“We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere”
SERIAL KILLERS CASEBOOK
A serial killer is defined as a person who murders three or more people, over the course of a certain period of time, with an indeterminate amount of time in between each victim. The murders usually follow a pattern, and motives for these crimes can vary, with psychological gratification, sexual intent, thrill seeking, financial gain and revenge often cited as the most common factors. Serial murder is considered a distinct classification, differing from mass murderers, who murder many victims at the same time, to contract killers who murder for financial gain rather than a desire, and spree killers, who can commit several murders during a shorter period of time and in multiple locations. In many important aspects, however, these can also interchange and there is much debate about the specific qualifications for what constitutes a serial killer.
The characteristics of a serial killer can define how and why they commit such crimes. When a person suffers abuse as a child, it can in some cases have a significant effect on subsequent criminality, and is cited as a contributing factor in their crimes. Edmund Kemper suffered an abusive childhood at the hands of his mother, something that shaped his pathology into a deep rooted hatred for women. After murdering young female hitchhikers, the necrophile and cannibalistic Kemper murdered his mother and one of her friends before turning himself in. He would eventually be found sane and stood trial for his crimes. Cannibalism and necrophilia are two of the more deviant acts that some of the most infamous serial killers demonstrate in their crimes, with Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee Cannibal, indulging in both during his murder spree.
Mental illness and psychopathy are often mentioned as possible explanations for the homicidal behaviour of some criminals. Richard Chase, who suffered from schizophrenia, was nicknamed the Vampire of Sacramento after he murdered six people, and drank the blood his victims, believing it was cure his mental illness. The necrophile Chase would often torture animals, and eventually progressed onto to killing people. Sadistic activity towards animals in particular is part of the Macdonald triad, which also includes bed wetting and setting fires as the three predictors of future violent behaviour, although not all serial killer exhibit these. Some will undertake a life-time of petty crime before moving on to more serious crimes that involve murder. Other factors such as biological and sociological and even post traumatic stress suffered by ex-military can also contribute towards the development of a serial killer.
Lust or sex murders are possibly the most common motive for a serial killer, with fantasy playing a large role in the crimes. Ted Bundy was a sex killer, and would often engage in necrophilia with the bodies of the young women he strangled, and by doing so exerted the ultimate control over his victims. Bundy had been jilted by his successful and beautiful girlfriend, and then sought out women who resembled his first love, essentially killing her over and over again. The Original Night Stalker, also known as the Golden State Killer began terrorizing Northern California during the mid-1970’s, and would enter the homes of lone female victims to commit rape. He later became more brazen and began to target couples, subduing the men before attacking the women. He eventually escalated to murder, after he was almost caught when two prospective victims managed to escape, and would bludgeoning his victims to death.
Such lust killers are considered a subgroup of the hedonistic killer, along with thrill killing, who murder for enjoyment and comfort killers, who kill for financial gain and are most often usually women. Compared to their male counterparts, female serial killers are rare, with vastly different motivations for their killing sprees. Elizabeth Bathory was a prolific killer during the 17th century who displayed vampiric qualities and was accused of murdering upwards of 650 people. She allegedly killed her servants in rituals and bathed in their blood in order to achieve eternal youth. Many female killers are often described as “Black Widows”, who use poison to murder either family members, such was the habit of Mary Ann Cotton, or against complete strangers for financial gain or other such motives.
Much like their Doctors of Death counterparts, Angels of Death is a term used to describe female medical practitioners, often nurses, who murder their patients for a variety of reasons. Beverley Allit worked as nurse at a children’s ward in England, where she was responsible for murdering four children, and attempting to murder another three in 1991. She claimed to be suffering from Munchausen syndrome, a disorder in which she would have caused pain to those under her care to attract attention onto herself. Aileen Wournos is an example of a female killer who claimed to have murdered in self-defence. Working as a prostitute, Wournos shot several of her customers at point-blank range after they attempted to rape her, however, this line of defence did not save her from being executed by lethal injection.
Female serial killers are also sometimes part of the team killers classification, where a man and woman, usually a couple, commit murderous crimes together. Definitive examples of this type are the Lonely Hearts Killers, Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, or the Canadian husband and wife killers Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. The female is usually the submissive partner in these types of crimes, with the male holding influence over and directing her actions, but they can sometimes prove to be the instigator. Women such as Rose West, who along with her husband Fred, was very much an equal and responsible for the murders of several young women, including that of Fred’s own daughter. These murders involved bondage and torture and were extremely sadistic, which would place the West’s into a very feared category of killer.
