Tuesday, August 6, 2013

An Attempt to Explain the Decline in Instances of Serial Homicide

The following ideas are an attempt to explain the decline in serial homicide, appear in no particular order and may have little to no impact on the overall rate of serial homicide:

The Proliferation of Technology
  • surveillance cameras, home security systems and GPS devices allow an offender less opportunity to abduct a victim without being tracked or traced
    • Man stalked 7-year-old girl, took inappropriate photo of her in grocery store - ow.ly/nJ3pr
  • 24 hour news coverage, social media and online news outlets disseminate information on most murders and cases of missing women allowing the public to make connections and contribute to investigations
  • The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration — in charge of regulating the trucking industry — is very likely to soon mandate that all truckers install electronic logging devices
  • cellular phones ensure that potential victims are less likely to remain lost in unsafe areas
    • cellular phones provide the availability of immediate law enforcement action
  • stories highlighting offenders who abuse animals receive news coverage, allowing more opportunities for either law enforcement or mental health interventions
  • better medical care converts some potential homicides into attempted murders/aggravated assaults – precluding offenders from attaining “serial murder” status
  • technology is keeping kids indoors, not playing around outside without supervision
  • social media allows potential victims to screen strangers before befriending them
  • social media has placed an emphasis on our own personal networks, limiting our interactions with strangers
  • personal computers offer a comprehensive record of our daily lives, ensuring that law enforcement is made aware of potential foul play much sooner
  • potential victims are more interconnected; cataloging our digital relationships allows for outside parties to monitor our behavior, increasing the likelihood of receiving scrutiny for meetings with strangers
  • offenders may post their intentions to social media sites before they enact their plan, allowing time for others to intervene
Better Law Enforcement

·         police consider the possibility of serial offenders more quickly than in the past 

·     cases are linked more rapidly due to increased communication between departments
·     law enforcement databases are more widely used and linked together
·     more would be serial killers are apprehended after one or two murders
·         ex-law enforcement agents maintain companies that offer behavioral consulting services, ensuring that police are well informed and trained on offender behavior
·         police are more apt to utilize assistance from the public in identifying these offenders

Education and Vigilance
  • due to the overwhelming presence of serial killers in entertainment media, potential victims overestimate their real world presence, leading to an increased level of awareness of the phenomenon
  • criminologists have educated potential victims on the traits serial offenders possess, e.g psychopathy
  • potential victims know how to better identify warning signs and pay attention to situational cues
    • the words “creeper” and “stalker” are commonplace in the lexicon of young women
  • due to roadside services, such as AAA, potential victims no longer must rely on strangers for assistance, greatly decreasing their odds of being victimized
Change in Demographics
Other Outlets
  • the era of free internet pornography has ushered in the means for potential offenders to meet their needs in an alternative, non-violent manner
  • consensual deviant sexual encounters have become more mainstream and widely accepted
  • increased use of sex trafficking victims by serial offenders removes the need for potential offenders to eliminate witnesses
  • increase in number of offenders who keep kidnapped victims captive for repeated assaults
  • websites connect potential offenders with access to discreet currency for sex exchanges without the threat of law enforcement interference, making the availability for willing partners more common and removing the need for offenders to victimize unwilling participants
Increased Use of Mental Health Services
Use of Parole Less Common
Change in Social/Cultural Factors
  • widespread knowledge of the dangers/illegality of the practice of hitchhiking
  • decrease in use of corporal punishment by parents/zero tolerance for parental abuse
  • decrease in the amount of children born to unfit parents
Serial Murder is Less Infamous
  • serial homicide is no longer viewed as the short path to celebrity it once was
  • serial murderers are a commonplace aspect of society, leading to less sensationalism and a decrease in copycat offenders
  • some offenders prefer to utilize other means to accomplish their goals, as we have seen with the increase in “spree type” killings, those that are initially high in intensity but bring a quick burnout and capture
The True Prevalence May Be Unknown
  • DNA backlogs mask the true prevalence of serial homicide
    • offenders who have committed more than one murder have yet to be linked to their crimes
·         various interpretations of the serial murder definition may lead to erroneous conclusions
·         failure to incorporate those who murder two victims impacts serial murder research
·         most offender data ignores unsolved cases, taking only solved cases into account
·         serial killers may be more aware of forensic procedures meant to capture them and therefore institute methods to maneuver around those procedures, avoiding detection for longer periods of time

Monday, August 5, 2013

Is serial killing a ‘black and white’ issue?

With the discovery of the murders in Ohio allegedly committed by Michael Madison comes speculation that a new type of criminal has emerged – the African American serial killer.

