Friday, April 27, 2018

SAGE Dictionary of Criminology Entry on Mass Murder


Mass killings involve the death of four or more individuals, in one event, located in close geographic proximity. No one profile of a mass murderer exists, aside from the near universal involvement of troubled young men (Swanson, 2011).

Distinctive Features

Feelings of alienation and victimization are commonalities in the life histories of mass murderers. Psychopathology, bouts of psychosis, depression, paranoia, and antisocial behavior convince them that society is responsible for their suffering. The majority of attacks by these externalizers are predatory and methodically planned where anger and revenge alleviate despair from social exclusion and humiliation. Life events coalesce into suspicious and resentful worldviews where others are alleged to be spiteful. Such experiences contribute to the killer’s preference to hold grudges and act entitled while taking extreme actions. Inexperience with perspective-taking, communication, emotional regulation, information processing, and problem solving cripple the formation of meaningful relationships that might dissuade destructive behavior. The mental health sector and entities producing epidemiological studies and structured risk assessment instruments attempt to discern the causes for indiscriminate killings but are hampered by distinct operational definitions and varying study methodologies (Krouse & Richardson, 2015). Confusion arises from disagreements about what constitutes disordered minds and knowledge that most people fitting the mass shooter archetype do not commit crimes.

Recent mass casualty events saw the same firepower granted to shooters as bestowed upon infantrymen. The killers used often legally acquired weapons to engage in some of the deadliest shootings over the past 10 years. Access to such weapons and glorifying attention makes present-day mass murders unique (Knoll, 2012). This form of atypical homicide is given increasing attention disproportionate to the phenomenon’s occurrence. In spite of incidents covered by media being selected outside of true representativeness, Krouse and Richardson (2015) approximate the average prevalence of mass murder at 31 per year. The curiosity surrounding this rare form of violence is aggravated by identification with victims alongside concomitant interest by media, gun control advocacy and law enforcement groups discerning warning signs and dissecting motives to affect the search for the next mass murderer. Scholars have curtailed the use of offender’s names because attention afforded these perpetrators inspires similar attacks.

Efforts to classify offenders based on motivations (revenge, power, loyalty, terror, profit) or their relationship with the intended victim (family annihilator, school shooter, pseudo-commando, disgruntled employee) (Knoll, 2012) are misguided as location differentiates mass murderers across three broad patterns: the murder of domestic partners and children (familicides; occurring 8.5 times a year), killings committed as part of other criminal activity or arguments (felony related; occurring 8.3 times a year) and shootings transpiring in workplaces, churches, restaurants and schools (public; occurring 4.4 times per year) (Krouse & Richardson, 2015). Mass murder is as prevalent as it was in the 80s and 90s but with higher victim counts although tracking the time between incidents provides better measurement for frequency. Simplistic analysis of USA Today data that comingles all murders led to a failure to detect the shift in public mass shootings which have increased from occurring every 200 to every 64 days (Cohen, Azrael & Miller, 2014). Krouse & Richardson (2015) caution that generalizations about mass murders are applied to offenders that respond to circumstances differently. The psychological and behavioral differences between offenders who attempt suicide as they struggle with precipitating crisis events like social marginalization, family problems, work or school issues are superficial. Fundamental dissimilarities in chosen weapons, victims and locations do exist between mass shooters who die as a result of their attacks and those who live (Lankford, 2015).

Grievances instigate thought patterns that result in violence, contributing to the mass murderer’s defeat after working for good graces. The offender, often under significant stress, directs rage towards those tasked with alleviating the strain of daily life in familicides where the cherished aspects of their own lives are destroyed and the ability for relatives to carry forth are decimated. Felony related killings are attacks related to armed robbery, gang or drug activity, criminal competition, insurance fraud, arguments, witness elimination or romantic triangles, often sparked by an initial displeasing interaction whereby others killed are incidental damage to the goal of obtaining something tangible from the victim. Public killings encompass school shooters, pseudo-commandos, domestic terrorists, workplace avengers, psychotic perpetrators, rampagers and foot soldiers of hate groups and are usually motivated by desire to resolve a perceived or imaginary dispute by meting out vengeance on the wrongful parties whether they are individuals, corporations or demographic groups. Workplace shooters are the most likely to hunt down and eliminate specific targets whereas terrorists, rampage and school shooters rally against the symbolism of ideological infrastructures and select victims randomly.


Mass murderers are impaired by hyperactive intake of stimuli, where slights are deeply felt and interpreted as purposely malicious. Emotional intensity contributes to existential loneliness and misunderstanding and can mutate into ‘injustice collecting’ (O'Toole, 2014) as events that most overlook become immensely troubling. Mass murderers have a disdain for coping strategies and maintain a core centric belief that they matter more than others. Their heightened penchant to analyze the world, how every movement of those surrounding them negatively intrudes and intense self-awareness ensures an encounter where they are wronged will play directly into the ongoing drama of their lives. Mass murderers are fueled by tempered rage and disgruntled by a failed search for meaning interrupted and punctuated with persistent suicidal ideation, somehow avoiding long term unemployment, homelessness, prison sentences and mental hospital stays where their fellow mutinous brethren are warehoused. Without a grander purpose in life, mass murderers give their own suffering meaning by responding with violence. When those deemed by mass killers to be substandard engage in behavior constituting a personal affront to their masculinity or use language designed to belittle or disrespect, that action is noted in expanding list of wrongs.

