This post requires a warning. It is not for the faint of heart, and to read it, you should watch the video below first, but before you do, I am going to give you a heads up. This story is rather depraved, and it is going to leave you wondering why something like this would ever happen. I wondered that as well, so I dug into why, and it took a fair amount of searching, and reading court documents to fully understand it.
Viewer discretion is advised, and if you are someone that has a hard time with horrific things, I would encourage you to skip this post. I have a very low emotional person listen to it, and it made that person extremely angry:
All right, done? Let’s get into this.
That is one hell of a story. It certainly inspires the question, “why?” Why did something like this happen, and what could allow the people involved to do what they did? This post will focus on Tiffany Cole. She knew the couple, no one else did. Her part in the crime, due to the underlying circumstances of her relationship with this couple, makes her participation more egregious than the three co-conspirators.
Back to the question of why. Why did these people go about things in this way. It makes sense that something must be wrong with them, and it can leave you wanting an explanation. In my case, even though I don’t have an emotional response to it the murders, it defies my logic, so I want to understand why this was the course of action that was taken. It would be easy to say, clearly these people have no empathy, so they would be psychopathic, sociopathic, or at the very least, ASPD.
That would be wrong, wrong, and you would think on that last one, correct, but we will get into that more below. All of those that participated in this should qualify for a diagnosis of ASPD, but likely none of them are psychopathic, or sociopathic. So then… why? Why would they do all of these things? Why didn’t someone in that group refuse to participate, and why could all of them sit at that crime scene, and listen to these people get buried alive, slowly, over almost as hour, terrified, crying, and begging.
That is action requires absolutely no empathy at all. Perhaps in the person’s mind in general, or perhaps just in that moment, those that participated in this crime, had no empathy for the victims. Especially Tiffany who knew this couple well. They had helped her on multiple occasions, they gave her love, support, money, whatever she needed, and she sat and watched this couple get buried slowly alive, all the while screaming, crying, and begging for their lives, and she not only didn’t help them, but was photographed celebrating and spending their money just hours after they suffocated by breathing in the dirt from their grave.
How can someone that isn’t a psychopath or a sociopath commit such an action without feeling something for their victims? Your initial thoughts might be, Tiffany was very likely a psychopath. How else could she be so cold? I wondered what the deal was as well, so I dug into it. I didn’t think that she was psychopathic, and while I was listening to the story I was paying specific attention looking for a mention of drug use, but there was no indication that is was a factor. That confused me, and I suspected that drug use was going to be a factor, but finding that information was quite so simple. It wasn’t readily available on Wikipedia, and instead I found myself pursuing the court documents that were filed to appeal her death penalty sentence, and it filled in a lot of the blanks about her mentality, and what likely lead to her actions.
The first thing that I went to was her age. If her brain wasn’t fully developed, then it is possible that her ability to experience empathy might be lacking. However, she was twenty-three when she committed this crime, and twenty-five is the age that the brain is considered fully formed and functioning, so that isn’t it. Or, at the very least, that isn’t it in its entirety. Here is what the psychiatrist found upon examining Tiffany:
Dr. Earnest Miller, a psychiatrist, evaluated Tiffany Cole. (TR XIV 1641 - XV 1697) As to any issues of competency to stand trial and insanity at the time of the offense, Dr. Miller found her competent and sane. (TR XIV 1647-1648) Miller did find that Cole suffered from mental problems, but there was no evidence of a psychotic disorder. (TR XIV 1648-1653)
Cole abused drugs and alcohol and suffered from substance dependency. (TR XIV 1651-1652) She was chronically depressed, (TR XIV 1652), and had a personality disorder, not otherwise specified. *1 (TR XIV 1653-1654, TR XV 1683-1685) His diagnosis also included the ―lifelong stressors‖ in Cole‘s life history that shaped her. (TR XIV 1655) Dr. Miller believed Cole‘s adaptive functioning was relatively good, given the several mental problems she suffered. (TR XIV 1655) Cole‘s mental health problems, (TR XV 1660-1695) were premised upon:
1. Her abnormal dependency problems and masochism which came from experiences she had early in life. (TR XV 1660)
2. Her parents divorced during her early, critical formative years, never feeling support nor a home. (TR XV 1660)
