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- Serial Murder
- Myths of Serial Murders
- An Operationalized Definition of Serial Murder and the San Antonio Symposium
- Serial Murderers as Psychopaths
- Serial Murder Profiling Strategies
- Serial Murder Signatures and Paraphilia
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), serial murder is defined as the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events. These murders may occur over a period of days, weeks, months, or even years. This is in contrast to mass murder where, according to the FBI, four or more persons are killed at one time. In the United States, mass murders occur approximately every 10–14 days, which include both public killings and domestic mass killings. Serial murder, however, is usually not as noticeable at the outset but becomes more visible to the public as news of bodies being found are reported by the media.
Serial murder has been documented in the United States since the early 1800s. However, the incidence and prevalence of serial murder as a specific type of homicide did not come to public awareness until the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Robert Ressler, an FBI agent, was collecting data on multiple murders. Although not a scientific researcher, Ressler was a passionate investigator with a belief that he was amassing data related to cases of murder that were linked with distinct patterns of killing. Serial murder is a relatively rare phenomenon in comparison to other forms of homicide. On average, American serial killers have 10–13 victims that account for 250–400 victims per year in a country with over 300 million residents. The fact that many are sexual predators who often kill strangers such as prostitutes, college students, children, or the elderly generates fear in any community, regardless of the frequency. To fuel the fear and intrigue of such cases, many of these killers are given monikers such as the Boston Strangler, The 44. Caliber Killer, Angel of Death, Night Stalker, and Killer Clown.
In 1984, spurred by several highly publicized cases of serial murder, the FBI petitioned the US Senate for funds to establish the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP). By the mid-1980s, the FBI had established VICAP at its Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, Virginia. Currently, the program is designed to collect detailed information on homicides from cities throughout the United States. Investigators such as former FBI agents Robert Ressler, John Douglas, and Roy Hazelwood, all pioneers in the investigation and classification of serial killers and sexual predators, interviewed sundry infamous serial killers who sexually preyed upon prostitutes, female college students, and elderly women. Ressler and colleagues published their findings in Sexual Homicide (1988), which for many years was a standard reference text for this form of multiple murders. In addition, the US government continues to develop programs such as the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime to focus specifically on repetitive offenders, including serial murderers.
Myths of Serial Killings
Many myths, fueled by mass media, surround the phenomenon of serial murders including that the killers are intelligent, insane White males who are lust killers with dozens of victims. They act alone as they travel across the United States stabbing, strangling, and beating young women to death. Sexually abused as children, these defective predators cannot stop killing even if they want to and secretly hope that someone will catch them. The reality is quite different. Approximately 20% of offenders are African American. Between the years 2004 and 2011, approximately 51% of all American serial killers were African Americans. When male offenders who kill alone are considered, the number rises to 56%. This dramatic change can be attributed to the redefining of serial murder by the FBI as involving two or more victims. Of all serial killers, 16% are female and only 2–4% are legally insane. Some cases of serial murder are far more instrumental (i.e., killing for money) than expressive (i.e., killing for sexual purposes); most kill under 10 victims; 25% have one or more accomplices; and some, especially women, use poisons and/or guns to kill. Most serial offenders are of average intelligence, stay in a local area to commit their murder series, and are not trying to be apprehended. Some killers take months or years before they kill again and are very much in control of when and where they will kill. Others can be extremely impulsive and kill spontaneously. Although some offenders have been sexually abused, far more are found with histories of severe neglect, abandonment, and rejection by significant others.
Consider the following real cases of American serial killers in the United States, many of whom do not fit the typical stereotypes purported by the media and immortalized by Hollywood:
- A hospital orderly suffocates over 50 male patients.
- A married woman kills five of her babies at birth and hides them in a closet.
- Two Black men randomly shoot and kill several people over a period of several months.
- An abortion doctor who catered to minorities, immigrants, and poor women, was charged with eight counts of murder in the deaths of a patient and seven babies who were born alive and then killed with scissors.
- A man who had been married for 25 years and held the same job for 30 years is also secretly a necrophile who is convicted of killing 48 prostitutes and then mutilating and having sex with the corpses, which he then buried in shallow graves.
- A White male stabs 20 men, most of them Black, as he travels across several states, killing five of them.
- A Native American who engages in civil war reenactments travels around the United States and kills 35+ White female college students.
- A nurse kills patients using prescription medications.
- Two elderly women befriend homeless men. After manipulating them into taking out life insurance policies and designating the women as beneficiaries, they care for the men for 2 years until the policies are in full force, then run them over with their car and collect the insurance money.
- A man lures female drug addicts and prostitutes to his home where he sexually assaults and murders 14 of them. The women were found buried in his back yard and in different places in his house.