Grievances are a sense of injustice or the loss of a person, prestige or purpose the offender regarded as anchoring and represents the first of six behavioral stages in the “path to intended violence” (Allely & Faccini, 2017). Followed by ideation, research/planning, preparations, breach and attack, the resolution to utilize violence to strike back against unfairness occurs during a period of rumination. More than momentary setbacks or short-lived expressions of frustration, grievances are a conclusion reached about the reason for the offender’s suffering after introspection to deduce the cause of discontentment. The motivation for mass murderers driven to violence to regulate social relationships contrasts the usual way they are portrayed as unfeeling automatons; they become obsessed with asserting control over those in close proximity and influence thought patterns by provoking fear to impose their views of traditional gender roles. Forcefully altering the perceptions of others and exhibiting a pattern of violence or threatening behavior against women in the form of domestic abuse forms a mosaic of a troubled person which can serve as a harbinger of future attacks.

The pursuit of social ties and norms and subsequent failure to bond with others result in alienation and abandonment, precursors to the internal torment that develops into self-loathing and eventual outward displays of mass violence. The difficulty of prediction is emphasized when considering school shooters but the killer may reveal warning signs which include: bullying, isolation, vacant gazes, loss of parents, violent ideations, school expulsion, depression, explosive outbursts and hurting animals. Research demonstrates that between 44 – 67% of public mass murderers need to be heard and communicate their intentions to harm to at least one person through verbal statements made to family or friends or the creation of manifestos, diaries, journals, web pages or notes about their plots. The vast majority of mass shooters signal their intentions in advance which presents an opportunity for intervention which is, aside from the 57 mass murder plots thwarted since 1993, often unseized and ignored.

Society conflates severe mental illness with the mild disorders of personality mass murderers bear to distract from everyone’s potential to contribute to their concealed ill feelings. The majority of offenders are not disabled by delusions but there are elements of paranoia, deep resentment, outward judgment or narcissism present that do not amount to specific and treatable ailments. Even if mental illness is uncovered, there is no evidence that treatment makes a meaningful difference to divert potential killers away from desired courses of action. Because gun violence has a social context, it is not something that mental illness can describe (Metzl & MacLeish, 2015). There are programs designed to address individuals who express troubled thoughts and mental health experts and law enforcement agencies have learned how to identify potential perpetrators and reduce the frequency of mass shootings. Even if prediction and prevention are unreachable goals, mass murder research is worthwhile given the misinformation referenced in the days after such events and the few rigorous inquiries due to a dearth of funding dedicated to the topic. Mass homicide reveals how we systematically fail at connecting with the interiority of others, highlighting ignorance that these offenders are sometimes the byproduct of mistreatment at the hands of powerful people harboring similar deficiencies.

Key Readings
Allely, C. S., & Faccini, L. (2017). “Path to intended violence” model to understand mass violence in the case of Elliot Rodger. Aggression and Violent Behavior. 37:201-209.

Cohen, A. P., Azrael D., & Miller, M. (2014). Rate of Mass Shootings Has Tripled Since 2011, Harvard Research Shows. Mother Jones. Retrieved from

Knoll, J. L. (2012) Mass Murder Causes, Classification, and Prevention. Psychiatric Clinics of North America. Psychiatr Clin N Am. 35:757–780.

Krouse, W. J. & Richardson, D. J. (2015). Mass Murder with Firearms: Incidents and Victims, 1999-2013. Congressional Research Service Report. Retrieved from

Lankford, A. (2015). Mass shooters in the USA, 1966–2010: Differences between attackers who live and die. Justice Quarterly. 32(2):360-379.

Metzl, J. M. & MacLeish, K. T. (2015). Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and the Politics of American Firearms. Am J Public Health. 105(2): 240–249.

O'Toole, M. E. (2014). The Dangerous Injustice Collector: Behaviors of Someone Who Never Forgets, Never Forgives, Never Lets Go, and Strikes Back! Violence and Gender. 1(3):97-99.

Swanson, J. W. (2011). Explaining Rare Acts of Violence: The Limits of Evidence from Population Research. Psychiatric Services. 62(11):1369-1371.

SAGE Dictionary of Criminology Entry on Serial Murder


Serial homicides involve the conscious, intentional and repetitive murder of two or more individuals by the same person(s) for personal gratification over a period of time. Homicides are linked by similarities in victim selection and isolation, manner of operation and weapon use, method of body disposal and location, presence of post-mortem mutilation and time of day.

Distinctive Features

Originally termed ‘motiveless stranger killings’, victims of serial murders can result from gang violence, organized crime ‘hits’ and convenience store robberies and are difficult to resolve given the lengths taken to hamper investigative efforts. Selecting vulnerable victims inhibits the timely location of witnesses, analysis of bodies, murder sites, physical evidence, and establishment of reliable chronology. Few findings from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 1985 study of twenty-five serial murders have been validated (Hickey, 2014) but the killers have been mythologized, stereotyped as weird, lonely, frustrated losers, or amoral, psychopathic masterminds compelled to satiate urges by escalating violence using torture and singular methods for sexual enjoyment while taking totems and leaving signature ‘calling cards’ because of maltreatment as a child by an overbearing mother. Such assumptions remain uncorrected due to a lack of advancement beyond descriptors like evil or insane, inflation of behavioral profiling and reliance on regurgitated anecdotes which causes definitional issues that complicate studying serial homicide (Gurian, 2015). Erroneous interpretations label serial murderers as one subtype – power/control, visionary, mission-oriented, hedonistic/lust, thrill, comfort or disciple – when only one victim in a series was killed in a manner fitting those archetypes.

Framing serial homicide as an extreme form of violence characterizes the more common two-victim series as mundane and ignorable. Differentiating serial killers on their level of lethality discounts those avoiding the label based on situational variables like misplaced bullets or the survival of victims. Support of an expansive definition focuses on the serial murderer’s mindset and intent because two, three, four and five victim offenders share characteristics not reflected by body count. Serial killers now behave differently due to better law enforcement and surveillance technology resulting in failed attempts and interrupted plans because of missteps due to ineptness, immaturity and ill-conceived ideas that raise suspicion. Since the decline in serial homicide from its height in the 1980s, offenders have adapted tactics formerly attributed to spree killers, forming an inverse relationship between the frequency of spree-like killings and serial murder. Dissolution of the spree classification ushered in a hybridization of the serial killer’s cold, calculated attacks and the spree killer’s emotive unpredictability. Although spree-like killers begin their campaigns by killing intimate partners, relatives, rivals, co-workers or police officers before targeting strangers, little separates them from serial killers beyond shortened time intervals between murders. The average amount of time serial murderers remain at large is similar across victim counts (1,860 days for two-victims; 1,500 days for three-seven victims; 1,650 days for killers of eight or more) but females kill serially over a longer time frame due to less suspicion.