Even though at least one out of every two serial killers is African American (Yaksic, 2006; Hickey, 2013), one of the most recurrent stereotypes in the field of serial homicide research is that the majority of serial killers are Caucasian. It is now known that several African American serial killers – Kermit Gosnell, Lonnie Franklin, Lorenzo Gilyard, Carl Watts, Chester Turner and Vincent Groves – rank among the most prolific in their respective states. Even by conservative estimates, African Americans have historically been overrepresented among serial murderers based on their share of the population (Kuhns and Coston, 2005). Despite these facts, African American serial killers have enjoyed some measure of freedom to commit their crimes in the absence of consistent intervention from law enforcement, rigorous study by academic researchers or intrusion by the news media.

Fortunately, much has been done in recent years to curtail the pervasive belief that the race of serial killers is a ‘black and white’ issue.

Several researchers have documented the African American serial killer’s ability to operate with impunity. Since the public has perceived black murderers that produce black victims as merely ‘urban homicide’, such offenders can be easily ignored and overlooked (Jenkins, 1993). The false perception that black sexual serial killers are rare makes it easier for them to go undetected for a longer period of time (Geberth, 2012). Serial killings of black victims, especially those who are impoverished and marginalized politically, are less likely to be connected, prioritized for investigation and subsequently solved (Fox, 2012). Little has been done to bring cases dealing with African American serial killers to the public’s attention (Hickey, 2013).

In order to understand why the prevalence of African American serial killers has been misrepresented among law enforcement, one must consult a 1985 report titled The Men Who Murdered that summarized the findings from interviews conducted by two FBI profilers with twenty five predominantly Caucasian serial killers (Ressler and Burgess, 1985). Subsequent criminological concepts and law enforcement techniques were based on that non-random sample and are currently still in use. Although the FBI recently stated that serial killers are a diverse group (Morton and Hilts, 2008), the ramifications from the agent’s findings in 1985 are still continuously affecting cases.

Countless hours were dedicated to hunting a Caucasian man for the murders of seven mostly Caucasian women in the Baton Rouge area between 1993 and 2003. Since law enforcement agents were operating under the assumption that murders are typically intraracial events, it came as a surprise when Derrick Todd Lee, the African American man responsible for this string of murders, was apprehended. This case highlights the dangers of abiding by a profile based on outmoded data. In their research on the sexually sadistic serial killer, Warren et al. (1996) erroneously proclaim that Caucasians are over represented in fantasy driven sexually sadistic serial crimes because of a different process of development of sexual identity among the two groups, a different potential for developing paraphilic preferences, or both. Leach and Meloy (1999) state that what is unusual in the case of Ray Shawn Jackson is that most sexual sadists in published studies are Caucasian males, making Jackson "racially unusual" as a sexual sadist. Unbeknownst to most, there have been several examples of offenders – Calvin Jackson, John Floyd Thomas, Jake Bird and Carlton Gary – who murdered victims outside of their own race and for sexually sadistic purposes.

During the hunt for the ‘DC Snipers’ in 2002, most criminologists believed that a "white, lone-wolf type” offender was responsible for the atrocities that were carried out by two African American men. The Lee and ‘DC Snipers’ cases demonstrate that there can never be a behavioral profile that accurately determines an offender's race since African American and Caucasian serial killers behave in strikingly similar ways. Both kill for the same reasons and both become killers due to a comparable mix of biological and psychosocial elements. Obstinate poverty and plight may play a role as a causal factor in African American serial killings, but it is rarely the offender's sole motivation to commit serial murders. While African American serial killers do more often than Caucasian serial killers target elderly victims (Safarik et al., 2002), kill those known to them, use recreational drugs to lure their victims and arson to conceal their crimes, the underpinning desire to dominate and control others is shared by both sets of murderers (Yaksic, 2006).

Over the last decade, law enforcement agencies have continually improved their response to instances of serial homicide involving African Americans. The allegations of racial prejudice that have been leveled at one time against police organizations for taking crimes involving white victims more seriously have declined in recent years mainly because the demographics of today’s police force better reflect those of the community (Jenkins, 1993). Police regularly attend conferences and trainings that deal with techniques to pursue and apprehend serial homicide offenders and the impact that such offenders have on the community. Police are also now better equipped to link unsolved homicides due to better communication mechanisms and advances in DNA technology.

Those who report on the instances of serial homicide have been accused of ignoring matters that involve race due to its demonstrative and controversial nature. In response to these claims, researchers have collected hordes of empirically collected data on African American serial killers in recent years (Jenkins, 1993; Walsh, 2005; Peterson, 2006; Yaksic, 2006; Branson, 2012; Cottrell, 2012; Fox, 2012; Aamodt, 2013; Hickey, 2013; McClellan, 2013; Lester and White, 2014). Others have highlighted case studies detailing the crimes of African American serial killers (Keppel, 1995; Kreuger, 1998; Leach and Meloy, 1999; Beasley, 2004; Kuhn and Coston, 2004; Morton, 2010; Reavis, 2011). The lives of two serial killers, one African American and the other Caucasian, have also been compared and contrasted (Wolf and Lavezzi, 2007).

