Thursday, February 26, 2015

Some Serial Killers Seek Recognition But Not All

In his classic work, The History of Murder, Colin Wilson gives three reasons for murder. The first is for economic gain. It could be a robbery or kidnapping incident that goes terribly wrong, or it could involve an insurance or inheritance scheme. Poisoning was popular in the nineteenth century before it became easily detected in the bloodstream in the early age of forensic chemistry. Poisoning was so common during the Victorian period that police dubbed arsenic “inheritance powder.”

"No one attacks me with impunity."
A second type of murder is the resentment murder over a real or perceived slight. Somebody harbors a deep rage against society, government, religion, or even a person for some personal affront. Revenge murders fall under this category. The famous Edgar Allen Poe revenge tale “The Cask of Amontillado” begins with these all too human words, “The thousand injuries of Fortunato, I bore as best I could. But when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” What the insult was is never made clear. It is irrelevant because the killer--Montresor--admits to the cold-blooded murder fifty years later as he casually boasts of his cunning. He couldn’t die without first telling someone of his crime.

The last major reason author Colin Wilson gives for people killing one another is sexual. A sexual predator may want to prevent later identification by a rape victim, may have a psychotic hatred of the opposite sex, or may have a psychological compulsion to rid the world of harlotry or some other perceived moral evil.

Sexual homicide falls in the FBI category of unexplained murder. This type of murder is most troubling for law enforcement because of its apparent random nature. When a series of unsolved murders occurs within a well-defined area, feelings of vulnerability, panic, and fear can grip a whole community. Intense press coverage often does little more than advertise the problem to the public and complicate the situation for police. Serial killers like to act out their cat-and-mouse games with the police and manipulate the public through the media coverage their crimes generate.

John Norman Collins' perp walk
After the fourth unsolved murder in Washtenaw County, Michigan in the late 1960s, the college town of Ypsilanti went into lock-down mode. Yet, three more young women would die before John Norman Collins was arrested on July 31, 1969, for the sex-slaying of Karen Sue Beineman. The wave of mutilation murders—over the two year period—finally ended.


Psychologist Dr. Stephen Giannangelo believes that serial killers have a “lost sense of self and intimacy, inadequacy of identity, and feelings of no control.” It is thought that these killers’ minds create a mirrored reality where satisfying their sexual needs and sadistic thoughts is the only palpable reality. Stalking and the ensuing capture indicate that these killings are often premeditated and rehearsed events. What makes serial killers different than most other killers is they tend to be more intelligent and learn from their mistakes.

Dennis Rader in court
Many serial killers are perversely proud of their work as evidenced by their tendency to brag after they are caught. Dennis Rader of Kansas, Missouri was even bolder. Dubbed the “BTK” (Bind, Torture, and Kill) killer by the Wichita press, Rader began to brag in the form of a complaint letter to local news station--KAKE-TV.
“How many people do I have to kill before I get my name in the paper or some national attention?” he asked. 

Dennis Rader admitted to seven murders and said he was planning an eighth. He felt invisible and wanted to be noticed. He wasn’t content to torture and control a mere human being. He wanted to terrorize and manipulate a whole city. Such was his twisted ego. He was subsequently identified and captured. He boasted that he considered himself among the elite of serial killers--every bit the equal of H.H. Holmes, Jack the Ripper, and Ted Bundy.

Gerald Schaefer mug shots
Another serial killer proud of his work was Gerald John Schaefer. After being found unfit to be a school teacher, he was also rejected for the priesthood. Schaefer eventually became a deputy sheriff in Florida where he was able to hide behind the mask of a police officer. After his trial and conviction for the murder of two young women, he was so boastful and obnoxious in prison that one December night in 1995, Gerald John Schaefer had a fatal reaction to some sharpened steel--an early Christmas present from his cellmate. Serial killers often do not fare well behind bars.

Despite some serial killers having above average intelligence, they become bold, compulsive, and arrogant. These are often narcissistic individuals who consider themselves gifted and smarter than everyone else--especially law enforcement. Each time serial killers get away with their crimes, they become more confident until they start making mistakes. Crime studies indicate that most serial killers willingly talk about their crimes once they are caught red-handed or when the police have irrefutable evidence against them.

