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Serial Murder



2.1 Serial Murder

When the throat of Victorian prostitute Polly Nichols was slashed in Buck’s Row on Bank Holiday, August 31, 1888, serial murder became part of our cultural lexicon (Rumbelow, 1988). Jack the Ripper was certainly not the first nor last of his type, but the unsolved mystery of the Whitechapel murders still symbolizes our inability to understand these dangerous predators. Serial murder is a frightening and perplexing phenomenon that has proven to be a difficult puzzle for both criminal investigators and criminological researchers. Despite being a rare event, this crime has a broad-based impact on the larger community (Jenkins, 1992a; Silverman & Kennedy, 1993). Fear, shock, repugnance, scientific curiosity, and morbid fascination are all common reactions to such cases (see Dietz, 1995). There are also growing concerns about the increase in the prevalence of these dangerous predators. It has even been suggested that serial killers are the quintessential criminal of a violent, postmodern society (Carputi, 1990; Richter, 1989; see Ellis, 1991; Kerr, 1992).

Adequate definitions and typologies are necessary for the study of any phenomenon. Serial murder means different things to different people, and the label risks lumping a diverse group of offenders into a single synthetic category. As Clifford Robert Olson, Canada’s most infamous serial murderer, aptly states (uncorrected quotation): “We cant look into other serial killers minds as to what they do unless they allow to give there thoughts and views, You dont find many that have done this any place” (personal communication, September 10, 1991). The thoughts of interviewed serial killers show just as many differences as they do commonalities.

Murder, abhorrent as it may be, is still possible to understand. Feelings of anger, betrayal, and frustration; motives of revenge, money, and expediency;

© 2000 by CRC Press LLC

assaults that cross the line between injury and death — all these are within the scope of our imagination. Indeed, it has been said that almost anyone is a potential killer. Serial murder, however, is beyond our normal range of experience. It is what the ghost of Hamlet’s father describes as “foul and most unnatural murder.” Unfortunately, this strangeness does not facilitate efforts to explain, predict, and prevent.

2.1.1Definitions and Typologies

Patterns of murders committed by one person, in large numbers with no apparent rhyme, reason, or motivation.

— Title of hearings before the U.S. Senate, 98th Congress, on the issue of serial murder; Patterns of Murders, 1983

Defining serial murder is less than straightforward and attempts to distinguish and classify the phenomenon are often inconsistent. The label multiple murder2 is generally used to refer to mass, spree, and serial murders. Time interval between separate offences is the most common variable used to distinguish these groupings (Holmes & De Burger, 1988). Mass murder involves those incidents where several victims are killed simultaneously, or within a relatively brief time period — a “sustained burst” (Leyton, 1986). Holmes and De Burger (1988) define mass murder as “the slaying of several people, in the same general area, at roughly the same time, by a lone assailant” (p. 18).

Spree killings, an intermediate classification between mass and serial murder, involve those incidents where several victims, usually selected randomly, are killed over a relatively short period (hours to weeks) by a reckless, impulsive assailant (Holmes & De Burger, 1988). The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines spree murders as those characterized by “killing at two or more locations with no emotional cooling-off period between murders. The killings are all the result of a single event, which can be of short or long duration” (Ressler et al., 1988, p. 139).

Definitions of serial murder are more problematic as the time periods involved are greater. Brooks, Devine, Green, Hart, and Moore (1987) provide the following definition of serial murder:

Serial murder is defined as a series of two or more murders, committed as separate events, usually, but not always, by one offender acting alone. The crimes may occur over a period of time ranging from hours to years. Quite

2 The term multicide has also been used to refer to instances where an offender kills more than one victim (Dickson, 1958).

