Serial Killer Myths
This can be found on almost any site that mentions serial killers. I do want to include it here as well though since so many people still seem to believe these myths.
On television and the silver screen, serial killers are usually white males and dysfunctional loners who really want to get caught. Or, they’re super-intelligent monsters who frustrate law enforcement at every turn.
According to a publication from our National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime—entitled Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators—serial killers are much different in real life.
The report contains the collective insights of a group of experts from the law enforcement, academic, and mental health professions who took part in a symposium on serial murder. The symposium’s focus was actually two-fold: to bridge the gap between fact and fiction and to build up our collective body of knowledge to generate a more effective investigative response.
Here’s why that is so important: Serial killings are rare, probably less than one percent of all murders. They do, however, receive a lot of attention in the news and on screen—and much of the information out there is wrong. Yet, the public, the media, and even sometimes law enforcement professionals who have limited experience with serial murder, often believe what they read and hear. And this misinformation can hinder investigations.
According to the experts, there is no common thread tying serial killers together—no single cause, no single motive, no single profile.
Myth: Serial killers are all dysfunctional loners.
The majority of serial killers are not reclusive, social misfits who live alone. They are not monsters and may not appear strange. Many serial killers hide in plain sight within their communities. Serial murderers often have families and homes, are gainfully employed, and appear to be normal members of the community. Because many serial murderers can blend in so effortlessly, they are oftentimes overlooked by law enforcement and the public.
• Robert Yates killed seventeen prostitutes in the Spokane, Washington area, during the 1990s. He was married with five children, lived in a middle class neighborhood, and was a decorated U.S. Army National Guard helicopter pilot. During the time period of the murders, Yates routinely patronized prostitutes, and several of his victims knew each other. Yates buried one of his victims in his yard, beneath his bedroom window. Yates was eventually arrested and pled guilty to thirteen of the murders.
• The Green River Killer, Gary Ridgeway, confessed to killing 48 women over a twenty-year time period in the Seattle, Washington area. He had been married three times and was still married at the time of his arrest. He was employed as a truck painter for thirty-two years. He attended church regularly, read the Bible at home and at work, and talked about religion with co-workers. Ridgeway also frequently picked up prostitutes and had sex with them throughout the time period in which he was killing.
• The BTK killer, Dennis Rader, killed ten victims in and around Wichita, Kansas. He sent sixteen written communications to the news media over a thirty-year period, taunting the police and the public. He was married with two children, was a Boy Scout leader, served honorably in the U.S. Air Force, was employed as a local government official, and was president of his church.
Myth: Serial killers are all white males.
Contrary to popular belief, serial killers span all racial groups. There are white, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian serial killers. The racial diversification of serial killers generally mirrors that of the overall U.S. population.
• Charles Ng, a native of Hong Kong, China, killed numerous victims in Northern California, in concert with Robert Lake.
• Derrick Todd Lee, an African-American, killed at least six women in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
• Coral Eugene Watts, an African-American, killed five victims in Michigan, fled the state to avoid detection, and murdered another 12 victims in Texas, before being apprehended.
• Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, a native of Mexico, murdered nine people in Kentucky, Texas, and Illinois, before turning himself in.
• Rory Conde, a Colombian native, was responsible for six prostitute homicides in the Miami, Florida area.
Myth: Serial killers are only motivated by sex.
All serial murders are not sexually-based. There are many other motivations for serial murders including anger, thrill, financial gain, and attention seeking.
• In the Washington, D.C. area serial sniper case, John Allen Muhammad, a former U.S. Army Staff Sergeant, and Lee Boyd Malvo killed primarily for anger and thrill motivations. They were able to terrorize the greater Washington, D.C. metro area for three weeks, shooting 13 victims, killing 10 of them. They communicated with the police by leaving notes, and they attempted to extort money to stop the shootings. They are suspected in a number of other shootings in seven other states.
• Dr. Michael Swango, a former U.S. Marine, ambulance worker, and physician, was a health care employee. He was convicted of only four murders in New York and Ohio, although he is suspected of having poisoned and killed 35 to 50 people throughout the United States and on the continent of Africa. Swango’s motivation for the killings was intrinsic and never fully identified. Interestingly, Swango kept a scrap book filled with newspaper and magazine clippings about natural disasters, in which many people were killed.