3. She was a surrogate mother to her brothers and took care of them, (TR XV 1660-1661), thus she never had a childhood. Her stepfather‘s abuse of her younger brother and the puppy incident which Dr. Miller opined had a profound impact on her. (TR XV 1661)
4. Cole‘s natural father sexually molested her at 16 or 17, (TR XV 1661), about the time she ran away from home. (TR XIV 1543, 1550, 1555-1556; TR XV 1684) The betrayal of trust caused feelings of confused, guilty and dirty. (TR XV 1663-1664) She told no one except her mother about the sexual molestation. (TR XV 1661)
5. Her low self-esteem and guilt, left her entering abusive relationships with men. (TR XV 1661-1665)
*1 The personality disorder was based on an abnormal dependency on others; ―masochism‖ by seeking things that caused her problems in life; ―cluster B‖ features that lead to failures of conscience to stop behaviors. Her mother did not believe her, resulting in a feeling of no parental support. (TR XV 1661)
While minimizing the testimony about a happy childhood presented by some of Cole‘s relatives, (TR XV 1662-1663), Dr. Miller opined that parents who raise children in an abusive environment do not usually come forth and talk about it. (TR XV 1663; 1685)
Dr. Miller viewed Cole‘s use of street drugs (Xanax, Valium, street drugs, cocaine) and alcohol as self-medication for psychological pain. (TR XV 1665-1666) Dr. Miller opined, given her low self-esteem, her drug supplier, Brian, provided some acceptance and leadership in that he could get drugs. (TR XV 1666) She got away from drugs, but Dr. Miller was unimpressed since Cole did not receive treatment for any underlying dependency. (TR XV 1666-1667)
Dr. Miller observed Cole‘s relationship with Michael Jackson and the murders of Carol and Reggie Sumner, (TR XV 1667- 1670), was a part of her pathological need to be in abusive relationships. (TR XV 1667) Based upon his knowledge of the crimes and Cole‘s personality pathology, Dr. Miller noted she was a follower and would not initiate the crimes. (TR XV 1668)
Acknowledging that Cole unquestionably followed and pushed aside her conscience, (TR XV 1668) Dr. Miller found no diagnosis termed a major conscience problem. (TR XV 1669) Dr. Miller did not conclude Cole was trying to rationalize her conduct; she could not discern how she could be involved with an abusive person. (TR XV 1669-1670) Cole had no insight as to her role in terms of her ―personality disorder.‖ (TR XV 1670)
I think that the most important feature of this crime is the drug use. Drugs, especially at a young age, stop the brain from maturing. If used long enough they can cement a person at the age they were when they began. If they started at fourteen, they may still very much be a fourteen year old in terms of how their brain functions, even a fair amount of time after ceasing the drugs entirely. We know that Tiffany used drugs, but I have yet to find anything that documents when that drug use began, so I believe that this does come into play.
Other things that could come into her decision making was the group dynamic. No one tried to stop this crime, and if they were each willing to participate, then there is a group dynamic in effect that no one was willing, or interested in breaking. No one tried to be a voice of reason, they didn’t hide their faces, they had pre dug the grave but then claim it was to be a scare tactic, nothing more.
The decision to bury them alive was claimed to be a spur of the moment decision by the group. However, their actions do not support this claim. If the reason was just to scare the Sumners into giving up their bank codes, Reggie gave up that information immediately, so there was no need to bury them. Tiffany could have stayed hidden, so as to not alert them of her involvement in the crime, and after the information that they were seeking was relayed, they could have left the couple there to figure out how to get home.
Granted, they could have died doing this, but their potential death obviously didn’t mean anything to the four people involved considering the method that they used to murder them, and it would have bought them time to do what they were going to do with the banking information. This to me says that they had every intention of killing the couple from the beginning.
If Tiffany and her boyfriend had made attempts to hide their faces, and their voices, I might buy the story that murder was never a part of the equation, but they don’t appear to have even done the bare minimum for this to be the case. It could in theory just be the markers of people that are extraordinarily bad at planning crimes, but I think it is more likely premeditation. Everything else was premeditated, but there is a reason to lie about this detail.
This aspect goes to sentence enhancements, and it is clear that none of them wanted to be sentenced to death. If they had premeditated the killings, there is little chance that they would be spared the death penalty. That would very neatly explain why everything else was planned, but this one part was just something that happened. It is conjecture on my part, but it seems to make the most sense. Add to this, the grave was dug two full days before the kidnapping. The claim that they just intended to frighten them also doesn’t hold up for another couple of reasons.
