Why Spree Killers Are Not Serial Killers

Spree killers do not cool off between murders like serial killers.

Posted Jul 21, 2014

While mass murder is manifested in one catastrophic event, such as the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, and serial homicide involves at least three murders (and crime scenes) separated by an emotional cooling off period in between, spree killing is comprised of multiple homicides committed at two or more locations with almost no time break in between the events. 

Stated differently, spree killing involves the murder of multiple people at different locations over a short period of time in which there is no cooling-off period between murders. 

More specifically, spree killers do not come down from the high of their first murder or resume their seemingly normal lives in between killings as serial killers do. The maximum duration between murders in spree killing is generally considered to be seven days. Serial killers, on the other hand, may cool off for weeks, months and, in rare instances, even years between murders.  

The perpetrator in a spree killing often, but not always, knows his/her victims and frequently targets either family members or romantic partners, often for purposes of retaliation or in a fit of rage. This is very different than serial killers, who are much more likely to stalk and target complete strangers who somehow fulfill deranged and secret fantasies that only they understand. 

One of the most infamous killing sprees in recent history involved the Beltway Sniper attacks that took place in October 2002 in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. During a span of twenty-three days that gripped the public in fear, ten people were killed, and three other victims were critically injured, in separate locations throughout the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and along Interstate 95 in Virginia. 

What initially appeared to be random killings perpetrated by a lone shooter in a white van actually turned out to be the work of two highly organized, homicidal partners involved in a massive, multi-state killing spree that terrified millions of Americans.  

After their capture, it was revealed that the shootings were carried out by a forty-two-year-old man named John Allen Muhammad and his seventeen-year-old male accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo. The duo used a blue 1990 Chevrolet Caprice sedan as a sniper’s nest — that is, they shot their victims from the customized trunk of their car using a high powered rifle.  

The massive three-week manhunt for the Beltway Snipers came to an end on October  24, 2002, when a team of Maryland State Police, Montgomery County SWAT officers, and FBI agents from the Hostage Rescue Team arrested the pair without a struggle as they slept in their car at a rest stop on Interstate 70 near Myersville, Maryland. 

Defense attorneys in the Malvo trial and the prosecution in Muhammad's trial argued that Muhammad’s ultimate goal of the killing spree was to murder his ex-wife, Mildred, so that he could regain custody of his three estranged children. Such highly personal and retaliatory motivations are common in both spree killings and mass murders, but not at all common in serial murders. 

After their convictions for first-degree murder in separate trials, Muhammad was executed by lethal injection in 2009, and Malvo was given a life sentence, which he is now serving.  

In the end, it is the emotional cooling-off period that distinguishes serial killing from spree killing. Otherwise, the two are very similar. However, the emotional cooling-off period in serial killing is all-important, because it is linked to very different motivations to kill than those found in spree killing. 

Spree killings are triggered by emotional upheavals and often involve victims who are acquaintances or family of the perpetrator, while serial killings are generally unemotional, driven by long-term and deep-seated fantasies, and involve victims who are unknown to the killer. 

I offer many other shocking insights into the minds and actions of deranged predators in my book Why We Love Serial Killers, which was released by Skyhorse Press in October 2014. 

Dr. Scott Bonn is professor of sociology and criminology at Drew University. He is available for consultation and media commentary. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website docbonn.com.