Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Rethinking the Murderer's Accomplice

Research on murder teams needs to explore the psychological nuances.

Key points

  • In criminological research, accomplices to killers are often lumped together.
  • An accomplice typology could help us better grasp violent team dynamics.
  • A better understanding of violent team dynamics could expose accomplice vulnerabilities for interrogation.
Art by Author
Source: Art by Author

The psychological dynamics for those who participate in a secondary role on murder teams are often oversimplified. Yet not all accomplices are the same. If we make distinctions based on motivation and type of involvement, we can better identify those most likely to assist the police.

They’re called partners, accomplices, collaborators, helpers, abettors, apprentices, or handymen. Often, they’re in a relationship with or are related to the primary killer. Once caught, they cite reasons from thrill to fear to love for being involved. Some are quite young and many are female. Those few studies that have focused on accomplices tend to lump them together. However, a typology provides clarity on how such arrangements work in a way that’s useful to law enforcement.

Below, I list ideas for categories, with examples:

Equal partners: The most aggressive killing teams involve psychological equals who affirm and expand each other’s depravity. Neither is an accomplice, but this arrangement must be distinguished from those that involve lesser partners. They might have different roles, but they are in full agreement. Sexual sadists Roy Norris and Lawrence Bittaker met in prison. Once released, they bought a van in Los Angeles, California, in 1979, filled it with torture "toys," and trolled for attractive young women. They grabbed a teenager and raped her before strangling her with a coat hanger. The next victim received an ice pick through the brain. This team assaulted and murdered three more girls before they were caught. With equals, each might betray the other if a deal could benefit them, but a strong bond could be tough to break.

Dominant or submissive partners: Arrangements in which both want to participate but one directs and defines the activities. Cousins Fred Waterfield and David Alan Gore hunted in Florida for young women during the early 1980s. Gore’s job as an auxiliary sheriff's deputy facilitated their "hobby." Waterfield placed “orders” and paid Gore for bringing him pretty girls. Gore used his badge to persuade them to enter his car. The cousins killed five before a witness called the police. Gore, the submissive one, showed officers where he’d bound a 14-year-old, still alive. He confessed to five other murders, implicating his cousin (typical of the submissive partner, for whom fear is a strong incentive).

Compliant accomplice: Partners who reluctantly accept a role in murder due to an emotional bond with the primary killer. Outside this relationship, they wouldn’t consider it. Often, they're female, insisting they helped out of love for their partner and fear of losing them. For example, Moors Murderer Myra Hindley said Ian Brady gradually introduced murder into their relationship. Believing she’d otherwise lose him, she lured several children for him to rape and kill. She accepted the idea that this meant she was "special."

Robert Hazelwood, a former FBI profiler, and his associate, Janet Warren, researched 20 female partners of sexual sadists, four of whom had been directly involved in murder (an example of lumping accomplices together when nuance is needed). The researchers described these subjects as having weak self-esteem from being abused, then isolated. The primary offender had leveraged them with promises, assurances, gifts, and or threats. They’d participated in acts they disliked because they were emotionally invested in the perpetrator. They're similar to the submissive partner in the category above except they commit a crime for reasons unrelated to it.

Forced accomplice: Those who partake under threat of harm or death. In 1984, contractor Christopher Wilder came under suspicion in Florida in the disappearance of several women, so he fled across the country. Along the way, he assaulted and killed several victims. He grabbed a 16-year-old from a store, raped her, and forced her to bring another girl to him. He made her drive while he raped the new victim. The terrified "assistant" remained with him for several days, doing whatever Wilder required until he finally let her go.

Accessory helpers, handymen: Those who assist a principal offender before or after a murder. They’re aware of the act but do nothing to prevent it or inform authorities. Some acquire weapons, provide transportation, or help with cleanup. In 2001, Katherine Inglis and Michael Pfohl drove Kyle Hulbert to a murder scene. Inglis later admitted they’d been aware of his desire to “rescue” 20-year-old Clara Schwartz from a father she claimed had abused her. They knew Hulbert had a sword. He killed the man and told his friends he’d done it. They provided a false alibi.

Faux accomplice: those who falsely claim to be “lesser” partners. Sara Packer had adopted 3-year-old Grace. She and her then-husband subjected the girl to abuse, which escalated with Packer’s next boyfriend, Jacob Sullivan. He’d always wanted to kill someone, according to his confession. In 2016 when Grace was 14, Packer and Sullivan raped and murdered her, then dismembered her body. Although Sullivan admitted to the murder, Packer said she’d wanted the girl dead. She'd watched. The key question during their legal proceedings was which one had originated the plan and which one had merely complied. “I got caught up in Jake’s fantasy,” Packer said during his trial. “I didn’t think I could say no without losing him.” However, her abuse predated her involvement with Sullivan and she admitted she’d groomed him to assault Grace. Once Grace was dead, Packer had controlled the cover-up narrative as well. She'd falsely minimized her role.

The most likely accomplice to assist the police is the forced and submissive type. Sometimes an equal partner will preemptively strike a deal if they see what’s coming, but the element of reluctance shows an incomplete psychological engagement with the crime. Some might still try to protect their partner, but they’re likely to cave under pressure. Those who have more to lose from talking will prove tougher to persuade.

References

Ramsland, K. & McGrain, P. (2010). Inside the minds of sexual predators. ABC-CLIO.

Warren J.I., & Hazelwood R.R. (2002). Relational patterns associated with sexual sadism: A study of twenty wives and girlfriends. Journal of Family Violence. 17, 75-89.

advertisement