An Operationalized Definition of Serial Murder and the San Antonio Symposium
In 2005, the FBI organized an international Symposium in San Antonio, Texas. Invited were 150 homicide investigators, forensic psychologists, forensic psychiatrists, and criminal psychologists. Their task was to define the phenomenon of serial murder in a uniform and cogent way that would dispel the various myths generated by the media. These myths continue despite data indicating that serial killers are neither all White males who kill for sex, nor all dysfunctional loners and compulsive killers who are insane or simply evil. The Symposium identified several primary motivations for serial murder including anger, criminal enterprise, financial gain, ideology, power, thrill, psychosis, and sex and concluded that no single identifiable cause or factor creates a serial killer. Multiple factors contribute to the development of serial murder, especially the offender’s choice to engage in multiple homicides. These conclusions helped the members of the Symposium create an operationalized definition of serial murder. Specific factors were included in the new definition: each case must have one or more offenders and two or more murdered victims; they must occur in separate events at different times; and the time period between murders will separate serial murder from mass murder. As a result, a new definition of serial murder emerged: the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.
Serial Killers as Psychopaths
Most serial killers display an array of personality disorders and psychopathology, but very few are legally insane. Most people consider those who kill at will not to be of sound mind and therefore insane. However, psychopathology identifies persons such as serial killers who display a spectrum of issues related to an inability to emotionally attach to others, have little or no conscience, display little or no remorse, and are characterized by an indifference to the suffering of others. Other characteristics include glibness/superficial charm; a grandiose sense of self-worth/narcissism; pathological lying; conning, manipulative behavior; lack of remorse or guilt; shallow affect; callousness/ lack of empathy; failure to accept responsibility for actions; need for stimulation/proneness to boredom; parasitic lifestyle; poor behavioral controls; early behavioral problems; lack of realistic, long-term goals; impulsivity; irresponsibility; and criminal versatility.
Serial killers display these characteristics and many more, depending upon their level of psychological development. Consider serial killers to be on a continuum of pathological development. Many are of average intelligence, have long histories of criminal behavior, are impulsive and angry, fail to learn from their mistakes, and yet may have attachments to their mothers or other persons. Seldom do any serial killers have healthy attachments to their fathers, the reasons being divorce, abandonment, and rejection. When fathers are in the home, there is usually a history of violence, sexual abuse, neglect, and/or emotional estrangement.
The Trauma-Control Model outlines the cyclical nature of serial murderers developing at an early stage of life. Biologically, some persons are predisposed to violence and some predispositions can be exacerbated by childhood trauma. Once the cycle begins, the child develops feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem that lead to fantasy development. Initially, these fantasies can serve as a refuge from physical and emotional abuse, but over time they evolve into fantasies of sexual acts, often violent. Most persons who experience childhood trauma find ways that are not violent to cope with these stressors. Serial killers develop a plethora of behaviors and fantasies that end in the suffering and death of others.
For some, childhood can be so traumatic that the child can experience psychological breaks with reality, or dissociation. For others, fantasies of control progress into violent fantasies that are often influenced by facilitators such as drugs, alcohol, obscene material, erotica, and pornography. Often these fantasies are sexualized, involving paraphilic behaviors that may include the suffering and sexual degradation of others. In serial murder, each homicide committed by the offender is followed by events that reinforce the desire/compulsion to kill. Usually, these events can be traced to loss, rejection, and/or abandonment.
Other serial killers are far more advanced in their psychopathology. They do not have long histories of criminal behavior or at least have avoided detection. They may be above average intelligence and have developed social skills that help them blend into their environment. They are social chameleons with an uncanny knack of blending into their surroundings. They are skilled at lying, manipulating others, and gratifying themselves. Psychopaths are generally viewed as aggressive, insensitive, charismatic, irresponsible, intelligent, dangerous, hedonistic, narcissistic, and antisocial. The foundation for the development of psychopathology is control and power over others. One of the hallmarks of real psychopaths is their lack of empathy (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Hickey’s trauma-control model for serial murder. (Predispositional factors and facilitators may or may not influence the serial killing process.)
Healthy persons generally are not interested in controlling others while psychopaths live to control others. Indeed, they need others to gratify their personal wants and needs. Psychopaths are perceived as exceptional manipulators capable of feigning emotions in order to carry out their personal agendas. Without remorse for the suffering of their victims, they are adept at rationalization, projection, and other psychological defense mechanisms. Although most serial killers are psychopaths or at least exhibit psychopathic characteristics, the majority of criminal psychopaths are nonviolent persons. Indeed, the majority of criminal psychopaths are white-collar criminals. They manipulate others for financial gain. Bernard Madoff is a good example of a white-collar psychopath. He displayed no propensity for killing, but had no problem creating a Ponzi scheme that bilked hundreds of people and organizations of over $60 billion. In psychology, the term semantic aphasia is used to describe persons such as psychopaths who do not feel bad about harming other people. The expression ‘they know the words to the song but do not feel the music,’ is appropriate for psychopaths. Serial killers usually possess such psychopathic characteristics, which, in turn, help them in carrying out their murders.
