Thursday, October 12, 2017
The Atypical Homicide Research Group was initially formed as the brainchild of a fellow scholar and man that became my mentor and friend. Leonard Morgenbesser, the anti-gun-violence advocate and researcher at the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision of Albany, sought to assemble a small group of academic researchers, mental health practitioners and law enforcement officers, to better understand the sexually violent offender. Leonard was distraught about the lack of a safe space for researchers to converse about topics that affect them on a professional or personal level. He wondered why he could not simply email a query to a group of experts willing to provide feedback. When I met Leonard at a conference in Binghamton, New York in 2011, the groundwork for such a collaborative had been in the process of forming since 2005 when Robert Ressler encouraged me to survey some of the top criminologists in the world during my internship at the FBI Academy. Before their passing, both Leonard and Robert had fostered in me the unwavering feeling that drawing upon expertise outside of my own limited viewpoint was an acceptable avenue to venture down.
Those surveys highlighted a huge problem in the field of atypical homicide research: a dearth of data or any effort to systematically control the quality of what had been gathered up to that point. Combating the antiquated viewpoints that had been built up would require hordes of data, some of which existed in many disparate formats across researchers that worked without interacting with one another. I set out to correct this deficit by convincing my fellow researchers to share their data with one another, an unprecedented act that called for a mix of ignorance and bravery. I quickly came to understand that the course of this path would be unpredictable and treacherous as factions had formed due to previous conflicts and distrust. Some of these obstacles may never be overcome as my recent research explores the biases often too ingrained in the personalities of those that study atypical killers. I knew that convincing others to buy into a reliance on technology to aid in understanding serial crime and mass violence through information sharing and discussion was critical but I became known as the “data pest” to many that openly criticized the use of such techniques. Being cognizant of my colleague’s fallibility required me to occasionally excuse their questionable behavior and take their deficits into consideration. Engaging in these processes helped me to mentally bypass much of the treatment directed at me over the years.
As my favorite fictional academic, Professor McGonagall, asks aloud after Harry Potter saves Ron Weasley from being poisoned, I too asked why these actions were necessary. Answering that question required some historical background and education about how atypical homicide research had been conducted to that point. In 1989, a behavioral analyst stated that ‘We know of at least 50 serial murderers out there. We have no idea where they are or what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.” Over the next 25 years, serial murderers would erroneously be typed as having a “compulsion” to kill for fun due to evilness and wickedness. Serial murder was said to be committed with a repetitive pattern as an emotionless, involuntary act with only one motivation and method used throughout the entire series. Past research attempts have been categorized as “dealing with narrowly defined acts and the most sensational cases.” Lack of reliable data has contributed to the slowing of research on serial crime and is a key obstacle. For decades, much of the study of atypical offenders took place among small teams in information silos using prototypical singular case studies like to Ted Bundy, John Gacy and David Berokwitz to inform about the entire population of offenders. Because each team defined atypical homicide in different ways, statements made by one researcher often conflicted with those made by others. Rivalries and adversarial relationships formed as researchers were not keen to share their insights since they generally served as the foundation for published works. One such book was fashioned into a show released on Netflix yesterday. David Fincher’s Mindhunter is based on a book by a former FBI profiler which chronicles his and a fellow agent’s journey into the minds of serial killers. These agents famously trumped the rules of their superiors and conducted a series of interviews with 25 confined serial offenders. Researchers in the audience might scoff at generalizing findings from an N of 25 to a population as diverse as serial killers, but findings from this study are still cited today 30 years later. The FBI still maintains purview over the investigation of serial homicide cases even without maintaining a dataset of serial killers. Instead, this criminal act has been exploited for entertainment value by shows like Criminal Minds and a recent miniseries on the Unabomber. Written by former agents, these efforts expand the lore of the agent’s heroic actions to further their own legend.