Data sharing (Aamodt, Fox, Hickey, Hinch, Labuschagne, Levin, McClellan, Nelson, Newton, Quinet, Steiger, White, & Yaksic, 2016) has advanced the comprehension of serial murderers by encouraging statistical analysis and combating misinformation generated from siloed thinking. Knowledge gained disproves that serial murders consistently engage in the same behaviors, improve methods or change strategies over their careers (Yaksic, 2015). Serial killers are not all products of bad childhoods or sexually sadistic psychopaths of above average intelligence but most are shaped by social, historical and cultural forces and retain deficits of character rather than immutable mental illness. Most have never abused animals, wet their bed as children, set fires, consumed body parts, dismembered and disposed of victims or expressed a desire to be caught. Many have criminal records reflecting histories of antisocial behavior but some express remorse. The average educational level for offenders is a high school diploma while about a third are married and had served in the military (Morton, Tillman, & Gaines, 2015). Serial murderers are heterogeneous and defy simplified categorization, no longer falling strictly into the dichotomous organized/disorganized model. Serial murderers operate across different environments worldwide – hospitals, urban neighborhoods, truck stops, parking lots – using a multitude of weapons – firearms (43%), their own hands (22%), sharp implements (15%), bludgeoning tools (9%) and poison (7%) – for a variety of motivations – enjoyment (37%), financial gain (30%), anger (16%), enterprise (6%), to avoid arrest, eliminate witnesses, gain attention, or out of convenience (3%), mental illness (0.5%) or some combination (8%).

Ninety percent of serial killers are male, a gender that also supplies half of all victims who are usually thirty-four years old and Caucasian. Twenty-six is the median age of a killer during the first murder and thirty-one during the last. Half of first kills occur between ages twenty-one and thirty-three and half of last kills occur between ages twenty-five and forty. Most kill intrastate within tightly defined geographic zones. In nearly half of cases, serial killers take no actions to alter the crime scene beyond removing items – clothing, jewelry and money – and take no precautions to disguise their identity or avoid leaving physical evidence. The commonly held demographic profile matches only eighteen percent of serial killers as every other serial murderer over the past twenty years has been African American. Subsequent research (Lester & White, 2014) has demonstrated that African American serial killers killed fewer victims, committed fewer sexually deviant and violent acts and seemed more normal in childhood. Among partners killing to satisfy a financial motive, half having less than a five year age difference between them, paired serial killers engaged in the same level of participation and committed murders in a year or less using one kill method. Even though only twenty-four percent of serial homicide series are motivated by sexual desires, researchers conflate serial murder with sexual motivation because scholarly and legal investigations began when crime trends focused on violent sexual crimes.

Serial murderers plan after a period of ideation and act when conditions are satisfactory to ensure escape from apprehension. Victim selection factors into decision making as less than one percent of serial murderers change their tactics and kill indiscriminately across victims differing in age, gender and race. Interspersing victims from other classes aid killers in enjoying longer bouts of freedom. Members of the general public and street people are targeted most often but serial killers do not always murder strangers or select their victims at random, sometimes killing those that come into close contact with them through a pre-existing relationship such as a patient, tenant, lover, friend or child. The relationship between a victim and offender can be familial, unknown to one or both parties or customer and client with the approach being a ruse or con, surprise or blitz attack in a known vice area, public domain or the victim’s residence. Serial killers choose to select victims based on their vulnerability, accessibility and desirability (Morton, Tillman, & Gaines, 2015) rather than being compelled to kill to quell internal urges. Performing risk-benefit analyses is inherent to the serial murderers longevity but luck plays more of a role than cunning and superior intellect in helping these campaigns to continue. The presence of psychopathy among serial murderers is exaggerated (Culhane, Walker & Hildebrand, 2018) to explain the elusiveness of these offenders. Seventy-two percent of serial killers were captured because of the direct observations and descriptions provided by surviving victims, direct witnesses, and family members of serial killers.

Scholarly inquiry into serial murder has advanced (Keatley, Golightly, Shephard, Yaksic, Reid, 2018) since stories of werewolves and vampires were conceived to explain the deeds for which serial killers were culpable but progress is thwarted by interlopers motivated to promote their wares to subsume the fame attained by serial killers. Homicide archivists believe two-thousand serial murderers are active in the US, more than seventy times the average number of offenders apprehended annually, a theoretical remnant of an unscientific assumption regarding linkages between thousands of unresolved homicides. The idea that serial murderers are roaming the streets unabated is not supported by year-over-year reductions in homicide or by data tracking instances of known unresolved serial homicide series, the count of which has been more than halved since the 1980s. Overlaying these instances with data on apprehended offenders demonstrates that both subsets are declining at a nearly identical rate. Investigators attempt to connect dozens of murders to the same offender when a serial murderer is discovered, even though the average victim counts for those with financial goals (8), enjoyment motives (7) and anger-based objectives (4) are far lower and half of offenders are captured within a year. Serial murderers capitalize on this confusion which allows them additional freedom to commit their crimes. Because quicker resolution comes to cases where law enforcement is unaware that their unknown subject has serial killer tendencies, it is time to disregard the history of cat-and-mouse mythology surrounding serial murder, bypass the politics of taskforces and end the process of overthinking adversaries. Continued attention to homicides with serial killer earmarks will accelerate the capture of would-be serial killers after their first of many planned homicides.

