Accidental Killers Reveal What It Was Like, How They Cope
- Four people who accidentally killed others described their experiences and lives since.
- Accidental killers experience grief, trauma, guilt, shame, and fear, and they can develop PTSD.
- Finding community and therapy is key to separating who you are from what happened, experts said.
It was still dark outside on the morning Melissa Manion became a killer.
She had to be at work particularly early that day in January 2020 and was driving the same California roads she had traveled every day for nearly 15 years.
One seemingly small moment is seared into her memory: a last-minute decision to stop at a yellow light instead of speeding through. “You feel good about yourself making a choice like that,” she said.
If Manion had run that yellow light, she would have approached the freeway on-ramp moments earlier, made it to work on time, and had lunch with her coworkers. She would have slept well that night.
But Manion stopped. And when she reached the freeway entrance minutes later, she thought she saw something. “But worse, I felt something,” she told Insider. “I felt the impact of the car.”
In the hours that followed, she would learn that a woman had run across the on-ramp at the moment she entered the freeway.
The immediate aftermath is a blur. Manion called 911. A highway patrolman performed CPR. The police questioned Manion, who begged them to breathalyze her or take her cellphone. “I wanted to make sure they understood that I was paying attention,” she said through tears.
But after the questioning, all they did was tell her she could go home. “I did not understand that,” she said. “I could literally just go to the store right now or go to the movies, and no one would know what had happened.
“I just killed a person, and no one would know,” she said.
Accidental killers are often invisible
Manion is an accidental killer, or “CADI,” a term describing a person who’s caused accidental death or injury.
There is little published research on the subject and few resources available to those who unwittingly join the community. There seem to be no self-help books for the accidental killer, and databases track only accidental deaths, not the people who’ve caused them.
The topic remains taboo, and the people affected — including physicians who miscounted a dose or veterans who mistakenly fired at a civilian — often find themselves facing a unique combination of grief, trauma, and fear.
Most accidental killers “stay silent, consumed by shame and worried that the blood-debt we have incurred will somehow come due,” David Peters, a veteran and chaplain who killed a motorcycle rider in an accident at age 19, wrote for The Guardian in 2018.
The highly publicized shooting on the set of “Rust” two weeks ago, in which the actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot the cinematographer Halyna Hutchins with a gun that was being used as a prop, brought the uncomfortable issue to the forefront of culture — and to CADIs’ minds.
“Immediately when I saw the news of what happened my heart sank for not only [Hutchins], of course, but also for Alec Baldwin, because I thought, ‘I know exactly how he feels,'” Manion said.
Insider spoke with three other accidental killers about how their accidents had changed their lives and the ways they’ve learned to cope.
A life lost after a frugal decision
“A day doesn’t go by for accidental killers where we don’t think about the life we took,” Chris Yaw told Insider.
The Michigan reverend’s life was forever changed eight years ago.
While renovating an older home, Yaw decided to put in a garage-door opener that he now believes was illegal. When the company came to install the device, Yaw signed a waiver acknowledging the risk that without a safety feature, the 800-pound oak doors could crush someone.
The feature cost an extra $5,000, and the family barely used that garage bay, Yaw told himself at the time.
One day five years later, his landscaper and friend stopped by to return a rake. Yaw said he was still unsure how, but the man ended up dead, crushed beneath the door.
“Because of my desire to do things on the cheap, he’s not around anymore,” Yaw said.
‘I will never forget the sounds of a mother’s absolute grief’
Lois Brown was finishing a holiday at her home in England in 1983 when a family friend asked her to join her and her infant daughter on their drive back to Paris, where Brown was living at the time.
Brown had had her license for only four months.
Fifteen minutes after Brown took the wheel in France, a car overtook her on the left side, startling her. For a split second Brown lost her bearings because of the presence of another vehicle to her left.
The car spun off the road, tumbling through trees and landing in a field. Brown and her friend turned to see if the baby was OK, but the child was gone.
The baby’s mother eventually found her in the field, unresponsive.
“The mother was holding her, and she was screaming,” Brown said. “I will never forget the sounds of a mother’s absolute grief.”
Distracting from the pain of a friend’s accidental death for decades
More than 50 years ago, Joe was a “young, impulsive, stupid, normal boy” living in Phoenix, where there wasn’t a curvy road in sight and so teens like him frequently went drag racing, he said.
But one night, because of either water on the road or a mechanical issue with the car, Joe, then 17, lost control, ran into a light pole, and totaled his Corvette, he said.
