Just about every week we hear or read about another celebrity who got into serious legal trouble for stealing. Whether they are film or TV stars—Winona Ryder shoplifted several thousand dollars in haute couture apparel at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills (Young, 2001); Lindsay Lohan was accused of stealing a one-of-kind, $2500 necklace in Venice, California (Weiss, 2011); Kim Richards from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills bagged $600 in groceries at a Los Angeles Target, but failed to pay (Rocha, 2015)—celebrity offenders must quickly figure out why they steal, or face jail time. In some cases, psychological analysis reveals they are not greedy, rather they are addicted to the “rush” associated with theft. They need therapy, but will they see “the light” because this could be the end of the road? This article provides some surprising answers as to why celebrities really do it.
The three characters presented in this analysis were involved in bank fraud, then ended up in federal prisons. The surprise came when it was discovered, in my view, that like Winona, Lindsay, and Kim, they could be addicted to stealing. Except for their antisocial theft behavior, these men were successful, with professional careers and families who loved them. For the most part, they remained clueless as to why they crossed the line and stole. The hidden reasons supporting their thefts surfaced only after a long-term commitment to in-depth therapy and only at the moment in time when they were ready, along with me, to find out why.
Three Theft Addicts
The first man is Bruce McNall, former LA Kings owner, Hollywood film producer, and a convicted felon. He received five years in Lompoc Federal Prison for stealing $238 million. The second man, John Spano, former owner of the New York Islanders, went off to two terms in federal prisons for stealing $80 million. He is currently an inmate in an Ohio prison doing ten more years for a crime he did not originate. Finally, William “Boots” Del Biaggio III, former Silicon Valley venture capitalist operator and founder of Heritage Bank in San Jose, graduated in 2016 from eight years at Lompoc for fraud. He stole $110 million to buy the Nashville Predators hockey team. He later expressed regret—maybe too little too late.
This analysis is not a “whodunit” mystery, but it is a “why they dunit” explanation. Their stories establish them as high-profile theft addicts. The narratives of their stories, and from more than a hundred of my white-collar criminal cases, form the basis of my criminal reportage: certain crimes, especially theft offenses, can be reinterpreted as a behavioral addiction.
Why These Theft Addicts?
First, these men were chosen because their lives are important true crime stories. Second, they represent good examples of elite offenders who became addicted to the rush connected to stealing. It happens more than you might think. Third, with respect to John Spano, taking on his case provided me with a direct opportunity to actually work with him in therapy to determine why he entered into the criminal addictive zone.
Lastly, their crimes have not previously been looked at using a criminological, addictive approach. Prior to them telling me their stories, there was very little known about their individual or collective motivations to offend. Although Del Biaggio’s story continues to be aired as an episode of the TV show American Greed, the show’s producers seemed to be more interested in proving what a bad guy he was rather than why he inexplicably turned to crime when it was unnecessary.
Admittedly, in pursuit of selfish ends, these men used an extensive menu of considerable charm, outgoing personalities, and deceptive patterning. Although their crimes did not involve aggression or violence, their criminal acts still left a wake of human suffering, prompting their victims—whether individuals or financial institutions—to ask, “What happened?” Only now, glancing back over many years of them sitting in cold prison cells, a long way from their posh surroundings and preprison comforts, have they come even a little closer to the discovery of self-revealing, informative answers as to why they did it. It looks like John Spano, who pled guilty to sixteen counts of forgery in 2015 where his culpability remains questionable, may have another ten years in an Ohio State prison to sort out his addiction to theft.
After seeing hundreds of offenders whom I thought reflected symptoms that they were addicted to crime, I wondered why there was not already a systematized criminal classification system providing support to my contention that there is an addictive criminal syndrome. This contributed to my defining the concept and identification of the five addictive criminal stages: what I call “the zone,” which I will explain later in this article.
John Spano, Bruce McNall, and Boots Del Biaggio, once well-respected businessmen who turned to crime, represent three men who, for sociopsychological and addictive reasons, lost their way and created a chain of criminal events that would seriously harm them, their families, and the communities they lived in.
Because John Spano also engaged me to work with him as a forensic psychologist doing both corrective counseling and to prepare various forensic reports in his recent Ohio case, I developed a unique understanding of why his addiction to crime pathology overtook him. My continuing relationship with John, including my visits to an Ohio prison, proved invaluable in understanding his addiction to theft.
These three men, already financially secure, stole an additional one half billion to buy professional hockey teams. After I conducted in-depth case interviews with them, I realized (similar to many additional theft offenders I treated) that their big-time thefts had very little do with the near Brink’s truckload of cash they hauled away.