Superior force. We are talking about two older individuals, both with significant health problems, and mobility issues, being taken hostage by four assailants far younger than them. Three of which were young males, two of which had turned eighteen two months prior to this crime. There is little change of either of the Sumners having much of a chance in a fight, and they obviously knew that based on how cooperative they were.
The gun. Albeit a fake gun, the Sumners did not know that, and acted accordingly. They believed that they could be shot at any moment, and I am certain based on her past history with her ex-husband, this created a real sense of terror in Carol. Surviving being shot six times is quite a feat, and one I imagine she didn’t think she could be successful at a second time.
The belief that they could be shot at any time, the fact that Reggie gave all the relevant banking information straight away, and the fact that they never hid their faces, I am inclined to believe there was no reason for the grave being dug, to assist with leverage over the victims. Instead it was dug with intent. Also, something that I think should be pointed out, as many people really have never really considered how much work it is to dig a grave that not only is capable of concealing a body, but also one deep enough to foil cadaver dogs.
It’s not an easy thing to do, it takes a great deal of work, and there was definitely work put into this grave. It was deep enough for both of the Sumners to sit in it, with the ground still being above their heads. That is at least four feet, and that doesn’t include the width that would be required as well. all of this was done at night, by the light of a flashlight that Tiffany Cole held. This was not an easy task, so I don’t think that it was just dug for a scare tactic, and I can’t be convinced that Cole believed that it was. This was a great deal of effort that was undertaken. In fact, the dimensions of the grave are included in the court documents, and are detailed as:
six (6) feet long by four (4) feet wide and six (6) feet deep
As I stated, a lot of work. Go outside, and just try to start digging a hole, let me know how long it takes you before you’re like, “f*ck this sh*t, this is hard. I’m out!” I would guess you didn’t dig a whole lot, and you fail to see the value in the exercise. It just goes to show the level of dedication there was to this outcome. It was not minimal, nor were the deaths a spur of the moment, type thing.
The court documents state that “Cole was an accomplice to the homicide committed by another and her participation was relatively minor” but that doesn’t appear to me to be the case at all. I arrived at the conclusion that Tiffany Cole was the main driving factor of this crime. This seems to me to be the case, despite the psychiatrist concluding that she was a follower with low self esteem, her actions say otherwise. She had the previous relationship with the Sumners, she was the one that was provided all the help that they had given her, she was the ne that said, “let’s go to their house”, and she could have at any time refused to go along with any plot that her boyfriend supposedly cooked up.
There was plenty of time and effort that went into the planning of this crime. She could have alerted the police, or at the very least alerted the Sumners to involve the police prior to any action being taken, but she didn’t. She could have opted out of doing it, but she didn’t. She could have gone to the police afterwards, but she didn’t. She did none of the things that she could have done to stop the murders from happening, nor did she confess to her role in the murders, it took one of her conspirators confessing, and even then she doesn’t want to take the expected consequences.
What’s more, during her interrogation, she makes the claim that she had no idea what happened to the Sumners, she just assumed that they were dead, but didn’t see them. She said she was instructed to wait on the road a ways away from the woods where the three guys took the couple. Part of this is an absolute lie, and the rest of it likely is as well, based on evidence found in the Sumner’s car when it was located.
She says that she had no idea what happened to them when they were taken into the woods, but two days earlier she was at this exact same place, holding a flashlight in the dead of night, while the three guys dug the grave, but is now going to claim ignorance? Then there is this little tidbit;
After leaving the house, Cole drove Jackson, and Wade and Nixon drove the Sumners‘ Lincoln, to a remote wooded area west of Jacksonville. On the way, Jackson talked with Nixon and Wade via cell phone, and on one of the calls, Cole overheard Jackson‘s mentioned that the Sumners were in the Lincoln‘s trunk.
