Sleepwalking Police Officer Charges Himself With Murder

ErikBrown by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash
“I have the killer and the evidence but I lack the motive. It was I who killed Andre Monet.”
—Comment from Detective Robert Ledru, Sage Journal, Edward Podolsky, 1961

I want you to think deeply about this concept for a second. What are you truly responsible for? As a human being, the idea of responsibility permeates our society.

  • If you look at people’s job titles, they generally explain what they do. It’s their area of responsibility.
  • In a college, everyone has a major, which is their area of study that they’re responsible for concentrating on.
  • The goaltender in various sports doesn’t have the responsibility for scoring points.

In law throughout history, people are generally punished for things that are in their control or influence. In Nissim Taleb’s book “Antifragile” he explains the ancient Romans made engineers sleep under bridges they designed for a time. The thought being they’d pay for shoddy design with their lives. In the end, they’re responsible for the bridge.

It seems obvious on its face. We’re responsible for things we have control or influence over. But what happens with things we don’t have control over? This is where everything gets weird and sensational; it’s what gives screenwriters ideas for interesting movies.

Think of the movie “Fight Club”. Not only does the main character do crazy things he’s not aware of when he’s asleep, but he also develops a whole other personality. This sleeping-alter ego creates an underground mutual combat network which morphs into a revolutionary group desiring to destroy “the system”. Like I said, weird and sensational!

Now, what if I told you a real story of someone who went to sleep and awoke to find he did sensational things? What’s more, he happened to be a police detective. It doesn’t end there either. During a call to investigate a crime he started to suspect himself as the perpetrator. Sensational and weird? Yes, but this isn’t the plot of a movie, it happened.

The case of Detective Robert Ledru is one of these weird examples. In addition, he isn’t the only one. There have been several cases over the years where perpetrators of crimes have or have claimed to be asleep at the time.

A Strange Case Of Somnambulistic Homicide

In the late 1800s, Robert Ledru’s life appeared to be improving. At thirty-five years old he was a successful member of the police department, reaching the level of detective. As you can imagine, this could be a stressful position. In fact, he suffered a nervous breakdown due to the pressure according to Edward Podolsky’s article in the Sage Journal

So, he took a break from work, vacationing at the French seaport of Le Havre. He climbed out of bed one morning feeling totally refreshed after a deep twelve-hour sleep. Although he did find some odd things upon waking up, however, he thought nothing of it and went on with his day.

Suddenly he received a notice from work, a murder had been committed not far from his location. He stopped by the scene and found the local police were baffled because there was no motive. Andre Monet had been shot while swimming at night in the ocean, but the circumstances just didn’t add up.

  • Monet was not rich and had no enemies, his clothes were neatly piled up on the beach, and nothing was taken.
  • While there were footprints for the murderer, it appeared the perpetrator was in socks, so they didn’t help.
  • The bullets appeared to be from a Luger, a very common gun at the time. Even the police carried them.

As Ledru studied the footprints he suddenly started feeling sick. He noticed one of the footprints appeared odd — almost like a toe was missing from one foot. Ledru was missing a toe as well. The odd thing he woke up to the night before: his socks were wet.

In front of the stunning local police, Ledru made a cast of his own feet and compared them to the footprints — exact match. The detective also did a primitive ballistic test on his own gun and the bullets were exactly the same. But he knew they would be, around was missing from his gun.

Ledru gathered the evidence and brought it to work. His boss at first refused to believe it, but the evidence was just too compelling. Robert Ledru had killed Andre Monet in his sleep, with a Luger on the beach — the oddest game of Clue ever played. Sensational? Yes, but not completely odd, as you’ll see.

Other Cases Of Somnambulistic Homicide
National Police Gazette 1846 [Public Domain]

In an interview with the Washington Post, Dr. William H. Reid of the Nebraska Psychiatric Institute says sleepwalking has a major myth attached to it. Namely, people don’t walk around like zombies when they sleepwalk. He tells the tale of patients driving, eating, and having conversations in their sleep.

Second, Reid also says stress can bring on sleepwalking as well. So, it sounds like Ledru’s late-night walk with his Luger after his nervous breakdown fits well within the realm of sleepwalking. However, this isn’t an isolated case.