The myths and stereotypes that emerged from the self-reported statements of killers have gone unchallenged for decades. These unfounded sentiments have influenced public opinion, law enforcement procedures and even government policy. Police still consider homicides involving the strangulation and rape of young females to be perpetrated by psychopathic white, male, loners sublimating grudges against their mothers into the victimization of strangers. Serial killers are labeled as monsters even today, thought capable of acts inconceivable by normal men. In the late 1970’s, interest in the burgeoning phenomenon led some to falsely claim that the ‘crazed, serial sex killer’ was a new class of criminal; killing without motive and responsible for the countries’ thousands of unsolved murders. Serial killers still enjoy some measure of anonymity due to the misinformation generated at our expense. Fascination with serial murderers continues through the consumption of true crime books, movies and television programs devoted to the topic. Each source contains embellished accounts with great effort taken to provide audiences with caricatures of these offenders, celebrating their reputations and reducing serial murder to a consumable construct. Multiple murderers may be portrayed in this way to lessen our collective fear under the thinking that if we parody something, we maintain power over it. Labels often applied to serial murderers such as “evil” and “monster” may help us to reduce our anxieties, but they lure us into a false sense of knowing.
That being said, we now understand that serial murderers have a multitude of complicated motives ranging from expressive to instrumental. Offenders may not always derive enjoyment from the death of their victims, with some killing to eliminate witnesses. Others kill for satisfaction, pleasure, or sexual excitement, due to feelings of anger or loyalty, a desire for revenge, power, control or attention, for a criminal enterprise or financial gain, to terrorize or exterminate a group or because of hallucinations or mental illness. Considering the combinations of influences on serial murderers, it is inaccurate to describe their motives as one-dimensional. Motivation can be a synthesis of rationales and could include reasons known only to them. Some do not identify themselves as serial murderers or lack self-awareness, blaming dreams, depression or genetics for their crimes.
While it is not possible to know the true prevalence of un-apprehended serial murderers, it is important to note that we are not in the throes of an epidemic. Looking retrospectively, we see that there are approximately fifteen to twenty serial murderers captured each year, a large contrast to the estimates made during the mid-1980s of 500 active killers with 6,000 victims annually. The problem with estimation is the result of the ways serial murder has been defined - which paradoxically determines the data to be collected. Even now, the terms serial homicide and lust killer are synonymous, exacerbating definitional issues that have prevented the systematic study of serial homicide to this day. More academic research articles are written about the need to come to concordance on a definition of atypical homicide than actual quantitative analysis on the data that we do have. Even today, after what was dubbed 14 days ago by the media as the worst mass shooting in history, one noted criminologist and former FBI profiler referenced a case from 1966 – Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower Sniper – in the hopes of explaining the current killer’s actions. The use of a fifty year old case highlights how anecdotes have guided what we know about atypical homicide. The prevalence of contradictory statements also confuses and undermines research efforts. One researcher pleaded for the media not to focus on the total count of victims to avoid inspiring future shooters to break such a record but later states that the offender was especially unique for his use of an automatic weapon. In telling the reporter that this was the very first instance of an automatic weapon being used, had not a challenge been instantly issued to the next killer to outdo and excel beyond his predecessors in new and novel ways?