I’m sorry… what? She “overheard” that they were in the trunk? She knew that they were, she had to have known that, because she stood there, in the dead of night, holding a flashlight, while three of her friends dug a grave. A bit less direct, but more interesting line was found in one of the court documents:
On July 12, 2005, Vindell Williams, and off-duty Jacksonville Sheriff=s patrol officer, discovered the Sumners= Lincoln Towncar abandoned in Baker County. (T7:518-520) The car was located at the end of a dirt road near a small area of woods in the vicinity of Williams house. (T7:520-521) He first noticed the car on July 10th, but he went back to the car on July 12th after hearing a report of a stolen car matching the description. (T7:521) Williams secure the cars location and radioed for the officer in charge. (T7:521-523) The windows of the car had been left open. (T8:682) Inside the vehicle, investigators found sand in the floorboard; pieces of duct tape in the floorboard, the backseat and the trunk; four different type shovels in the trunk; and a cup. (T8:677-682) On the ground near the car, a five dollar bill stuck to a piece of duct tape was found. (T8:679)
Four different types of shovels, and there were four people who committed the crime. Seems like an interesting coincidence that there were enough shovels for all of them, but she didn’t have any idea what happened in the woods. Also, it is stated that the actual murder took nearly hour. She wants people to believe that she just sat there in the Mazda twiddling her thumbs for that amount of time, alone in the dark? I doubt that. I think she was there, front and center, and just wants to dodge the responsibility now that she is caught.
Also, one of the other assailants, Bruce Nixon, testified something very similar when it came to his involvement in the crime. He stated:
Jackson ordered Nixon to reapply the duct tape which he did. Jackson then ordered Nixon to go to the road and wait there with Cole. Wade and Jackson remained at the hole with the Sumners.
Interesting, so now two people were dismissed to go down and stay at the road, while just two of them filled in the hole? Is that likely? Or is it more likely that these two came up with the same strategy to keep themselves out out of the death chamber. It worked for one of them, Nixon, but not the other, Cole. A bit of evidence that contradicts Nixon’s claims:
During Wade’s trial, Griffis testified to Nixon’s admission that he (Nixon) “buried somebody alive.”
Oh, would you look at that? Nixon, who swears he was down by the road, is now taking credit for burying the Sumners alive. Let me quickly redirect you to that passage about the shovels found. There were four of them, right? Why? You might say, because all four of them dug the grave, and I would say, right. Two days earlier, and in a different car. The car they are speaking about in that passage is the Sumner’s car, not one of the assailants cars, and in the trunk of their car, there are four shovels.
Four. Not two, not three. Four.
Why would you bring four shovels if only three of you maximum are going to be filling in the hole? The did say that they were four different types, but that only matters when you are digging the hole, not filling it in. Filling in a hole requires one ability for a shovel to have. To scoop up dirt, and dump it. That’s all. You don’t need four different types to accomplish this, nor would you bring shovels in the first place unless you always planned to murder them.
Then I found this passage:
A day later, after the hole was dug, Nixon learned for the first time the robbery would include getting money from the Sumners= bank accounts and the death of the Sumners. (T9:974)
Nixon said, at that time, all four of them were involved in the discussion about the death of the Sumners. (T9:974-976)
Tiffany knew that they were robbing them. She knew that they were taking them to a secondary location. She knew that they had dug a grave. The shovels that were in the Sumners car weren’t there when they kidnapped them, they had to be taken out of the car that Cole was driving, and transferred to the Town Car. She would have seen this happen, because she was one of the drivers. She knew that they went back to the same place that they had dug a grave, she at the very least knew that they were there for nearly an hour, and according to Nixon, the plan was to murder them all along. This claim actually does nothing to help Nixon’s case, but damages Cole’s credibility.
She was far more culpable than she is willing to admit in court, or in her appeal. We also know that the sole person to skate the death penalty for this crime claimed that he was down by the road, just like she supposedly was. He bragged to people about the crime refuting his own words, and it was also his words that claimed that Tiffany was there as well. We already know he’s a liar, which sheds doubt on anything he says, and also her claims of not being at the murder site.
I get it, trying to skirt the death penalty is a high stakes game, but the lies seem quite obvious.
What caused her to be able to commit these acts? Of course we can look to her background and find some reasoning for her being damaged, and that certainly was a part of this. Having a past such as hers made turning to drugs an easy choice to make. Self medicating to avoid her emotional problems certainly had to be more appealing than having to sit amidst that trauma without any hope of it abating. The drugs delay or halt the development of the frontal lobes and cut off her ability to experience emotional empathy. In that regard she becomes somewhat similar to a psychopaths experience in that she doesn’t have that emotional connection that she should otherwise experience.
