Friday, April 27, 2018

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.

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