During my interviews with these three offenders, it was also clear that these unsympathetic characters could provide no sensible answer when asked why they defrauded banks out of the cash when they did not need to. They were in deep psychological and legal trouble, but apparently did not know why.
The end result is that they used the stolen money to boost their status and enhance their enormous egos so they could attain “big shot” fame. In this sense, possession of a hockey team equaled power and power was their aphrodisiac. Bruce McNall told me, “There are only about one hundred owners of professional sports franchises, so if you get into the club, you’re pretty special. And I thought I was.”
Crime as a Behavioral Addiction
The crime theory expressed here rests on the initial premise that some individuals commit theft crimes for reasons they do not immediately comprehend and maybe never will. In fact, a large percentage of antisocial behavior may be determined by factors beyond a conscious level of awareness.
Nonsubstance behavioral addictions are all about the subjective, highly charged emotional experiences produced by activities that individuals struggle to manage or stop, but cannot because they fail to achieve the same exhilaration from a competing activity. I have worked with many behaviorally addicted patients, including those addicted to shoplifting, gambling, food, exercise, the Internet, video games, and pornography. Moreover, as time went on I began to see many upper-middle class female defendants charged with petty theft and/or shoplifting referred to me from defense attorneys. These women were criminally charged with nonsensical offenses including stealing of fashion jewelry, lip liner, facial soap, pantyhose, and even toothpaste. After interviewing these shoplifters, two issues arose: they were not quite sure why they stole when it was not necessary, and they reported feelings of elation during and after the act.
But not all addictions are necessarily debilitating. Glasser (1985), in his book Positive Addiction, points out that some addictive behaviors can be rewarding—yoga, meditation, jogging—fostering a balanced lifestyle. Although behavioral addictions are more frequently recognized by clinicians today, “. . . some mental health professionals and scholars fear that the identification and targeting of behavioral addiction may pathologize everyday life behavior and create ‘diagnostic inflation’ and ‘false epidemics’” (Sun, Ashley, & Dickson, 2013, p. 11).
About twenty years ago, I read Addicted to Crime? (Hodge, McMurran, & Hollin, 1997), edited by three psychologists who also endorse the theory that certain offenders can indeed become addicted to stealing, contributing to distinctly unbalanced lifestyles. Similar to my experience, they noted that many of their criminal clients experienced an appreciable mental lift after committing thefts (Hodge et al., 1997). They argued that some of these offenders were, in their view, addicted to the mental payoffs contingent on crime.
My professional interaction with elite, white-collar offenders convinced me that crime can be addicting, which contributed to my developing the theory that some of society’s wealthiest may steal not because of need or greed, but because, at the time, it feels good to them and they achieve a “cheap thrill.” Repeated thefts are accompanied with recurrent pleasurable, addictive rewards, and that is the payoff. Even after being arrested multiple times like John Spano, these powerful rewards significantly increase the probability that offenders’ selected stealing behavior will recur and recidivism will go up.
For some offenders, this constitutes an addictive patterning not unlike substance use disorders (SUDs), but without the necessity to ingest dangerous chemical substances. Criminal acts can provide offenders with the equivalent psychological highs usually associated with drug-infused experiences. During my career I noticed that the psychological reinforcements derived from some criminal acts can closely mirror the anticipated “rush” drug addicts look for. A behavioral addiction like theft can be viewed as functionally equivalent to a chemical addiction for two chief reasons:
- Theft addicts generally derive the same initial uplifting, euphoric, and subjective sensations similar to substance abusers.
- Theft addicts are almost blindly driven toward their goal and they cannot stop their self-defeating behaviors.
Additional researchers provide support to the concept that criminal behaviors can constitute an independent addictive process. For example, Kilpatrick (1997) conducted research suggesting that theft can be a form of behavioral addiction because it produces a noticeable psychological lift. Deviating from the medical model of addiction, she argues against the traditional definition of addiction advanced especially within the psychiatric community. This is true at least regarding the classification of behavioral as opposed to chemical or alcohol addictions.
Kilpatrick (1997) also theorizes that behavioral addictions are driven by excessive behaviors oriented towards anticipated psychological reinforcement, not specifically through a chemically based reward system. She notes that a crime like car theft provides the offender with a rush and palpable thrill. Likewise, McCorry (1992) applied this “crime as an addiction” reasoning to the increasing incidence of car theft, contending that psychological reinforcement is a prime motivation underlying a car thief’s reward system. According to Brown, “Some cautious recognition has been given, even in the bastions of orthodoxy, to this growing field of relevance in the study of addictions by officially allowing the existence of ‘behavioural addictions’” (1997, p.14).
