You’re not allowed to sit with him face to face,’ briefed Stuart Cabb, who runs the TV production company that makes my crime documentaries. ‘Why not?’ I asked, mindful of the fact that I have previously sat face to face with numerous horrific serial killers and murderesses.
‘He’s too dangerous,’ came the reply.
Wow. Given the extremity of violence committed by some of my interviewees, this was an extraordinary statement.
‘So how will I speak to him?’
‘He’ll be in a secure room, behind heavily reinforced glass and monitored by armed guards.’
‘No direct contact at all?’
‘None. The prison has been unwavering about this. It’s for your safety.’
Paris Bennett, 25, killed his four-year-old sister when he was 12 to punish his mother. Piers Morgan met him at a jail in Texas where he is serving 40 years
What kind of person, I pondered, could be deemed such a threat to my life that I wouldn’t even be permitted to occupy the same airspace?
The answer was Paris Bennett, from Abilene, a town in rural Texas. Bennett has an IQ of 141, which qualifies him as a genius. Less than a quarter of one per cent of the world’s population has that level of intelligence.
He is also a psychopath. I don’t mean someone with psychopathic tendencies, I mean someone who has been formally diagnosed as a psychopath by medical experts.
True psychopaths have a chronic mental disorder that manifests itself in a number of personality traits including amoral or antisocial behaviour, extreme egocentricity, a lack of ability to love or establish meaningful relationships, and no sense of guilt, shame or embarrassment.
They are invariably callous, with a complete disregard for the feelings of others, and often use charm and habitual lying to manipulate or coerce others into doing their bidding.
Psychopaths can also be quite terrifyingly violent. Paris Bennett ticks every box.
Twelve years ago, when he was 13, Paris decided he wanted to punish his mother Charity for various irritations he perceived her to have caused him. His first thought was to simply kill her. Then he devised a new, shockingly depraved plan: he would murder his four-year-old sister Ella instead, knowing he would then go to prison so his mother would lose both her children at once, and have to live with the horror. It was a plan he would execute with quite sickening violence.
While Charity was at work in a local bar, Paris persuaded his baby-sitter to go home. He then calmly walked into his sister’s bedroom where she lay sleeping, and began ferociously attacking her. He beat and choked her, before stabbing her with a kitchen knife 17 times.
Paris with his mother Charity meeting Santa Claus when he was child. Paris is serving a 40-year jail term, the maximum sentence available for a juvenile in Texas after killing his four-year-old sister 13 years ago
Paris then called a friend on the phone and chatted perfectly normally to him for six minutes before calling the police, who came and arrested him. The murder achieved its purpose.
As Charity told me when we met: ‘If Paris had killed me as he originally intended, I’d have only suffered for a brief few moments.
‘But by killing Ella instead, he knew he was sentencing me to a lifetime of suffering.’
Paris is serving a 40-year jail term, the maximum sentence available for a juvenile in Texas.
Now 25, he is up for parole in just a few years’ time. And that is where this horrifying story takes an even more sinister and disturbing twist.
Because, astonishingly, Charity has forgiven her son, says she still loves him, and visits him regularly. But she fears that if he is granted parole, he will come and try to torment her all over again.
Charity has forgiven her son, says she still loves him, and visits him regularly. Pictured: Paris aged 10, two years before he murdered his sister Ella (pictured aged two) after convincing his babysitter to go home
And she now has another young child, a six-year-old boy named Phoenix, whose life would become immediately imperilled.
Experts believe Paris remains a very clear and present danger, not least to those closest to him.
This, surely, is the ultimate test of a parent’s love. Could you forgive a child who murdered another of your children? Could you continue to love that child? Could you bear the thought of that child being freed to potentially do it all over again?
As the father of four children, I honestly don’t know the answers to these questions. I’m not sure any parent does until it happens to them. But I was fascinated to speak to Paris and Charity, to try to comprehend the reality of their situation.