Serial Murder Profiling Strategies
Considered for many years to be ‘junk science’ without credible scientific application, it was not until recently that profiling was vetted with scientific rigor. In retrospect, profiling in its infancy had little scientific merit. Indeed, neither the American Psychological Association nor its British counterpart has set forth specifications for psychological practitioners who engage in profiling. Some researchers today are still not convinced that profiling has scientific merit. Verde and Nurra posit that the practice of psychological profiling is in essence neither an inductive nor a deductive venture, but rather a process of abduction wherein one can only hope to generate particular possibilities between pieces of fact as opposed to the causal rules or exact results often contrived by fictitious profilers such as Sherlock Holmes. These researchers hold that the profiles generated from multiple abductions become increasingly less definitive and as such refer to the generation of psychological profiles as less of a scientific endeavor and more of an art.
Devery takes a more negative view of the utility of past and current profiling practices. He argues that a dearth of evidence exists in supporting the application of profiling. He states that no support can be found where profiles have been of notable merit in cracking cases of serial murder or rape. He further notes instances where profiles have proven inaccurate and suggests that profiles can actually hinder investigations and even condemn the innocent. He concludes that if ever profiles are used, they should be done so with the utmost care. Others like Schlesinger see utility in profiling but argue that a profiler cannot hope to identify an offender and that profiles can be useful only in honing in on a particular type of offender.
Yet, several researchers find considerable utility in profiling cases of serial murder. Instances of serial murder have influenced the development of numerous approaches in profiling that identify salient factors such as psychosocial, behavioral, and physical characteristics of offenders, victims, crime scenes, and modus operandi (MO). Kocsis suggests that much of the empirical conjecture regarding criminal profiling is the result of what is described as the ‘nomenclature illusion’ in which the production of superfluous terms and distinctions leads to misperceptions that hinder the scientific examination of the practice of profiling. However, Alison et al. advocate increased classification of the various contributions that are encompassed under the heading of profiling. They support the utility of the term ‘behavioral investigative advice’ and suggest that this approach should encompass the practices of (1) suspect prioritization, (2) linking crimes and crime scenes, (3) geographic profiling, (4) the interviewing process, and (5) risk assessment of offenders in clinical settings.
Some of these forms of profiling techniques include
- Offender–victim profiling – Law enforcement agencies collect information, often gathered from previous investigations and formed into general descriptions of persons most likely to commit or be associated with certain types of criminal behavior as well as the psychosocial and behavioral characteristics of their victims. In similar recognition of the difficulty with which profiles are generated, Canter attempts to illustrate this artistic procedure through what he refers to as ‘profiling equations.’ He notes that in such nonmathematical linear equations, factual information gathered from the crime allows for inferences on the part of the profiler regarding attributes befitting the offender. According to Canter, these inferences can result in the identification of several conclusions concerning the offender and the manner in which he/she offends that are meant to aid criminal investigations; for example, in examining the behavioral changes exhibited by serial murderers across their first, second, and third homicides.
Sorochinski and Salfati discovered that offenders likely experiment with the manner in which they carry out their crimes. They differentiated planning behaviors into pre/post designations, wounding behaviors as having either a goal or process orientation, and offender–victim behaviors as separated by the victim being viewed by the offender as a ‘vehicle’ or as an ‘object.’ They noted that the highest degree of variation appeared in the commission of the second offense, a finding they found as being consistent with prior research in its indication of attempts at experimentation on the part of the offenders. Wounding behaviors were found to be the most varied of the classifications. The lesser degree of variation found in the styles of interaction between offender and victim may provide useful information to profilers.
- Equivocal death profiling – Also referred to as psychological autopsy, investigators gather and use information to explain personal motivations of a person(s) engaged in suicide pacts or deaths where motivations and/or reasons are difficult to determine.
- Psychological profiling – Investigators examine crime scene evidence to determine personality types of those committing the crimes. The purpose is to provide direction to investigators as they develop leads in cases.
- Crime scene profiling (or criminal investigation analysis) – It originates from the FBI model at the Behavioral Science Unit. Investigators evaluate descriptions of crime scenes, physical evidence, and criminal behavior before, during, and after the criminal activity, including victim data.
- DNA profiling – Murder cases are sometimes solved using improved techniques in DNA profiling or genetic science. This involves matching DNA from crime scenes to victims and offenders in efforts to identify perpetrators involved in specific crimes.
- Geographical profiling – Also known as spatial mapping, this approach combines geography and environmental criminology in connecting crime scenes to offender habitats and locations they use to prey upon victims.
