Dark Connections

Serial killers, murder, and love gone wrong on the internet.

Posted Jul 28, 2020

Much has been said about the perils of children and online predators. As a recent case in California so painfully illustrates, no amount of warning or teaching can guarantee the safety of an innocent child. In July 2020, 13-year-old Patricia Alatorre was raped and murdered after getting into the car of a 24-year-old man she had met online. There are too many stories like this one.    

But children aren’t the only vulnerable prey, serial predators aren’t the only danger and sex isn’t the only goal. The FBI is now investigating the recent attempted murder of the 18-year-old Holden White, a self-identified gay man who was lured to the home of a Lafayette teen under the pretense of a date and mutilated for hours. It is unclear whether this murder is the result of an argument or a hate crime [the killer told a former partner he fantasized about killing a gay man]. What internet murder cases make clear is that internet murder can be coldly premeditated or a crime of passion.    

A Web of Deceit

Let’s first explore the serial predators. These are the surfers who are out for some nefarious goal. Murder is typically a byproduct of, or a secondary part, of the real agenda—getting some kind of sexual satisfaction. The predator coldly and calculatedly grooms his victim with praise, future plans, and/or sympathy to establish a false sense of intimacy; once the victim is hooked, the predator moves in for the catch.   

If a recent research study is a snapshot of a bigger picture, the internet is a virtual hunting ground for serial predators; while less than 2 percent of first-degree homicides are committed by serial offenders, this study found that, out of 61 online murderers, eight—13 percent—had killed multiple times. Perhaps you’ve heard of internet serial killers John Robinson, Stephen Port, or Khalil Wheeler-Weaver.     

Online dangers are more diverse than you might realize. Not all predators are looking for sex. There are the romance scammers, who typically steal money but sometimes take lives. There have been internet murderers who stole identities, unborn babies, or sought social status. Their luring strategies are different; they typically offer to help their victims (a job offer, free baby clothes, money in exchange for a product/service) at a time when they need it. 

Just how complicated internet murder plots can be is evidenced by a 2019 case in which 21-year old Darin Schilmiller posed as multimillionaire “Tyler,” developed an online relationship with 18-year-old Denali Brehmer, and convinced her to carry out and videotape a murder in exchange for a (nonexistent) payment of nine million dollars. Accepting the murder-for-hire assignment, Denali then recruited several of her friends to help her murder her 19-year-old best friend, Cynthia Hoffman. The entire plot was hatched online; Denali Brehmer lived in Alaska, Darin Schilmiller lived in Indiana, and the two of them never met face to face.    

When Fantasy Meets Reality

Most of us, of course, would never accept a murder assignment, nor would we believe that an unseen millionaire would hire us to carry one out. By now, most of us know how easy it is to lie online and we proceed with caution if we accept a date from someone we meet online. Dating sites are becoming more proactive about screening sex offenders from their list of members (although some free apps reportedly still do not check sex offender registries). 

But there’s another online danger that’s easy to overlook; the rage over a fantasy online romance that doesn’t match reality. We’ve all met someone that we idolized over the phone or during a first date, only to realize fairly quickly that the person is not who we thought. We see how she or he really acts—throws temper tantrums when he doesn’t get his way or seems to be a little too possessive—and the allure fades. Or your friends and family, who tend to adopt and adore your significant others, think something is “off.” It may be awkward to backpedal our way out of an early relationship, but it’s rarely dangerous. 

Online relationships are different. Spending hours texting or messaging between two people can create a false sense of intimacy, especially when those hours are spent in deep conversations about our hopes, dreams, families, and values. This is especially true in today’s time, where COVID-19 has limited more traditional options. People are lonelier and, as a result, are getting deeper with their conversations. Tinder messages, for instance, have gotten 30% longer during quarantine.  

But there’s a lot we miss when we’re not physically with someone, including potential danger signs. We miss all the nonverbal cues—facial expression, tone, body language—that tell us most about what a person really means. How do we know if someone is lying? We miss the contexts that tell us what the person is really like; what she does when she’s cut off in traffic, how he handles stress, what s/he is like with friends, family, and coworkers. Not only does this limit our ability to gauge what s/he says (as opposed to does), the not knowing creates a space for fantasy to fill in the gaps. We fall for a fantasy that seems real. 

This may be why 50% of the internet murders are driven by emotions rather than calculation. These murders did not involve outright subterfuge or deception. Instead, even though the murder typically occurred during the first face-to-face meeting between two people who had become acquainted online, the violence was a result of an argument or conflict, such as that you would see between two people who had been dating. The longer an online relationship goes on without an in-person reality check, the harder it can be to predict how someone will react if one person is disappointed by the reality and the other wants the fantasy to continue. At the least, it can be disappointing; at its worst, it can be deadly.    

The Bottom Line

The internet is not inherently good or evil. It can be used for crime and it can be used for crime-fighting. When it comes to murder, much of the bad things that start online are replicas of the bad things that happen in the real world. However, while no one would argue that the internet causes murder, it can be used in a multiple of ways to facilitate it; as an encyclopedia (to research it), a platform (to broadcast or brag about it), a trigger (murder arising out of online conflicts), a marketplace (where people solicit it) or a hunting ground (to find victims). It is the unique ability of the internet to facilitate murder that we have to be aware of and guard against.

References

If you are interested in more forensic psychology topics, visit my website, true crime YouTube channel, and forensic psychology podcast.