Some of the worst serial murderers fall into this category, one that is considered the most dangerous of sexual predators, those who are sadists who torture their victims before death. The BTK Strangler began terrorizing the city of Wichita in Kansas during the 1970’s, and was responsible for the deaths men, women and children. BTK, which stood for Bind, Torture, Kill, would suffocate his victims over and over, and relished in this sadism and their suffering. Richard Cottingham tortured and murdered several prostitutes in New York during the 1970’s, leaving their mutilated bodies in hotel rooms. Dayton Leroy Rogers also targeted prostitutes, but took them out to the Molalla forest in Oregon, where he indulged in bondage and foot fetishism before torturing and murdering his victims, burying their bodies in the surrounding hillside.
Other serial killers do not attempt to hide their crimes, and revel in the attention such murders generate through the media, and even communicate with the police in an attempt to gain even more satisfaction from their anonymity. The Zodiac killer is a prime example of such a media sensation killer because of the amount of letters he wrote demanding attention and recognition for his crimes. David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam, was another killer who wrote to the press, and although his letters were somewhat rambling and incoherent, he is similar to the perpetrator of the 3-X Murders, who sent equally incomprehensible missives to investigators in an effort to sensationalise his crimes. Such killers can also fall into the category of visionary killer, who can suffer from psychotic breaks from reality, or the mission-orientated killer, those such as the Green River Killer, who wished to clean up the streets of prostitutes.
Much like the female Black Widow killers, there are male serial killers who murder for financial gain. H.H. Holmes, who went by numerous aliases, was one such killer who is suspected of killings 27 people at his Chicago hotel that became known as “Murder Castle”. Holmes was involved in several different crimes, from insurance fraud, to selling human remains on the black market to medical schools. The English doctor John Bodkin Adams was a perfect example of a medical practitioner who administered lethal injections to his patients, after convincing them to sign over their estates and belongings to him in their wills. Some contract killers can exhibit serial killer traits, such as the Iceman, Richard Kuklinski, who killed for money but who also enjoyed and perfected the art of murder, taking great pride in his ability to murder without being caught.
Historical criminology suggests that serial murder has existed throughout history, even before the term serial killer was first used by criminal investigators. Serial murder can be classified into three distinct categories, organized killers, disorganized and those who exhibit both. The crimes of organized killers are premeditated, most often planning their crimes methodically, and usually involve kidnapping their victims and disposing of their bodies leaving little if any links between themselves and the crime. These type of killers are often difficult to apprehend, primarily because they cover their tracks, display above average intelligence and are forensically aware so they leave little in the way of evidence.
Disorganized killers are, in contrast, not well planned and as such these types of criminals tend to leave fingerprints, blood and other evidence at the scene of the crime. They make little attempt to remove evidence or even conceal the body after the murder. Killers who have below average intelligence, alcohol or drugs dependency or some form of mental illness usually fall into the disorganized category. Both of these types of killer can display a mix or organized and disorganized traits, and can sometimes occur when there are multiple offenders, such as a group of killers, or when a lone offender is undergoing a transformation. An example of such a metamorphosis is Joseph James DeAngelo, who progressed from being a serial burglar known as the Visalia Ransacker, to then becoming the East Area Rapist and finally the Original Night Stalker.
A serial killer of both the organized and disorganized dichotomy may also manifest certain behavioural characteristics. The first is known as the modus operandi, which is essentially the method of operation, or the particular method of committing their crimes. The second is the signature, or personal mark or imprint of the killer. A case in point of this would be the Texas Eyeball Killer removing the eyes of his female victims, for his own personal pathological need. While every crime has a modus operandi, not all criminals leave a signature. Despite the long established Hollywood image of serial killers as axe-wielding lunatics, most serial murderers hold down decent jobs, have families, friends and on the surface lead perfectly respectable lives.
In response to the rise of sexual assault and homicide cases in the early 1970’s, the FBI established the Behavioral Science Unit in 1972, and began to investigate, study and analyse serial murderers in an effort to understand the mindset and motivations of such offenders. FBI Supervisory Special Agents John E. Douglas and Robert Ressler, members of the Behavioral Science Unit, began work in 1976 on compiling a centralized database of such serial offenders. They interviewed incarcerated serial killers and questioned them at length about their crimes and the motivations behind their individual pathologies. In 1984, Ted Bundy offered his help to FBI agents in their search for the Green River Killer. During these interviews Bundy offered unique understanding of the potential motives of the killer, as well as a rare insight into his own twisted crimes.
Serial killers can, ultimately, become the most difficult type of murderer to catch, specifically because in most cases, the victim and their killer have no connection. Some of the most notorious of serial killers are those whose crimes have remained unsolved, and the perpetrators have escaped justice, disappearing forever to linger as an enduring mystery. Cases such as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, the Axeman of New Orleans and the Monster of Florence have continued to capture the public’s imagination because they have remained unsolved for many years and are unlikely to gain closure. The Victorian murderer Jack the Ripper is considered to be the most elusive and well-known serial killer, fundamentally because of his gruesome crimes, taunting letters to the press and apparent ability to remain one step ahead of the police despite a lengthy and thorough investigation, all of which has contributed to Jack becoming the most written about serial killer in history.