- Paraphilia profiling – Criminal paraphilia, or sexual gratification using fantasy and/or illegal sexual activity, involves the identification of various forms of paraphilia used by sexual offenders or sexual predators. This involves understanding paraphilia and the role of relational paraphilic attachment (RPA) and how sex offenders attach themselves through fantasy and behavior with their victims. This may include the use of specific language, behaviors, physical objects, sounds, smells, voices, and many others that are particular to the offender such as the use of specific recording devices, ligatures, victims, photographs, and weapons that aid in fulfilling the fantasies of the offender(s).
Serial Murder Signatures and Paraphilia
Serial killers, especially those who are sexual predators, will have distinctive fantasy-driven behaviors that make the crime and the offender(s) unique. Many of these fantasy-driven behaviors are rooted in paraphilia or the quest for sexual gratification through unusual acts and imagery. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth edition (DSM-IV), published by the American Psychiatric Association, many of the terms listed describe various forms of paraphilia. The DSMIV describes three general classifications of paraphilia:
- Preference for the use of a nonhuman object for sexual arousal.
- Repetitive sexual activity with humans that involves real or simulated suffering or humiliation.
- Repetitive sexual activity with nonconsenting partners.
There are many documented paraphilia, some more common than others. These include fetishes, voyeurism, exhibitionism, frotteurism, sadomasochism, animal torture, necrophilia, pedophilia, and many others. Serial killers who are sexual predators experiment with a variety of paraphilia starting with less intrusive forms such as voyeurism and exhibitionism to more aggressive forms such as lust murder, pyromania, and necrosadistic murders. The following ‘attack’ paraphilia are common to sexual predators who commit serial murder:
- Amokoscisia – arousal or sexual frenzy with desire to slash or mutilate women
- Anophelorastia – arousal from defiling or ravaging a partner
- Anthropophagolagnia – rape with cannibalism
- Biastophilia – those preferring to violently rape their victims; also called raptophilia
- Dippoldism – sexual arousal from abusing children
- Necrophilia – sex acts with corpses
- Sadism – empowerment and arousal derived from injuring others; often associated with other attack paraphilia
Crime scenes created by sexual predators who become serial killers usually leave signatures or personal expressions or markings of the offender that reflect fantasy development. These may include verbal and/or physical acts. Sometimes referred to as calling cards or trademarks, the signature is not required to commit the crime but rather to fulfill the fantasy of the killer. Sometimes the MO used by the killer to commit his murders becomes part of his signature. For example, sexual predators who are serial killers develop a pattern of stalking behaviors that may be sexualized as the behaviors are carried out. Cary Stayner, the Yosemite Park killer, murdered some of his victims by decapitating them. In this case, the method of killing was also an expression of his paraphilic fantasies, including forested locations where he preferred to kill his victims. Thus, his method of killing provided him sexual gratification and in turn his MO became his signature. These signatures, or paraphilic footprints, are extensions of an offender’s RPA to his victim and aid the offender in actualizing his fantasies.
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- Canter DV (2000) Offender profiling and criminal differentiation. Legal and Criminological Psychology 5: 23–46.
- Canter DV (2011) Resolving the offender ‘profiling equations’ and the emergence of an investigative psychology. Current Directions in Psychological Science 20(1): 5–10.
- Cusator J (2009) Paraphilic Behavior & the Use of Facilitators in a Serial Murderer Population. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. California School of Forensic Studies, Alliant International University.
- DeFronzo J, Ditta A, Hannon L, and Prochnow J (2007) Male serial homicide: The influence of cultural and structural variables. Homicide Studies 11(1): 3–14.
- Devery C (2010) Criminal profiling and criminal investigation. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26(4): 393–409.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (2005) Serial Murder, Multidisciplinary Perspectives for Investigators. Washington, DC: Behavioral Science Unit, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, United States Department of Justice.
- Hazelwood RR and Warren JI (2004) (Erratum) Linkage analysis: Modus operandi, ritual, and signature in serial sexual crime. Aggression and Violent Behavior 9: 307–318.
- Hickey E (2010a) Serial Murderers and Their Victims, 5th edn. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Hickey E (2010b) “Serial Murder,” The Encyclopedia of Victimology and Crime Prevention. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Kocsis RN (2006) Criminal Profiling: Principles and Practices. New York: Humana Press/Springer.
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- Purcell C and Arrigo BA (2006) The Psychology of Lust Murder: Paraphilia, Sexual Killing, and Serial Homicide. San Diego, CA: Elsevier/Academic Press.
- Schlesinger LB (2009) Psychological profiling: Investigative implications from crime scene analysis. Journal of Psychiatry & Law 37(1): 73–84.
- Sorochinski M and Salfati C (2010) The consistency of inconsistency in serial homicide: Patterns of behavioural change across series. Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling 7(2): 109–136.
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