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Why Do Rich Kids Commit Crimes?

In short: Because they're rich.
(Photo: miroslavmisiura/Shutterstock)

(Photo: miroslavmisiura/Shutterstock)

They called it the “Main Line Takeover Project”—a drug ring operating in schools and colleges up and down a moneyed corridor of the Philadelphia suburbs. A venture no doubt conducted by only the most seasoned and hardened dealers out of West Philly or Camden, New Jersey. Wrong: The Main Line Takeover Project was an inside job. An inside job executed by amateurs in every sense of the word.

They are Timothy C. Brooks (18) and Neil K. Scott (25), prep-school graduates and liberal arts college-dropouts. The pair allegedly enlisted the efforts of nine subsidiary dealers (most of whom are 18 or in their early 20s) to push a variety of drugs on students at five of the area’s most affluent high schools, in addition to Lafayette, Haverford, and Gettysburg Colleges.

Montgomery County authorities seized “eight pounds of marijuana, 23 grams of cocaine, 11 grams of ecstasy, three grams of hash oil, $11,000 in cash, two AR-15 rifles, one handgun, and loads of ammo,” according to The Washington Post. As Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley points out, while the guns are surely cause for concern, “that’s not a national news amount of drugs,” split among 11 dealers.

Studies have found that "chronically bored" individuals are more likely to engage in risky behavior.

So what makes a story like this so interesting? For such a non-newsworthy stash of contraband, the tale has certainly grabbed its fair share of headlines.

“People always seemed fascinated by stories about rich kids,” writes Nancy Jo Sales in The Bling Ring: How a Gang of Fame-Obsessed Teens Ripped Off Hollywood and Shocked the World. “Editors seemed to like such stories, especially if the kids were behaving badly. Readers seemed to love to hate these kids.” Sales is somewhat of an expert on the topic, developing a kind of pseudo-beat on rich kids behaving badly at New York in the late '90s. She profiled the then-hard-partying Hilton sisters for Vanity Fair in 2000, and her 2010 story, “The Suspect Wore Louboutins,” became the book The Bling Ring and was optioned by Sofia Coppola for the 2013 film of the same name—based on the exploits of a real teenage burglary ring that targeted the homes of Hollywood celebrities between October 2008 and August 2009.

Brooks and Scott fit the rich-kids-gone-bad bill to a T. Both graduated from the Haverford School, a tony Main Line institution where a year’s tuition costs upward of $35,000. Brooks is a native of leafy Villanova, Pennsylvania, where the median household income in 2009 was $159,538. He earned a lacrosse scholarship to the University of Richmond, where he planned to study business. So what drew him from the path of seemingly inevitable upper class, suburbanite success? Why, in short, do rich kids like him commit crimes?

A FRIEND OF BROOKS told the Post that the 18-year-old endured a “career-ending” injury to his shoulder during his freshman year at Richmond, which sent him packing for his parents’ home in Villanova. “The shoulder injury put him down the wrong path,” said the friend. “His friends were off at college, and he was chilling at home and got bored. The idle mind is a dangerous one.”

Studies have found that “chronically bored” individuals are more likely to engage in risky behavior. Dr. James Danckert, a neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, examined patients who suffered from traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs, and found they were more likely to engage in risky behavior post-accident: recreational drug use, skydiving, etc. He toldScientific American’s Anna Gosline that a combination of substantial endorphin release and regular ingestion of pain medication during the recovery process “may have literally raised these patients’ threshold for psychological pleasure and reward.” “Now instead of a coffee doing it for you, you need a triple espresso,” Danckert said. “Anything that used to give you pleasure now has to be ramped up in order to succeed.”

Is it possible that prolonged exposure to the highs of affluent adolescence induces a similar effect on young, privileged minds? Perhaps mere exposure is all it takes. A 2012 report in The Journal of Research on Adolescence found that “boys living in the most affluent neighborhoods reported higher delinquency levels” than boys living in middle-class ones. Yet, generally, “family affluence, even at the highest levels, predicted lower problem levels for youth.”

