers thinking: "Wow. What an unusual concept! I wonder whether people really believe this."

"Now I know," she said Monday. "Some people do believe that."

Tonda Ansley was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the killing of a Miami University professor
(Enquirer file photo)
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Beckman, a licensed social worker who has worked in University Hospital's psychiatric emergency room, was discussing a phenomenon that has gained international media attention: slaying suspects reportedly caught up in the movie's alternate reality. The science-fiction thriller, whose sequel is playing in theaters, depicts a future where computers rule and most people are unaware that they exist in a computer-generated virtual world.

The Butler County case of Tonda Lynn Ansley is among what some are calling "The Matrix Murders" because the movie has been mentioned by suspects. Ansley, 37, was recently found not guilty by reason of insanity in the July 27 slaying of Sherry Lee Corbett. A court is to set a long-term treatment plan for Ansley, who is in a mental institution.

While the connection between Ansley's delusional belief system and the movie remains unclear, her lawyer says The Matrix apparently did influence Ansley's actions.

Beckman, the social worker, says it would be wrong to solely blame a movie for a delusional person's criminal acts. Rather, she said, the message a mentally ill person gets from those sources simply seems to fit with his existing delusions.

Cases in which The Matrix has been an issue:
Tonda Lynn Ansley: Now 37 Ansley was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the July 27 shooting death of Miami University professor Sherry Lee Corbett 55. She referred to the movie in a statement to police.
Joshua Cooke: A 19-year-old Oakton, Va., fan of the movie is set for trial June 24 in the Feb. 17 shotgun slayings of his parents. His lawyers said Cooke was obsessed with the movie.
Lee Boyd Malvo: The 18-year-old suspect in last year's sniper shootings in the Washington, D.C., area wrote in his jail cell: "Free yourself of the matrix control.'"
Vadim Mieseges: In San Francisco in April 2000, Mieseges, 27, killed and dismembered his landlord, Ella Wong, 47. A judge accepted his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, and he was sent to a hospital. Police said Mieseges mentioned being "sucked into The Matrix," which he thought was real.
Sources: The Washington Post, nexis.com, Enquirer research
"For people who are experiencing delusions and hallucinations, it's very much like being in a dream state...it's like having a really bad dream while you're awake," Beckman said. "You can't tell the difference between what's real and what's not, and often you feel very alone because no one believes you. And when you see something like The Matrix, and you have those conditions, it kind of feeds into that idea."

Jacqueline Collins, a psychiatrist and associate professor at the University of Cincinnati, said she has seen The Matrix quite a few times and enjoyed its special effects and its thought-provoking premise.

"I love the question of whether or not what we think is real is really real," she said. "I think your belief system has to be awfully impaired for you to incorporate (the movie's premise) into your belief system. For the rest of us, it's entertainment; it's escape."

According to psychological reports filed in court, Ansley expressed various disjointed notions - thinking her husband had vampire teeth and that a neighbor's remark about the census reminded her of the 1991 Anthony Hopkins thriller, The Silence of the Lambs.

Within 90 minutes after Corbett, 55, was pronounced dead, Ansley made a statement to Detective John Nethers: "They commit a lot of crimes in The Matrix. That's where you go to sleep at night and they drug you and take you somewhere else. And then they bring you back and put you in bed, and when you wake up, you think that it's a bad dream."

Craig Hedric, an assistant prosecutor who handled the case, said: "I've never been involved in a case that's received this much attention nationally."

Hedric and his boss, Prosecutor Robin Piper, would like to shift the focus to Ohio's lack of a "guilty but insane" law.

They want a law that would provide more safeguards than the existing "not guilty by reason of insanity" law.

Ansley's court-appointed lawyer, Melynda Cook-Reich, thinks the widespread attention came partly because of Judge Keith Spaeth's coincidental timing: He found Ansley insane two days before the May 15 release of The Matrix Reloaded.

Ansley's lawyer sensed The Matrix connection would spark intrigue.

"When I first got the case ...I knew that was something that was going to be talked about," Cook-Reich said.

However, she added: "Ansley was not just about The Matrix. She had a whole series of things going on ..."

Beckman, executive director of the Center for Threat Assessment, which helps employers assess potentially violent employees, said people with delusional disorders often believe in conspiracies - and that's one feature of The Matrix that might resonate with them.

Delusional people typically "function fine in the real world," despite harboring fixed false beliefs, Beckman said.

Ansley, diagnosed as "delusional, persecutory type," held a bartending job; most friends noticed nothing alarming about her, records show.

E-mail jmorse@enquirer.com

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