It was a hot summer night just outside of Austin, Texas, when 15-year-old James Wolcott shot his mother, father, and young sister to death, for no reason at all. Almost five decades later, James (now St. James) enjoys the status and respect of a longtime college professor.
The murders of the Wolcott family were the kind of shocking event that embeds itself into the conscience of a community. The father, Dr. Gordon Wolcott, was the head of the biology department at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. The mother, Elizabeth Wolcott, was active in the local church circle. Sister Libby was 17-years-old that summer in 1967. James and Libby had gone to a show in Austin on the night of August 4th. When they came home, Libby and mother went to bed, while father sat reading. James sniffed some glue, picked up a .22 caliber rifle, went to the living room where his father sat, aimed, and shot him twice. He found his next target in her bedroom, fired one shot into his sister’s chest, then another into her face. When he was done, he found his mother and shot her twice in the face, then once more in the chest.
After hiding the gun, he ran outside, stopped a car carrying three college students and, crying, pleaded for help. James told them that someone had come in and killed his family. In later interviews, those who encountered him that night recalled Wolcott’s behavior as distraught and hysterical. It wasn’t long at all before James admitted that he had been planning the murders for a week.
When the trial came around, James’ defense was that he was mentally ill, had been for some time. He said his family was trying to ‘drive him insane,’ because his mother chewed her food too loudly and his sister had a ‘bad accent.’ Eventually the doctors evaluating James decided that the diagnosis was paranoid schizophrenia. He was found not-guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) and sent to an institution until such time that he was deemed ‘sane.’ That happened only six short years later, when he was released at twenty-two years of age after a brief, ten minute hearing. Six years for premeditated murder. The NGRI verdict meant he was allowed to inherit his family’s estate, including his father’s pension.
Today, James Wolcott is James St. James, professor and chair of the psychology department at Millikin University, located in Decatur, Illinois. The case of the murderer-turned-college-professor leaves a lot of questions in the air. How did the university not become aware of the murderous past of their department head, as they contend? Is this person who once ‘snapped’ capable of snapping again? Does his position at the university create a public safety issue?
After 27 years as a professor, there is little to indicate that he is anything other than a great teacher and mentor to hundreds and perhaps thousands of students. He has won various teaching awards and his students speak very highly of him. Should his past change their perspective of him? Can anyone ever really be redeemed, especially for such a heinous crime? Are there cases where someone can change their lives, a la Jean Valjean, and become a person who doesn’t resemble the person they once were at all?
After all, James Wolcott/St. James isn’t the only murderer living among us with a past he’s worked hard to hide.