Having watched yet another movie about serial killers, who are actually rare, I figured it might be interesting to take a look at what these loons are really like. So I dragged out my copy of Sexual Homicides, by Ressler, Burgess, and Douglas, of the FBI’s old Behavioral Sciences Unit at Quantico. These folk did detailed studies of various serial killers, looking for patterns. They found some.
Serials are a tad more complicated than the movies might suggest. Though I don’t think it’s well known outside of law enforcement, they fall into two fairly distinct categories, organized and disorganized.
First, the organized serial. He plans his crime with careful attention to avoiding capture, leaving little evidence. Often he will remove the body from the scene and carefully dispose of it, making detection difficult.
The victim is likely to be a stranger, which makes things harder for the police: There is no obvious motive. However, she will often be a certain type of woman. (Usually it’s a woman). For example, the killer may specialize in prostitutes or tall blondes or hitchhiking college students. He tends to be socially adept, normally dressed, with little or nothing to suggest that he is other than a normal man.
The ordinariness makes them especially dangerous. They can talk victims into situations allowing them to be kidnapped or killed. Not unusually they can be charming. Jeff Dahmer, for example, was an engaging guy.
The organized serial may rape or torture his victim for extended periods of time before killing her, and often does so according to a particular pattern or ritual.
The organized serial tends to be of average or better intelligence, though not usually of the Hannibal Lector level. They are “sexually competent,” meaning experienced and having no difficulties in performance. They often drink before committing the crime. Oddly, they frequently living with a wife or girlfriend. Often they will collect souvenirs in the form of body parts or articles of clothing and so on. Dahmer, for example, kept parts of his victims and sometimes ate them, which isn’t uncommon.
An additional problem is that the organized serial is mobile, usually having a car, so that there is no obvious geographical connection to him. In fact, sometimes it isn’t clear that a serial killer is involved. If he kills one victim in one county, and six months later another across a state line, police in one jurisdiction may not even hear of the other murder. Nothing connects the two, so they look like ordinary murders.
The organized serial will frequently follow the investigation carefully in the press, as evidenced by clippings found in his home after capture.
By contrast, the disorganized serial is very much a different kind of man. His murders tend to be impulsive. He doesn’t bring a weapon, but uses whatever is handy. He makes little effort to avoid leaving evidence, and the crime scene is often in disarray.
He is typically of low intelligence and socially inadequate. Unlike the organized serial, he tends to be of low birth-order (not something that would have spontaneously occurred to me.) He often has never had a girlfriend, hasn’t been married, and may never have engaged in sex. Frequently he lives in the region where he commits the murder. He doesn’t drink as part of preparation for murder and, unlike the organized serial, seldom moves away from his home. Often he lives alone or with a parental figure.
He doesn’t charm the victim into his car or to a convenient location. Instead he attacks violently, out of the blue. Any sadistic behavior or sexual assault comes after the victim is dead. Mutilation of the victim is common.
“Disorganized offenders might keep the dead body. One murderer killed two women and kept their body parts in his home for eight years. He made masks from their heads and drums and seat covers from their skins. Earlier he had exhumed the bodies of eight elderly women from their graves and performed similar mutilative acts on their bodies.”
One doesn’t want to be judgmental, but this fellow sounds as if he had a problem.
From the perspective of law enforcement, the these patterns are worth knowing. For example, if the crime scene suggests a disorganized killer, cops can profitably look for socially inadequate loners living in the immediate area. While the organized killer is harder to catch, knowing that he is one gives a better idea who to look for.
Serial killers in a nutshell. A great way to start a day.
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