Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Serial Murder: Separating Fact from Fiction

This information was taken from the notes section of a presentation made by Enzo Yaksic and Mike Aamodt to the Justice Clearinghouse audience on March 19, 2015:

Background: I’m Enzo Yaksic and yes that’s me in the first picture, looking like I had everything figured out back in 2005. What I came to realize was that everything I knew was based on tropes. I had fallen victim to the serial murder entertainment machine. My attitude began to change after more than a decade spent studying serial homicide in Boston. What I thought I knew about serial murder would be consistently challenged after watching the offenders pictured here earn this classification in ways not historically associated with serial murderers. With this webinar, we hope to help you begin to understand a bit about the modern serial murderer and the state of research in the field.

Why Study These Crimes?: No criminal act is both as widely studied and simultaneously misunderstood as serial murder. But why do we study these crimes with such voracity if, as Resnick notes, there are far more people interested in studying serial murderers than there are serial murderers? While killing sequentially is, as Schecter states, 'at least as old as the human species’ the majority of research on serial offending has occurred within the past thirty years and therefore is in its infancy

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.

Unfortunately, these archaic beliefs can effect real cases. For instance, serial murder suspect Aemon Presley’s use a handgun is, according to an investigator, quote “in itself just rare“. The old adage that serial murderers must strangle their victims to feel the life leave their bodies is still believed, even though firearms are the highest proportion of kill method in our data. Serial homicide was once viewed as an irrational and “motiveless” crime, but how far have we really come if oversimplified ideas trump facts?

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.

After we determined that these crimes needed continued study, we had to identify what data to capture.

A Defining Moment: So what is a serial killer? First off, we use the term serial murder as killing does not always involve a crime, as soldiers, policemen or citizens kill justifiably. Criminologists have historically been restrictive in their interpretations of what constitutes a serial murderer and there is no consensus in the literature. Definitions differ on requirements such as the number of murders, the types of motivations and the temporal aspect. The variance of emphasis on the nuances of serial murder has led to multiple definitions, as shown in the graphic. Wright, Pratt and DeLisi state that “much of the scholarly research has been hindered by the definition of each type of killer.”

By excluding certain types of killers, analysts have reduced the pool of research subjects. According to Osborne and Salfati, starting from a more inclusive definition may hold advantages. We follow the broad two victim definition provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as it encompasses the full array of serial murderers by not referencing underlying motivation, behavior or psychological characteristics. Our data include financial, professional, revenge, gang, organized crime, robbery/homicide and witness elimination offenders among the more quote “traditional” serial sexual murderers. The terms serial murder and sexual homicide have become synonymous in recent years due to a hyperfocus on the serial sexual killer, damaging research efforts.

Since they occur alongside functional violence and have rational motives, criminologists protest the inclusion of gang and professional murderers in serial offender databases. This viewpoint reinforces that offenders must utilize violence unconventionally to qualify as a serial murderer. Many believe ‘hitmen’, since they are paid to kill and do not choose their own targets, do not belong juxtaposed to the self-motivated serial murderer. Conversely, these murderers display the intent to kill anyone at any time and are gratified by appeasing their greed. Agents of the FBI recently acknowledged that organized crime, contract and drug/gang killings are serial murders that can be motivated by revenge, loyalty or profit.

Some argue that by conflating various types of multiple murderers together, we have compromised the integrity of the data by diluting the sample. There are limitations in any serial murder typology, based upon the uniqueness and variances of human behavior. Excluding killers that cross between subcategories hinders the advancement of serial homicide research. Broad definitions may not be empirically meaningful, but Hickey notes that excluding financial motives and those who kill acquaintances is based on speculation rather than on any empirical foundation. What we can say with certainty about serial murderers is that we cannot fit them into one single behavioral profile. For all of these reasons, it may be more helpful to study the multitude of subsets of offenders separately under the broad category of “multiple-event murderer”.

Next we will address the problematic emotional cooling off period concept.

Heating Up/Cooling Off: The emotional cooling off period concept has been used to differentiate between multiple murders and make distinctions between potentially similar serial offenders. While experts disagree on a standard “cooling off” length, many continue to utilize this temporal element as part of their exclusion criteria. Osborne and Salfati note that there is a lack of research to develop an understanding of “cooling off” and that it should be discarded and re-conceptualized into time intervals. Since these intervals could be less than one day, the continued use of the temporal distinction has restricted the utility of the current serial murder definition. In response, the FBI removed the cooling off term from their definition, while the Crime Classification Manual characterizes the “cooling off period” as a historical artifact.