According to Karen Abbot’s article in the Smithsonian, about forty years before, a trial in America caused a sensation. On an October day in 1845, Mary Ann Bickford’s body was found in a house of “ill repute”. Her bed had been set on fire, her head nearly decapitated from her body, and a bloody razor lay on the floor.

Albert Tirrell had been seen with the woman earlier and was known to be in a relationship with her, disappearing after her death. He fled the area and hid with relatives a few towns over. Eventually, he moved to Canada for a bit and tried to head to England. Tirrell was captured aboard a boat and returned to Boston. After his return, he hired the best lawyer he could find to defend him.

Lawyer and senator Rufus Choate were known as a legal phenom in his day. He had been trained by the famous Daniel Webster. Webster’s career was so storied, he was made a character in a piece of fiction where he defended a man in court against a contract he signed with the devil. Choate’s planned defense for his client might have been as sensational as Webster’s fictional tale. Tirrell committed the crime while he slept.

Despite endless circumstantial evidence against Tirrell, Choate set up a line of witnesses who said they saw the defendant sleepwalk or behave in a strangely dream-like state. After a six hour-long final speech, Choate blamed the murder on “somnambulism” and said there was no motive.

Tirell was acquitted to a standing ovation by observers in the courtroom. As a result, he later asked Choate for half his money back because the jury had been so easy to persuade.

Fast forward 163 years to 2008 and another high-profile example of somnambulistic homicide occurred in England. According to Daniel Bennett in Science Focus Magazine, an older man strangled his wife while they were camping. Brian Thomas claimed he had a nightmare where someone was attacking his wife. He attempted to strangle the man, eventually waking to find his hands around his wife’s neck.

Thomas was examined in prison by Dr. Chris Idzikowski, the director of the Edinburgh Sleep Centre. The doctor said according to his data it was plausible the defendant suffered from conditions that could cause sleepwalking. The defense also brought in witnesses confirming Thomas had sleepwalked in the past and he was acquitted.

With Ledru included, these are not the only three examples of sleepwalking murder cases. If you put it in Google, you come up with endless others — some possibly genuine, others court tactics. But how does it happen?

The Science Behind It

In his article, Bennet interviews Dr. Michel Cramer Bornemann, at the Minnesota Sleep Institute. He says using sleepwalking as a court defense has become more common in the US. In fact, so much so Bornemann’s institute set up a sleep forensics lab in order to be a better aid in legal matters.

The doctor says there are two different forms of sleep: REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM sleep. During the REM phase when we dream, the brain stem usually paralyzes the body, so you don’t act them out. However, sleepwalkers have a “switching error”. They can experience dreams, but their muscles can still move and react. Violence is also a possibility according to Bornemann.

“Brain structures like the hypothalamus that regulate sleep sit next to the mid-brain where early evolved behaviors lie. So when this electrical impulse is sparked it also wakes up this part of the brain, leaving the moral areas, like the frontal cortex, asleep. This leaves nothing to inhibit your rage reaction while you’re sleepwalking.”
MRI Scan Of The Brain Hypothalamus In Red — Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Ledru’s Fate And Our Idea Of Responsibility

Detective Ledru was monitored by police doctors who watched him sleep according to Leslie Watkin’s book “The Sleepwalk Killers”. During one of these nights, they tested him by leaving a gun with blanks in it by his bed.

Ledru got up in the middle of a random night, fired one shot at a doctor, and went back to bed as nothing happened. After this, he was forced to retire and monitored for the rest of his life. As in the detective’s case, there are also considerations for instances like these.

Lucy Adam’s article in the BBC introduces the legal defense of “automatism”. It means not having a guilty mind and can be used in sleepwalking cases or defenses based on insanity. Technically, a person can’t be held responsible for their actions if they have no conscious knowledge of them.

So, even though responsibility permeates our society, in this one strange instance it lapses. In other words, Ed Norton could have likely been acquitted of his early actions in Fight Club. Although Robert Ledru may not have been able to live a normal life, he technically wasn’t considered a murderer either. Likely other real-life cases will follow this plotline in the future as well.

What are you truly responsible for? According to the law, only things you’re consciously aware of.

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Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information. I try and work a combination of history and philosophy into modern day life. I can be interesting and awful at the same, but you'll generally learn something worthwhile when you donate some of your time to read my work.

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