Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

Serial Killer Suicides

How do serial killers self-destruct?

This week, confessed serial killer Israel Keyes committed suicide in his jail cell. He was awaiting trial for the kidnapping death of Anchorage teenager Samantha Koenig. Embedding a blade from a disposable razor into a pencil, the thirty-four-year-old slashed his wrist and strangled himself with a strip of bedding.

Upon his arrest, Keyes had admitted to killing a Vermont couple, Bill and Lorraine Currier, in June 2011, and up to five other people whom he did not name. He’d hidden “killing kits” in various isolated places and probably has murdered many more.

Keyes isn’t alone in offing himself. Harold Shipman, a British physician implicated in the deaths of several hundred patients, hanged himself in his cell. So did Fred West, leaving his wife, Rosemary, to take the rap for the sexual torture and murder of numerous victims. Leonard Lake didn’t even get to the cell, leaving his torture-partner, Charles Ng, to go through a long and expensive trial.

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Some people believe that Connecticut sex-killer Michael Ross committed a form of suicide-by-cop when he stopped his appeals process to expedite execution that authorities were reluctant to carry out. However, Paul John Knowles accomplished suicide-by-cop when he grabbed for an officer’s gun while being transported in the back of a police car. The struggle did not end in his favor.

Hanging and shooting, it turns out, are the typical methods that serial killers use to end their lives. When Joe Ball saw law enforcement coming for him, he rang up “No Sale” at his cash register and shot himself in the head. In Herb Baumeister’s case, police had dug up male victims in the yard of his estate before he shot himself while on the run.

However, Leonard Lake downed cyanide and “Vampire of Sacramento” Richard Trenton Chase saved up his prison meds for an overdose. Child strangler Jeanne Weber died from injuries when she tried strangling herself, while a key suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders, Montague Druitt, drowned himself in a river. Whether this was related to the murders or just to his fear of going insane remains unknown.

In 2010, psychologist David Lester published a study that compared the suicides of mass murderers to serial killers. Not surprisingly, the risk for suicide is much higher for the former group (for whom mass murder is often an extended suicidal gesture). Based on a sample of nearly 600 cases, Lester cites a statistic of 4.4% for serial killers.

Most often, they kill themselves to avoid arrest or prison, or to terminate a prison sentence. Just over half killed themselves after arrest. Those killing for criminal enterprise rather than other reasons (lust, power, anger, thrill, etc.) were three times more likely to commit suicide. Only five percent of the suicides killed themselves before they were even identified. About one-fourth waited until after their conviction.

Following are some of the more unique stories:

Austrian killer Jack Unterweger already knew what prison was like. He’d been given a long sentence for the murder of a young woman. However, after writing poems and plays that caught the attention of prominent members of the Viennese literati, he was freed. Supposedly, art had cured him. At least, Jack had fooled many into thinking so, as he proceeded to not only commit eleven more murders but also to cover them as a journalist. Clever Jack. Once caught, he swore he’d never spend another day in jail. By this he meant he could win the jury to his side. Much to his surprise, he was convicted. Within six hours, his final act was to hang himself in his cell, using the same complicated knot that had linked his victims to him.

When Pakistani police dismissed a criminal complaint filed by Javed Iqbal against two servant boys who had beaten him, he decided to get revenge. He acquired supplies and accomplices, proposing to kill exactly 100 street kids. In 1999, over a period of six months, Iqbal lured these boys to his apartment, asphyxiated them with cyanide, and dissolved the bodies in acid. When he achieved his goal, he turned himself in. Sentenced to be strangled and cut into 100 pieces, Iqbal poisoned himself in his cell.

On March 5, 1970, the parents of three girls who lived near Los Angeles found the girls missing. Two returned home to report being kidnapped, but the third child remained missing. Soon, Mack Ray Edwards entered the LAPD station. He admitted to the kidnapping, revealed his accomplice, and gave police directions to where the still-missing girl could be found. He then confessed to killing other children. Before his trial he attempted to kill himself twice. He also told the jury he wanted to be executed. He got his wish, but the appeals process was too slow, so he hanged himself with an electrical cord.

 

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., an expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books.

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