It has been said that, in issues related to police and criminal psychology, it seems that people want simple answers and the media are happy to oblige this desire (Aamodt, 2008). Once the race of the ‘DC Snipers’ became known after weeks of national television coverage, media outlets realized the capabilities of African American serial killers and have covered these cases more liberally than in the past. The apprehension of Anthony Wayne Smith, the former Oakland Raider who stands accused of four Los Angeles area murders, ushered the media into concluding that serial killers can be of any race or occupation. The wide coverage received by suspected serial killer Darren Deon Vann alludes to a slow disintegration of the old adage that the media ignores black killers with black victims. In these instances, the media has determined, rightly so, that there are no simple answers when race and criminality intersect.

Coupled with the discovery of long dormant serial killers due to advances in DNA technology and the newfound interest from the news media, the sudden emergence and juxtaposition of Anthony Sowell and Michael Madison in Ohio has contributed to the appearance of a surge in murders committed by African American serial killers. After analyzing empirically collected serial homicide data, the results indicate that not only have African American serial killers existed alongside their Caucasian counterparts for all of history, but that the occurrence of serial murder itself is in decline (Fox, 2012; Aamodt & Surrette, 2013). Academic researchers agree that we are not in the throes of an African American serial murder epidemic. Rather, more attention is being paid to a once neglected subset of killer.

To refute and invalidate the persistent claim that African American serial killers are disadvantaged by inferior intelligence which dissuades them from engaging in serial murder campaigns, one must only analyze the recent case of Jason Thomas Scott. Scott's crimes are regarded as one of the "most complex" cases that Maryland law enforcement officials had seen as he engaged in a series of forensic countermeasures to ensure that he would remain at large. African American serial killers are every bit as capable as their Caucasian counterparts but they are also aided by societal stereotypes that benefit their longevity as killers. The acknowledgement of the presence of African American serial killers and their abilities will inevitably deliver with it better methods of detection and new measures of safety for the public.


Enzo Yaksic, 2006
Can a Demographic Make you Psychopathic

Eric Hickey, 2013
Serial Murderers and Their Victims

Joe Kuhns and Charisse Coston, 2005
The Myth That Serial Murderers are Disproportionately White Males
in Bohm and Walker's Demystifying Crime and Criminal Justice

Philip Jenkins, 1993
African Americans and Serial Homicide

Vernon Geberth, 2012
Black Serial Killers: The Perception Versus Reality

James Alan Fox, 2012
Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder

Robert K. Ressler and Ann W. Burgess, 1985
FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin The Men Who Murdered

Robert Morton and Mark Hilts, 2008
Serial Murder: Multidisciplinary Perspectives for Investigators

Janet Warren, Robert Hazelwood and Park Dietz, 1996
The Sexually Sadistic Serial Killer

Gordon Leach and John Reid Meloy, 1999
Serial Murder of Six Victims by an African American Male

Mark E. Safarik, John P. Jarvis and Kathleen E. Nussbaum, 2002
Sexual Homicide of Elderly Females : Linking Offender Characteristics to Victim and Crime Scene Attributes

Anthony Walsh, 2005
African Americans and Serial Killing in the Media: The Myth and the Reality

Veronique Anitra Peterson, 2006
The Emergence of a New Phenomenon:
African American Serial Killers in the United States, 1935-2005

Allan Branson, 2012
African American Serial Killers: Over-Represented Yet Underacknowledged

Justin Cottrell, 2012
Rise of the Black Serial Killer: Documenting a Startling Trend

Michael Aamodt, 2013
Radford/Florida Gulf Coast University Serial Killer Database Research Project

Janet McClellan, In Press,
African American Serial Killers

David Lester and John White, 2014
A Study of African American Serial Killers

Robert Keppel, 1995
Signature Murders: A Report of Several Related Cases

Linda Lou Kreuger, 1998
in Steve Egger’s The Killers Among Us: An Examination of Serial Murder and Its Investigation

James O. Beasley II, 2004
Serial Murder in America: Case Studies of Seven Offenders

Joe Kuhn and Charisse Coston, 2004
Lives Interrupted: A Case Study of Henry Louis Wallace, an African American Serial Murderer in Rapidly Expanding Southern City

Robert Morton, 2010
Cross-Cultural Comparison of Two Serial Sexual Murder Series in Italy and the United States

James A. Reavis, 2011
Serial Murder of Four Victims, of Both Genders and Different Ethnicities, by an Ordained Baptist Minister

Barbara C. Wolf and Wendy A. Lavezzi, 2007
Paths to Destruction: The Lives and Crimes of Two Serial Killers.

Michael Aamodt, 2008
Reducing Misconceptions and False Beliefs in Police and Criminal Psychology 

Michael Aamodt and Michael Surrette, 2013 - September

Is the decline in serial killing partially explained by the decrease in “free range kids?”  Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Police and Criminal Psychology, Ottawa, Canada