Cat Killings Disturb South Florida Residents

Barbara Wiesinger had an evening ritual with her cat, Cami. She'd go outside and call out the calico's name, and before long, Cami would saunter up, meow, and wait to be picked up. But on the night of May 12, Cami didn't appear. Wiesinger didn't think too much of it and headed back inside. When the cat was still missing the following morning, though, she began to worry. She took her dog out for a walk in Cutler Bay, south of Miami, and encountered an agitated neighbor who told her there were a number of mutilated cats around a nearby lake. Wiesinger went to investigate and found the carcass of one cat that had been mutilated. A little further along, she found another one; it had been skinned and its skull was smashed. Later that day, she finally found Cami in a neighbor's yard. "Her head was crushed, and her eyes and nose were missing," says Wiesinger. "You could see her eye sockets, and her face was gone."

According to police, Cami's killing was the ghoulish handiwork of Tyler Weinman, an 18-year-old who's been dubbed the "cat serial killer." He was arrested two weeks ago on charges of mutilating and killing 19 cats across southern Miami-Dade County over the course of a month. The killing spree terrified cat owners, bedeviled police investigators, and triggered a communitywide manhunt. Now that it may be over, the rampage leaves this Florida community, and animal lovers everywhere, struggling to understand how anyone could commit such savage behavior.

Weinman's peers say his alleged crimes don't square with his image. They describe him as someone who's smart but doesn't apply himself. He has a girlfriend and periodically throws parties at his parents' houses (they're divorced). "He was a fun kid, always having a good time," says one of his classmates at Palmetto High School who attended a few of those bashes and asked not to be named because of the high-profile nature of the case. "He didn't take anything too seriously." Weinman, who favored a surfer look, taught children sailing at Swim Gym Aquatic Sports Camp. "All the kids loved him," says one fellow camp worker, who also requested anonymity. "He was voted favorite counselor one session." None of the acquaintances interviewed by NEWSWEEK recall seeing Weinman inflict harm on any animals (though he dissected a cat in an anatomy class, according to a Miami Herald report). He had a dog at his mother's house and was playful with it, according to a neighbor. He'd aim his index finger at the pooch and say "Pow!" and the dog would respond by falling over, the neighbor says.

There were some signs of waywardness, however. Several classmates say they suspected that Weinman may have been suspended from Palmetto last year for possible possession of marijuana (the school board wouldn't confirm this, but said he didn't graduate from Palmetto). Miami-Dade Police disclosed that he was arrested as a juvenile, though they wouldn't reveal his alleged infractions. After his parents divorced in 2006, Weinman divided his time between his mother's house in Cutler Bay and his father's place in nearby Palmetto Bay, according to acquaintances, who say the separation didn't seem to unsettle him. One potentially interesting detail emerged after his arrest: his father's new wife was an ardent cat lover, a neighbor told The Miami Herald.

Police evidently eyed Weinman as a suspect early on; they obtained a warrant to put a GPS device on his car near the beginning of the investigation. Investigators noted that murdered cats turned up near both of his parents' homes. And on May 15—shortly after the first cats turned up dead—an officer stopped him for a traffic violation and questioned him about the killings, according to the state attorney's office. During that stop, the officer also spotted a clear container of marijuana on the passenger seat and arrested him on drug-possession charges. That case is still pending, according to authorities. Many investigative details remain sketchy since the arrest warrant for the cat killings was sealed and won't be released until July 6. But police apparently felt confident enough about their evidence to nab Weinman on June 13 and charge him with 19 counts of animal cruelty, 19 counts of improper disposal of an animal body, and four counts of burglary. While they continue to probe whether he had accomplices, Weinman was released on bond and placed under house arrest. He hasn't entered a plea yet, but his father told reporters that Weinman was innocent (his lawyer didn't respond to calls for comment, and his parents couldn't be reached by NEWSWEEK). The father, Douglas Weinman, told the Herald: ''We are cat owners ourselves. We certainly sympathize with the grief of the other pet owners. We are sympathetic with them, but it is not our son.'' Under orders of the judge hearing his case, Weinman is receiving psychiatric counseling twice a week.

What most struck authorities was the brutality of the slayings. One woman who lost four of her cats in rapid succession described the grisly condition she found them in. The first "looked like he'd been stabbed up and down with an ice pick," she said, declining to be named out of fear that she'd be targeted again. The second suffered a broken neck and looked like it had been wringed like a dishcloth, leaving its front and hind legs pointing in opposite directions. The third was missing a quarter of its face, including an eyeball and its tongue. And the fourth had been skinned from the waist down.

These details disturb specialists who study violent behavior. "It is very rare to see something that severe," says Joel Andrade, a licensed independent clinical social worker and editor of the Handbook of Violence Risk Assessment. Andrade has not examined Weinman and can't comment directly on his case. But in general, he says, "in adolescents, you do see some cruelty to animals"—since the brain hasn't fully developed its ability to control impulses—"but nothing so severe." Dr. Roland Maiuro, a clinical psychologist and editor of the journal Violence and Victims, notes that the killer targeted cats, which are notoriously reticent animals. That suggests that the perpetrator must have been tremendously calculating and cunning in hunting his prey, says Maiuro, who also hasn't interviewed Weinman and isn't in a position to comment on the charges against him.

Andrade and Maiuro point out that cruelty toward animals as a child is sometimes—though certainly not always—a precursor of worse things to come. Such kids "are much more likely to graduate to adult crimes, and those crimes are more likely to involve physical and sexual violence," says Maiuro. The serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, for instance, dismembered animals and sometimes placed their heads on sticks when he was young. The mass murderer Kip Kinkel used to blow up squirrels and cats with firecrackers. And the Columbine killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, told classmates that they smashed mice's heads and set them on fire.

For now, the cat killings have stopped, and Weinman's case is moving through the legal system. South Florida's pet owners are just hoping the unthinkable never happens again.