Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Your Friendly, Neighborhood Serial Killer

Soon after the capture of "The Grim Sleeper", one of California’s most elusive serial killers, an all too common portrait of the perpetrator emerged. Unbeknownst to most, Lonnie David Franklin Jr., the friendly mechanic who volunteered around his neighborhood, does indeed fit the mold cast by scores of killers before him. A local man, Franklin held menial jobs, had a criminal record, chose marginalized victims, lived in the vicinity of the crimes, and was snared by DNA. The façade he delicately concocted to conceal these facts was shattered to reveal his true nature, shocking his neighborhood. These are all hallmarks of the average, modern day serial killer.

On Fear and Loathing, an episode of the popular television show Criminal Minds, the FBI agents asserted that the offender was African American to which the Mayor of the suburban town responded, “I’ve never even heard of a black serial killer.” The Mayor was echoing the sentiment of the real world news media, true crime aficionados and criminologists who consistently perpetuate the widely held misconception that serial killing is an endeavor engaged in solely by Caucasian males. 

In 2002, upon learning that the D.C. Snipers were African American, the killers were regarded as outliers; a rare occurrence among rare occurrences. But those perplexed by The Grim Sleeper’s race must only briefly examine our storied history of serial murder to discover that a plethora of African American serial killers do exist. Chester Dwayne Turner and John Floyd Thomas, two of the most prolific serial killers in California history, were both African American. Missouri’s Lorenzo Gilyard and Ohio’s Anthony Sowell each amassed victim counts and time lines commensurate with those of Franklin’s. Derrick Todd Lee gathered friends together for sermons and barbeque, much the same as Franklin offered his services around the neighborhood. These are all regular, common men who share an irregular, uncommon pastime; each living dual lives until the full breath of their atrocities become known. Time and again, these killers compel us to assess societal constructs and question how well we truly know our neighbors.

Franklin earned “The Grim Sleeper” moniker due to his seemingly self imposed hiatus between murders, the unique aspect that garnered him national attention. So how was Franklin able to out-maneuver the police for decades? Some may purport that Franklin is an uber-intelligent, stealthy, cunning loner with unique insight into police tactics. Hardly. The ballistic matches, eyewitness account and lack of forensic knowledge relegate Franklin to the careless killer’s club. Franklin did, however, purposefully capitalize on people’s willingness to trust others, a trait common to almost all serial killers. After all, who among us would like to think their neighbor is capable of such abhorrent crimes? Those who knew Franklin find it difficult to juxtapose his outward genial behavior with his brutal private actions. This dissonance, in concert with police missteps, victim selection, luck, neighborhood dynamics, and a failing criminal justice system also ensured Franklin’s longevity.

Franklin perfected the ability to remain infamous and concurrently surreptitious by being a prototypical, common man; a pizza eating, blue collar worker with a daughter attending college, the nice guy willing to go out of his way to fix your car and stop to chat with passersby. Conversation ranged from basketball to police procedurals and often veered towards his favorite subject, women. According to news reports, Franklin was not especially shy about sharing details of his sexual exploits with his male neighbors, invariably counting on them to overlook or dismiss this subtle red flag as simply “guy talk”, a tenant of normalcy. Comparably, the same is true when men congregate and discuss sports as a means to find commonality and fit in.

Arguably, the most intriguing aspect of the Grim Sleeper case is the controversial method with which he was located; familial DNA. Currently, the majority of serial offenders are detected using DNA taken from victims and matched to the killer’s own genetic material, a concept unknown to murderers, like Franklin, who were operating in 1985. But, as law enforcement tactics evolve, killers find new resolve. Today, competent serial killers either take forensic countermeasures or realize that eventually they will be apprehended; their inevitable capture a mixture of good science, persistence, and luck. For these reasons, today’s killers rarely contact the media or engage in the shrewd cat and mouse days of old. Rather, modern offenders hope to prolong their freedom’s fragility by constructing a delicate façade, either by staying married or being involved in the community, all while praying they remain unchallenged. In the future, however, a killer’s unsuspecting relative may unwittingly be responsible for bringing them to justice through a familial DNA match. This new technique, if nationally accepted, would render many serial killers’ attempts to cloak themselves as a futile exercise and undoubtedly expose many more average, friendly, neighborhood serial killers.

