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Dissociative identify disorder, at issue in Casper killing, is rare condition with controversial reputation

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Vincent Hayes

Vincent Hayes

A man charged with killing his father in their east Casper home last week had reportedly been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, an affidavit in the case states. He allegedly told police that an alternate personality was in control at the time of the shooting.

Victor Hayes faces a felony charge of second-degree murder for the death of his father, William Johnson. He was arrested Friday in Casper and has remained at the county jail on a $100,000 cash-only bond since.

In interviews with police, both Hayes and his mother said that Hayes lives with DID, a rare trauma-induced condition with a controversial reputation in both psychiatry and criminal justice.

The condition is typically described as one person having two or more distinct personalities present at different times. Since 1980, it’s been included in the DSM-5, a standard for mental health assessment used by psychiatrists and other health professionals. Previously, it was known as “multiple personality disorder.”

Dr. Stephen Noffsinger, a forensic psychiatrist and professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, said there is some controversy among mental health professionals as to what DID exactly is, and how commonly it appears.

People diagnosed with the disorder don’t have one uniform experience of the condition, in keeping with other mental health diagnoses. Some have just two personalities, Noffsinger said, while others have been found to have dozens. In some cases, people report that the host personality blacks out while an alter is in control, with no memory of what they did; in others, they say the host is merely in the background, aware of what’s going on but with no ability to control their actions.

There is little clinical research to validate the largely observational findings on DID, Noffsinger said. Noffsinger has not met or evaluated Hayes, so cannot comment on the specifics of his case.

In court filings, Hayes is cited telling police that his alter, the more aggressive Reno, does things that he is unaware of but can communicate with Hayes as the host through his thoughts to relay things he has done.

The affidavit states that Hayes told investigators that Reno was acting in self-defense after hearing his father say, “It would be better, if I just killed Reno,” then loading a gun.

Hayes also reportedly told police that both he and his mother had been assaulted and abused by Johnson while he was growing up, and that his father had also pointed guns at them in the past.

“If this does exist as a clinical entity, these personalities form in early childhood as a response to severe trauma,” Noffsinger said, “as a defense mechanism to severe and overwhelming trauma.”

It’s hard to put an exact number on how many people live with the disorder, Noffsinger said, since most of the data is self-reported. There is no blood or psychological test that can claim to make a definitive diagnosis, no brain imaging that can pinpoint the condition’s source. The best way to make a valid diagnosis is by observing someone over a long period of time.

In his 35 years in psychiatry, Noffsinger said he’s seen two cases of DID that he was able to verify by observing each person for more than a year.

Misleading portrayals of people with DID in movies, TV and other media can also lead people, sometimes in criminal proceedings, to try to mimic what they see on screen.

“It’s a highly misunderstood concept,” Noffsinger said. “For that reason, sometimes defendants offer it as a defense, but they don’t have it.”

If Hayes’ case is headed for a trial, he would have to undergo a third-party mental health evaluation at the Wyoming State Hospital to determine whether or not he is competent to be tried. That process would include an attempted reconstruction of Hayes’ mental state at the time of the shooting using evidence, testimony and other records of the night.

The court would also have to determine whether Hayes’ condition would have made him not understand his actions or their wrongfulness during the shooting.

Follow city and crime reporter Ellen Gerst on Twitter at @ellengerst.

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