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Law and Crime

Why Professional Assassins Are Not Serial Killers

Hit men kill for money not excitement.

In the vernacular, “hit men” are professional contract killers employed by organized crime groups to eliminate their rivals or other troublesome individuals. There is some debate among criminologists, psychologists and law enforcement authorities as to whether professional assassins should be considered serial killers.

One of the most infamous of all professional hit men was Vincent “Mad dog” Coll who, despite the fact that he was Irish, committed dozens of contract murders for the Italian Mafia in New York City in the 1920s. He gained infamy for the accidental killing of a young child during a mob kidnapping attempt. Coll’s exploits have been chronicled in numerous books and Hollywood films such as Mobsters in 1991.

Unlike serial killers who select their own victims, the targets of hit men are carefully chosen for them by their employers who pay them to kill on demand. Although professional hit men and serial killers share the common characteristics of killing multiple victims in separate and unrelated events, hit men are not serial killers because their motivation to kill is financial. Any emotional or psychological gratification hit men receive for their murders is secondary to the financial motive. Serial killers such as Ted Bundy, on the other hand, are driven to murder by fantasy or other powerful needs such as lust or excitement.

A unique exception to the distinction between serial killers and contract killers is the late Richard Kuklinski who was both a serial killer and a professional hit man. When he wasn’t committing contract killings for the Gambino crime family, Kuklinski was killing strangers who irritated or annoyed him. He claimed to derive great pleasure and exhilaration from the challenge of killing his victims. Kuklinski was given the nickname "Iceman" for his method of freezing a victim to confuse the time of death.

There is another important distinction that separates serial killers from professional hit men. Serial killers experience an emotional cooling off period between their murders during which time they blend back into their seemingly normal lives. In contrast, professional hit men do not experience/require a cooling off period between their murders because of the unemotional and pragmatic nature of their killings.

During the cooling off period between murders, a serial killer disappears from the public eye and resumes his/her seemingly normal routine and life. Incredibly, the life of a serial killer during the cooling off period, particularly if he/she is a psychopathic killer like Ted Bundy—that is, pathologically devoid of emotion or empathy—may appear completely normal to the unsuspecting observer.

Serial predators reemerge from a cooling off period to strike again when the urge to kill becomes overwhelming to them. A serial killer may not even understand his/her compulsion to kill but knows that it is both undeniable and uncontrollable when the urge arises.

The cooling off period between murders is highly subjective, unpredictable and it varies from one serial killer to another in terms of its duration. The length of the cooling off period can also vary between murders committed by the same serial killer. The duration can be from days or weeks to months and in rare instances, even years.

For example, Dennis Rader or “Bind, Torture, Kill” (BTK) confessed to ten murders that he committed over a span of nearly twenty years (1974-1991) after he was captured in 2005. In between his murders, Rader lived a remarkably normal looking outward life with a wife and two children. He was perceived as a pillar of his community in Wichita, Kansas.

Inwardly, however, Rader was secretly satisfying his sexual needs and delaying his compulsion to kill for months and even years at a time through autoerotic fantasies in which he relived his murders with the aid of trophies taken from his victims such as articles of clothing, identification cards and jewelry.

As a result of this practice, the length of the cooling off period between Rader’s murders was highly variable and often lasted much longer than other serial killers. His ability to control his compulsive need to kill for years at a time through autoerotic fantasy is highly unusual for serial killers.

I examine the fascinating case of Dennis Rader in much more detail, and I offer shocking information about the motivations, fantasies and wicked deeds of serial killers in my book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.

Dr. Scott Bonn is a criminologist, professor, author and TV analyst. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website

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