Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Domestic Violence

Linking Serial Killers, Mass Murderers, and Child Abusers

Here's why it's time to take the "domestic" out of domestic violence.

Key points

  • Perpetrators of all different kinds of violence often have a history of intimate partner abuse.
  • Children, animals, strangers, and acquaintances can all be victimized.
  • Several serial killers and the majority of mass murderers have a history of domestic violence.
  • Domestic violence is often part of a larger savagery that is a societal problem, not an interpersonal one.
used with permission from unsplash and Andrew Haimerl
Source: used with permission from unsplash and Andrew Haimerl

As a crime writer as well as a forensic psychologist, I do a ton of research. I read about a lot of different kinds of murders. And it struck me last month, as I perused the true crime news, how often domestic violence was a part of a larger savagery. There was often a whole slew of victims besides intimate partners, strangers, coworkers, children, and animals.

Sure, there are often unique game plans that batterers use to keep their victims in line. We need to understand them so we can recognize and avoid them. But violence is violence.

Instead of focusing on the dynamics between the couple, maybe we’re better off viewing the batterer as a dangerous person looking around for a person to control and dominate. After all, intimate partner violence victims may engage in a range of coping strategies—fighting back, placating, hiding out of fear, trying to leave. That doesn't change the batterer's agenda.

And by carving out intimate partner violence, by focusing on the differences between battering and other kinds of brutality, I worry that it somehow seems less serious, that it frames it as more of a relationship problem than a crime; more of a personal issue than community danger. It wasn't that long ago when domestic violence was "none of our business."

Indiscriminate Rage

Here's an example of what I mean. We've all heard the tragic story of Gabby Petito and the documented domestic violence before her death. Since she was murdered in late August, countless psychologists, domestic violence experts, and former FBI profilers have offered their expertise in analyzing the coercive control that seemingly characterized their relationship.

Have you also heard of 41-year-old Jason Thornburg, an alleged serial killer who recently confessed to killing his 61-year-old roommate and three acquaintances near Fort Worth, Texas? Back in 2017, he was beating the hell out of his then-girlfriend, Tanya Begay. After a stint in the hospital due to her injuries, Tanya disappeared that year and her family never heard from her again. He recently confessed to her murder as well.

Then there is accused St. Paul bar shooter, Terry Lorenzo Brown, Jr. His criminal history included two convictions for domestic assault as well as two parole violations for disobeying no-contact orders. In 2017, he reportedly told the mother of his children that he would "put her in a casket." Last September, he assaulted a girlfriend and stole her gun.

These Aren't October Anomalies

We've long known that people willing to hurt their partners are, in general, also more willing to hurt others. More than a third of intimate partner batterers physically abuse their children. There is a strong connection between intimate partner violence and pet abuse.

But the violence potential extends far beyond the home. I couldn't find any statistics on how many serial killers were also batterers but can give plenty of examples, starting with another recently identified serial killer, Roberto Wagner Fernandes, whose DNA was just linked to three Florida murders back in 2000 and 2001. Turns out he had fled Brazil after being acquitted of murdering his wife in 1996, even though her family (and the majority of the public) firmly believe he did it. He had certainly hurt her before. There are others; Peter Tobin, Anthony Allen Shore. We haven’t even touched on the ones who witnessed domestic violence growing up or the ways this might have warped a young child’s psyche.

We do have stats when it comes to the tie between domestic violence and mass murderers. Between 2014 and 2019, almost 60% of mass shootings involved a perpetrator with a history of—or in the act of—domestic violence. The higher the body count, the greater the odds the aggressor was a batterer; by the time you get to 6 or more victims, the likelihood the perpetrator has a history of domestic violence is 70%. If you’re looking for some specific examples—Omar Mateen. Devin Kelley. Teodoro Macias.

The Bottom Line

As a mom, I need to educate my sons and daughters on the danger signs to look out for when they’re on a date. I need to help them torpedo a relationship that is turning out to be toxic. But we can’t stop there.

The line between hurting a partner and hurting someone else is surprisingly thin. What we call “domestic” violence is a community danger that puts us all at risk. It not only makes relationships more perilous. It makes rocking at concerts, heading off to work, attending classes—even celebrating birthdays—riskier as well. And if we can each be hurt by it, we can each do something about it.


If you're interested in true crime and forensic pschology, check out my book on serial killers, my youtube channel, my Medium blog or my free weekly newsletter.

More from Psychology Today

More from Joni E Johnston Psy.D.

More from Psychology Today