Although serial murderers may return to their quote “usual way of life” in the time breaks between homicides, we have little understanding of the behaviors that they partake in during these interruptions. It is impossible to discern the degree to which serial murderers remain entrenched in their killing lifestyle. While it may appear that they are taking care of their children or going to the store, they may actually be dedicating effort to planning future crimes, ruminating about past ones or managing the impression made on others. An offender’s dormant period is thought to be psychologically beneficial to them but implies that they engage in violence as part of a stress-relief regimen to resolve a buildup of internal conflict. This viewpoint wrongfully insinuates that serial murder is driven only by aggression and agitation and that offenders work themselves into a frenzy, or “heat up” before each kill. This outlook, as well as the use of the word “emotional” to describe this period, conflicts with the perspective that serial murder is a predatory crime whose offenders are well-controlled, cold and calculating.

After addressing these issues, data collection could commence.

Serial Homicide Data Sharing Initiative: So where does all of this information come from? According to Beasley, the study of serial murder should be objective and standardized and include as many subjects as possible. While researchers have been collecting serial homicide data for decades, it was done disparately. Hinch categorizes past attempts 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 identified as a key obstacle for the future. Leyton and Skrapec have advised scholars to abandon egos, academic ‘turf wars’, and self-serving agendas in search of a greater understanding of the phenomenon.

To address these issues, the Serial Homicide Expertise and Information Sharing Collaborative was built with the expressed purpose of bringing together a team of researchers to share their serial homicide data and synchronize collection efforts. Mike, whose endeavor began in 1992, James Fox, Eric Hickey, Ronald Hinch, GĂ©rard Labuschagne, Jack Levin, Janet McClellan, Bryan Nelson, Michael Newton, Kenna Quinet, and John White each contributed their datasets. In 2012, these data were combined with the Radford Serial Killer Database, strengthening Mike’s initiative to create the first national serial murder database. The overall goal of this effort is to encourage further empirical studies, allowing users the option to apply the definition they choose, rather than forcing a specific one on them.

After we combined the data, what did we find?

Scope of the Problem: Well, serial murderers are not as prevalent as you would think if you watched television. Advertisements for Fox’s The Following, claim that 300 serial killers are active, all across America. While it is not possible to know the true prevalence of un-apprehended serial murderers, 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 determined the data to be collected.

Although it may be inaccurate to attribute most stranger or unknown homicides to serial murder, data on unresolved homicides and missing persons must be collected when estimating the frequency of serial homicide. According to Hinch and Quinet, we may be undercounting the number of serial murder victims in the US by discounting cases off the radar of police and medical examiners. In response to the lack of data, Thomas Hargrove created a database of 185 thousand unsolved murders committed since 1980. A search of that database turned up 161 clusters of unsolved killings of twelve hundred women across the nation that suggest the work of serial murderers. The “Killers on the Road” map is from the FBI’s “Highway Serial Killings Initiative”, representing the locations of remains linked to truck driving offenders. Coupled with the map detailing Israel Keyes’ movements with the large radiating circles, it might appear that serial murderers are omnipresent and have high mobility in the United States. However, the range of an offender’s travels is usually a geographic area like those shown in the maps of Steven Hobbs, Alexander Hernandez, Izzy Ocampo and Charles Severence.

What can the data tell us about the modern day serial murderer?

Serial Murder in Modern Times: Not too long ago, many believed that there was a quote “prototypical serial killer” often referred to as modern day monsters. As Beasley states, we have had the tendency to devote excessive attention to the bizarre at the expense of more mundane but also more common features. Thankfully, nicknames like Joseph Naso’s the Alphabet Killer have all but disappeared from newspapers as the media shifts their attention elsewhere.

Because sensationalism leads to highly publicized cases being over-sampled, most are unaware that the face of the modern day serial murderer is transforming. There is a fifty percent chance serial murderers look and behave like the offenders pictured on the right. They embrace technology; Jason Thomas Scott used a UPS shipping database to look up information on his victims; James C. Brown, Kylan Laurent and Darren Vann located victims through online escort ads. Frank Cano communicated with his partner through text messages, making decisions on which victims to kill using code words. Some offenders have even taken selfies with victims.

