3 Reasons Serial Killers Claim They Have More Victims
Why some killers say their victim toll is higher than official records state.
Posted Aug 17, 2018
This week, South Carolina serial killer Todd Kohlhepp, convicted of seven murders, claimed he has two additional victims buried near an interstate. Investigators will take him out of prison to help them locate the areas to dig. They’re not yet sure who the victims are. "We haven’t been able to confirm anything he’s claimed yet," one official stated. "But we're obligated to go check."
Another dig might happen in Britain, Last week, deceased British killer Fred West was in the news because Hollywood screenwriter Paul Pender insists that West had more victims than official narratives state. Pender received a tip-off from a man who’d worked with West’s first wife in Glasgow. In 1994, West and his second wife Rosemary were accused of murdering 12 people. He liked to bury victims, and Pender thinks more are buried in Glasgow.
We’ll see what happens with both—and anyone familiar with these cases knows that both serial killers were certainly capable of having more.
These news stories remind me of the many killers who’ve claimed they had more victims than they were ever charged with, leaving people guessing as to who (or where) those victims might be. Israel Keyes said he had as many as eight more than the three to which he confessed—but like West, he killed himself in prison before revealing where he’d buried them.
It's likely that compassion for families with missing loved ones is low on their list of motives—so why would serial killers admit further culpability? Data suggests that mostly, their reasons are self-serving. The cases mentioned here are illustrative, not exhaustive. From my own files, the following three motives are most often evident.
1) Delight in Duping
After the police arrested Glen Rogers in 1995, wanted in connection with five murders, he took credit for seventy, including the brutal double homicide of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. He later said he was only joking. (He was ultimately convicted in two.)
The most infamous trickster-confessor was Henry Lee Lucas, arrested in 1983. He estimated he’d killed 100 people, but eventually raised that number to over 350 in twenty-seven states. Dozens of law officers came to Texas to close their open cases, providing Lucas with outings and meals. He enjoyed it all, but then suddenly recanted. Then he confused everyone by insisting he’d been forced to recant. Then some of his confessions were proven false. He didn’t care—in fact, that appeared to be part of his goal, according to later testimony. "I set out to break and corrupt any law enforcement officer I could get,” Lucas said. “I think I did a pretty good job."
2) Impression Management
H. H. Holmes was convicted in Philadelphia in 1896 for a fatal insurance fraud. He insisted he was innocent, but for $10,000 he proclaimed himself the world’s most notorious killer, claiming 100 victims before reducing that number to twenty-seven. “The newspaper wanted a sensation,” he said. Before stepping into the noose, he admitted to only two. The truth was somewhere in the middle—but he’d enjoyed his spotlight of fame, which has persisted to this day.
In 1995, Robert Charles Browne pleaded guilty to the 1991 murder in Colorado of thirteen-year-old Heather Dawn Church. Five years later, he sent cryptic notes to Texas prosecutors that suggested more victims: “The score is you 1, the other team, 48.” Eventually he admitted he’d been killing since 1970, in nine different states. Yet he provided specific information in less than half of the cases. When his total reached 49, he “became” America’s most prolific known serial killer, beating by one the record set at the time by “Green River Killer” Gary Ridgway. This confession, while certainly fame-enhancing, triggered considerable skepticism. Investigators have yet to corroborate his claims with evidence.
Speaking of Ridgeway—Special Agent Mary Ellen O’Toole from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit interviewed him. He’d initially confessed to 71, before settling on the official toll of 48 (now 49). She had this to say: “In my opinion, many of these people have an egotistical need to control and manipulate, and some like to be bigger and badder than the other guy.” Ridgway still insists there are many more than official records state.
During the 1980s and 1990s, some serial killers gave outrageously high victim counts to enhance their degree of infamy. Larry Eyler, Donald Leroy Evans, Richard Bigenwald, Pee Wee Gaskins and Paul John Knowles all claimed to have killed many more people than police were able to link to them, while Joseph Fischer’s numbers increased with each talk show appearance. By that time, society had become so fascinated with serial killers that it seemed that people would believe anything they said. Yet the numbers were often found to be exaggerated or entirely false.
3) Enhance Their Own Importance
Ted Bundy made several different victim estimates, from 30 to over 100. He told Hugh Aynesworth that for every “publicized” murder there “could be one that was not,” but he assured an attorney that 35 was right. He sought to prove his worth as a “scientific specimen” to Supervisory Special Agent William Hagmaier, from the FBI’s budding Behavioral Science Unit, offering him 30 homicides. Sometimes Bundy would suggest that he had a lot to say, but he’d need more time than his approaching execution date would allow. He pretended he wanted to help close cases, but he doled out information to serve his own ends. (Israel Keyes, who emulated Bundy, did the same thing.) Bundy might also have wanted to project an image of “badness” to other inmates in the prison, which puts him into the category above.
But with the notoriety attached to serial killers, and the many true crime narratives willing to make them into “the world’s worst” to attract audiences, higher victim tolls are often accepted as fact. However, given the self-serving nature of these claims, we should be cautious about what to believe. Certainly, we want to locate missing victims, but evidence should outweigh claims that killers won’t help to corroborate.
Ramsland, K. (2006). Inside the minds of serial killers: Why they kill. Praeger.