Have you ever played a video game? I know, weird segue, but I have a reason for it. When Red Dead Redemption 2 came out, I discovered something very interesting about a significant difference between how I do things, and how neurotypicals do things, and this actually relates to what Tiffany Cole and her cohorts did.
RDR2 had an interesting story device in which you could play Arthur (the main character of the game and the one you control) as a good guy (within reason for a gun slinging outlaw), or a bad guy. You could do pretty much whatever you wanted in the game, and the game would adjust the storyline to match your chosen gameplay style. What I discovered was in a world like RDR2, where the consequences are limited to the game itself, and you could do anything, people often indulged the darkest parts of themselves that the game allowed for.
This fascinated me. I don’t play games that way. I play games the same way I live my life, and there is a reason for this. My empathy is cognitive only. I have never relied on an emotional response to be the governor of my behavior. I have to actually evaluate actions and determine whether they are in alignment with what I I consider success an an individual.
I wouldn’t play Arthur like an asshole, because I’m not an asshole. I am going to conduct Arthur’s life in the same way I would conduct my own, because I arrived at my conclusions about acceptable actions in life came from carefully considering what I would prefer to happen to me. I am nothing if not self focused, and I have no interest in being buried alive, thus I won’t bury someone alive. Neither in a game, or in real life.
I feel pretty well the same for the Sumners as I might for a NPC in a video game. I have to look at the action itself and weigh whether I deem it acceptable action. What happened to the Sumners isn’t. It violates what I consider acceptable actions. Now, let me be clear, I don’t consider people that play Arthur like an asshole is an essay on them as a person. Instead I see it as an expected outcome. There have always been these emotions that are present that tell them what they should or shouldn’t do. When they have the opportunity to do things without that emotional system screaming at them, such as a video game, they will do things that they would never do in life, because their empathy, guilt, remorse, etc, would prevent it.
This tells me that they have never spent time to explore what their emotions tell them is incorrect behavior.
It is one thing to say, “I won’t murder someone because I would never forgive myself if I did.”
It is quite another to say, “I won’t murder someone unless it is necessary to protect me and mine. I create the world in which I want to live, and I do not want to be murdered, so I will not murder.”
If you evaluate your actions and have a logical reason why you will or will not participate in something, and can recognize that your actions are the only ones that you control your actions in the world will reflect that understanding. You have to determine what you consider success for you as an individual, and then live to that definition for no other reason because it is congruent with who you are as a person. What you will and won’t do isn’t dictated by your emotions, it is dictated through considered actions.
Currently, many people will use their emotional responses to solely dictate what their acceptable actions are. They have no underpinnings to their beliefs, so what happens if that empathy disappears due to organic illness, a head injury, or, as it is with this case, illicit drug use while the brain is developing. What you feel bad about is something you would never partake in, but now there is nothing telling you that you should feel badly anymore.
If this is your only alarm system, and it goes down, what are you supposed to do? Add into this mess, you have three other people, with similarly damaged brains and empathy processing centers, and you are driven by greed, as it appears to be the strongest instigating factor to these murders. I think that a fair amount of why this crime happened is because of the drug use. I think it removed crucial functioning in the brain, removed any reservations that any of them had, and they had nothing to fall back on in terms of stopgaps from horrific actions.
I am aware that a person currently using drugs will show a distinct lack of care for those around them. They are only going to care about the drugs, their next ability to obtain, and use said drugs. However, in this case it was said that Tiffany was no longer using drugs, so altered mental state was not what allowed her to continue to listen to the victims cry and beg. My guess is that it was the lack of instructions through emotions via drug use. Nothing about what happened throughout the planning of this crime led any of the participants to step back and say, “this is not a good idea. I don’t want to be involved.”
There is a claim made in the court documents by the evaluating psychiatrist that I found very interesting:
Based on his knowledge of events and Tiffany Cole’s personality pathology, Miller conclude that Tiffany was a follower and did not act to initiate the crime. (T15:1668) Miller did acknowledge that Cole did follow and take actions that required her to push the conscience aside. (T15:1668) However, he did not diagnosis her with what he termed a major conscience problem as might be found with someone with anti-social personality.
