DETROIT - The former sailor suspected of killing prostitutes in ports around the world was abused by his father and traumatized by the death of an infant brother, his family says.
John Eric Armstrong was charged last week with five murders in the Detroit area. Authorities worldwide are trying to match his account of at least 11 other slayings while he was serving on the Navy aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, where shipmates knew him as ''Opie.''
Relatives find it difficult to imagine how a quiet child who earned decent grades, played Nintendo and enjoyed fishing and baseball could emerge as a suspected serial killer.
''The Eric we raised could not have done these things,'' his mother, Linda Pringle, said in Sunday's Detroit News. ''This is just not the person we know. ... We just did the best we could.''
''We're having a real problem reconciling all of this,'' said his stepfather, Ron Pringle.
In youth, Armstrong, now 26, talked of becoming a police officer. He preferred to be called Eric - not John, the name of the father who his mother said abused the boy before walking away from the family.
Armstrong's father ''was abusive to me as well - and Eric saw that,'' said Linda Pringle, a 49-year-old teacher's assistant in North Carolina.
Even so, family members remember Armstrong as a loving son who only got counseling for a brief time after his young brother Mikey died.
At age 5, Armstrong rode his bike into speeding traffic. ''He said he wanted to be with his baby brother,'' his mother said.
After high school, he worked for several months at a grocery store, then enlisted in the Navy in 1992 and left the next year.
On the Nimitz, he worked as a barber and took required safety education classes, including one that warned against soliciting prostitutes. Aboard the Nimitz, he met Katie Rednoske, a Dearborn High graduate who in 1998 became Armstrong's wife. She's now pregnant with their second child.
''Everyone on the ship's talking about it,'' said Petty Officer Stephen Olson, who arrived after Armstrong was discharged. ''For God's sake, he was a barber.''
Armstrong had no charges of misconduct and got two good-conduct medals, military personnel records show. He was designated a third-class petty officer in 1995, a rank he had at his discharge in 1999.
After Armstrong left the Navy, he applied for a job with the Virginia State Police and got far enough in the process that the agency called a neighbor as a reference, the News said.
On April 10, investigators found the bodies of three strangled prostitutes in a railroad yard in southwest Detroit. Police arrested Armstrong two days later and charged him in five deaths. He is suspected of 11 other slayings: three in the Seattle area, two in Hawaii, two in Hong Kong and one each in North Carolina, Virginia, Thailand and Singapore.