Some in this field promote the view that few can comprehend the actions of serial killers, convincing others that intervention requires insight only they possess. Because most known serial killers are incarcerated or deceased, direct study of these subjects can be difficult and categorizing them impossible. As such, researchers are forced to rely on secondary sources and gather data using only accounts from the news media. This approach has hampered our ability to elicit meaningful results from offender’s biographies as it is fraught with obstacles and biases. Greater access to primary sources and cooperation from law enforcement agencies is needed to ensure that data is timely and accurate. Even given these obstacles, we have been able to make some headway in learning more about serial killers. Our results indicate that serial murderers are not consistently performing the same crime scene behaviors throughout their series. These findings test the notions that these offenders consistently take souvenirs or leave signatures, escalate in their violence as they continue killing, improve their methods and change their strategies over their careers. Violent acts performed on a body such as mutilation or decapitation also does not automatically signal the presence of a serial murderer. They can be members of a gang, organized crime ‘hit men’ or convenience store clerk murderers. Most remain close to home during their series and some have even been known to kill acquaintances, family members and spouses. We now know that every other serial killer since 1995 has been African American and only eighteen percent of offenders match the old FBI demographic profile. Serial killers rarely abide by an identifiable set of routines or patterns, hardly ever use the same weapons throughout their series of crimes and do not consistently leave a unique calling card behind. The data demonstrates that serial murderers kill for a variety of motives from pleasure and excitement to profit and witness elimination. They are certainly not all products of bad childhoods or sexually sadistic psychopaths of above average intelligence. Most have never abused animals, wet their bed as children, consumed body parts or expressed a desire to be caught. The use of firearms constitute the majority of deaths at the hands of serial killers, a fact that directly counters those criminologists that insist serial killers need a hands on killer to feel satiated. This is one of the more important findings from the database as it helps investigators consider victims as part of a series that might have been previously overlooked if abiding by the “strangled, sexual assault victim” myth.
Our atypical homicide research community was established with the purpose of bridging the gap between current thought and practice through open communication, informed discussion and information sharing. Our secondary objectives are to facilitate the dissemination of research materials, solidify partnerships and foster connections amongst one another while building professional relationships on a foundation of trust and mutual respect. A major accomplishment of the collaborative is the open acknowledgement that the landscape of atypical homicide is changing partly due to naturally occurring phenomenon such as better technology - like ever present cellular phones and surveillance technology - to the purposeful education of potential victims of the threat that serial killers represent. Better law enforcement and stricter sentences have contributed to a reduction in the most prolific offenders over the past few decades with the most common offender being those that kill two victims. Our data demonstrates that there is a high number of people that killed, went to prison, came back out and killed again. With longer sentences, they are not out at an age when they would kill. The ubiquity of DNA makes it much easier to catch someone after one murder than it had been 40 years ago. Committing certain types of homicides like insurance fraud and killing patients in hospitals is more difficult now due to system wide safety measures. There are fewer targets today due to changing behavior patterns over the years. Some people believe that life today is far more dangerous when in fact the numbers indicate that it was not a safe period back then and many serial murder victims resulted from normal activities. People used to walk everywhere and ride their bike everywhere. Hitchhiking has all but been abolished but that was very common in the 1970s. Most people would call in to help a disabled motorist rather than getting out to help them. There is also a tendency for parents today to be helicopter parents where most actions are monitored. Kids are not allowed to walk to and from school, ride their bikes or go hiking and fishing alone. The Internet provides would-be offenders the opportunity to placate themselves without victimizing unwilling participants. Greater utilization of the underground sex trade and the likelihood of offenders warehousing abductees means they no longer need to kill to eliminate complaining witnesses as frequently. Efforts to educate the public about these offenders led to increased awareness that odd behaviors, stalking offenses, paraphilias and violent tendencies toward animals or others in youth are part of a larger group of warning signs.
The decline in serial homicide calls into question the image of the infallible, successful killer these offenders were once thought to be. Perhaps societies’ past ignorance of their means and motives allowed serial murderers freedoms they can no longer enjoy. While the desire to become a serial killer may not have dissipated, many of the aforementioned factors may have permanently displaced some offenders, forced others into altering their MO or into early retirement. Filling the gap are an influx of what some call would-be serial killers – those on their way to realizing their goal of killing serially if not for their premature apprehension. The presence of wannabes – those expressing the desire to kill sequentially but are arrested after severely assaulting someone or killing one person – has also increased.