One notable exception to this serial killer characteristic is John Norman Collins. He has never admitted culpability for any of his crimes or shown the slightest bit of remorse. Collins has maintained his innocence for decades--despite overwhelming evidence against him.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

How FBI Serial Killer Profiling Works

Because of the growing number of requests for profiling services in the 1980s, the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit made their services available to law enforcement nationwide through their Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP)--which maintains a nationwide network of computer databases dedicated to taking violent offenders off the streets as quickly as possible.

The VICAP Crime Analysis Report runs for ten pages of detailed law enforcement reporting for each murder. Factors such as age, gender, occupation, intelligence, acquaintance with the victim, residence, mode of transportation, modus operandi, ritualistic behavior, victim characteristics, and offender characteristics are recorded and entered into their database.

When two or more murders have been committed over time by the same person(s), a dynamic synergistic comparison can give investigators a systematic look at the presence or absence of evidence, the crime scene signature, the comfort zone of the killer, and the possible motives for the murders. Other indicators such as emotional intensity, the rationale for the murders and any number of factors that stand out to investigators can help law enforcement identify offenders. Criminal profiling gives investigative agencies the ability to connect details, recognize patters of offender behavior, and review national fingerprint and DNA databases which facilates the work of narrowing down suspects.

The intent of crime scene investigation and psychological profiling is to identify the key elements of the scene and the behavioral factors related to serial killers--enabling homicide investigators to prioritize leads and apprehend offenders before they can kill again. A developing composite profile does not provide the identity of the offender but merely indicates the type of person most likely to commit such a crime having these characteristics. One researcher, Geberth (1981), found that a murderer’s behavior and personality is reflected in the crime scene “much the same way as furnishings reveal the homeowner’s character.” Sexual homicide crime scenes reveal information about the killer’s behavior and how he furnishes his mind.

When crime scene characteristics are combined with profile characteristics, a composite picture of the behavioral traits of the offender begins to take shape. With serial killers, the profile comes into sharper focus with each new victim. From these elements, investigators are able to draw assumptions about the killer, but they need to be always on guard against tunnel vision—making conclusions that place limitations upon the investigation.


The FBI’s Behavorial Science Unit (BSU) researchers found that serial killers suffer from antisocial personality disorder, a pervasive pattern of disregard for the rights of others. They have no conscience and usually show a history of petty crime. Serial killers make the leap from sociopaths to psychopaths when the predatory urge overwhelms them.

The BSU study 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 practiced liars.
  • Many come from unstable families and have experienced a serious family disruption like divorce, separation, or a breach in the parent/child relationship.
  • Many have a history of being abused emotionally, physically, and/or sexually in their youth by a family member.
  • They often 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 are fascinated by fires and fire starting.
  • And they often show cruelty to younger children and/or small animals.

Additional common traits of serial killers documented by the BSU were:

  • A serial killer’s motivation is usually psychological gratification of some sort.
  • They have a compulsive need for power and control over their victims.
  • They suffer from mental illness with psychotic episodes and have mental illness or alcoholism in their family backgrounds.
  • They have a passion for throttling which leads to overkill.
  • They often display a blood lust by mutilating, dismembering, or disemboweling their victims.
  • They have an overwhelming desire to inflict pain and terror, and many violate the bodies of victims with foreign objects.
  • They are predators of victims weaker than themselves: children and defenseless women in particular.
  • They lack remorse or guilt and project blame upon their victims.
  • They suffer from impulsivity and are oversexed with intense sexual frustration.
  • They have fits of self-pity and resentment.
  • They often begin their crimes with peeping in windows and home burglary--which often escalates to rape and murder.
  • They are compulsive liars and petty thieves.
  • They usually stalk their victims but will take advantage of crimes of opportunity.
  • They often take trophies from the crime scenes, photos, or body parts as souvenirs to relive their orgies of depravity.
  • 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.
Not every serial killer fits each one these traits, but it is striking how consistently many of these traits appear in the profiles of every known serial killer.

