Educated Serial Killers

Which serial killers actually earned college or graduate degrees?

Posted Sep 13, 2015

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

Recently someone asked me how many serial killers have gone to college. It’s an interesting question, because no matter which aspect of the current stereotype one accepts, the answer might be surprising.

One notion holds that they're transient loners with poor focus and no life plan, aside from fulfilling their deviant desires. They’re not likely to get beyond high school. So, the fact that some serial killers have achieved academic distinction would contradict this.

Another claim (based on a small sample) holds that serial killers are quite smart. Why, then, would relatively few have applied themselves in higher education? (By the way, the list below derives from those we have identified; it would not account for those smart or wily enough to stay under the radar.)

When I compile a list of some of our educated serial killers, I’m more inclined to ponder the subject areas that attracted them than why some got degrees and others didn’t.

While quite a few who initially enrolled in college didn’t make it all the way to a degree, some did. A few went even further. The degrees I looked at tend to cluster in certain areas: medicine, education, the social sciences, or a practical discipline.

Among the most accomplished are Michael Swango, H. H. Holmes, Marcel Petiot (raced through medical school), and Harold Shipman, who all became doctors of one sort or another. Some female serial killers, like Kristin Gilbert, got nursing degrees, as did several predatory male nurses, like Charles Cullen. Gay killer Richard Rogers, a pediatric nurse, had been studying French in graduate school.

Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, achieved a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Michigan (where H. H. Holmes had gone to medical school). Michael Ross attended an Ivy League university, Cornell, and got his prestigious undergraduate degree in agriculture, with the intent of running a business. John Wayne Gacy, a high school dropout, managed to enroll in and graduate from Northwestern Business College.

A unique degree in fine arts was awarded by UCLA to “Dating Game Killer” Rodney Alcala, just before he raped and nearly killed an eight-year-old girl, which forced him to flee to New York. He enrolled at NYU, studying with Roman Polanksi, before he was nabbed for the CA crime. Some sources say he completed another degree at NYU, but others say he only came close. He did become a skilled photographer (and murderer).

Let’s not forget those predators who formally studied cops: Timothy Krajcir received a BA in the Administration of Justice from Southern Illinois University Carbondale (with a minor in psychology), and Dennis "BTK" Rader received a similar degree from Wichita State University (as well as an associate’s degree in electronics at another college).

Still in the social sciences, Ted Bundy, picking up a degree in psychology before he entered law school, learned one of his ruses from psychology experiments. Colonel Russell Williams, formerly the commander of a large Canadian military base, received a BA in economics and political science at the University of Toronto.

Randy Kraft, a highly intelligent computer analyst, might have killed dozens of men while on his way toward a career. He went to Claremont College to pursue a BA in economics. He had to repeat some courses toward the end, but he got there.

Then there was John Norman Collins, Michigan’s suspected “Coed Killer,” who was just short of getting his degree in elementary education when he was arrested. Gerard Schaeffer became a teacher as well before getting fired for inappropriate behavior. Prolific Russian killer Andrei Chikatilo was also a teacher who lost his job over such accusations. Texas "Eyeball Killer" Charles Albright nearly got a degree in education, but was expelled from college for theft. Unfazed, he falsified a BA and MA for himself. Why not go the distance!

This list is not exhaustive, but it shows that 1) some serial killers do focus well enough to stay a long and challenging course, and 2) there appear to be few of them relative to the number of serial killers who don’t.

Readers: If there are some I missed, let me know and I’ll add them.

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