Key Readings
Aamodt, M., Fox, J. A., Hickey, E., Hinch, R., Labuschagne, G., Levin, J., McClellan, J., Nelson, B., Newton, M., Quinet, K., Steiger, C., White, J., & Yaksic, E. (2016). Consolidated Serial Homicide Offender Database. Harvard Dataverse. Retrieved from

Culhane, S. E., Walker, S., & Hildebrand, M. M. (2018). Serial Homicide Perpetrators’ Self-Reported Psychopathy and Criminal Thinking. Journal of Society for Police and Criminal Psychology. 1-13.

Gurian, E. A. (2015). Reframing serial murder within empirical research: Offending and adjudication patterns of male, female, and partnered serial killers. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology.

Hickey, E. (2014). The evolution of serial murder as a social phenomenon in American society: An update. Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, XXXVIIII(3), 1216. Retrieved from 

Keatley, D. A., Golightly, H., Shephard, R., Yaksic, E., & Reid, S. (2018). Using Behavior Sequence Analysis to Map Serial Killers’ Life Histories. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 1–23.

Lester, D., & White, J. (2014). A Study of African American Serial Killers. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice. 12(4):308-316.

Morton, R. J., Tillman, J. M., & Gaines, S. J. (2015). Serial murder: Pathways for investigations. National center for the analysis of violent crime. Washington, D.C.: Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved from

Yaksic, E. (2015). Addressing the challenges and limitations of utilizing data to study serial homicide, Crime Psychology Review. 1:1, 108-134.

The Folly of Counting Bodies: Using Regression to Transgress the State of Serial Murder Classification Systems

In their study of the self-reported psychopathy and criminal thinking of serial homicide
offenders, Culhane, Walker & Hildebrand (2017) summarize the unique difficulty facing
researchers regarding the definition of a serial killer in that definitive statements cannot be made
about these offenders without first defining the target population. In Too Few Victims, the
authors use a faulty mechanism of measurement – the criteria of body count – hoping to end the
debate of what constitutes a ‘true’ serial homicide series. In seeking an empirical rationale for
eliminating two-victim offenders from consideration as ‘true’ serial murderers, the author’s
narrow the scope of which offenders should be included data from the since defunct Serial Killer
Information Center (SKIC)1. Although the SKIC data collection team suspected from the outset
that regional coverage of news articles could contribute to how serial murderers are perceived
(Wiest, 2016) and could influence the “large differences between offenders with two-victims and
those who killed greater numbers” but the authors code certain variables in a somewhat ad hoc2
manner to prove that these murderers are “noticeably dissimilar from established serial homicide
offenders” and that the “conventional wisdom regarding the common traits of serial killers” is
confirmed. Further confusing matters is the reference by Kiger (1990) to the designation of the
number of killings that must occur before the incidents are counted as serial murder as arbitrary.
Wright, Pratt and DeLisi (2009) agree and characterize the protection of this kind of definitional
territory as theoretically irrelevant and methodologically defenseless. Still, the authors aim to
reclaim ground lost to supporters of an expansive view of how best to define the term serial
murder, referring to themselves as traditionalists, or critics of this approach. This commentary
addresses the current research and its capacity to return serial homicide research to an age of idolatry where the deeds of the serial killer are glorified and their worth measured by the subjective concept of deadliness.

A preoccupation with ordering offenders into groups – from would-be and typical serial
killers to those that attained prolific status – formed the basis of the study design of Too Few
Victims, even in light of implorations to stop ranking multiple murderers using these types of
superlatives (Marketwatch, 2017). Although Gibson (2010) postulates that “definitional diversity
is not a mere matter of semantics”, the authors choose to focus on such nuances when
categorizing serial killers by tabulating completed acts. This approach is problematic given what
we know about the frequent failings of offenders when attempting to achieve their imagined
goals (Clarke, 2017) and because multiple homicide offending is often itself a sensationalistic
episode imbedded within a larger criminal career (Delisi & Scherer, 2006). The juxtaposition of
the words ‘too few’, ‘only’ or ‘just’ with the concept of victimization in the current research not
only minimizes the actions of multiple homicide offenders and the lives of their victims while
giving agency to those able to take advantage of favorable circumstances to become successful
but also disregards the role circumstance and luck play in the careers of the serial murderer and
their eventual collapse (Yaksic, 2017). It is not known if the same factors that allow more lethal
predators to become “deadlier, infamous and ruthless” keep what are referred to here as “lowlevel
offenders” below the author’s recommended threshold because they are absent from
consideration in the author’s analysis.

By trying to predict aspects of the offender’s modus operandi and motive based on the
number of victims amassed, the current research frames the analysis in a backward fashion while
searching for statistically meaningful differences between serial killers who killed upwards of
two-victims. Separate regressions for each individual characteristic3 would have proven the
author’s point more convincingly, especially if the coefficients on the dummy variables representing two-victim or three-victims were consistently statistically significant. A second methodological weakness is the lack of consideration for victim typology since controlling for it could have helped to explain many of the variations observed between two-victim and other serial killers. The nature of the victim-offender relationship, characterized by Fox and Levin (1998) as one of the most striking dissimilarities between serial murder and criminal homicide, is neglected in the current research because the data on victims that was supplied to the authors was in the rudimentary stages of being compiled. The state of the victim data also accounts for the inability of the authors to authentically code rape and torture in the manner they claim since it would not be possible to differentiate the precise number of victims raped or tortured over a series, whether it is most or all. Perhaps if data from the United Kingdom had been included in the current research more information on victims would have been available due to the outward nature of how the media handles them (Wiest, 2016).

