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Do You Know a Serial Killer?

Predators can be closer than you think.

There's something comforting in the myth that serial killers are loners. It makes them seem separate and apart. And it's true that some are, but we see more cases these days of those who have easily lived and worked among us. Maybe you know one. Maybe you're partnered with one.

The high-ranking associates of Colonel Russell Williams never realized that this man, who'd flown members of royalty to their destinations and supervised Canada's largest air force base, was a predatory intruder and serial killer. Williams had passed every evaluation during his impressive career, raising no red flags.

Judith Ridgway had been married to Gary Ridgway for 14 years when he pled guilty to murdering 48 women (now 49) in Washington State. Judith was stunned and confused. How could she have lived with her "knight in shining armor" for so long, seeing him daily as he brought her flowers or candy, without noticing anything perverse? She knew that Gary had been a suspect once in the "Green River murders," but he'd passed a polygraph.

Like other killers who seem normal to friends, relatives, coworkers, or spouses, Ridgway had successfully managed two separate identities: one included romantic outings and raising dogs, and another was obsessed with punishing prostitutes.

Ridgway and Williams join the ranks of serial killers who have devised strategies for having a social life or a family. In 2004, when Dennis Rader was identified in Wichita as "BTK," we once again heard a wife protest that she'd known nothing about his penchant for torture and murder. The people who'd elected Rader as their church president, along with their pastor, had spotted nothing alarming.

The public wants monsters to be obvious, and many novels and films support this naïve hope. But some monsters do live among us - easily, and with little detection, because they're savvy about how to deflect suspicion. Human nature is their ally: we expect that others who behave like us are like us, and we generally notice only those things that confirm our beliefs.

As Lionel Dahmer, Jeffrey Dahmer's father, watched his son's 1992 trial for the murder of seventeen men, he realized how easily he'd been misled. He recalled asking why Jeff needed money for a freezer and accepting Jeff's argument that it saved him money. Jeff had actually wanted it to store human body parts, but why would anyone suspect something like this?

Lionel's denials are understandable. Parents, spouses, and other close associates often seek the best possible interpretation of something a loved one has done. But this can make them vulnerable.

Ted Bundy worked a crisis hotline as he murdered young women; John Wayne Gacy buried victims under his house while he ran a business, threw fundraisers, and entertained sick kids; and Spokane's prostitute killer Robert Yates Jr. was a decorated veteran with five children. Child murderer John Joubert assisted with a Boy Scout troop, while Michael Ross, the "Roadside Strangler," acquired an Ivy League degree and sold insurance.

Some offenders blend in because they have learned how to lead separate lives without letting one bleed into the other. They study the people around them to figure out how to "pass."

Since most of us are vigilant only when something seems strange, it's not difficult to fool us. Add a committed relationship and our tendency to turn a blind eye to avoid its collapse, and you have the formula for how anyone might befriend, date, marry, and procreate with an active serial killer.

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