Sunday, May 18, 2014

FBI Behaviorial Science Unit's Serial Killer Characteristics - Part Two of Four

Profiling serial killers is as much art as science. The complex psychological factors that make up the motivation, justification, and rationalization within the minds of disturbed individuals is difficult for a sane person to fathom. That said, recognizing those psychological behaviors helps law enforcement apprehend these predators and limit the damage they do to families, the communities where the murders occur, and the general well-being of society at large.

Before the FBI's VICAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program) study on profiling serial killers in the 1980s, previous violent crime models categorized these multiple murders cases generally in groups like sexually orientated killings, power and control killings, greed or gain killings, nuisance killings, cult killings, and revenge killings. 

The basic problem with grouping these murders by type is that it doesn't address the crime scene details or the signature characteristics of the assailant. These murder taxonomies are of limited value to law enforcement when trying to learn the motivation or the identity of an unknown serial killer.

These categories of murders are general indicators that may have some descriptive value, but they fail to provide homicide investigators with the necessary tools to evaluate a crime scene effectively and to capture the perpetrator quickly. These static descriptions do not address the issues of the offender's identity and do not affect his or her apprehension.

To learn how serial killers think and to study their behavior, FBI Special Agents conducted exhaustive interviews and collected data on thirty-six incarcerated multiple murderers from their prison confines. The logic behind the study was self-evident, interview convicted serial killers to learn how they think and what motivates them. After all, they are the experts in what they do.

FBI researchers had a captive audience but studied only willing participants. Serial killers who did participate in the study did so for several reasons:
  1. Some confessed killers wanted the opportunity to clarify other people's conclusions about them.
  2. Some wanted to point out why it was impossible for them to have committed the murders.
  3. Others wanted to teach the police how the crimes were committed and motivated.
With these men serving life sentences in maximum security portions of various prisons, they look forward to opportunities to get out of their cells and maybe get a warm cup of coffee and a stale doughnut out of it. As for the prisoners' candor, most had nothing left to lose and they answered freely. Other prisoners took longer to establish a rapport with investigators before they were comfortable talking about their crimes to FBI researchers.

Once this new data was entered into the Bureau's computer system, some common characteristics of these sexual predators began to take shape:
  • Their motivation is usually psychological gratification of some sort (sex, anger, thrill, gain, or simply attention).
  • They often suffer from mental illness with psychotic breaks.
  • They lack remorse or guilt and project blame on their victims.
  • They have a compulsive need for power and control.
  • They exhibit impulsivity and predatory behavior.
  • They often wear a mask of sanity in public for protective coloration.
  • Their boundaries between fantasy and reality are lost.
  • Their fantasies turn to dominance, control, sexual conquest, violence, and finally murder.
Researchers found that serial killers suffer from antisocial personality disorder, a pervasive pattern of disregard for the rights of others. They have an impoverished moral sense (conscience) and usually a history of petty crime. These killers seamlessly make the leap from sociopaths to psychopaths when the predatory urge overcomes them.

The FBI study further discovered that most serial killers share many of the same formative experiences growing up:
  • They had a history of being bullied or socially isolated as children and adolescents.
  • They often engaged in petty crimes like theft, fraud, or vandalism.
  • They are compulsive and practiced liars.
  • Many come from unstable families and have experienced a serious family disruption like divorce, separation, or a breach in the child/parent relationship.
  • Many serial killers have a history of being abused emotionally, physically, and/or sexually in their youth.
  • They frequently manifest attachment disorder due to early childhood trauma like violence, neglect, rejection, or pervasive alcohol or drug use in the home.
  • They suffer from low self-esteem and retreat into a fantasy world where they are safe and in control.
  • They show a fascination with fire starting.
  • They show cruelty to younger children and/or small animals.
The above listed traits form a composite picture of common characteristics of many serial killers and their crimes, but they are only useful after the capture of the perpetrators. They are of little or no use in capturing them. 

Sexual homicide has long been studied by various professional disciplines and perspectives. Law enforcement came late to the party. Sociologists want to examine sexual homicide as a social phenomenon that occurs within the context of the greater society. Psychologists are most interested in the psychiatric diagnosis of these murderers and developing techniques for treating sex offenders. 

Law enforcement is interested in the study of sexual homicide from the standpoint of how best to investigate these crimes, how to identify suspects quickly, how to apprehend and convict suspects, and how to protect the public from further senseless carnage.


The FBI's Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) was able to expand on the work of researchers, Robert D. Keppel and Richard Walter, previous developers of rapist categories for the FBI. The BSU entered their research data on rape murderers into that database and revised the dynamic characteristics of the four existing classifications to provide a more discerning and functional view of serial killers.

In my next two posts, I'll review the FBI's four rape/murder classifications and go into more detail on how they form a composite profile of Washtenaw County serial killer John Norman Collins.