Differentiating offenders based on their level of lethality discounts not only the
oftentimes situational variables that impact the outcomes of these events but, as Beasley (2004)
notes, variations in post-offense behavior, transportation used, items taken or kept and media
awareness. For example, Howell Donaldson may have either been apprehended sooner if police
gave more credence to the criminal profile supplied to them (Sampson, 2017) or not at all if he
had not surrendered his firearm. If surveillance footage had not contributed to Brandon Scott
Lavergne’s capture after his second homicide, he may have gone on to kill other women aside from his two-victims in 1999 and 2012 (McLaughlin, 2012). Yaksic (2015) points out that the notions of serial murderers performing the same crime scene behaviors throughout their series, consistently taking souvenirs or leaving signatures, escalating in their violence as they continue killing, improving their methods and changing their strategies over their careers are tested by Bateman and Salfati (2007) and Schlesinger, Kassen, Mesa, and Pinizzotto (2010). Disparities among these factors contribute to the dissimilarity between murders committed by the same individual while demonstrating the fallacy behind the concept of a conventional serial killer.

There will never be a constant and measureable progression from crime scene to crime scene in
what the offender does or reveals to a law enforcement organization (LEO) or what the LEOs
notice about that behavior – no matter the offender's body count – and even less in how much of
that quantifiable information is recorded in the SKIC data. Nevertheless, the authors firmly
believe that a stereotypical serial killer is characterized as an offender that partners with others
before killing for sexual enjoyment using torture and a singular method while taking totems.
While these five behaviors are used as ‘distinguishing attributes’ in the current research,
these variables may have been intentionally selected to best conform to offenders famously
examined by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Behavioral Science Unit. The
author’s desire to shoehorn current day serial murderers into archaic archetypes, now
mythologized in Netflix’s Mindhunter, is apparent when reviewing their measurement of motive
as “evidence of sexual assault, torture and totem-taking” and exclusion of female offenders
because they “rarely kill for sexual reasons”. These are thought to be the actions of sexual serial
killers that derive pleasure in their crimes but modern research has shown that the concept of
serial murder was wrongfully conflated with sexual violence due to the co-occurrence of both
crime trends (Reid, 2017). The authors both celebrate these old world views and stereotypes that
emerged from interviews conducted by FBI agents on 25 serial murderers (Ressler & Burgess,
1985) while denigrating the FBI’s recent work in adjusting the minimum victim threshold back
to its original form of two-victims (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 1994). The authors
characterize the FBI’s decision to alter this definition as a selfish endeavor and foregone
conclusion but also rely on the hallmarks of serial killing generalized from those early interviews
such as the erroneous belief – in light of new data stating otherwise – that serial murderers need a
“hands on” kill to be gratified. In defense of the FBI, they did not intend for the early research
done by its agents to be co-opted by academics, practitioners and researchers in the quick and
exacting manner in which each group has done. The FBI even gave representatives of these
groups the opportunity to participate in an open forum where the law enforcement version of the
serial killer was updated (Morton, Tillman, & Gaines, 2015).

Although the authors attempt to recast the mold of the ‘true’ serial murderer by truncating
the population down to such a narrow scope as to bring them more in line with outmoded
classification systems, the selection of partnership, rape, torture, totem-taking and enjoyment
variables may have been an artifact of working with a vastly incomplete database. Yaksic (2015)
noted that the SKIC’s database is far from complete as information across thousands of multiple
offenders is simply missing4. Imputations are relied on to fill those gaps rather than using what
Achen (2005) calls the classic skill of seeking out the missing information through independent
record review. The authors rigidly adhere to the use of empirical methods in Too Few Victims to
elucidate meaning from the contents of the database but that approach has resulted in a
romanticized view of serial killers and highlights, as Wright & DeLisi (2017) note, the gulf
between data points on a spreadsheet and the realities of modern day murderers. Extensive, systematic, and direct contact with serial murderers should ideally be coupled with empirical
data (Beasley, 2004) but another acceptable technique is explored by Reid (2018) where the
empirical is married with an exploration of the narrative behind the serial killer’s development.
Delving into the narrative behind the data points contained in the consolidated serial
killer database (Aamodt, Fox, Hickey, Hinch, Labuschagne, Levin, McClellan, Nelson, Newton,
Quinet, Steiger, White, & Yaksic, 2016) highlights the errors of lumping all two-victim
offenders together and excluding them from consideration. There is a potentially huge selfselection
problem in that two-victim killers by definition were not able to kill and hide from
police as long as multiple-victim killers. The characteristics of two-victim series provide some
possible explanations for this as these offenders are more likely to kill out of anger, less likely to
work with a partner and are slightly younger on average at first kill. Being stopped by police
after two-victims is different than desisting voluntarily after two-victims and never killing again.
In spite of the author’s statement that all two-victim offenders are “substantively different from
killers with higher victim counts”, other than circumstances sometimes beyond their control that
lead to their apprehension, there is fundamentally little to no difference between the actions of
the offenders cataloged in table 1. Although the authors insist that “the majority of two-victim
killers would likely never kill again, even given the opportunity”, there is nothing in the history
of these killers to suggest that they would have desisted from killing again if given the chance.
The authors view homicide as not featuring prominently in the lives of two-victim offenders as
they just happen to kill more than one person over time but they may be confusing the offenders
at the center of their research with the extremely small subgroup of recidivistic single-victim
homicide (RSVH) perpetrators (Bjorkly & Waage, 2005) that kill a second person after being
released from institutional confinement. Given that recidivism among homicide offenders is
lower than other forms of violent crime, it is imperative that two-victim offenders be viewed as
capable, motivated and unrelenting, as they have elevated their likelihood of victimizing a third
person merely by killing a second. A more substantive analysis would have been a comparison of
this group with the two-victim offenders and one-off killers as these groups may share more in
common than two-victim killers do with those that kill three or more victims.