Importantly, Brown (1997) also classifies six commonly accepted psychological addiction factors:
- Salience: the addictive activity dominates the person’s life (“That is all I thought about.”)
- Conflict (“Why do I continue to do this self-defeating behavior?”)
- Loss of personal control (“If I was in control I would not do it.”)
- Relief: short-term hedonistic mood management (“It felt good for a while.”)
- Low self-esteem (“I was on the edge of suicide.”)
- Relapse and reinstatement (“I stopped for a while, but went right back to it.”)
I have linked these addictive commonalities to many of the theft addicts I have treated, including the three men featured in this article.
Peele (1998, p. 97), a psychologist, has pioneered many unique positions concerning the causes of addiction. Moving away from the disease-based addiction model, Peele’s position approximates Kilpatrick’s to the extent that he contends that the concept of addiction should initially embrace the notion that “people become addicted to experiences,” therefore it would seem appropriate to assign certain behaviors like irrational theft to nonmedical, experiential categories Peele (1998). He also believes that addictive experiences are powerful modifiers of both mood and sensation, and generally derive from internal psychological drivers, not from biological markers or medical determinants.
Of course, to contend that the more traditional disease concept model of addiction cannot help account for a certain percentage of SUDs would be shortsighted. But, to assume that there is a unified addictions model can also be misleading. New addiction classifications—ones that include crime as a behavioral addiction, for instance—do not fit neatly into the classical concept of what constitutes an addiction. The notion that certain crimes can be classified as behavioral addictions is bound to provoke a variety of reactions.
Criminologists searching for the possible causes of crime as an addictive process have begun to shift their reasoning to alternative causes of crime including expansion to addictive behavioral or process disorders from a medical etiology. All might agree that the fix or lift achieved from a variety of behavioral addictions can be experienced as a “cheap thrill” (Katz, 1988).
It can be argued that Brown’s (1997) six addictive factors play a central role in gaining a better comprehension of addictive patterning, especially when applied to the myriad nonchemical-based behavioral addictions clinicians see more frequently today. It is also my position that there is a defined criminological pathway, consisting of five identifiable stages, that contributes to behavioral addictions such as inexplicable theft. I used this behavioral/process addiction model to interpret Spano’s, McNall’s, and Del Biaggio’s crimes. In my view, these men slowly became addicted to the powerful mood reinforcements internalized from the commission of a series of fraudulent acts.
The Addictive Criminal Stages: “The Zone”
Spano knew that that something was terribly wrong—he could not restore his mental footing or get his head back on straight. His life was off track. He did not set out to be a celebrity crook, but somehow he got there.
Quite frankly, when I asked McNall about his life-altering criminal detour leading to a five-year federal prison term, he was vague and could not identify the “real” reasons he stepped over the line. Like Spano, McNall knew he had gone rogue.
In the simplest terms, Del Biaggio told me that his life was out of control at the time he made the choice to steal $110 million. He said, “When I did these things, I was very much out of control.” In the end, all three men were fairly clueless as to why they wrecked their lives and headed toward “rock bottom.”
The five addictive stages comprising the criminal addictive zone helps explain why certain offenders arrived at such low points in their lives and progressively became drawn deeper into the addictive zone. Because these three men became frozen into one or more of these stages, they simply could not easily find an exit sign. I have applied this criminal zonal theory to a variety of deviant groups, including white-collar deviants and now to these three elite, nonviolent bank robbers.
An analysis of the criminal addictive personality forms the foundation of the addictive zone. This zone is marked with multiple, negative psychological forces evidenced during each of the five stages and is drastically different from Glasser’s concept of a positive addiction (1985). The movement through these overlapping stages results in a negative, criminological, transformative process during which theft addicts surrender their prior noncriminal status (positive), thereby adopting a new deviant one (negative). The intriguing factor about Spano, McNall, and Del Biaggio is that they had no clear understanding, on a conscious level, why they engaged in criminal acts ultimately leading to their arrests and incarcerations.
After entering into this enigmatic zone, offenders often become locked into one or more of these overlapping stages. For instance, once entering stage one (criminal triggers), most offenders I treated easily progress through the subsequent four stages. There have been literally thousands of anecdotal accounts of criminals’ mind states, yet few criminologists have addressed criminals’ subjective experiences prior to during and after the commission of a criminal act. In other words, how were their psychological states altered by the criminal, addictive experience?
The one factor that remains constant is that the progression through these five stages dramatically and unalterably changed these men’s lives, their victims’ lives, and the lives of people around them. In my experience with hundreds of criminals I analyzed, both in and out of confinement, who had sadly slid into the criminal addictive zone, they were dumbfounded when I asked them, “Why did you do it?”