Really? Look at this list. I am going to put an X next to traits that she demonstrated in this crime:
1 Glibness/superficial charm
2 Grandiose sense of self-worth X Look at the pictures after the crime where they are in a limousine, living it up with handfuls of the Sumners cash that they had stolen from the ATM. She certainly appears to have a grandiose sense of self worth.
3 Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom X Partying and shopping after the murders, drug use.
4 Pathological lying X Demonstrated by her continued lying about this crime.
5 Cunning/manipulative X Has tried to underplay her involvement in this crime from the jump.
6 Lack of remorse or guilt X Had days to stop this crime, confess to it, try to deter it from happening. She didn’t demonstrate any remorse until she was caught, and all of that appears to be aimed at lessening her sentence. Also, partying and shopping after the murders
7 Shallow affect [i.e. superficial experience and expression of emotions] X Watch the interview that I linked below
8 Callous/lack of empathy X Helped dig a grave for people that she lived next door to, and were never anything but kind and helpful to her.
9 Parasitic lifestyle X Robbing people for money, drugs, dating your drug dealer so you get free drugs
10 Poor behavioural controls
11 Promiscuous sexual behaviour X According to her, she knew the boyfriend she committed this crime with for three weeks.
12 Early behaviour problems X Teenage runaway, drug addict, high school dropout.
13 Lack of realistic long-term goals X This seems obvious just from the type or crime she got involved in. If she had plans, they weren’t very realistic if she was willing to do what she did.
14 Impulsivity X She knew her boyfriend for three weeks, and within three weeks she helped him commit the murders of her former next door neighbors.
15 Irresponsibility X Drugs, and teenage runaway. She does however, have several marks in her favor on this way, so I will call this one mixed. She has some irresponsibility, but also show took on a fair amount of responsibility in her own family that was well beyond her years.
16 Failure to accept responsibility for own actions X She says she didn’t know what was going to happen, but in her own actions she clearly demonstrates that she did indeed know.
17 Many short term marital relationships
18 Juvenile delinquency X There is a previous crime that she was involved in. It was referenced lightly, but I wasn’t able to track down the details.
19 Revocation of conditional release
20 Criminal versatility
She quite literally did demonstrate that she had a lack of empathy and conscience. Her actions in this crime alone demonstrate that she indeed behaved in a way that certainly would qualify her for this diagnosis. She didn’t confess, she didn’t try to stop it, she lied repeatedly, and is clearly still lying. The idea that Tiffany Cole doesn’t qualify for a diagnosis that, in this one crime alone, she nails almost every single trait, that is a huge stretch to me, and likey she wasn’t labeled with it because she is female. That might be a whole different post, but this is not uncommon.
They knew that they intended for these people to die, and none of them had even a slight pang of guilt about it that redirected their attention. They were directed by greed, and the stopgap built in to stop behavior like this was shut off. This to me is a strong example of why cognitive empathy needs to be taught to children. The ability to think critically and understand our actions through that lens, because emotions aren’t always going to save you.
In this example you have four separate individuals that failed to experience anything that would have stopped this crime in an emotional plane. They fed off one another, and kept going with what had to be understood on some level, an absolutely heinous crime.
If you lose your empathy, and you have no stopgaps, have you determined what actions that you will accept from yourself? I ask this because empathy can abandon you when you are expected to show it or feel it for someone you really don’t like. Empathy is great, so long as it fires, and it will only do so in situations where you can relate to the person you are meant to empathize with. Usually this is going to be based on your own understanding of the world. What happens when you are confronted with someone that is fundamentally different from you, and you disagree with them about everything. Will you have empathy for them?
If the answer is no, you haven’t determined what is acceptable actions in your life, because your emotions should have nothing to do with that conclusion. It should be made understanding yourself as a person, defining your understanding of success for you as a person would be, and practicing that behavior, regardless of the circumstances. If you wouldn’t murder your neighbors because they are really nice, that isn’t all that considered. If you wouldn’t murder your neighbors because you simply don’t consider that right action, the onus isn’t on them being nice, it is on you, and what you are willing to allow yourself to do.
Right action should never be based on the other person’s behavior, or your opinion of that person. It should be based on your own determination of right actions that you will allow and expect of yourself. This exercise actually hones your cognitive empathy as well, so you get two great things for the price of one.