African American offenders, often the most prolific in their respective states, were found to have killed fewer victims and were younger than their Caucasian counterparts according to Lester and White’s recent study. While their motives did not differ significantly, they seemed more quote “normal” than Caucasian serial murderers, showing fewer sexual deviations, tending less often to use bondage, torture or engage in necrophilia, cannibalism or mutilation. We are starting to see less of the serial murderer driven by deep seated fantasies and an emergence of a new crop of killers where murder can be but one event on a lifelong criminality continuum and incidental to whatever else is gained from the offender/victim interaction.

On the next slide we will take a look at some of the myths that have permeated for the last 40 years.

A Myriad of Myths and Stereotypes: Serial murder has been a profitable construct, often exploited to satisfy our curiosity. Much of the lore that has emerged over the past forty years came from overemphasizing anecdotes from interviews conducted on serial murderers in the early 1980s. Unfortunately, stereotypes formed due to the scarcity of systematic studies.

Serial murderers are portrayed as prolific evil geniuses, psychopathic and dysfunctional white male loners, unusual in appearance and incapable of maintaining long term relationships. They are called cunning predators that ceaselessly hunt dozens of strangers to fulfill a desire for bloodlust. They supposedly possess the ability to not only evade the police but expertly engage them through the media and frequent their hangouts to learn about cases, all while yearning to be caught. Leading research shows that they do not consistently behave this way. As Beasley notes, the prevailing thought that serial murderers sadistically kill for sexual gratification, engage in animal torture, are physically or sexually abused as children, become more evidence conscious over time and allow media coverage to alter their criminal intentions must be challenged. Results from Bateman, Salfati and Schlesinger indicate that serial murderers are not consistently performing the same crime scene behaviors throughout their series. These findings test the notions that serial murderers 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 also does not automatically signal the presence of a serial murderer.

Serial murder is thought to be an affliction that overtakes an offender’s life but they are not hostages to this cycle; they can control their desire to kill. Offenders are not always in prison, the military, at college, or in a mental health facility during time intervals and rarely begin to unravel at the end of their series. Many have criminal records that reflect histories mired in anti-social behavior but some do display remorse and can be deeply effected by what they do, coping with their actions by abusing substances. Murders can be committed serially due to subtle factors such as the offender’s perception that the victim lied, cheated, insulted, or hurried them in the case of prostitute victims. Victims are often selected not as substitution for someone they know but based on availability, vulnerability, and desirability.

The next slide shows how some myths are carried forward through the ways serial murderers are represented in today’s entertainment media.

Serial Murder as Entertainment: Although news media devotes less attention to these offenders, the serial murder entertainment industry is stronger than ever. Multiple murderers are portrayed to lessen our collective fear because 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. In ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, the protagonist tells Mr. Grey that he is “the complete serial killer” due to his penchant for using rope, tape, and cable ties. These statements contribute to our misunderstanding of these murderers and their crimes. Some believe that the traits within these killers that could forewarn us of their intentions will be revealed if we constantly consume their caricatures.

Taking advantage of our commingled fear and excitement, most television shows have had at least one serial killer plotline. Many famous, Caucasian actors have either played a serial killer - Jamie Dornan in The Fall, Elijah Wood in Maniac, Ryan Reynolds in The Voices, James Franco in General Hospital - or the person hunting them - Kevin Bacon in The Following, Nicholas Cage in The Frozen Ground and Bradley Cooper in Midnight Meat Train. Recent years have brought us Eye Candy, aimed at the youthful MTV audience, a new season of American Horror Story featuring a clown suit wearing serial murderer portrayed as an unthinking savage and the HBO documentary The Jinx about Robert Durst. Even the season finale of the podcast Serial named a serial murderer as a suspect to add a cliffhanger aspect.

After looking at just a handful of the serial murderers that occupy our screens, lets examine the reality of the decline in serial homicide.

A Precipitous Decline: Applying the all encompassing FBI definition has kept us from missing instances of serial murder during data collection efforts. But, with more records at our disposal than ever, we were surprised to find that serial homicide is in decline, presumably due to some of the following reasons.

