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Organized Versus Disorganized Serial Predators

The basis of FBI criminal profiling.

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If you have been following Mindhunter on Netflix or any of the many other entertainment properties devoted to the topic, you are no doubt aware that all serial killers have a compulsive need to commit murder. Their compulsion to kill can be compared to a drug addiction that forces them to seek out another fix, again and again.

What you may not know is that some serial killers are focused on the act of killing, while others are focused on the process of killing. Committing murder is an end in itself for those focused on the act of killing. Committing murder is a means to an end for those focused on the process of killing—that is, killing serves a fantasy need such as lust or torture.

As depicted in Mindhunter, The FBI began to develop modern-day criminal profiling techniques after establishing its Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico, VA, in the 1970s. At the heart of criminal profiling is the theory that serial killer crime scenes can be classified as either organized or disorganized in their composition.

The breakthrough idea of classifying serial homicide crime scenes according to an organized/disorganized dichotomy is credited to the late, pioneering FBI profiler Roy Hazelwood. His theory is grounded in a series of in-depth prison interviews with serial predators that were conducted by legendary FBI agents John Douglas and the late Robert Ressler.

In practice, Hazelwood’s classification utilizes a list of factors such as whether the victim’s body was positioned or posed by the killer, whether sexual acts were performed before or after death, and whether cannibalism or mutilation was practiced on the body. Profilers use these factors to predict whether an unknown offender is an organized or disorganized killer.

According to the offender and crime scene dichotomy, organized crimes are premeditated and carefully planned, so little evidence is normally found at the scene. Organized criminals, according to the classification scheme, are antisocial (often psychopathic) but know right from wrong, are not insane and show no remorse.

Based on historical patterns, organized killers are likely to be above average to average intelligence, attractive, married or living with a domestic partner, employed, educated, skilled, orderly, cunning and controlled. They have some degree of social grace, may even be charming, and often talk and seduce their victims into being captured.

With organized offenders, there are typically three separate crime scenes: where the victim was approached by the killer, where the victim was killed, and where the victim’s body was disposed of. Organized killers are very difficult to apprehend because they go to inordinate lengths to cover their tracks and often are forensically savvy, meaning they are familiar with police investigation methods. They are likely to follow the news media reports of their crimes and may even correspond with the news media. Ted Bundy, Joel Rifkin, and Dennis Rader are prime examples of organized killers.

Disorganized crimes, in contrast, are not planned and the criminals typically leave evidence such as fingerprints or blood at the scene of the murder. There is often no attempt to move or otherwise conceal the corpse after the murder. Disorganized criminals may be young, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or mentally ill. They often have deficient communication and social skills and may be below average in intelligence. The disorganized offender is likely to come from an unstable or dysfunctional family.

Disorganized offenders often have been abused physically or sexually by relatives. They are often sexually inhibited, sexually uninformed and may have sexual aversions or other pathologies. They are more likely than organized criminals to be compulsive masturbators. They are often isolated from others, live alone and are frightened or confused during the commission of their murders. They often do not have reliable transportation, so they kill their victims closer to home than do organized offenders.

Significantly, disorganized killers will often “blitz” their victims—that is, use sudden and overwhelming force to assault them. The victim’s body is usually left where the attack took place and the killer makes no attempt to hide it. Jack the Ripper is a classic example of the disorganized serial killer.

It is also important to note that a serial murder case can also be a mix of organized and disorganized. This occasionally occurs, for example, when there are multiple offenders of different personality types involved in the killings. It can also occur when a lone offender is undergoing a psychological transformation throughout his killing career.

If you are interested in serial killers, you are not alone. I explore our curious fascination with serial killers in both fact and fiction in my best-selling book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murders.

Learn more about Scott Bonn at his website or follow him on Twitter.