His death in a fiery collision this month on an Ohio highway was an apocalyptic end for Kyle Winston Sherrill, his life wracked by a silent torment that turned a college graduate with an IQ of 134 into a pedophile who roamed the country looking for children to rape.
Sherrill, 54, spent 21 years in Maryland prisons for child sex offenses. But since being released from prison two years ago, he had tried to live the straight life, keeping his past as a serial child molester a deep secret.
He joined and made friends in the Maryland chapter of Mensa, the society for the super-intelligent. He worked at a McDonald's in Baltimore. He refused to drink or even speed in his car.
"He was trying to do everything right," said Kevin Davis, the 20-year-old son of an Ellicott City couple who befriended Sherrill through a Mensa prison program more than a decade ago. "It's hard to believe what he really was."
Sherrill had told the Davises, as well as others in Mensa, that he served his prison time for the armed robbery of gas stations. He told no one of his sex crimes in the late 1960s, when he abducted children in Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Texas and Tennessee.
"He was very quiet anyway, the kind of person you'd have to carry the conversation with," Kevin Davis said. "You could get him to talk about cars once in a while, that was about it."
Friends said Sherrill took pleasure in his hobbies, such as tinkering with a used IBM-clone computer he bought and competing at Games Night, one of the many social activities offered by the Maryland Mensa group.
Then, in the middle of June, Sherrill seemed to snap almost overnight.
It began on June 19, when he allegedly molested the 5-year-old child of a couple he was living with in Catonsville. Police and social services officials were notified, but no charges were filed; Sherrill denied the incident, and there were no witnesses.
Two days later Sherrill left the state, a violation of his probation. The Davis household, where his mail was delivered, got an overdraw notice from Sherrill's bank, showing he had withdrawn all his money and bounced several checks.
"We never saw him after that," Kevin Davis said. "It was weird because he had been trying so hard. It was like once he made his first slip, he just didn't care anymore."
Within a week Sherrill became the prime suspect in the kidnappings of a 6-year-old girl in Columbus, Ohio, and a 5-year-old girl in Schaumburg, Ill. In the latter incident, a witness said the abductor was disguised by a wig.
Described as a 'predator'
Authorities issued a nationwide alert, describing Sherrill as a "predator" and emphasizing that his soft-spoken nature, easy manner and high IQ were all factors he used to lure children -- typically between age 3 and 8 -- into his car.
When he died July 6 in the head-on crash with a tractor-trailer, he was trying to flee from an Ohio patrolman.
"It's hard to say what was going through his mind at the end," said Sgt. John Born of the Ohio State Highway Patrol. "He had driven in the wrong lane dodging cars for about a mile and a half, and there were some skid marks seeming to indicate evasive maneuvers. But we may never know."
Sherrill was a former Army lieutenant who graduated with an anthropology degree from the University of Texas at Austin,
His pedophilia will remain a mystery to his family. "I've thought and thought for many years about what could have made him the way he was," said his 49-year-old sister, Linda Sherrill, who still lives in his native Dallas. "And I come up with no explanation at all. I don't think he can really be understood."
In his conversations with prison counselors, Sherrill said he was never sexually abused as a child, a corrections official said. But he said he nevertheless felt "emotionally neglected" growing up and began noticing when he was a teen-ager that he was sexually attracted to children, the official said.
Dr. Fred S. Berlin, director of the National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma in Baltimore, said pedophilia isn't a chosen personality trait.
Like an alcoholic's craving
"In all pedophiles, the behavior is a manifestation," Dr. Berlin said. "These are people afflicted with a psychiatric disorder.
"They have a strong attraction toward kids, and like an alcoholic, there's a strong craving there that they often can't control," Dr. Berlin said. "If you give in to the craving, even after having resisted it for a long period of time, the problems tend to start all over again."
Sherrill grew up in an apparently stable household of four, his father a Dallas lawyer and his mother a legal secretary in her husband's office. Although Sherrill was "moody" as a child and had "a definite lack of interpersonal relationship skills," he belonged to the Boy Scouts and had a few friends around the neighborhood, his sister recalled.
As he entered adolescence, he became rebellious toward his parents and did very poorly in school, Ms. Sherrill said. That continued even after he went off to college, as he refused to honor his father's wishes that he study to become a lawyer.
