Last April, in a one day seminar on criminal profiling, renowned forensic scientist Dr. Henry C. Lee told the audience, ““In the early days of my career, your standard serial killer was always a male loner… always from the U.S.  But these days, everything has changed.”  What prophetic words he spoke.

Are There Serial Killer Hot Spots?

In 2016, there were serial killers from the United States, Thailand, Kenya, Canada, Italy, Germany, Colombia, Costa Rica, Russia, Turkey, the U.K., India, and China.  In the United States, suspected serial killers were arrested in New Jersey, South Carolina, Texas, and Ohio and an Alaskan man who was killed after firing at cops who were attempting to question him after a cab driver contacted police about a passenger who refused to pay his fare has been linked to several murders along a bike path.  A serial shooter in Phoenix, Arizona remains at large and the Long Island serial killer(s) has not been captured. 

In fact, contrary to popular belief (fueled by infamous serial killers such as Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer), the Northwest is not the serial hub many of us think it is.  It’s true that Washington has more than its share of repeat killers if you compare its population size (13tth) to its serial killer rank (5th).  However, Washington D.C. has historically, by far, the highest rate of victims per capita, at 25 per 100,000.  Alaska and Louisiana are also over-represented.

Diversity Among Criminals

There may not be honor among thieves, but 2016 showed us that there is diversity among criminals.  Killers ranged in age from 15 to 72.  The majority of serial murders were carried out by a single male, but there were female perpetrators as well as a team of two male sex offenders.  Most perpetrators were “straight” but not all; Stephen Port will serve a life sentence for drugging and murdering four men he met on gay dating websites.  Donna Perry, a transgender woman charged with killing three Spokane women in the 1990s has claimed that these murders may have been carried out by Douglas Perry, the man she was before undergoing gender reassignment surgery in 2000 in an attempt to stop his violence against women.  She has yet to go to trial. 

Serial murderers in 2016 also worked a variety of jobs – chef, realtor, janitor, nurse, etc.  However, to date, no single occupation has come close to matching the long-haul truck driver as a serial killer’s profession of choice.  As of 2016, twenty-five long-haul truckers are serving time for serial murder and last year saw several cold cases tied to truckers who were already serving time.  Fortunately, the FBI’s Highway Serial Killings Initiative, established in 2003, is making it easier to develop specific time lines on potential suspects who may traverse three or four states in a single day.  To date, this coordinated database has identified more than 750 people whose bodies were found near U.S. highways and has identified 450 potential suspects.

Who Gets Killed and Why

Over the past twenty-five years, Dr. Mike Aamodt has collected data on nearly 3,000 US serial killers and 10,000 victims. To date, here’s what his data suggests:

  • Gender-wise, victims are essentially split down the middle, with a slight lean toward women.
  • Across race lines, two-thirds of serial killer victims are white but, percentage-wise, African Americans are over-represented.  African Americans account for 13.3 percent of the US population but almost a quarter of all victims.
  • In general, serial killers prefer younger victims; the odds of being murdered by a serial killer dramatically decreases after a person reaches 30.

In 2016, the majority of victims appeared to be women although, as with our perpetrators, the demographics varied widely – homeless men, adults meandering along a bike path, prostitutes, children, hospital patients, kidnapped women.  The motives were as varied as the relationships between perpetrators and victims.  Serial killer nurses kill patients who annoyed them or because they want to play the hero by resuscitating a critically ill patient.  A serial killer kills to avenge his father’s death, a killer murders homeless men or prostitutes because he perceives a need to “clean up” the “dregs of society.”  Consistent with history, about half of the serial killers appeared to be sexual predators.  Clearly, there is no single thing that motivates serial killers and they are not driven solely by sex.  In fact, the majority of serial killers do what they do for enjoyment. 

The Bottom Line

Serial killers – people who kill two or more people on two or more separate occasions -are increasingly hard to predict.  They don’t look like they used to.  They don’t act like they used to.  They don’t always kill who we thought they would or for reasons that we assumed we knew. 

We are getting smarter, though.  Serial killers have declined by 85% over the past three decades.  Not only are the number of serial killers less, they are also less prolific.  We’re getting better at catching criminals after one murder instead of three or four; Just 40 years ago, nearly one-third of all serial killers in the US got away with five or more murders before getting caught. Today, that figure is down to 13 percent — and nearly half get caught after two killings.  In the next article in this series, we’ll take a look at how law enforcement took steps in 2016 to catch budding serial killers before they blossom.

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