The atypical homicide research group has always stood for something grander than the profit based agenda of whatever institution warehouses it: that is the full embrace of open science. While we are far from attaining that goal, I am proud of what we have accomplished over the years. The wide distribution of data we have facilitated ensures an equal playing field for young and old researchers alike. The atypical forum provides a voice and motivation for all to participate in the larger conversation of where our field is going. The community atmosphere allows those struggling with the effects of studying these phenomena to vent their frustrations and concerns. We have collectively contributed to the capture of serial killer Felix Vail who victimized his own wives over the span of several decades. We assist journalists worldwide in helping to understand these offenders, from Panama and Uganda to all over the US. We recently facilitated an open letter signed by 150 subject matter experts calling for the media to stop giving attention to mass murderers. We have prevented the early release of suspected serial killer Samuel Galbraith and Ripper Crew member Thomas Kokoraleis. We have laid the groundwork for the creation of a national cold case society to be formed and recently contributed to a project designed to document the status of long dormant rape kit evidence and hold law enforcement agencies in Ohio responsible.
As the world moves towards a future guided by artificial intelligence, we have tailored our recent work to create an electronic surveillance dashboard and adapt the technologies of Machine Learning, Networked Systems and Behavioral Sequence Analysis to better help understand serial homicide offenders. Human relationships will still be a vital aspect of these efforts, though, and remain at the forefront of our minds. Along that vein, we recently partnered with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and the Homicide Investigation Tracking System of the Washington State Attorney General's Office. The data resulting from these sharing initiatives will be monumentally important in increasing the validity of our data. We will continue to support the groundbreaking work of the Murder Accountability Project, whose data helps to identify potential serial murder victim clustering around the US. MAP is currently partnering with the Western University Cold Case Society to investigate a cluster of homicides in Atlanta, an initiative that may produce actionable leads for detectives or provide closure for families. A true highlight of our work was contributing to the Globe and Mail’s inquiry into the murders of indigenous women and helping them to identify the factors contributing to their victimization. As technical advisors on A&E’s “The Killing Season” docuseries, we strove to attain a sense of realism and helped ground the program in reality.
This has been a personal journey for me, one where my investment has compromised some relationships and at times my judgment. In the hunt for notoriety and enhanced reputation I have clung to toxic people that exist merely to forward their own agendas of self-promotion, building them up while being torn down and used up myself. Too often, academia is about measuring individual contributions to science which results in the quest to attain certain scores or outpace colleagues. These metrics are given higher prominence than inspiring others to achieve their own greatness. We must remember first and foremost that we are profiting off the demise of those whose lives were taken from them. Our approach must be one of respect and candor not only for the victims but for each other. To the younger researchers out there, I urge you to remain undismayed from making inroads in this field as there is much to be done. My advice is to realize that many of us maintain some of the same qualities inherent in the offenders we study and help capture. These psychopathic tendencies may make us better pursuers of what lies at the core of the atypical murderers mind but fails to aid us in connecting to the hearts of those around us in any meaningful way. Some of us may never receive the credit we rightfully deserve for ushering in new paradigms or cultural shifts but true leaders learn to transcend these quests to satiate our egos. As the old guard is replaced by younger researchers, it is imperative that we shed the animosity that has accumulated over the years of rivalries with others. It is possible to leave your own legacy without overtaking the contributions of others and succumbing to the pettiness that oftentimes abounds in research institutions.
Although serial murder is in a period of decline, our desire to distance ourselves from these killers has contributed to their elevated stature. Until they are appropriately humanized and accurately represented, we will continue to be surprised to learn of their true nature after each capture. Since the primary mechanism through which serial killers are apprehended is details provided by the public, the more educated we are about serial killers and their personality types, the better equipped we will be to aid in their apprehension and punishment. We must learn that serial killers cannot be sought out or detected by applying preformed stereotypes to the general population. We must rise above the deplorable concept of murder as entertainment, continue to dismantle institutionalized mythology and treat each other with respect while doing so. Atypical homicide is a systemic problem that requires a broad range of solutions. In the end, the victimization of the helpless is a failure on each of us not just as researchers, mental health practitioners or law enforcement professionals but as fellow citizens that overlook our own impact on those around us.