Support for the observation that serial murderers can be found lying dormant among
those responsible for either a singular homicide or two murders separated in time has grown
among researchers over the past decade. Yaksic (2015) conducted a query using the modified
Delphi technique, finding that the use of two-victim terminology is acceptable to the majority of
experts queried5. Perhaps it is not a leap to assume these are serial killers in the strictest
interpretation of the term as preeminent researcher Jack Levin has stated that “when you find
two, you almost always find three" (Kirkey, 2010). Researchers that support the expansive
definition that includes these offenders focus on the offender’s state of mind or criminal intent,
reminding investigators that two, three, four and five victim offenders can share similar
characteristics not reflected by their body count (Mouzos & West, 2007). Wright, Pratt and
DeLisi (2009) prefer a more straightforward definition of multiple homicide that reflects the
notion that a multiple homicide offender is simply someone who has killed more than one
person. Homant and Kennedy (2014) acknowledge that a lack of opportunity can hamper an
offender’s ability to act on their impulses stating that someone who has killed once may well be
a serial killer, psychologically speaking. Schlesinger, Ramirez, Tusa, Jarvis, & Erdberg (2017)
voice the concern that another murder might occur at some distant time if one or two murders are
committed. In practice, the Murder Accountability Project believes that approximately five thousand people kill someone and escape apprehension each year with a percentage of these men and women having killed more than once (Wilkinson, 2017). But gone unanswered in the current research is the question asked by Wright, Pratt and DeLisi (2009): how does escalating to a third or fourth victim change the landscape of an offender’s criminal history?

Fox and Levin (1998) argued that establishing a minimum body count of four victims
helps to distinguish a repetition of killing as serial from other forms of homicide but admit
twenty years later that selection of this victim tally “may have been an arbitrarily chosen
threshold” (Levin & Fox, 2017). The current research aims to support this unfounded viewpoint
by placing the four-victim group at the forefront while rendering offenders in that group
“genuine” serial murderers. By honing in on outmoded aspects of serial murder, current day
offenders are held to those standards. Instead of crediting the preemptive action taken by law
enforcement to effect change in this arena or recognizing that society has forced a reduction in
the serial murderers’ victim threshold by taking note of their activities, the authors envelop this
progress by simply stating that two-victim offenders are “significantly different from all other
serial homicide offenders”. As former federal investigator Bill Daley stated regarding the decline
in serial homicide, "We're able to get people right after they commit one murder as opposed to
waiting until they've committed several more murders" (Corbin, 2017). No credence is given by
the authors to the possibility that the old ways in which serial killers functioned are no longer
possible and that offenders operating in the modern age face obstacles not in place during the
phenomenon’s heyday (Yaksic, DeSpirito, Reid, 2018). The “fundamental differences” between
offender classes mentioned in Too Few Victims could be a byproduct of adaptive behavior
undergone by these killers after realizing that they can no longer take advantage of the ignorance
of potential victims and LEOs.

The contributions of researchers aiming to influence the work done by LEOs in
operationalizing the more traditional, three victim minimum may derail early work to form task
forces designed to intervene in an offender’s series before additional victims can be claimed. The
author’s recommendations handicap others from viewing certain homicide series, so-called
mundane killings such as those recently occurring in Tampa (Dawson, Altman, Guzzo,
Contorno, & Sampson, 2017) or Louisiana (Toohey, 2017), as serial murders because they
characterize that phenomenon as an “extreme form of violence”. Because of such discordance,
LEOs often disregard the application of serial killer terminology to unknown offenders (Toohey,
Skene & Discher, 2017; Sanchez & Levenson, 2017) and acknowledge that what these offenders
are called does not affect operations, in part due to a past reliance on archaic stereotypes and
outmoded thinking by researchers (Corbin, 2017). Because LEOs cannot wait for offenders to
conform to archetypes before triaging such cases to investigators’ for their immediate attention,
they prefer instead to pursue homicide investigations with suspected linkages both individually
and under the assumption they are linked.

Chief Dugan of the Tampa Police Department was recently vocal in his admonishment of
profilers, amateur detectives and researchers armed with knowledge about serial killers aiming to
assist in the Seminole Heights serial killer investigation, stating that speculation can harm the
efforts of law enforcement (Rosario, 2017). Because of a history of uninvited involvement from
outside parties, LEOs care not for relative risk percentages and have adopted a pragmatic “know
it when I see it” attitude when investigating homicides with suspected linkages in an effort to
avoid mishaps caused by conflicts. Muskegon County Sheriff Dean Roesler points to the "similar
patterns and characteristics” in the two homicides attributed to Jeffrey Willis (Gaertner, 2016).
Albuquerque Police Department homicide Sgt. Elizabeth Thomson said that “similarities in the
deaths struck her as soon as she arrived at the site where the second body was found” (Kaplan,
2017). As Chief Steve Caraway stated, "His [Laurent] intention was to commit a murder. This
was something that was planned". Deputy prosecutor Wayne Tashima noted that because Saito
“committed a murder he has the inherent ability to commit another murder" (Kawano, 2017).
Tulsa Police Department Homicide Sgt. Dave Walker referred to Brennon Lovett as an
“interesting study in killing” due to the high number of shooting attempts attributed to him and
his “mindset”, calling him a “serial killer who’d only been ‘successful’ once” (Goforth, 2016). In
summary, the offender’s style of victimization signals a particular psychological proclivity to
reoffend to those on the frontlines combating serial murderers, which LEOs assume will hold
constant until proven otherwise.