Advances in technology make it easier for law enforcement to consider that a serial murderer may be operating in their area, begin collaborating with surrounding departments and then lean on the public for information. Cell phones, always connected social media accounts and the dawn of the surveillance age add other measures of risk to an offender’s decision to victimize others. 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. 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. A greater distrust of strangers led to the abolishment of hitchhiking, decreasing victim pools. Harsher punishments and less use of parole ensures that would be serial murderers are incarcerated for longer. Serial murder is not viewed as the shortcut to celebrity status it once was since news coverage of these events has lessened over the years. Many would-be serial murderers, like 25 year old Daniel Spain, are captured after their first murder, before they have the opportunity to amass larger victim counts. Spain left the knife in his victim’s back, was seen on a surveillance camera and declared that quote "Being able to find someone alone and hurting them without anyone seeing or any witnesses it's kind of really hard.“ 22 year old Andrew Busskohl meticulously planned his crime but then fled after cutting his hand on glass. 27 year old Derek Richardson was captured based on his leaving a single shoe behind at a crime scene.

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 murderer may not have dissipated, these factors may have permanently displaced some offenders, forced others into altering their MO or into early retirement. Still others may have begun adopting tactics typically associated with the spree killer.

The Convergence of Serial/Spree Murder: The debate about how to typify spree murderers erupted during October 2002 when Mohamad and Malvo carried out their crimes with the frequency of a spree killer but, as the FBI stated in their 2008 report, the motives and tactics of a serial murderer. We have been reluctant to juxtapose these offenders but, if cooling off is now a historical artifact, must we continue to stratify spree and serial murderers separately? Osborn and Salfati concluded that spree and serial homicide may not be distinguishable, including in their data eight instances of one day time intervals and one series that lasted three days. Homant and Kennedy stipulate that a serial murderer’s subsequent killings should be part of a separate sequence of behaviors. Those committed by spree killers are said to be the byproduct of one continuous event, occurring after a fight with a spouse, for instance. Not only is the sequence distinction less useful if these offenders are viewed as multiple-event murderers, but serial murderers can and have been fueled by similar precipitating incidents.

Although Beasley noted feelings of restlessness and impulsivity among serial murderers, they have been characterized as cold and calculating methodical planners that commit unprovoked and predatory sexual attacks on strangers, fitting a pattern. Spree killers are typed as temperamental, impulsive and bombastic with initial murders being haphazard retaliatory reactions directed at acquaintances. Subsequent murders often help them obtain necessities. There are circumstances and environmental factors that may preclude multiple murderers from acting in the manner that they would ideally choose. Some offenders are given the luxury of time between offenses, not because of superior knowledge, talent or skill, but due to variables beyond their control including the degree of witness involvement, varying levels of police pressure and even luck. If a spree type offender eludes police, they may bide their time, reenter society, and possibly continue killing again in the future, unabated. Similarly, serial killers, like James Childers and Kylan Laurent, can exhibit “run and gun” behaviors by the end of their series. By ignoring the stratification question, we overlook the evolving nature of serial homicide and disregard how serial murderers are molded by social conditions, cultural changes and external pressures.

Although most believe these killers to be psychologically dissimilar, we simply do not have enough data at this time to support this claim.

On the next slide, let’s take a closer look at the data we do have.

A Closer Look at the Spree Killer: Nearly a decade ago, Salfati et al. concluded the only study comparing serial and spree offenders. They found that offenders were typically 29 years old, killing on average six victims with firearms, most often in one day at anywhere from two to six locations. 73 percent of these offenders were killed before capture. We found that offenders were also typically 29 years old, killing on average three victims with firearms most often over a one week period at three locations. The majority of our offenders were arrested rather than embarking on the typical "nothing to lose suicide mission” where they are killed in shootouts with police or commit suicide. Although these offenders do share similarities with serial murderers, we concluded, as did Salfati et al., that more data is needed to determine if spree and serial murderers should continue to be stratified separately. We cannot yet establish patterns in precipitating factors or know for certain if psychological traits are shared.

After incorporating spree murders and instances of urban violence into our serial dataset, Hickey and I found a change in victimization rates with fewer cases of only female victims and an increase in males being targeted. Fewer strangers and more family members were killed with a slight drop in the number of prostitutes being singled out. There are fewer numbers of victims per offender and fewer cases involving more than one state. Fewer cases of strangulation are recorded alongside more cases involving shooting as the sole method of killing.

The next slide details examples of offenders that killed for reasons of hatred or due to grievances.

