Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

Christopher Dorner: Spree or Serial Killer?

The mentality of "nothing to lose" distinguishes one category from the other.

The body of Christopher Dorner has been identified, and over the past few days he’s been labeled in the media as a serial killer. While it’s true that he killed several times in several different locations, researchers on the criminal mind will probably call him a spree killer. That is, he basically had the mentality of a mass murderer but stretched out his rampage across geography and time. For understanding his development, attitude, and motivation in detail, this distinction matters.

Dorner, recently America’s most wanted fugitive, had been fired from the LAPD for a cause that angered him and he’d penned a lengthy, rambling "manifesto” (6,000 words) that described how he’d inflict vengeance on certain law enforcers and their families. Thus, he’d simultaneously clear his name and exact revenge. He was alienated, enraged, and determined to punish. On a suicide mission of “asymmetrical” violence, he had a long grudge list and a tormented mind. Featured in the media from start to finish, he intended to make a big (violent) splash before it was over. Nothing to lose!

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Most of these behaviors contrast with those of secretive, predatory serial killers, who generally operate in the shadows for as long as they can.  

It should be noted that during a conference in 2005, the FBI dropped the classification of “spree killer,” because law enforcement officers said it had little practical value. Because spree killers had many things in common with mass murderers, there seemed no need to make a distinction.

However, researchers who are interested in the developmental and psychological issues recognize value in understanding how spree killers differ from other multiple murderers. Even if the differences are subtle, they’re important.

While it was once the case that any type of incident that involved a number of murders was called “multiple murder,” “multicide,” or “mass murder,” eventually it became clear that distinctions were needed. The earliest editions of the FBI’s official Crime Classification Manual indicated that to be defined as a serial killer, there must be at least three different murder events at three different locations, with a cooling off period between events.

However, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) allowed for just two victims for serial killers. In addition, some killers brought their victims to the same location at different times, so having at least three distinct locations was clearly not necessary. Also, some criminologists believed that offenders who were caught after two incidents but who might otherwise have continued should be included in this category. In 2005, the FBI simplified its definition of a serial killer to someone who twice commits murder in two separate incidents.

In addition to the confusion over serial murder, there has been as much confusion over how to differentiate it from incidents involving spree or mass murder. Thus, to achieve clarity for my own research, I define the terms as follows:

 1)   Mass murder is a focused and singular act, occurring in one basic locale, even if the killer travels to several loosely-related spots in that general area. There are at least four fatalities and the incident lasts no more than twenty-four hours.

 2)   A spree killing involves a string of at least three murders in several locations, arising from a key precipitating incident that continues to fuel the need to kill, and the murders occur fairly close in time. The time period lasts significantly longer than that of a mass murderer (more than a day).

 3)   Adding to the FBI’s simplified definition, serial killers murder at least two people in separate incidents, with the mental disposition or propensity to kill again. They psychologically wind down between incidents, choose the modus operandi, and may either move around or lure successive victims to a single locale. They view victims as objects for the satisfaction of their goals.

Since Dorner’s various acts of murder were been linked together by his singular mission and his rage, he probably remained keyed up between his incidents of fatal violence. He was on a rampage. Psychologically, I think he fits the still-useful definition of a spree killer.

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

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