There is also, of course, a romance factor to consider. In her December 1996 story for New York, “Prep School Gangsters,” Sales recounted a night spent among Manhattan’s adolescent “crews”—drug dealing and petty-crime outfits composed of a mix of underprivileged youths from the Outer Boroughs and students at some of the city’s poshest private schools. The motives of poorer crew members were clear: Dealing drugs, especially to rich kids from the Upper East Side with money to burn, can be a lucrative business. It was easy money. But what explained the involvement of kids like “A.Z.,” whose mother was “a high-level executive at one of the biggest companies in the world?” Or “Mr. Steam,” son of a well-known and extremely wealthy Manhattan entrepreneur? “Somehow, we became like movie stars,” Steam explained to Sales. “We’re like gods to kids.”

For sure, there is a kind of sick glamour ascribed to certain modes of criminality and delinquency among the young and affluent—perhaps the same kind of complex that attracts grown men to the lifestyles glorified in Scarface and The Godfather. According to a 2007 study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science: “Early adolescents at both socioeconomic extremes showed admiration for classmates who openly flouted authority. In the suburban context, high peer status was linked with overt displays of low academic effort, disobedience at school, aggressiveness among girls, and substance use among boys.”

Coppola’s fictionalization of the Bling Ring robberies was criticized by celebrity victims for glamorizing criminality—a theme difficult to deny considering her choice to cast a bevy of attractive teens and twenty-somethings for principal roles, dousing them in designer labels and a palpable air of cool.

It’s obvious Brooks and Scott thought they were running a pretty sexy operation. Philadelphia magazine extracted text messages sent between the two from court documents released by Montgomery County officials. A sampling:

Brooks to Scott: “My main line take over project is coming together fast. And I'm telling all my guys I never want there [sic] schools to be dry. Cause I always got pissed as shit when I couldn't find bud. But now that will never happen for the rest of my life. Cause I got u.”
Scott to Brooks: “We will crush it. Once you go tax free it's hard to go back.”

Brooks to Scott: “When you were a senior at Haverford did u ever think that you could pull that”
Scott to Brooks: “Only dreamed of it. There is a much bigger market than just a lb at each of these schools. Stogs alone is a couple a week.” [“Stogs” is Conestoga High School.]

Scott to subsidiary dealer: “You have a thousand dollar bounty on your head, I will find you. Piece of shit, heard you ripped off more people on your campus.”

The preppy kingpins thought they were untouchable. And why would they believe otherwise? Last year, a Texas judge sentenced Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old boy from a wealthy Fort Worth-area family to 10 years’ probation. His crime? Driving under the influence of alcohol, crashing the car, and killing four people in the process. Manslaughter, which is considered a Class 2 felony, typically carries a two- to 20-year sentence in Texas.

The decision “came after a psychologist called by the defense argued that Mr. Couch should not be sent to prison because he suffered from ‘affluenza’—a term that dates at least to the 1980s to describe the psychological problems that can afflict children of privilege,” according to the New York Times. The defense argued that Couch’s judgment was impaired not just by alcohol, but also by his sheltered upbringing. He couldn’t comprehend the consequences of his actions because he had never been in a position that required such self-reflection. And that, apparently, negated any personal accountability.

None of the Bling Ring members served any substantial time in prison either. Rachel Lee and Nick Prugo, considered the ringleaders of the bunch, served only about a year each of multi-year sentences.

Underprivileged delinquents rely on thinly stretched government resources to build their own defenses. Their counterparts at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum are bankrolled by wealthy parents, who can afford to hire the best defense attorneys and the best expert witnesses. And perhaps, for them, the consequences of criminal behavior don’t seem all that harsh: Timothy Brooks was released from jail after his parents posted 10 percent of a $250,000 bail.