In the frightening world of serial and mass murder, there is an ever-increasing spotlight on the female multiple murderer. Whether she blasts her way through a crowded shopping mall on a lazy Sunday or presses a pillow over a helpless victim's face, it would appear as if this phenomenon is increasing. In fact, the numbers of female serial killers have escalated in the last fifty years. For example, three-quarters of documented cases involving female serial killers occurred after 1950.

Furthermore, over one-third of the total number of recorded female multiple murderers began killing after 1970. In the perspective of time, this is a large percentage of offenders in the locus of the late twentieth century. What is even more frightening is that a female serial murder case is perhaps the most difficult type of investigation that a homicide investigator will ever face. And because these cases are not readily seen, detectives typically have had no instruction on how to handle these situations. Through research and case work, I developed 7 easy to follow steps that will help detectives when facing this type of killer.

In order to solve these crimes, detectives must look at the way female serial murderers kill and why they kill. If the motivation is understood, method is rather easily seen. This then leads to identification. When examining these crimes, a striking pattern is seen: females typically use a different method to kill than males (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000). The male serial killer is often a sexual predator who will use hands-on methods to kill (Schurman-Kauflin, 2005). That is, males use manual strangulation, knives, or objects where they can tough their victims. On the other hand, female serial killers tend to kill with covert murder methods such as poisons or suffocation, and they rarely touch their victims directly when killing. As such, there is usually no torture or bindings to show victim damage (Cluff et al., 1997; Schurman-Kauflin, 2000).

Females tend to be geographically stable, have low-paying jobs, and they always choose victims who are weak and defenseless (Kirby, 1999; Kelleher, 1998; Schurman-Kauflin, 2000). For example, females typically target the elderly, young children, or the sick. As nurses and caregivers, women have access to such victims. Therefore, body disposal is often nonexistent since female serial killers usually murder the helpless within indoor environments. By using poisons and asphyxiating the helpless, the murders often become seemingly undetectable (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000).

So why do they do it? Female serial killers commit murder because they have intense feelings of helplessness and lack of control. Through killing, female serial killers set out to create power and importance in their lives. They tend to come from horrific backgrounds filled with high levels of abuse and emotional cruelty, isolation, lack of stability, and abandonment.

Typically there is no one who truly cares for the young female. She becomes despondent and then angry. Being unable to defend themselves, the females turn this anger inward and begin fantasizing about killing. The fantasy serves as an escape from the powerlessness, which either in the mind or in reality, plagues the killer (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000). As time passes, the serial killer creates more vivid and more grotesque fantasies that become more and more like a narcotic. The tolerance increases thereby allowing the offender to create ever-more heinous acts within her mind. This is very important as female serial killers fantasize in detail about how to kill while avoiding detection (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000). They determine that by creating an equivocal death scenario, they are less likely to be caught (Kirby, 1999). If a death is equivocal at best, many times, especially in smaller jurisdictions, there is no investigation.

Several questions should be asked by homicide investigators when examining a possible series of homicides where a female is suspect.

1. Who is connected with all the victims and had access to them?

Look for a person whose name comes up in connection with each victim. It is helpful to make a chart and make a notation each time an individual's name is mentioned. This may seem simplistic, but in female serial investigations, one will find that the perpetrator's name will be listed with each victim. If there is a system in place that marks each time a person is named in connection with the victims, there will be one person consistently mentioned. With the pressure of such an important case, this simplistic step is often overlooked. There is immense pressure from media and those in superior positions within the police organization that short-cuts occur. This is one step which must not be ignored.

2. Who has had stressor within a few months of the homicides?

For those whose names are repeatedly mentioned in connection with the victims, look for a pattern of financial distress, failed relationships, and a decline in functioning. Typically, one will find a relationship breakup or job troubles immediately prior to each homicide. This stress makes a female who has suffered particular backgrounds more apt to kill. These background factors include early abandonment, social isolation, abuse, lying, manipulation, acting out, and self-centeredness. One must remember to look for stressors that relevant to the female, not the investigator. For example, when conducting first person interviews with female serial murderers, this author found that one stressor was positive-positive for someone else. These females are so self-centered that they view success for others as a blight against themselves. So examine the lives of those around the female for such things as promotions, new relationships, pregnancies etc. Anything that might strike jealousy in the female can be a stressor and therefore act as a springboard for murder.