FBI Freedom of Information Act Request – Filed 7/7/11 – Denied 8/16/11



As it pertains to your request, the FBI does not maintain a running list of serial killers. Therefore, the information you seek is not in a retrievable format. Because the FOIA does not require agencies to create records, your request does not comply with the FOIA and its regulations.


In Geberth and Turco's article titled Antisocial Personality Disorder, Sexual Sadism, Malignant Narcissism, and Serial Murder (1997), the authors state that "The National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) identified 331 serial murderers in the United States between 1977 and April 1992." In filing this request, we ask that only the first and last names of all offenders cataloged within research databases located at the Critical Incident Response Group’s (CIRG) National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime Behavioral Analysis Unit 2 (Crimes Against Adults), the Child Abduction and Serial Murder Investigative Resources Center (CASMIRC) and the FBI Academy’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) be identified. In an effort to avoid impeding an ongoing investigation or interfering with a pending investigation or internal inquiry, the focus of our request is solely closed, fully adjudicated cases. Information on any unsolved homicides, offenders suspected of unsolved homicides or classified law enforcement techniques or methods is beyond the scope of this inquiry.

The NCAVC’s research database is comprised of cases submitted on a voluntary basis by law enforcement agencies from across the country. Thusly, agents of the NCAVC claim that they cannot dispense information without the consent or knowledge of the agency that provided the data. While we agree that the source of this information should remain confidential in order to protect the NCAVC’s ability to remain a clearinghouse of violent crimes, an offender’s first and last name become public record after an arrest. The NCAVC cannot claim proprietary ownership of the data if it was supplied by outside parties.

As mentioned above, Geberth and Turco gained access to the NCAVC’s research database to complete their manuscript. It would have been administratively impossible to obtain consent from each of the 331 law enforcement agencies that populated the database before granting these researchers access to the dataset. Louis B. Schlesinger, author of Ritual and Signature in Serial Sexual Homicide (2010), also utilized data from FBI databases where “All cases were closed and fully adjudicated and were contributed by law enforcement agencies from around the country.” Janet Warren, author of The Sexually Sadistic Serial Murderer (1996), stated that the data used in her study were “compiled from case files obtained by the FBI’s NCAVC through their research efforts.”

As established, the NCAVC’s BAU 2 gathers data for the purpose of research; it is not a classified law enforcement database commensurate with NCIC, Interpol, HITS, CODIS or ViCAP. Thusly, the contents of any research databases located within CIRG’s NCAVC or the Behavioral Science Unit should not be held to the same heightened confidentiality standards as ViCAP, a classified law enforcement database. Fulfilling this FOIA request would hamper the NCAVC’s continued ability to obtain information from law enforcement agencies no more so than ViCAP’s recent release of unsolved homicide data to the Scripps Howard News Service will compromise that unit’s ability to collect homicide cases from law enforcement agencies.

Agents from the NCAVC have also mined their databases for the purpose of research. In Serial Murder in America: Case Studies of Seven Offenders (2004), an agent of the NCAVC stated that four of the offenders included in the article were identified from “previously compiled lists in the NCAVC of individuals fitting the research criteria…”. FBI agents again consulted the “NCAVC case records” for the publication Frequency of Serial Sexual Homicide Victimization in Virginia for a Ten-Year Period (2004). Although neither of these articles identified the offenders by name, enough biographical details were supplied that the following individuals were identified as the killers referenced in the articles:

Serial Murder in America: Case Studies of Seven Offenders
Offender 1 - Joel Rifkin
Offender 2 - Steven Howard Oken
Offender 3 - Gary Ray Bowles
Offender 4 - Danny Rolling
Offender 5 - Reginald McFadden
Offender 6 - Elroy Chester
Offender 7 - Faryion Edward Wardrip