Hatred and Grievances: Hickey believes an offender’s behavior is related to the type of victim selected rather than a pattern in MO. According to McNamara and Morton, an offender’s motive directly impacts victim target selection. Killing due to hatred, grievances, anger or revenge are motivations experts associate with spree and mass murderers due to the temperamental nature of these offenders. Unfortunately, this viewpoint reinforces the belief that serial murderers are emotionless killing machines, unaffected by the problems that plague other multiple murderers even though the time interval between their killings is a quote "emotional" period. Since we know that a serial murderer’s motivations are reinforced by internal desires for gratification, would not resolving anger through enacting revenge bring with it some measure of satisfaction? As the offenders pictured here demonstrate, there is a tremendous amount of fulfillment in neutralizing an anxiety causing target or ambushing those in authority in an effort to exercise their discontent. Each selected either specific individuals or those in positions of authority as the subject of attacks meant to vent their hatred.

So how do we classify these offenders? In drawing distinctions between mass, spree and serial murderers, we should ask multiple questions. What would the offender do if their targets could be eliminated in one event? Would they continue to kill after their mission is complete? Should the frequency with which offenders dispatch their victims play a role in what label they are given? Does an offender’s change in venue somehow alter their motivations and impact how they are categorized? These instances are another great example of why we should consider implementing the all encompassing ‘multiple-event murderer’ term. In the end, we must view these offenders as merely people acting to fulfill understandable needs with motivations that are based in the everyday human experience.

Lastly, what about those offenders that operate at or below the definitional minimum? Next slide, please.

Fledgling at or Below the Minimum: Including offenders who murder quote “only” two victims is an area of great debate. DeLisi states that “defendants who killed two victims were 104 times more common than defendants who murdered seven, eight or nine victims.” Two victim offenders are characterized as being a separate breed, killing in response to situational factors, convenience or survival; conventional criminals who just happen to commit more than one homicide. To most, serial murderers must fantasize and plan their crimes and pursue and ultimately kill their victims without interpersonal conflict or emotional provocation. Some are adamant that killing should be a “significant feature of the killer’s lifestyle” and not the byproduct of resolving disputes.

But, as Skrapec asks, what of the potential serial killers that have killed once and were captured? As Homant and Kennedy state, “someone who has only killed once may well be a serial killer, psychologically speaking, who simply has not yet acted on his impulses or has lacked the opportunity.” Brantley and Ochberg introduced the concept of the lethal predator, those that have killed at least once and are likely to keep killing. Several offenders in recent years, pictured on the right, have expressed the desire for additional killings in a quest to become a serial murderer. Due to factors including incompetence and absence of forethought, they lack the wherewithal to attain that rank. For instance, Michael Wenham confessed to his wife after his first kill. Gregory Hale was caught after he asked a neighbor to help him dispose of a body.

Another subgroup of perpetrators display the intent to murder multiple people but unintentionally leave surviving victims. Because each of these populations of burgeoning serial murderers have traditionally been excluded from analysis, we know little about their aptitudes and abilities. We advocate for their further study.

New Frontiers in Research: A number of years ago, a behavioral analyst stated that “As far as serial murder, I don't know that we've identified any radical new ideas over the past few years”. Here we see that today researchers are investigating the pathways in the brain that influence an offender’s actions, taking a closer look at the activities performed by these offenders and the ways in which they are apprehended. Serial murderers are now even studied on a global scale. To complement the work done by other researchers, we assembled an Expert Panel and used the Modified Delphi Technique in an effort to come to some consensus on the definitional issues discussed earlier. Although tales of serial murder are interwoven into the FBI’s origin story, they are currently producing quality work, “trying to prove through empirical research what they have learned through experience”.

Next we will quickly introduce a few research questions. Next slide, please.

Future Directions/Research Questions: More in depth case studies are needed, specifically on those offenders that are unearthed due to advances in technology. They are often forgotten about as relics of a bygone era. We need more research asking if offenders with anger based motives behave differently than those with more “traditional” motives. How can we prevent the instances in which an innocent person was wrongfully convicted for the murder committed by a serial murderer? Also, what would it take to obtain the cooperation of law enforcement to contribute data to our initiative?

That concludes our presentation. Are there any questions?

Please do not hesitate to contact us for any of the references cited during this presentation or to discuss ways we can collaborate.