In fiction, we often see evidence of highly creative behavior at crime scenes that signal the presence of killers with monikers like the Poet, Bone Collector, and Ghostface. It’s not difficult for even a rookie profiler to string together the various crimes.
Such obvious marks help with plots, but in real life they’re rare. Still, when I collected cases from different cultures and historical periods for The Human Predator, I found some that got my attention.
Crime scenes can reveal a lot about personality types and preferences in terms of showing an orderly, over-controlled, socially competent, or intelligent personality vs. a disorderly or socially immature personality. The type of crime depends on such factors as how a victim was selected and handled, whether there were post-mortem acts, and how the crime occurred.
Then there’s the signature (also called personation): an offender's method of perpetrating a crime shows his or her degree (or lack) of planning, but some also leave a personal stamp that can reveal specific fantasy-driven rituals based on needs or compulsions. That’s the signature.
In a way, it’s unfortunate that we use this term, because it connotes artists signing their work with a triumphant flourish. The killer’s signature, in contrast, is more like an imprint left behind, especially on botched incidents.
Signatures can be the result of a psychological deviance, but some are just for effect. Some offenders have posed a corpse in a provocative sexual position, carved something on a body, inserted items, or taken a souvenir. It’s thought that signatures originate with personality factors rather than arising from what’s needed to complete a murder.
Signature analysis has not been subjected to many systematic studies, and so a myth has arisen that signatures always present in the same way. In fact, as many as fifty percent of offenders have admitted that they experiment with their rituals. A primal compulsion might drive them, but different victims and different situations present new opportunities to tinker.
An offender might position a body for humiliating exposure, bite a victim in a specific manner, cover the face, wash the victim’s hair, or tie ligatures with an unusual knot. A serial killer in India left beer cans next to victims, while in Greece, another killer stabbed each of four elderly prostitutes exactly four times in the neck. A German killer usually left slanted parallel stab wounds, which helped to link his victims.
Here are some series with glaringly obvious signatures:
Between 1990 and 1991, three prostitutes were murdered in Texas. At autopsy, it became clear that their eyes had been skillfully removed. A tip from a woman who’d gotten away from a brutal john led to 57-year-old Charles Albright.
A hair and fiber analysis on debris from his home, a blanket, and the victims provided circumstantial physical evidence that implicated him. He also had a fixation on eyes, seemingly from his background in taxidermy, and a long history of deception and fraud. Albright was convicted of the murders, and while in prison, according to a segment of HBO’s Autopsy, he could be found drawing pictures of female eyes.
In Poland, young blond women were being disemboweled, mostly during public holidays, and the “Red Spider” wrote cryptic letters to police in spidery red ink, revealing where bodies could be found. He challenged them to catch him.
They did, thanks to an analysis of the ink that showed it was artist’s paint. Two victims (sisters) had been members of an art club. This lead implicated Lucien Staniak, 26, a government translator and an artist who’d once depicted a mutilated woman.
I-5 Strangler Roger Kibbe had a fetish since boyhood of cutting female clothing in unusual ways. Twice a week, he’d stolen such items from clotheslines, and after clipping them he’d often bury them. The same odd cutting patterns were found on the clothing of several of Kibbe’s seven murder victims. Reportedly, he’d used his mother’s scissors.
Then, of course, there’s BTK’s infamous signature, sexualized to resemble a female torso. Dennis Rader, revealed as BTK, wanted his crimes linked and was frustrated when they weren’t. He’d often call it in himself or send items to ensure that his BTK persona got credit. He crafted his signature for effect, as well as to set him apart as an elite killer.