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often the motive is psychological, and the offender’s behavior and the physical evidence observed at the crime scenes will reflect sadistic, sexual overtones. (p. vii)

Keeney and Heide (1994a) review and criticize ten different definitions for serial murder from the literature, and then suggest an eleventh, more inclusive, description. Perhaps the simplest and most functional definition is the one used by the FBI:

Serial murderers are involved in three or more separate events with an emotional cooling-off period between homicides. This type of killer usually premeditates his crimes, often fantasizing and planning the murder in every aspect, with the possible exception of the specific victim. Then, when the time is right for him and he has cooled off from his last homicide, he selects his next victim and proceeds with his plan. The cool-off period can be days, weeks, or months and is the main element that separates the serial killer from other multiple killers. (Ressler et al., 1988, p. 139)

Other researchers have proposed replacing counts of crime with an assessment of propensity to re-offend (Kocsis & Irwin, 1998; see below). Holmes and De Burger (1988) suggest the following elements as central to serial murder: (1) a pattern of repetitive homicide; (2) one victim and one assailant per murder event; (3) victim and perpetrator are strangers or slight acquaintances; (4) murders are psychogenic in origin; and (5) a lack of an obvious motive (though intrinsic motives, nonrational to an outsider, may exist).

The condition of one victim and one assailant per murder event are not central elements of serial murder. There is no shortage of cases involving incidents of more than one victim per attack (Kenneth Bianchi, Edmund Kemper III, and Richard Ramirez, for example). And four separate studies have determined multiple offenders are involved in a significant percentage of serial murder cases: (1) 14% (Hickey, 1997); (2) 21% (Jenkins, 1990); (3) 11.9% (Rossmo, 1995a); and (4) 25% (Simonetti, 1984). These estimates suggest that over one quarter of serial killers operate as teams or in groups (e.g., 28% in Hickey’s study), though Newton (1992) found 87% of the American serial killers in his sample were “lone wolves.”

Holmes and De Burger (1988) divide serial murderers into four categories (one of which is broken down into three subcategories) according to motive, pattern of homicidal behaviour, and decision-making process. This grouping is based on such variables as victim selection, choice of murder location, and method of killing. They derived their classification from an analysis of the crime behaviour patterns of 110 serial murderers, using interview and biographical data, court transcripts, case studies, and clinical reports as information sources. Their schema is as follows.

© 2000 by CRC Press LLC

1.Visionary motive serial murderers hear messages and see visions that create a “rationale” for the killings.

2.Mission-oriented motive serial murderers believe that they have a task to accomplish, involving the elimination of some “sinful” group such as prostitutes from society.

3.Hedonistic motive serial murderers derive pleasure from the homicidal act. This type is subdivided into: (1) lust killers, who typically indulge in sexual sadism, anthropophagy, piquerism, or necrophilia;

(2)thrill killers, who enjoy the “high” of murder; and (3) comfort killers, who are oriented towards enjoying life, a goal facilitated through the use of someone else’s money (e.g., “black widow” murderers).

4.Power/control-oriented motive serial murderers seek dominance over others. Control of a person’s life and death is seen as the ultimate act of power.

Barrett (1990) proposes a five-category scheme for classifying serial murderers by motive, based on a cross between the Holmes and De Burger typology, and the FBI system for classifying serial rapists (Hazelwood, 1995):

(1) the visionary serial killer; (2) the revenge serial killer; (3) the anger excitation serial killer; (4) the power assertive serial killer; and (5) the opportunist serial killer. Fox and Levin (1992) also propose a modified Holmes and De Burger typology, with three categories, each with two subtypes: (1) thrill serial killers — (a) sexual sadism, (b) dominance; (2) mission serial killers — (a) reformist, (b) visionary; and (3) expedience serial killers — (a) profit, (b) protection. They note thrill killings are the most common, and expedience killings the least common types. Rappaport (1988) divides serial killers into functionaries of organized crime groups, custodial poisoners and asphyxiators, psychotics, and sexual sadists. This grouping is somewhat confusing, however, as it is based on a mixture of method and cause.

Serial murder definitions and taxonomies are problematic because of ambiguities concerning victim number and temporal spacing.3 Some types of multiple murder — the Nazi concentration camp massacres, ethnic cleansing, political terrorism killings, and organized crime contract executions — cannot be accurately classified within these parameters (Levin & Fox, 1985; Leyton, 1986; see Dillon, 1989). In Pennsylvania, there is a town square monument to Tom Quick, the celebrated Delaware “Indian Slayer,” who was responsible for 99 kills (Randall, 1988). Yet many of these deaths were legally murders, occurring after the signing of peace treaties. By some definitions,

3 See Ball and Curry (1995) for a discussion of the logic, methods, and errors of definition within criminology.

© 2000 by CRC Press LLC