• Paul Reid killed at least seven people during fast food restaurant robberies in Tennessee. After gaining control of the victims, he either stabbed or shot them. The motivation for the murders was primarily witness elimination. Reid’s purpose in committing the robberies was financial gain, and some of the ill-gotten gains were used to purchase a car.
Myth: All serial murderers travel and operate interstate.
Most serial killers have very defined geographic areas of operation. They conduct their killings within comfort zones that are often defined by an anchor point (e.g. place of residence, employment, or residence of a relative). Serial murderers will, at times, spiral their activities outside of their comfort zone, when their confidence has grown through experience or to avoid detection. Very few serial murderers travel interstate to kill.
The few serial killers who do travel interstate to kill fall into a few categories:
• Itinerant individuals who move from place to place.
• Homeless individuals who are transients.
• Individuals whose employment lends itself to interstate or transnational travel, such as truck drivers or those in military service.
The difference between these types of offenders and other serial murderers is the nature of their traveling lifestyle, which provides them with many zones of comfort in which to operate.
Myth: Serial killers cannot stop killing.
It has been widely believed that once serial killers start killing, they cannot stop. There are, however, some serial killers who stop murdering altogether before being caught. In these instances, there are events or circumstances in offenders’ lives that inhibit them from pursuing more victims. These can include increased participation in family activities, sexual substitution, and other diversions.
• BTK killer, Dennis Rader, murdered ten victims from 1974 to 1991. He did not kill any other victims prior to being captured in 2005. During interviews conducted by law enforcement, Rader admitted to engaging in auto-erotic activities as a substitute for his killings.
• Jeffrey Gorton killed his first victim in 1986 and his next victim in 1991. He did not kill another victim and was captured in 2002. Gorton engaged in cross-dressing and masturbatory activities, as well as consensual sex with his wife in the interim.
Myth: All Serial killers are insane or are evil geniuses.
Another myth that exists is that serial killers have either a debilitating mental condition, or they are extremely clever and intelligent.
As a group, serial killers suffer from a variety of personality disorders, including psychopathy, anti-social personality, and others. Most, however, are not adjudicated as insane under the law.
The media has created a number of fictional serial killer “geniuses”, who outsmart law enforcement at every turn. Like other populations, however, serial killers range in intelligence from borderline to above average levels.
Myth: Serial killers want to get caught.
Offenders committing a crime for the first time are inexperienced. They gain experience and confidence with each new offense, eventually succeeding with few mistakes or problems.
While most serial killers plan their offenses more thoroughly than other criminals, the learning curve is still very steep. They must select, target, approach, control, and dispose of their victims. The logistics involved in committing a murder and disposing of the body can become very complex, especially when there are multiple sites involved.
As serial killers continue to offend without being captured, they can become empowered, feeling they will never be identified. As the series continues, the killers may begin to take shortcuts when committing their crimes. This often causes the killers to take more chances, leading to identification by law enforcement. It is not that serial killers want to get caught; they feel that they can’t get caught.
What “Psychopath” Means
It is not quite what you may think
We have all heard these phrases before. “Violent psychopath” (21,700). “Psychopathic serial killer” (14,700). “Psychopathic murderer” (12,500). “Deranged psychopath” (1,050). The number of Google hits following them in parentheses attests to their currency in popular culture. Yet as we will soon discover, each phrase embodies a widespread misconception regarding psychopathic personality, often called psychopathy (pronounced “sigh-COP-athee”) or sociopathy. Indeed, few disorders are as misunderstood as is psychopathic personality. In this column, we will do our best to set the record straight and dispel popular myths about this condition.
Charming but Callous
First described systematically by Medical College of Georgia psychiatrist Hervey M. Cleckley in 1941, psychopathy consists of a specific set of personality traits and behaviors. Superficially charming, psychopaths tend to make a good first impression on others and often strike observers as remarkably normal. Yet they are self-centered, dishonest and undependable, and at times they engage in irresponsible behavior for no apparent reason other than the sheer fun of it. Largely devoid of guilt, empathy and love, they have casual and callous interpersonal and romantic relationships. Psychopaths routinely offer excuses for their reckless and often outrageous actions, placing blame on others instead. They rarely learn from their mistakes or benefit from negative feedback, and they have difficulty inhibiting their impulses.