"My brother wanted to study anthropology instead. He was very interested in Indian tribes, and in excavations and ruins. Whenever we took a vacation trip out West he wanted to stop at all the archaeological sites. He collected a whole library of books on the subject," Ms. Sherrill said.
Sherrill earned his degree in anthropology in 1961 and for the next eight years he had little contact with his family.
He served in the Army, worked a series of odd jobs, spent a summer backpacking around Colorado and Wyoming, and eventually opened a coffeehouse in Richmond, Va., his sister said.
Something terribly wrong
"He seemed happy then. He learned to play the guitar, and he learned to play it very well. He sketched during that time. He had his hobbies of bowling and playing pool, which he did very well. Anything which required a high degree of concentration, he seemed to excel at," Ms. Sherrill said.
But after a few years, the coffeehouse failed. Sometime in the late 1960s, Sherrill moved to Montgomery County and got a job in the office of a construction firm.
Sometime later, his family -- as well as the police and FBI -- learned there was something terribly wrong with him.
Sherrill was arrested for the first time in May 1970 and charged with the sexual assault of a 6-year-old girl abducted from the grand opening of a Prince George's County department store six months earlier. He was 31 at the time.
Police said he had read of the grand opening in the newspaper and, aware that there would be a large crowd there, staked out an area of the store waiting for a child to wander off by herself.
Detectives spoke to him about the crime and he told them it wasn't the first time he'd abducted a child.
Eventually, he admitted and was charged with abducting or molesting children in Milton, Mass., Chattanooga, Tenn., and two New York counties.
He also was charged with sexual assaults in Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties. In Amherst, N.Y., he was charged with attempted murder for throwing a child from a small bridge.
He told of other abductions in Texas, Alabama and New Jersey.
Sentenced to 50 years
"From what I understand, he told the police at that time that he was glad they caught him," his sister recalled.
"My parents were very much in shock. They got excellent lawyers and when they could, they went up there [to Maryland]," Ms. Sherrill said.
"It was very hard, and very embarrassing for them. They were fine people, very hard-working, very honest, and extremely sensitive to other people's feelings."
Sherrill was eventually sentenced to 50 years in state prison for the three Maryland crimes. In light of the heavy sentence, charges in the other states were dropped to spare the victims the stress of testifying about their molestations.
But the Montgomery County conviction was overturned in 1979 by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, thereby reducing his sentence to 30 years.
Ms. Sherrill said she went to visit her brother in prison -- which turned out to be the last time she ever saw him -- about 20 years ago.
"He seemed kind of quiet as I remember it," she said. "It seems to me he continued to believe that he had done nothing wrong. He was very displeased with the attorneys, saying they should have been pursuing his case more vigorously."
Sherrill's father died in 1974 of a heart attack and his mother died seven years later. They never got over their guilt feelings about their son, Ms. Sherrill said.
"They wondered if there was anything they possibly could have done for him. Every parent in a situation like that will blame themselves. But it just wasn't their fault," said Ms. Sherrill, who works as a Spanish interpreter and translator.
At one point in his long prison term, Sherrill was placed in the Patuxent Institution to get special counseling for his problem. But after seven years there, he voluntarily took himself out of treatment and was moved to another prison, corrections officials said.
As a result, he was told by the parole commission that he would never be paroled since he refused to accept psychiatric counseling, corrections officials said. When he finally left prison in July 1991, it was under the terms of mandatory release, meaning that the state could no longer hold him because he had earned time off his sentence for good behavior.
Treating a pedophile
Successful treatment of a pedophile often depends on the subject's willingness to admit he has a problem, said Dr. Berlin, of the sexual trauma institute.
"It's like trying to treat an alcoholic who denies having a drinking problem," Dr. Berlin said. "Most cases involve people who are ego dystonic, meaning their intellect and conscience says no, but they have to struggle because of the intensity of the urges. If they could have [the urges] surgically removed, they would, so they could be like the rest of us."
The other variety of pedophiles, which seemed to have applied to Sherrill, is ego syntonic. That category involves people who feel their urges are not wrong and that sexual feelings toward children should be viewed as pleasant, Dr. Berlin said.
Sherrill's sister said she feels there are many sad elements to her brother's story, but no hardship could ever justify the crimes he committed.
"It's really sad, the way he was. But at the same time, I can't feel too sad because there's so many little children out there who must have just been terrified and their parents worried sick," she said.
"It was horrible. I'm glad it's finally stopped."