According to the authors, proponents of a definition based on intentionality fail to explain
how this ‘underlying psychological construct is to be evaluated’ but that could be because
DeLisi, Tahja, Drury, Caropreso, Elbert, & Heinrichs (2017) introduced the concept of homicidal
ideation to the criminological literature only recently. Reisner, Mcgee, & Noffsinger (2003) used
the case of Mr. X, an individual self-described as a budding serial killer, to demonstrate that
there are gradations of deviancy across the spectrum of multiple homicide, from those that are
satisfied with their existence in the realm of mere homicidal ideation (Reisner, Mcgee, &
Noffsinger, 2003), others that operate at the behest of compliance with the outcomes of deep
seeded fantastical thinking (Murray, 2017), those engaging in purely fictive and fanciful larks for
anticipated attention it would garner (Fischer, Beckson, & Dietz, 2016) to all others that strive to
successfully carry forth their plans (Aamodt, et al., 2016). Perhaps the “path to intended
violence” model used by Allely and Faccini (2017) to understand a mass murderer can be
applied to serial homicide offenders to better comprehend where among the six stages on the
path things go wrong for their plans. Although there is journalistic interest in wannabe serial
killers (Specker, 2017), no study has yet drawn the distinction between them and would-be serial
murderers, what the current research deems “potential” serial killers. To that end, Yaksic (2018a,
working manuscript) has tracked the existence of offenders at or below the two-victim threshold
which includes the gamut of individuals at various stages of criminality6. The difficulty in
parsing out the fanciful from those that will inevitably fulfill their intentions arises due to a high
rate of false positives and the lack of an available mechanism to ethically test a prospective the
offender’s follow through to fulfill their supposed destinies. Because of these unknowns, it is
easy to cast them aside with two-victim offenders even though DeLisi et al. (2017) found
offenders with greater homicidal ideation to be more likely to have been arrested for murder and
evince more extensive and severe criminal careers.

Far reaching are the ramifications of excluding a wide swath of offenders from study
merely because little is known about the mechanisms that assist such offenders in the transition
to becoming a full-fledged serial homicide offender. The regressive viewpoint on what
constitutes the purity of a ‘true’ serial killer in Too Few Victims is based in the author’s fixation
on using sexual elements to separate offenders into requisite classes and can stymie real-world
efforts to identify and apprehend modern day serial murderers that kill more than once. In light
of this, most detectives recognize the earmarks of serial homicide activity after the occurrence of
the offender’s first or second homicide while practitioners and researchers work furiously to catch up. The Murder Accountability Project conducts a training exercise related to the singular murder of Jon Benet Ramsey to test the likelihood that her death is related to others in a series. In their review of investigative challenges and failures related to serial murder cases, LePard, Demers, Langan, & Rossmo (2015) used a threshold of one or more missing persons and did not list definitional discordance as slowing down or otherwise negatively affecting inquires. Activist Mikki Kendall believes in the possibility that the murder of Theresa Bunn is connected to the killing of a second women, as did Chicago Police detectives at the time (Vice News, 2017; Ahmed & Rozas, 2007). Years earlier, Chicago Police probed linkages between the murders of Angela Jones and Roberta McKinney (Wilson, 2000). Rather than relying on the variables identified in Too Few Victims, investigators exploring potential linkages between one homicide and another generally review tangible aspects of the perpetration of the crime such as the isolation of the victim, manner of killing, disposal of the body, post-mortem mutilation, concealment, timing and victim selection (Pakhomou, 2004). Similarly, Mott (1999) found that body disposal, victim vulnerability, location of body disposal and offender mobility were helpful in predicating the status of the case, whether it be solved or unsolved.

The authors claim access to the largest serial killer database in existence yet utilize the
fewest variables when compared to other research efforts that employ empirical techniques.
Kraemer, Lord, & Heilbrun (2004) utilized demographic information on the offender and the
victim, information on the offender’s style of approach, use of a vehicle, location of events,
symbolic artifacts or writings at the crime scene, positioning of the body, use of restraints, the
body’s state of dress, use of weaponry, and medical forensic information including cause of
death, location and type of trauma, and evidence of sexual assault. Lester and White (2014)
capture aspects of the offender’s life history and the circumstances of the murders across 83
different variables. Pakkanen, Zappala, Bosco, Berti, Santtila (2015) focus on the location of the
victim’s body, evidence of sexual trauma, where the murder occurred and the offender’s level of
forensic awareness. The analyses performed by Gurian (2015) included specific offender patterns
such as mobility, time frame, victim selection, and method. In their descriptive analysis of 92
offenders, Morton, Tillman, & Gaines (2015) focused on factors such as an offender’s victim
selection and approach, method of killing, prior criminal history, demographic details of the
offender and the victim, location where the victim was murdered, body disposal location and
sexual activity, grouping offenders based on victim counts of two to four, five to nine and ten or

To prevent a myopic view of the crime based on a single unusual factor, Morton,
Tillman, & Gaines (2015) recommend reviewing the case materials taking a “totality of
circumstances”. As such, Kraemer, Lord, & Heilbrun (2004) focused on intent rather than
motive while Gurian (2015) did not include motive in the final analysis due to the problems of
vague boundaries between categories, subjectivity in determining primary motive and lack of
empirical support. Beasley (2004) highlights how problematic identifying a precise motive can
be given the combinations of influences on an offender and the variability of human behavior.
Williams, Thomas & Arntfield (2017) demonstrate that there are still motives such as leisure that
have yet to be considered among those typically identified. Working with a smaller number of
offenders would have allowed the authors to conduct an in depth analysis using more variables
(Messori, 2016). The variation in variables and criteria used to design the study cohorts in the
current research and other empirical endeavors will prevent the direct comparison the authors
hoped their recommendation to regress to a three victim minimum threshold would have