Not surprisingly, psychopaths are overrepresented in prisons; studies indicate that about 25 percent of inmates meet diagnostic criteria for psychopathy. Nevertheless, research also suggests that a sizable number of psychopaths may be walking among us in everyday life. Some investigators have even speculated that “successful psychopaths”—those who attain prominent positions in society—may be overrepresented in certain occupations, such as politics, business and entertainment. Yet the scientific evidence for this intriguing conjecture is preliminary.
Most psychopaths are male, although the reasons for this sex difference are unknown. Psychopathy seems to be present in both Western and non-Western cultures, including those that have had minimal exposure to media portrayals of the condition. In a 1976 study anthropologist Jane M. Murphy, then at Harvard University, found that an isolated group of Yupik-speaking Inuits near the Bering Strait had a term (kunlangeta) they used to describe “a man who … repeatedly lies and cheats and steals things and … takes sexual advantage of many women—someone who does not pay attention to reprimands and who is always being brought to the elders for punishment.” When Murphy asked an Inuit what the group would typically do with a kunlangeta, he replied, “Somebody would have pushed him off the ice when nobody else was looking.”
The best-established measure of psychopathy, the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R), developed by University of British Columbia psychologist Robert D. Hare, requires a standardized interview with subjects and an examination of their file records, such as their criminal and educational histories. Analyses of the PCL-R reveal that it comprises at least three overlapping, but separable, constellations of traits: interpersonal deficits (such as grandiosity, arrogance and deceitfulness), affective deficits (lack of guilt and empathy, for instance), and impulsive and criminal behaviors (including sexual promiscuity and stealing).
Despite substantial research over the past several decades, popular misperceptions surrounding psychopathy persist. Here we will consider three of them.
1. All psychopaths are violent. Research by psychologists such as Randall T. Salekin, now at the University of Alabama, indicates that psychopathy is a risk factor for future physical and sexual violence. Moreover, at least some serial killers—for example, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Dennis Rader, the infamous “BTK” (Bind, Torture, Kill) murderer—have manifested numerous psychopathic traits, including superficial charm and a profound absence of guilt and empathy.
Nevertheless, most psychopaths are not violent, and most violent people are not psychopaths. In the days following the horrific Virginia Tech shootings of April 16, 2007, many newspaper commentators described the killer, Seung-Hui Cho, as “psychopathic.” Yet Cho exhibited few traits of psychopathy: those who knew him described him as markedly shy, withdrawn and peculiar.
Regrettably, the current (fourth, revised) edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), published in 2000, only reinforces the confusion between psychopathy and violence. It describes a condition termed antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), which is characterized by a longstanding history of criminal and often physically aggressive behavior, referring to it as synonymous with psychopathy. Yet research demonstrates that measures of psychopathy and ASPD overlap only moderately.
2. All psychopaths are psychotic. In contrast to people with psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, who often lose contact with reality, psychopaths are almost always rational. They are well aware that their ill-advised or illegal actions are wrong in the eyes of society but shrug off these concerns with startling nonchalance.
Some notorious serial killers referred to by the media as psychopathic, such as Charles Manson and David Berkowitz, have displayed pronounced features of psychosis rather than psychopathy. For example, Manson claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, and Berkowitz believed he was receiving commands from his neighbor Sam Carr’s dog (hence his adopted nickname “Son of Sam”). In contrast, psychopaths are rarely psychotic.
3. Psychopathy is untreatable. In the popular HBO series The Sopranos, the therapist (Dr. Melfi) terminated psychotherapy with Tony Soprano because her friend and fellow psychologist persuaded her that Tony, whom Dr. Melfi concluded was a classic psychopath, was untreatable. Aside from the fact that Tony exhibited several behaviors that are decidedly nonpsychopathic (such as his loyalty to his family and emotional attachment to a group of ducks that had made his swimming pool their home), Dr. Melfi’s pessimism may have been unwarranted. Although psychopaths are often unmotivated to seek treatment, research by psychologist Jennifer Skeem of the University of California, Irvine, and her colleagues suggests that psychopaths may benefit as much as nonpsychopaths from psychological treatment. Even if the core personality traits of psychopaths are exceedingly difficult to change, their criminal behaviors may prove more amenable to treatment.
Psychopathy reminds us that media depictions of mental illness often contain as much fiction as fact. Moreover, widespread misunderstandings of such ailments can produce unfortunate consequences—as Tony Soprano discovered shortly before the television screen went blank.