They know who he is and they’re closing in. After seven gruesome murders, intrepid investigators have chased down the killer, ready to corner him… or shoot him. Their lives are on the line, their weapons are ready, and they pray for an advantage. They’re ready for anything.

 At least, that’s how it goes in fiction. 

Novels, TV shows, and film often play up the excitement of chasing a serial killer, and while such cases are actually rare, in the history of law enforcement some killers have posed such a challenge that they’ve inspired extraordinary effort.

I included some of these cases in The Devil’s Dozen, which features twelve serial murder investigations that were aided by a recent forensic innovation. Actually, some of these cases inspired an innovation.

Although this collection is aimed at cops, fans of detective fiction should enjoy it as well. Each case offers lessons in how some persistent or creative investigator stretched skills or methods, and thus made all the difference. 

 From the detection of blood or arsenic to the analysis of brain patterns, serial murder has been intricately intertwined with investigative invention. If not for these teams, many killers might not have been caught. Several investigators went the distance, and often well beyond.

For example, we’ve heard quite a lot about the notorious H. H. Holmes, the “devil in the White City,” but little fanfare for Detective Frank Geyer, who painstakingly tracked down the whereabouts of three of Holmes’s young victims as the entire nation held its collective breath.  We know the gruesome story of Albert Fish, who cooked a murdered child in a stew, but hardly anyone recalls the name of the clever and persistent detective who nabbed him (William King).

How many people realize that the discovery of DNA analysis for solving crimes occurred during the investigation of serial rape-murder? Or how detectives exploited technology to reel in a serial killer who’d been playing cat-and-mouse with them for three decades? Or how an emerging blood test stopped a brutal child killer?

One of my favorite tales in the book occurred where I live. A cop staked out a house for two weeks where the surviving victim of a three-time killer agreed to act as bait… and the perp actually arrived in the middle of the night, armed. It’s a tense story about how an ordinary patrol officer got to be a hero. I even interviewed him.

Sometimes an investigation required the prodigious coordination of a number of forensic specialties, as with pig farmer Robert Pickton, but other times it resulted from the simplicity of a shrewd deception. In every case, the investigators had to be experienced, patient, inventive, and aware of how to best utilize the available tools – or interested in devising better ones.

In a survey of 300 cases of serial murder, I found that 21% had been identified with persistent – even extraordinary – investigations and another 12% were apprehended during an unrelated police operation. Despite how much we hear these days about botched investigations, tunnel vision, Keystone Kops, and corrupted evidence, there have been some inspiring examples over the past century of what it truly means to detect and solve a heinous crime.

It was a scientific invention during the nineteenth century that ended the reign of arsenic as the murderer’s weapon of choice, and these days, detectives are learning about brain scans, digital evidence, and nano-technology to improve their skills. One case even involved a combination of gold and zinc.

No matter what the era, whenever a series of crimes demands the capture of a killer, good guys have risen to the challenge. This truth remains comfortingly constant.

You are reading

Shadow Boxing

MeToo: A Watershed Moment

Collection of sexual assault narratives illuminates shared trauma and healing.

Strange Motives for Serial Murder

In recent years, some serial killers have acted outside the box.

Cabin 28, and Other Rural Crimes

A team of writers explores nightmarish tales from lonely places.