When I looked further in these men’s postcriminal worlds, I discerned that their noncriminal rational reasoning was slowly replaced with irrational, self-deceptive, and distorted antisocial thoughts. To comprehensively interpret their legal-psychological dilemmas and psychological transformation, it is necessary to explain how these addictive stages helped erode their resistance to not offend.
Stage One: Criminal Triggers
Stage one is marked by a set of psychological triggers similar to Brown’s addiction concepts of salience and low self-esteem (1997). These internal triggers are mentally generated cues emanating from confusing and mostly illogical thoughts offenders acquire, then in turn bombarded themselves with. These negative self-sentences or mental messages are often reflective of peoples’ compromised self-concepts coupled with the desire to overcompensate for perceived personal shortcomings. They also derive from feelings of inadequacy, emptiness, and existential loneliness.
For Spano, McNall, and Del Biaggio, the collective psychological triggers motivating them were anchored to a single Don Quixote quest—that is, being a larger person than they perceived they were. Overcoming the fear of failure was a driving force that pushed Spano to engage in behaviors just to prove he was not a loser. As he lamented, “I wanted to be a winner, especially in my father’s eyes, to prove I was good enough.” Paradoxically, Spano was addictively driven to achieve personal power that brought out the worst in him: detachment, moral disengagement, and shades of personal arrogance. For McNall, he told me it was all about recognition: “When you’re the owner of a large market sports franchise, you’re at the center of it all.” For Del Biaggio, he simply wanted to reign as the biggest star among the ubiquitous Silicon Valley luminaries he saw.
Stage Two: Moral Neutralization
Stage two is the most essential and complex of the five stages comprising the criminal addictive zone and corresponds to Brown’s conflict stage (1997). It has been my experience that, for people who steal, these dangerous, self-defeating acts are frequently not driven by economic or material incentives—instead, they were trying to enrich their empty shell identities.
Other less obvious psychological variables, like inauthenticity and deception, contribute to their procriminal thoughts prior to offending. Operationally, the subtle slide into the second stage is fueled by irrational judgments like, “I’ve got to prove to them that I’m really important.”
These three men did not suddenly wake up one morning (perhaps on the wrong side of the bed) and declare, “I guess this is the perfect day to steal a ton of money and buy a hockey team! Then I’ll ruin my life, disgrace my family, and end up in prison.” Many of the psychological forces driving them were not obvious and remained deeply buried beyond their conscious awareness, reach or comprehension.
During stage two, moral neutralizations reduced their ability to comprehend why they became ready to offend. They compromised their ability to act rationally thereby reducing the appreciation of the self-destructive choices they were about to make. Self-eroding, moral neutralizations further enhanced their loss of personal control allowing them to exit stage two and move into stage three, where the real action is.
Stage Three: Commission of the Criminal Act
The actual commission of criminal acts demanded that Spano, McNall, and Del Biaggio neutralize the unsavory aspects of their offenses. Somehow they had to try and lend meaning to their inexplicable behaviors. It was not an easy job, but the more they did it, they became skilled practitioners in the art of self-deception. Stage three behaviors are accompanied with exciting sensations tied to the exceedingly risky business they were about to engage in—defrauding banks out of millions of dollars.
It became evident to me that during stage three, these men shared identified, psychological communalities tied to addictive behavior, especially an anticipated visceral feeling or mental excitement and stimulation, if not an elation, a thrill, a rush, and even a sense of euphoria. The excitement clearly reinforced their deviant behavior, thereby increasing the probability that their negative actions will recur. In other words, the excitement minimized the risk and negative consequences of their actions because it felt good, so why not continue to do it? This mentally uplifting psychological state becomes even more profound when they entered stage four: post-criminal-act exhilaration.
Stage Four: Post-Criminal-Act Exhilaration
Entrance into stage four occurs after offenders have committed a crime or two. It is typified by flooding of mood-elevating feelings similar to an adrenaline rush, accompanied with thoughts that synthetically increase their sense of well-being. Stage four corresponds to what Brown typifies as “hedonic mood management” (1997). The feelings that arise during stage four merely represent false self-messaging that although Spano, McNall, and Del Biaggio were doing wrong, they still felt pretty good about it.
At certain times, these men enjoyed the “rush” or the thrill of getting away with something. Sometimes the excitement produced during stage four offset or alleviated their poor self-concept and decreased their depression. This thrill can be tied to offenders’ failed attempts at mood management. I have treated many confused offenders who stole and stated that, after offending, their depression was lessened and temporarily their mood had lifted, although this feeling was short lived.
