Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Not All Serial Killers Must Keep On Killing

There are serial killers who stop murdering altogether before being caught.

Michigan Dept. of Corrections
Jeffrey Wayne Gorton
Source: Michigan Dept. of Corrections

There are many commonly held myths about serial killers. A popular myth is that once serial killers start killing, they simply cannot stop unless killed or apprehended.

Although this claim may seem reasonable due to the fact that serial killers are compelled to kill by inner demons, it is simply inaccurate. There are serial killers who stop murdering altogether before ever being caught or killed.

Although not completely understood, in such instances, there typically are events or circumstances that occur in the offenders’ lives that inhibit them from continuing a life of murder. These events might include an increased participation in family life, substitute sexual gratification, an alternate method of experiencing power/control, or another diversion.

Not all serial killers constantly troll for new victims in between murders. Some are able to successfully hide out in plain sight for extended periods of time. Those who successfully blend in are typically also employed, have families and homes, and outwardly appear to be non-threatening, normal members of society. Because serial killers can appear to be so innocuous, they are often overlooked by law enforcement officials, as well as their own families and peers.

In some rare cases, an unidentified serial killer will even socialize and become friendly with the unsuspecting police detectives who are tracking him. Ed Kemper, the “Co-ed Killer, provides an example of this phenomenon.

Serial killers who hide out in plain sight are able to do so precisely because they look just like everyone else. It is their ability to blend in that makes them very dangerous, frightening, and yet very compelling to the general public.

Consider a classic example of an unassuming and seemingly mild-mannered individual who was actually a prolific serial killer. His name is Dennis Rader, AKA “Bind, Torture, Kill” or the BTK Strangler. He murdered at least 10 people in Wichita, Kansas, over a 20-year period prior to his capture in 2005. He pled guilty and received 10 consecutive life sentences.

Prior to his arrest, Rader was married for 34 years with two children, a Boy Scout leader, employed as a local government official, and was the president of his church congregation. His alter ego, BTK, on the other hand, was a stone-cold killer who sought power, control, and domination of his victims. The torture of his victims gratified BTK and strangling the life out of them made him feel like God.

Throughout the years that he was committing his murders, Rader lived a remarkably normal-looking outward life and he was perceived to be a pillar in his community. Inwardly, however, BTK was secretly satisfying his sexual needs and delaying his compulsion to kill for months and even years at a time through autoerotic fantasies combined with masturbation in which he relived his murders with the aid of trophies taken from his victims.

Following his capture, Rader confessed to murdering 10 victims between 1974 and 1991. Significantly, there is no evidence that he killed anyone from 1992 until his capture in 2005.

As part of my research on this topic, I corresponded with Rader through the mail between 2010 and 2014. In our correspondence, he readily admitted to me that he engaged in autoerotic activities as a substitute for murder to satisfy his sexual desires between killings and to delay his need to kill. In fact, he bragged to me about his ability to delay killing through his autoerotic fantasies and said that society should be grateful to him for not killing more people as a result.

In another example of a serial killer who stopped killing, Jeffrey Wayne Gorton killed his first victim in 1986 and his next victim five years later in 1991. He never killed again and was finally captured in 2002. Similar to Rader, in order to satisfy his desires when he wasn’t killing, Gorton said that he engaged in cross-dressing and fantasy, masturbatory activities, and consensual sex with his wife.

Also, the infamous and iconic serial killers Jack the Ripper in nineteenth-century London, and the Zodiac Killer in 1960s San Francisco, were never apprehended but their now-legendary killing sprees ended abruptly and mysteriously. Their ability to elude apprehension and vanish has added to their mystique.

Contrary to mythology, not all serial killers are compelled to kill forever once they start. Some go uncaptured—but for reasons still unclear—they simply fade away.

Dr. Scott Bonn is a criminologist, best-selling author, professor, and TV analyst.