Serial Murder and Serial Killers
Five trends in 2019
Posted Jan 27, 2020
An Indian woman accused of poisoning six of her relatives over a 14-year period. A Mexican couple arrested for killing women and selling their babies. A German nurse sentenced to life in prison for killing dozens of hospital patients. An unknown serial killer in Mexico accused of targeting car thieves, leaving tiny cars at the murder scene; a still-on-the loose serial murderer in Bangladesh killing alleged rapists. While many of us were watching remakes of Ted Bundy and Charles Manson’s misdeeds in the 70s and 80s, there were modern-day serial killers wreaking havoc with a variety of motives.
Perhaps it’s time we updated our view of serial murder. No longer can we rely on the “typical” criminal profile of the serial murderer; single, white male, loner, misfit, underemployed, twenty to thirty-something who murders after his longstanding deviant sexual fantasies no longer satisfy him and a stressful life event finally propels him to take action. Yes, we still have sexually motivated serial killers. But we also have serial killers who murder because it’s easier than divorce or out of revenge or because it’s fun. For many serial killers, control is much more a driver than sex.
Looking at the news, events, and research that has surfaced around serial murder in 2019, here are some additional themes that stand out:
1. It’s usually worse than it seems. Time and again, the crimes a suspected serial murderer were initially arrested turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. The most dramatic example of this has been the 93 murders Samuel Little has confessed to, including over 50 that have been confirmed so far. He was not even a suspect in many of these. There are other examples; Ohio serial killer Shawn Gate, convicted of the murder of 29-year old Elizabeth Griffin and 43-year old Stacey Stanley, pleaded guilty to the murders of three more women. And, after a show on U.K. serial Killer Levi Bellfield aired on Manhunt, several women forward to allege that they also were attacked by him but never went to the police.
2. Familial DNA is our new best friend. When it comes to investigative genealogy, there’s no doubt that there are some privacy concerns that have to be worked out; after all, if you’re swabbing your cheek to find out who your relatives are, it’s also fair that you know upfront that law enforcement might be using that same swab to shake violent offenders out of your family tree.
That being said, it’s hard to argue against the potential benefits of using investigative genealogy to solve crimes. Since the Golden State killer was nabbed in 2018, thanks to GEDmatch, a public DNA database, nearly 70 additional people suspected of murder or rape have been identified. In September 2019, Daytona Beach police arrested and charged former criminal justice student and suspected serial killer Robert Tyrenes Hayes with the murder at least 4 women between 2005 and 2016. A familial DNA test also led to the arrest of Samuel W. Leggett, III, a former truck driver suspected of killing at least 3 women decades ago. Of course, familial DNA also helps the innocent; last July, familial DNA was used to exonerate Christopher Tapp, who spent 20 years behind bars for a rape and murder he didn’t commit.
3. The mystique around serial killer hides some pretty dull facts. Serial killers may be interesting because they’re so hard to understand, but they’re not special. They’re not that smart. While there are bright outliers among serial killers, the average IQ of serial killers is slightly below the general population. They’re not brave either; serial killers often “succeed” not because of their cunning and masterful plan but because they either choose vulnerable victims (prostitutes, drug users, the homeless, hospital patients) or they take advantage of other people’s basic goodness. They stack the deck in their favor.
For example, one of Ted Bundy’s favorite tricks for luring his victims was to have a fake cast on his arm and pretend to need help putting something in his car. I still remember a heart-breaking interview years ago with a mother whose daughter was one of his victims. How could she second guess anything her daughter did that day, she said, since the kind and helpful nature that led into her into Bundy’s trap was also what made her so special?
4. Serial crime-fighting is becoming a community effort. Every day people are getting more involved in catching and solving serial crimes. There is the Murder Accountability Project, started by retired investigative journalist, Tom Hargrove, who has developed an algorithm he believes identifies serial killers by looking for clusters of unsolved cases with similar methods of killing within a specific geographic area; he believes there is at least one operating in Chicago. In 2019, a woman pleaded guilty to murdering three infants back in the 1980s; the deaths had initially been ruled as SIDs and no one had idea that Nancy Morenez was a serial killer until her adult daughter turned her in. And the family and friends of a serial killer’s final victim, twenty-year-old Sarah Butler, helped catch Khalil Wheeler-Weaver by working with law enforcement to create and publicize a fake online profile similar to their murdered daughter’s.
5. Two steps forward, one step back. Here’s the good news; data suggests that the number of serial killers has fallen 85% since the serial murder heyday in the 1970s and ‘80s. And the bad; as the number of serial killings has supposedly fallen, so too has the solve rate. In 1965, 91% of all U.S. homicide cases were cleared; by 2017, it had dropped to 61.6 percent, meaning that, almost 40% of the time, someone gets away with murder. It’s unclear how many of these are serial murderers but some experts believe that there are between 2000 and 4000 active and unidentified serial killers who are benefitting from increased expertise (studying other serial killers’ mistakes, conducting internet research on how to avoid detection) as well as societal trends such as increased access to victims (via the internet and social media) and constrained resources (police recruiting is down).
The Bottom Line
A few things stand out when I look at the events and trends among serial murder in 2019. One, it’s time to rethink – and expand – our ideas and assumptions about serial killers so we can recognize the diversity of motives, methods, and means that put us all at risk. Two, the dance between a serial offender and law enforcement is becoming more sophisticated. Investigators are developing some powerful tools to detect serial offenders; serial offenders are becoming increasingly sophisticated about forensic evidence.
Three, while understanding serial killers can help us spot them, catch them and – one day – intervene before they begin killing – there’s nothing particularly unique or special about them. Like any bully or coward, they only hurt people who are weaker or more vulnerable; as the African proverb says, “An elephant who kills a mouse is not a hero.”
If you're interested in forensic psychology, check out my website at drjonijohnston.com, where you can find more articles, my forensic radio show and true crime youtube channel.