It can be argued that Del Biaggio’s and Spano’s obvious cheap thrills during stage four did not derive from just taking the money and running with it. Their prime motive to engage in bank fraud in the first place was to put themselves above the crowd and become somebody important. For them, possessing a hockey team might have made them “big shots.”
Spano’s temporary feelings of elation yielded to subsequent feelings of confusion, despondence, and self-doubt when he ultimately transitioned into stage five, post-criminal-act confusion. Because offenders temporarily feel good during stage four, they begin to search for innovative justifications for what they did during stage three (e.g., “If committing a crime makes me feel this good, it couldn’t be all that bad”). There is little doubt that Spano, McNall, and Del Biaggio achieved short-term hedonistic payoffs from their offenses.
During stage four, these uplifting moments have been described to me to as similar to a “runner’s high.” They knew that a powerful force—the addictive aspects in their personalities—was dramatically influencing them, yet they could not quite identify it. They also knew that after committing an offense, they just felt better. I conclude that many of those feelings of exhilaration brought on during stage four operate or manifest themselves on an unconscious level that is easily experienced, yet not easily comprehended by a theft addict. During stage five, offenders’ good feelings certainly changed, particularly when their consciences were reawakened after reflecting on what they had done.
Stage Five: Post-Criminal-Act Confusion
When entering into stage five, the exhilaration and thrill produced during stages three and four are now gone and replaced with new, dramatic, and unexpected changes in the offenders’ emotional awareness. During stage five, in addition to becoming socially withdrawn, they became confused and depressed. Stage five reactions can also be manifested as physical symptoms mimicking the withdrawal aspects experienced by detoxifying drug addicts: nausea, headache, nervousness or anxiety, sweating, and heart palpitations.
During stage five, offenders’ identity crises must be confronted. For example, Spano was withdrawn, confused, and did not know how to find his road to redemption. During our prison counseling sessions Spano told me, “I never wanted anything bad to happen to others based on what I did, but it happened.” I believed him, but he also had to want to change his addictive, antisocial proclivities. Redemption was an option, but Spano had to earn it.
Of course, risking it all and losing it all was not worth it. However, this is the reality of ending up in stage five. In the end, there is no question that these three men did not find what they were looking for. Now as they glance back with 20/20 hindsight, all they can see is a road strewn with the human wreckage they caused then left behind. Psychologically, stage five is characterized with confusion, guilt, afterthoughts, misgivings, anxiety, depression, and dramatic mood shifts ranging from feelings of sadness to hopelessness.
Even though during this stage offenders evidence the beginning signs of remorse, they still show a stubborn resistance to follow through in order to change their thoughts and behaviors. For them, entering therapy is an iffy choice from the outset, because it means that they would be forced to admit they were not the powerful people they wanted to be. Iffy or not, the central focus of correctional counseling is to help offenders break the recurrent addictive chain of counterproductive thoughts leading to their serious transgressions. They do not have to return to a life of crime; via insight, soul-searching, and counseling they can develop the strength to correct their judgmental errors and redemption can be on the horizon.
Summary and Last Thoughts
I hope that by the time I arrived at this conclusion that this information would provide new insights into the twisting lives of these three white-collar offenders whose stealing effectively made them “elite outlaws.” For them, owing a hockey team became more of an obsession than simply a pursuit contributing to their addiction to theft to achieve their fantasized goals: ultimate power, ego enhancement, and personal status. As Del Biaggio told me, “I wanted to be the man.” In a motivational sense, they all did. Their intent to steal $500 million was not based on need or pure greed. Instead, theft was a reluctant path they wandered into to cure their common psychological problem—they just did not think they were important enough and they became addicted to stealing to elevate their poor self-concepts. In their cases, cash was not necessarily king, because they each wanted to rein in their own powerful hockey kingdoms.
Unfortunately, just the opposite happened. Once they entered into the five-stage criminal addictive zone, escape proved improbable, leading each man to unrewarding federal prison terms. Now that these men have served their prison sentences—the exception being Spano—it is time for them to grapple with the real reasons that they offended in the first place. McNall, released from prison ten years ago, still wonders why he compromised his moral and legal values and deviated. Hopefully, Spano and Del Biaggio can set off on another journey, this one devoted to self-discovery and deconditioning their addictive theft traits. I have helped hundreds of criminals unlock some of their darkest secrets held for years, if not decades, to better understand why they got in trouble with the law.
Because theft-addiction is becoming more prevalent today and is more frequently identified as a clinical entity, hopefully this information will provide therapists with a better theoretical framework to discern those clients merely doing bad from those addicted to the thrill of crime.
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