3. Does the female demonstrate typical serial murder behaviors?

Female serial killers tend to be individuals who enjoy spending time by themselves. They are cold emotionally, have an odd sense of humor (finding death funny), lack deep personal attachments, are complete narcissists, always are looking for naive people who they can dominate, and believe that no one understands them. Invariably, they feel superior to law enforcement officials. One offender remarked how she enjoyed watching investigators "chase their own tails," while she was killing. At the same time, investigators will find that the individual tends to "space out" mentally and have a cold stare. These women have been described as two-faced, literally. When angered, people will note that these women change. Their faces change. They expressions change, and a cold, shark-like look takes over the eyes. This look is frightening to those who see it. For this reason, the female often goes off by herself. She'll be known for disappearing, almost being invisible at times. She enjoys spending time alone because she fantasizes about killing and rehearses her crimes. Female serial killers will often do volunteer work. They can appear to be altruistic. However, this only serves as a cover for her other activities. They do so because it gives them power. When asked why they would do kind things while at the same time killing, female serial killers have replied that they decide when to be good and when to be bad (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000).

4. Has the female made statements about wanting to kill or hurt others?

Even though it may seem incriminating, female serial killers talk about wanting to commit murder, before and while they are killing. They will express a desire to harm others who in their eyes have wronged them. When asked about it, they will typically reply that they were kidding. However, they continue such talk and are rather bold because they feel confident that police are bumbling idiots who could never catch them. In speaking with associates, look for statements in which the female said she would like to hurt and kill others, especially if there is a specific plan. Many times the female, prior to the murders, will discuss her plan hypothetically with others. However, when confronted with these statements, watch the female backtrack, say either it is a lie or that she was joking, and finally how you are hurting her with such accusations. That is the pattern with serial killers. When first caught, they will try to cover up, deny involvement, and finally cry about how hard all of this is on them!

5. Is the female fascinated by death and violence?

Just as the female serial murderer will voice her desire to harm others, she will also have an unusual fascination with death and violence. She will follow serial crimes on the news, have books on violent crimes, and find terrible violence entertaining, even funny. There have even been documented cases where female serial killers become sexually aroused while watching violence or fantasizing about violence. Others around her will notice her fixation and be able to identify what "turns her on," so to speak. She will have access to reading materials to educate herself about murder and forensic pathology. Either these women go to local libraries or buy books about poisons, autopsy procedures and police procedures. Simply, these women altered their fantasies to incorporate forensic knowledge into their fantasy lives. The planning is well in place before the first homicide occurs.

6. Does the female make up elaborate stories?

In this author's interviews with female serial killer, a strange pattern emerged. Female serial murderers tend to make up wild stories. These tales will be strange and unbelievable. And there is a pattern within this pattern. In these stories, the female loves to appear as if she is a victim. She was held up at gunpoint, but there will be no evidence that any such event occurred. Additionally, she loves to look like a hero. So not only will she be held up at gunpoint, but she was able to disarm the gunman by talking him down. Again, there will not be one hint of truth to these stories, yet she will continually tell them to anyone who will listen. She lies to lie, and loves to manipulate others into believing her tales.

7. Are the homicides covert in nature?

The rule for female serial killers is that they kill using "hidden" methods. Poisons and asphyxia are preferred, and the reasons are simplistic. Females do not usually have the strength to overpower a victim, even a sick or vulnerable one. Female serial murderers are so concerned that they not be injured while killing that they do not want to risk using other methods (Schurman-Kauflin, 2000). Thus, they will use several discreet methods such as slowly poisoning those close to them, either in food or mixing in medication. Or they wait until a victim is at rest so they can smother without resistance. Occasionally, they will strangle if the victim is extremely weak. Given that the female is so obsessed with not being injured herself, this is yet another personality trait to look for when investigating this crime. Look for these covert methods along with extreme attempts to insulate herself from harm.

When female serial murderers kill, they feel a sense of euphoria. They feel complete control for the first time in their lives. They become addicted to this feeling and will not willingly give it up. The problem is that this great feeling quickly dissipates leaving the female to feel lonely, isolated, and helpless once more. Then the violent fantasies resume and become incessant. Though the female is faced with the prospect of getting caught, she feels no remorse for her crimes. The feeling of killing is too great and rewarding, so confession is very unlikely. If an investigator understands these motivations for killing it puts him or her in a better position to speak with the female at a level she will understand and within feel comfortable. This makes it easier for the female to speak about her past and her actions, or at least speak in general terms about what happened.

Investigators must be aware that they are fighting an uphill battle when conducting an investigation of a female serial killer. People are reluctant to believe that a female can commit such crimes. Second, female serial killers leave little forensic evidence. Third, unlike many of their male counterparts, female multiple murderers do not confess. It is rare that a female will admit to her crimes. Therefore, the investigator is left with a circumstantial case and a public unwilling to accept the notion of women serial murderers. So it is imperative that detectives look for the patterns outlined above to build their cases.


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About the Author

Deborah Schurman-Kauflin, Ph.D.

Deborah Schurman-Kauflin, Ph.D., is a criminal profiler and expert on serial crimes.

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