I met Charity outside Ferguson Unit, a grim, forbidding state prison in Texas where Paris is being held. She’s an intelligent, personable 45-year-old woman. But her eyes and demeanour suggest an ongoing anxiety that won’t go away – both from the agony of what happened and what may happen in the future.
I asked her what to expect from her son when I went inside.
‘He’s human,’ she replied. ‘He’ll be nice, personable, polite. Paris is very charming when he wants to be. I mean, he’s a psychopath.’
Now 25, he is up for parole in just a few years’ time but experts believe Paris remains a very clear and present danger, not least to those closest to him
I walked into the room where the interview would take place and found a dark, walled cage.
The armed prison guard was firm: ‘You have one hour from the moment you start, not a minute more. I’ll go get Paris now.’
A few seconds later, I saw a slightly built young man walk into the cage wearing a white boiler suit and stride towards me.
He was about 5ft 10in, slim and athletic, with his head shaved bald, a pronounced Adam’s apple, thick black eyebrows, and a large silver chain around his neck.
‘Hello everyone,’ he announced. ‘Since this is going to be done for ITV, would you like me to speak in the Queen’s English?’ He smirked as he said this. My mind raced back to a conversation I had the night before with two of America’s top criminal profilers.
‘Will he try to play me?’ I asked Mark Safarik, a former FBI agent of 30 years.
‘Of course he will,’ replied Mark. ‘For him, it’s a game. He has an hour to get one over you and he’s smart enough to try to do it, and narcissistic enough to think he’s smarter than you.’
Dr Casey Jordan, a specialist in criminal behaviour, added a note of caution: ‘He’s researched you, I guarantee it, and he’ll be sizing you up faster than you’re sizing him up.’
I stared at Paris Bennett, and he stared at me. Then he smirked again. I found him immediately unnerving. As we exchanged small talk while our cameras were set, he spoke in a sharp, articulate manner, but his eyes never left mine.
Unlike every other killer I have met, he exuded supremely arrogant self-confidence.
‘Why are you doing this interview?’ I asked him once we started. ‘To show people that I am not a monster or villain,’ he replied.
‘Can you rationalise or explain what you did to your sister?’
‘I can’t easily explain everything. I think that’s been one of the biggest challenges for other people through the years, because no one likes to be confused. No one likes to be bewildered. We like… easy answers.’
I asked him what caused the fury that drove his murderous conduct. ‘For many years, there was just this hot, flaming ball of wrath in the pit of my stomach and it was directed at my mother. ‘And one of the reasons why I chose to kill my sister and not someone else is because I knew that by doing that I could hurt my mother in the worst possible way, because I had always known, as a child, that the most devastating thing to my mother would be the loss of one of her children, and I found a way to take away both her children in one fell swoop.’
Piers met Paris who was about 5ft 10in, slim and athletic, with his head shaved bald, a pronounced Adam’s apple, thick black eyebrows, and a large silver chain around his neck. ‘Hello everyone,’ he announced. ‘Since this is going to be done for ITV, would you like me to speak in the Queen’s English?’ He smirked as he said this
I felt a chill envelop my body.
To hear him admit so calmly such a despicable thought process was genuinely unsettling.
There are home videos of Paris playing with Ella, in which they appear to be like any other loving older brother and kid sister. Family friends told us he seemed ‘a good, normal brother’.
Paris himself told me: ‘Part of me loved my sister and would have turned the world upside down for her.’ But there was another part of him that was ‘wounded, twisted, dark… the part that had been in pain for so long’.
‘Misery loves company.’
This was like listening to Hannibal Lecter in Silence Of The Lambs – a very smart mind casually tossing out horrifying words.
He insisted: ‘I love her [Ella] with every fibre of my being.’
‘You say that in the present tense but she’s dead because you killed her,’ I responded. ‘Do you understand what love is? Are you capable of it?’
Paris looked momentarily confused. ‘I don’t know how to answer that question. It’s not simple. I can’t just point at something and say, ‘OK, that’s love, I recognise it and feel that.’ ‘
I could tell he had no idea what real love is. Even when I asked if he loved his mother, he couldn’t answer.