Frequency of Serial Sexual Homicide Victimization in Virginia for a Ten Year Period
Offender 1 – Elton Manning Jackson
Offender 2 –
Chander Matta
Offender 3 – Sean Patrick Goble
Offender 4 – Timothy W. Spencer
Offender 5 – Richard M Evonitz
Offender 6 – Leslie Leon Burchart

Agents of the NCAVC have also constructed manuscripts and journal articles that identify offenders by name. One such article, Cross Cultural Comparison of Two Serial Sexual Murder Series in Italy and the United States (2010), exposed an investigative technique that any offender may now use to avoid further incarceration. In this instance, the NCAVC recommended searching the offender’s cell which revealed additional forbidden materials that led to the offender’s further incarceration.

According to the American Psychological Association, academic professionals “do not withhold the data on which their conclusions are based from other competent professionals who seek to verify the substantive claims through reanalysis” of the data. In this case, the contents of the NCAVC’s research database should be analyzed by “other competent professionals” to verify that it meets the definitional standards of serial murder set forth by the academic community during the 2005 Serial Murder Symposium held in San Antonio, Texas.

In closing, the release of a small subset of information contained within the NCAVC’s research databases should not adversely affect the agencies’ ability to conduct operations. In this case, the NCAVC should release the requested data to satisfy this request in much the same way that ViCAP supplied unsolved homicide summary information to members of the press. The nature in which this information is secreted from the public is in direct contrast with their safety. If an offender, such as Loren Joseph Herzog, were to be released into society, the public should know who the offender is and into what community they will be returning. By law, no organization that engages in research activities can secret the identities of convicted criminals from public knowledge. Therefore, the identities of the offender’s located within the units listed above should be made known through this request.

The Formation and Persistence of Myths and Stereotypes in Serial Homicide

This post appeared as an op-ed in the Clarion-Ledger on December 7, 2013:

There is no criminal act as sensationalized and misunderstood as serial murder; the subject of myth, stereotypes and exploitation since the concept came to prominence four decades ago. In days of yore, stories of werewolves and vampires were conceived to explain away the deeds for which serial killers were culpable. Even now, they are labeled as monsters, 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 have enjoyed 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 entertainment. Serial killers are characterized as accomplishing what good men dream, resulting in many jail house marriages. People correspond with them, empathizing with their murderous mindsets, only to sell their letters on “murderabilia” websites. Pseudo-profilers promote the view that few can comprehend the actions of serial killers, convincing others that intervention requires insight only they possess.

These perceptions have gone unchallenged for decades because academic researchers began studying serial killings only recently. Most of the information available about serial murder is founded upon outcomes from interviews conducted in 1985 on twenty-five serial killers by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Behavioral Science Unit. Findings from this study, published in The Men Who Murdered, have been cited frequently over the last 28 years. The erroneous, yet oft repeated, “white, male, mid-to-late twenties” demographic profile originated from these interviews and has come to embody the serial killer.

Few acknowledge that these generalizations were established using the self-reported statements of killers, successful due to their capacity to deceive. Comments on their behaviors are based on discoveries made from select few cases, coupled with evidence gathered from anecdotes. Analyses are formed from overexposure to the archetypes of Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy. Consequently, a significant amount of lore has developed around serial homicide. Uncontrolled, these unfounded sentiments have the ability to influence public opinion, law enforcement procedures and even government policy.

Little is known about serial murder due to the dearth of scientifically collected data on the offenders. 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.

In response to our lack of consensus on how to define and measure serial murder, we applied our own interpretations of the definition provided by the FBI when assembling our datasets. Competing interests urged us to complete this work in solitude. Resultantly, findings often conflicted with one another, leading to differing statistics and overlapping classification systems. To further complicate matters, instances of serial murder are not captured in the government’s Uniform Crime Reports. Since no official statistics on the occurrence of serial killings are maintained, estimating its prevalence proves challenging.

Only within the past few years have we come together to share data through the Serial Killer Expertise and Information Sharing Collaborative and the Radford Serial Killer Database Project, learning much through our joint data collection initiative. 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.

Serial killers 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 over the past twenty years has been African American. The commonly held demographic profile correctly matches only eighteen percent of serial killers.

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.