In reconstructing the data used in the current research, it was found that it encompasses
2,395 offenders including 1,602 solo offenders, 287 operating in teams, 199 suspected, accused
or self-proclaimed, 81 spree killers and 226 members of an organization7. The high number of
individuals participating in organizations raises the question of homogeneity among offenders
within the chosen grouping schemes of two, three – seven and eight or more victims. Can it be
expected that hitmen and gang members that kill between three and seven victims share the same
typological makeup as other ‘typical’ serial murderers in the data? The absence of investigation
into the ‘cooling off period’ is also questionable due to the finding upon reconstruction that little
variation exists between the average amounts of time offenders remain at large8. The authors
assume that a four-victim offender’s series is exactly twice as long as that of a two-victim
offender and fail to acknowledge that these homicides could occur over a similar period of time.
Perhaps it would be more appropriate to organize offenders based on their status as either a
habitual or dedicated perpetrator, a dichotomy of historical depth introduced by Pakhomou
(2004) based on a scale of the offender’s criminal versatility, or conduct an analysis that explains
how such supposedly different groups can be at large for commensurate amounts of time.
The authors have four concerns related to lowering the victim threshold, stating that
doing so dilutes the population of serial killers, artificially increases the prevalence of serial
murder, changes the mathematical nature of the word ‘series’ and prevents direct comparison of results across studies. First, the argument that one diverse cohort can be watered down by the
addition of another diverse cohort lacks theoretical basis because Caucasian and African
American serial murderers are examined under the same umbrella of serial murder even though
there are several differences between them (Lester & White, 2014). Second, instead of increasing
the prevalence of serial murder, the inclusion of two-victim offenders has had the opposite
effect; researchers now know that serial homicide is declining, particularly among the group of
offenders the authors deem prolific. Third, because serial killers were originally called sequence
killers and a sequence can begin with one and either continue or end with a second, the semantic
argument is irrelevant. Finally, direct comparison of results across studies is complicated by
research teams that use different methods when manipulating the data and studies that classify
offenders by type of offense, not count.

Despite use of mechanical methods, identified as such by Achen (2005), the authors are
surprised to find that their theoretical insights differ from what they previously thought was
common among these offenders. These ‘new’ postulations are more in line with current
mainstream thought regarding the portrayal of serial murder, already widely accepted after
having been established in the expansive period of time between Douglas and Ressler and
today’s researchers. A consequence of abiding by the conclusions drawn by the authors in Too
Few Victims is a loss of investment in further research dedicated to an important group of killers
that allegedly “cannot be combined with any other offender type”. Such research should
investigate if the empirical distinction between two-victim serial killers and other multiplevictim
serial killers may simply be a statistical anomaly caused by the lack of data or lower data
quality for two-victim series9. As it stands, the regression results show that serial killers who kill for enjoyment and work with partners tend to kill more victims. However, the authors do not prove that serial killers who kill more victims necessarily have statistically different characteristics once all other exogenous variables are controlled for. k-means and Expectation-Maximization clustering is another unexplored avenue that could serve to reveal hidden aspects of the data by grouping serial killers into typological clusters in a principled manner based on various observed characteristics. If the average number of victims within the groups of serial killers produced by the algorithm would end up being different then the data would support the point made by the authors. If not, then it would provide a contradictory argument. In closing, the authors regard impeded research efforts and hampered communication as resultant from definitional discordance but recent research demonstrates that practitioners themselves can often contribute to institutional rivalries that slow efforts to understand these offenders (Yaksic, 2018b). The undue emphasis placed on body count, a niche aspect of serial homicide research, by the authors in Too Few Victims has the capacity to further alienate disparate groups of researchers and practitioners from each other and from those law enforcement officers they are aiming to help. By redirecting the focus back to issues that exist beyond definitional problems, future research will transcend mere regressions and deliver us all from the motivations of those seeking to transgress the field of serial homicide research.

1 The Serial Killer Information Center has not been updated in more than a year

2 e.g. “usual patterns” of rape or torture vs. “at least one” souvenir-taking vs. 80-percent threshold to establish who was a “partnered killer” and “singular-method killer” idolatry where the deeds of the serial killer are glorified and their worth measured by the subjective concept of deadliness.

3 e.g., Offender Characteristic 1 = f( Number of Victims, All Other Offender Characteristics, MO, Most Likely Motive) where “Number of Victims” would be dummy variables {0,1} representing Two-Victim, Three-Victim, Four-Victim killers, and onwards

4 Out of the 2,395 offenders meeting the author’s criteria, information in the totem variable, for example, was absent 64 percent of the time, or across 1,548 records.

5 Thirteen researchers, practitioners and law enforcement officers participated in the modified Delphi panel

6 1) described by police, prosecutors or practitioners as a fledgling or budding serial killer maintaining trademarks or hallmarks, characteristics, tendencies or traits; 2) offenders that desire, intend or plan to kill more than one person; 3) the self-proclaimed statements, utterances and admissions from offenders made to convince others of their capacity to kill serially; 4) attempting additional homicides occurring before or after successfully completed acts; 5) obsession with the aspirations to attain the serial killer designation; 6) membership in fandom dedicated to offering admiration towards actual serial killers and celebrating their exploits; 7) the presence of a serial mindset juxtaposed with numerous failures to amass enough victims; 8) incessant comparison to previous serial killers and a clearly delineated plan to emulate them

7 approximately 967 US based male offenders killed two people with a first kill since 1970. 730 acted as solo offenders, 97 operated in teams, 62 were suspected, accused or self-proclaimed, 20 were spree killers and 58 were members of an organization (drug, enterprise, cult or gang). Approximately 1,212 US based male offenders killed three, four, five, six or seven people with a first kill since 1970. 760 acted as solo offenders, 146 operated in teams, 120 were suspected, accused or self-proclaimed, 57 were spree killers and 129 were members of an organization. Approximately 216 US based male offenders killed eight or more people with a first kill since 1970. 112 acted as solo offenders, 44 operated in teams, 17 were suspected, accused or self-proclaimed, 4 were spree killers and 39 were members of an organization.

8 1,860 days or five years for two-victim killers; 1,500 days or four years for three-seven victim killers; 1,650 days or five years for killers of eight or more victims.

9 as 17.7% of all two-victim killers were coded under the “Other Motive” category


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