As Dr Jordan, watching the interview as it happened on monitors outside, told me later: ‘It’s like asking a colour-blind person to describe the colour red. They can’t do it.
‘He can’t describe love because he can’t feel it.’
As for where the rage against his mother came from, Paris claimed he felt ‘left out’, but Charity disputed this: ‘For the longest time, he was my only child. Life revolved around Paris. He was loved by everybody, I was very present as a mother.’
If he’s not a monster, then what is he?
‘To respond to the question about whether or not I may be a psychopath,’ he said, ‘I want to point out that in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, mental health professionals now favour the idea of a spectrum.
‘Yes, I did commit a monstrous crime, but does one mistake define my entire life and does that one mistake mean I’m at the extreme end of the spectrum? I don’t think it does.’
There are home videos of Paris playing with Ella, in which they appear to be like any other loving older brother and kid sister. Family friends told us he seemed ‘a good, normal brother’. Paris himself told me: ‘Part of me loved my sister and would have turned the world upside down for her.’ But there was another part of him that was ‘wounded, twisted, dark… the part that had been in pain for so long’
I’d say Paris is absolutely at the extreme end of the spectrum, and my experts agreed.
‘The subtext of everything he’s saying is designed for his parole hearing,’ said Dr Jordan.
I asked Charity how she could bear to be near him again after what he did, let alone forgive him and continue to love him.
‘Well, he’s my son,’ she replied. ‘And as a parent, I’ve always believed you give your children unconditional love. He obviously has a mental health issue – he’s a psychopath – but I don’t know how to stop loving my children.’
To my surprise, I suddenly felt a surge of empathy and understanding for her viewpoint.
She’s lost her daughter, and has effectively lost her son, too. Yet he remains alive, and when you meet him, Paris Bennett appears to be a very normal, charming, polite and intelligent young man.
If you didn’t know what he’d done, you’d probably find him very likeable. But I do know what he’s done, and I can’t get out of my head the very real possibility that he may do it to Charity all over again.
‘Experts say he remains highly dangerous.’ I told her. ‘Are you not worried that when he comes out, he may try to come and kill you or Phoenix?’
‘Yes. I think under the right circumstances he would do it again. I’m afraid of Paris still, but it’s possible to love him and forgive him and still be afraid of him.’
What a mind-boggling dilemma.
At one point in the interview, as I pressed him about whether he was playing me to play the parole board, Paris got angry.
He didn’t like being confronted or challenged. The most telling moment for me came when he tried to insist he wasn’t capable of doing such a crime again.
‘The only person I’m dangerous to is myself because the very moment I feel the chains slipping and the bars bending, the very moment I detect that dark part of myself coming back out again, I would remove myself from the equation.’
‘But you accept it might be there?’ I asked.
‘Yes, I do.’
‘By accepting that dark side is still there, you must accept you might potentially still be dangerous. We have to take your word you can control that dark side, and it’s something you’ve not been able to control in the past. You accept that?’
At one point in the interview, as I pressed him about whether he was playing me to play the parole board, Paris got angry. He didn’t like being confronted or challenged. The most telling moment for me came when he tried to insist he wasn’t capable of doing such a crime again
‘I agree with that.’
Then he turned to an unlikely source for support for his argument. ‘Every single person walking around has it in him or her to commit murder. Margaret Atwood once wrote that if we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged.’
Charity had watched the interview, too, and wept through some of it, particularly when Paris was unable to say whether he loved her. ‘There will come a point in time where I will not be able to mother both of my children and when the time comes to make that choice, Phoenix will come first.’
‘Do you have it in you to walk away from Paris?’
‘I think I’m developing a greater ability to do that,’ she replied.
‘He would try to find you.’
‘He could, yes. I would be somewhere as far away as possible because I understand what the risks are.’
Paris says of his mother: ‘It astounds me the fact that she can still love me and care for me and stand by me.’
It will astound viewers, too.
- Psychopath is on ITV1 on Thursday at 9pm.