He and the passenger, one of his best friends, seemed to be OK. “It wasn’t bad enough that you would have said, ‘That should have killed somebody,'” said Joe, who asked to use his first name only since his wife is the only one in his circles these days who knows about the accident.
But at the hospital, doctors found that the wreck had somehow punctured Joe’s friend’s intestine. The friend developed sepsis and later died.
“It’s one thing if you’re guilty; it’s another thing if you’re not sure you’re guilty,” Joe, a recently retired pilot, told Insider.
He joined the Navy to escape, and the distraction worked, he said. Only in the past few years has he received counseling through the Department of Veterans Affairs. He said that while just having someone listen had made a difference, it can never erase what happened.
“After 50 years, it doesn’t go away,” Joe said. “I’m still aware that Jack would have had a good life. He didn’t, and that was my fault.”
CADIs experience a complicated blend of grief and fear
The pain of an accidental killer can be more complicated than the pain of the victim’s family. CADIs can all at once face trauma, grief, and fear about what could happen to them — and then guilt and shame for feeling that fear, Babita Spinelli, a psychotherapist who’s worked with accidental killers, told Insider.
“Other types of loss and grief wouldn’t have the extent of the fear,” Spinelli said.
Even the fear itself is complicated. On the one hand, CADIs don’t want to face charges or a lifetime with a tarnished reputation. On the other, they feel they must pay.
“Sometimes people feel like, ‘I should be punished, I should be treated with disdain,'” Spinelli said. “They’re haunted by it.”
And while criminal charges are rare in cases of true accidents, civil lawsuits hardly offer absolution. “When the accident happened, all I kept thinking was, ‘I can’t fix this,'” Manion said. “You cannot breathe life back into that person.”
Accidental killers can develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder including flashbacks and hallucinations, Spinelli said, as well as other mental-health issues like anxiety and
Some CADIs self-harm. Some fear themselves. Some brace for the karma they’re sure is going to come back to hurt them. Some run away.
Brown moved 13 times in the years after her accident. “It must have had something to do with me trying to get away from myself,” she said. “But of course, that’s impossible.”
Even relatives won’t talk about it
CADIs told Insider they felt burdened by secrecy. “There’s so much shame, so much embarrassment, so much guilt,” Yaw said. “Who wants to bring these things up?”
Manion said her friends and family members tried to avoid the subject, worried that discussing the crash would upset her further. Even those who did provide initial reprieve moved on quickly, leaving Manion alone with her shame, she said.
“Even though I was still very sad, I just stopped talking about it to people, because it was almost like it created more of a burden,” she said.
Brown, too, initially found support from a group of fellow young Christians. But within months the people she thought were her friends had turned on her, accusing her of being an undignified Christian for indulging in her continued struggles, she said.
“I think that it’s taboo because if people were to look at it honestly,” she said, “they would realize how very easily they could be in that position, and they don’t want to think that.”
CADIs have found community on one website
CADIs told Insider that Accidental Impacts, a site started by a woman named Maryann Gray, had been monumental in giving them space to heal.
Gray was driving down a country road when a child ran into the street. She swerved, hit her breaks, and skidded, but it was too late.
After his accident, Yaw began researching accidental killers and stumbled upon a New Yorker article featuring Gray’s story. He encouraged her to start a foundation with him.
Now the nonprofit hosts regular
meetings for people around the world to share their pain with people who know how they feel.
Accidental Impacts “was the only community I felt like didn’t have secret thoughts about me or opinions,” Manion said.
Brown found the organization thanks to a friend. It “was the first time in 38 years I met anybody who had an experience like mine,” she said. “It was comforting to meet kindred spirits you knew understood your grief without you having to explain your grief.
“That is the only thing that has made a significant difference to me,” she added.
Counseling and taking action can help
Talking about the experience with a therapist can be key for accidental killers to confront the trauma of what happened, learn healthy ways to manage the grief, and separate the experience from their identity.
“There’s a lot of anxiety that they are not a good person. There’s a lot of ‘I am bad,'” Spinelli said. “The work is: You are not bad, what happened was bad.”
Sometimes people need more than talk therapy. Eye-movement-desensitization therapy, hypnotherapy, group therapy, and medications can also be helpful treatments for what’s often PTSD, Spinelli said.
Taking action in a way that can make accidental killers feel like they’re doing good by others can help too, she said.
Yaw is writing a survival guide for the accidental killer. Brown is starting a support group in her hometown of Liverpool. And Manion and Joe shared their stories with Insider in hopes that others may be emboldened to seek the help they need.
“It’s still hard, trying to balance out protecting yourself with wanting to help other people,” Manion said. “But if there’s any way someone can read this … well, maybe they’ll get help.”