These common characteristics help investigators form a composite picture of an offender. Drawing conclusions about a suspect from profile characteristics is as much art as science, and it takes a trained eye and a bit of luck to pay dividends, but when done properly, the likelihood of catching a serial killer is greatly enhanced. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Toxic Behaviors--Recognizing Sociopaths

One in twenty-five people is a sociopath. These are people with an instinctual ability to exploit weakness and vulnerability. Sociopaths read and study their victims--this is their great advantage over us. They know us better than we know them. Their propensity to exploit weakness is their hidden skill. Once they target their prey, their victims are compromised. People who can see through a sociopath’s deceptions are avoided or eliminated. Discovery is the last thing they want.

But this speaks to them. What about us? Why do so many of us seem vulnerable to sociopaths? One answer may be that many of us have a mild to moderate affinity for danger and a hunger for excitement to punctuate our otherwise mundane lives. Many people enjoy controlled risks and love cheap thrills they can get an emotional rush from and then return to the safety of our homes. Vicarious experiences from action and thriller fantasies on the silver screen, to riding the latest and greatest amusement park rides, fill this void for most of us.

Leonardo Dicaprio in The Great Gatsby.

American pop culture presents a high-octane lifestyle of the rich and famous, often fueled by drugs, alcohol, and conspicuous wealth that create an unrealistic expectation for success that most Americans can never hope to achieve. We idolize famous actors, successful athletes, dubious celebrities, and people with money. We long for our own sense of celebrity--anything to quell the routine boredom of our conventional lives. We hunger for excitement, so most of us are willing to take the occasional risk and let down our guard.

Part of our American folklore informs us that dangerous people are charismatic. Going for the bad boy seems like a coming-of-age ritual for many young women in our culture--the proverbial moth attracted to the flame. How many intelligent women get over their heads in relationships with men who aren’t as smart because they perceive the man to be exciting, sexy, or notorious? The answer is simply too many. These relationships often become controlling, degrading, and violent. Sometimes, they become fatal.

Everyday life is routine and tedious much of the time, and we are creatures of habit. So every once in a while, many of us like to step out of our hum-drum lives and relax our defenses. Predators know this. When someone or something doesn’t seem right, people should go with their instincts and not ignore the warning signs.

Here are ten traits of sociopaths to watch for:

Sociopaths don’t have a conscience.

2. They suffer from attachment disorder.

3. They are easily bored and need continual stimulation.

4. They are not comfortable in their own skin.

5. They are absolutely self-involved and high-strung.

6. They tend toward hypochondria and seek pity to manipulate others.

7. They are not team players.

8. They show unremitting self-interest.

9. They use and abuse people with impunity.

They are narcissists who know the words but not the music of life.

(Source unknown.)

Sociopaths make full use of social and professional roles which provide a ready-made mask. Many of us are irrationally influenced by people in positions of authority or in uniform. Conventional wisdom insists that You can’t judge a book by its cover, but people do so routinely. We have all heard and seen news reports of police, teachers, clergymen, and childcare providers who abuse the trust placed in them. Their roles or the masks they wear constitute their protective coloration or camouflage.

Serial killer Gerald John Schaefer became a teacher after college but was fired for “totally inappropriate behavior” by the school’s headmaster. Next, he tried to get into the priesthood and was quickly rejected. Then, he became a policeman. Each of these authoritarian roles would have placed Schaefer in a position of power to exploit and abuse people.

As a patrolman, Schaefer picked up two teenage girls who were hitchhiking on July 21, 1972--one seventeen and the other eighteen. He took them to a secluded place in a remote wood, tied them to a tree, and threatened to kill them or sell them into prostitution if they tried to escape. He had to answer a police call on his radio and left. When he returned, the girls had escaped and made their way to the local police station, the same station where Patrolman Schaefer worked. He was arrested and posted bail. Two months after his release, he pulled the same stunt. He abducted Susan Place--age seventeen--and Georgia Jessup--age sixteen. Schaefer tortured, murdered, and buried them on Hutchinson Island, Florida.

Most people readily accept the superficial trappings of authority unquestioned. Too often the danger signs are there, but people choose to ignore them. When they finally see what’s behind the mask, it is often too late.