Serial Killer Myth #4: They Want To Get Caught.

They get better and bolder with experience.

Posted Sep 08, 2014

NY Daily News/Fair Use
Joel Rifkin in custody
NY Daily News/Fair Use

It is popularly believed that serial killers secretly want to get caught. For the vast majority of them, however, this is simply not true. They love the act of killing too much. Serial killers gain confidence, satisfaction and are emboldened by their success, particularly during the early stages of their killing careers.

They are not experts from the start. As with all novice criminals, serial killers have no experience when they commit their first murder, although they may have fantasized about it for quite some time. The logistics involved in committing murder and disposing of the body for the very first time are complicated and require meticulous planning. Novice serial killers must learn how to target, approach, control, kill and dispose of their victims without being detected.

The learning curve for novice serial killers is very steep, indeed. Infamous and prolific serial killers such as Jeffrey Dahmer and Joel Rifkin have stated that their fist murder was by far the most difficult one for them. Serial killers gain valuable experience and confidence with each new, successful murder.

Along the way, they perfect all of their skills and techniques while minimizing problems and avoiding critical mistakes. In other words, serial killers get better and better at the business of murder with experience.

The skills and confidence gained through their experience make serial killers very difficult to apprehend. As they continue to operate and avoid capture, serial killers become increasingly emboldened and empowered. They relish their ability to kill and avoid detection and may come to believe they will never be apprehended. Such empowerment can cause serial killers to take more risks in their work.

By increasing the risk factors in their murders, such as killing during the daytime rather than at night, serial killers can enhance their excitement but such increased risk can also lead to their apprehension by law enforcement authorities if/when they make mistakes or the unexpected occurs.

Prolific serial killers who go undetected for long periods of time may begin to take shortcuts and become reckless or even careless in their work. A classic example of a veteran serial killer who became sloppy is Joel Rifkin, the most prolific serial killer of all time in the state of New York, who murdered seventeen prostitutes in the early 1990's.

Rifkin was unexpectedly and unceremoniously caught when his Mazda pickup truck was pulled over by a state trooper for having no rear license plate. Upon approaching the truck, the state trooper smelled the unmistakable stench of death and discovered the decomposing body of Rifkin’s final victim under a tarp in the back of the truck. When questioned about the corpse, Rifkin coldly replied, “She was a prostitute. I picked her up on Allen Street in Manhattan. I had sex with her. Then things went bad and I strangled her. Do you think I need a lawyer?”

It is simply inaccurate to say that serial killers want to get caught. Most serial killers love their work far too much for that to be true. Sometimes, however, empowered and emboldened serial killers come to believe they cannot get caught and begin to take unnecessary risks in order to heighten their excitement but which can lead to their apprehension.

In other instances, highly prolific serial killers may become bored, reckless or sloppy in their work and make mistakes that can lead to their apprehension. Any serial killer, no matter how meticulous, if he operates long enough will make an error that can result in his arrest.

I present much more about the motivations, fantasies and habits of notorious serial killers, including the “Son of Sam” based on my prison interview with him, in my best-selling book Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World's Most Savage Murderers. 

Dr. Scott Bonn is a criminologist, TV analyst, professor and author. He is available for consultation and media commentary. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website docbonn.com