The serial killer phenomenon.
Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist and professor at New York University, has observed that: 'People say evil is like pornography: they know it when they see it, but can debate whether or when it is harmful'. This, he maintains, 'is not true. We are finding widespread agreement about what is evil'.
The old order of murder has changed. The cosy domestic poisonings of Victorian and Edwardian England, the almost jaunty blood-letting with knife, gun, and blunt instrument, the tidier ligatures with rope, cord, and thin-biting wire, all these purposive acts, motivated by comprehensible, if not excusable, human passions of love and malice, greed and gain, profit and loss, jealousy and revenge, elimination or conviction, which is to say killing for an idea or an ideal, have been overshadowed. Today, we have the gang wars, the drug-borne slaughterings, and the reigns of the terrifying silencers of the lambs, the random repeat, or serial, killer, slaying total strangers, for the sheer recreational love and lust for killing per se.
What, then, precisely is a serial killer? How does he or, more rarely, she, differ from a mass murderer? Is it a mere matter of semantics? Both, surely, are simply multicides. The determining differential diagnostic feature depends upon the identification of the psychological motivation of the killer. The mass murderer kills numbers of people for any one, or any combination of the normally recognised classic motives. The serial killer kills primarily for a compulsive sexual reason, often a repulsive one, Lustmord, although, just to make things more complicated, adjunctive benefits may, accidentally as it were, accrue.
The term serial killer was coined, so the story goes, in the 1970s, by FBI agent Robert K. Ressler, for the engagingly homely reason that such multiple murderers, killing in series, brought back to him childhood memories of the cliff-hanger film serials, like Flash Gordon and The Phantom, which he watched at the Saturday kiddie matinee movies at the cinema in his home-town.
The serial killer concept may be modern American, but it is really no more than a present-day recognition of a phenomenon that stretches back, unflagged, over the centuries. There used to be talk of 'monsters'. The judges prated of 'Evil'. One of the pioneer exponents of the now identified stereotypic sado-sexual mode was British-the sadistic sexual serial killer, Jack the Ripper, back in 1888. The earliest generally recognised American serial killer was Chicagoan Dr. H.H. Holmes aka Herman Webster Mudgett, of 'Holmes' Castle' (1895). Other British-bred produce includes John Reginald Halliday Christie, the Notting Hill Necrophile (1953); Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderers (1966); Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper (1981); Dennis Nilsen, the Cricklewood Scourge of the Gay (1983); and Harold Shipman, the murderous 'Dr. Jekyll' of Hyde (1998)-albeit his motivation appears so mixed as to make his taxonomic niche a gargantuan puzzlement.
Our latest British ornament to the genre is 49-year-old Steven Wright, the Ipswich Strangler, who was sentenced last February by Mr. Justice Gross to a whole life term rather than the fixed, minimum 30-year option, for the murder of five unfortunates-Gemma Adams (25), Tania Nicol (19), Anneli Alderton (24), Paula Clennell (24), and Annette Nicholls (29).
An ordinary looking man of chubby build, more than six feet tall, balding, with residual silvery-grey hair, and a biggish nose, he does not, beyond vehement denial, have much to say. His court room eloquence extended to supplying 53 times to 53 prosecution questions the same coruscant riposte-'It would seem so, yes'. The son of a Felixstowe dock policeman, he was described by one witness as, 'An average normal guy' who 'didn't strike me as weird'. Those who knew him more intimately, spoke of him as a quiet man, who was overshadowed by his 'lovely and vivacious girlfriend', Pamela Wright. By coincidence, they share the same surname, but are not married. 'He didn't say much and was not that friendly, but Pam was really in love with him'.
His background? Again, nothing out of the ordinary. In 1978, at the age of twenty, a merchant seaman, he married Angela O'Donovan. They divorced nine years later. He subsequently met Diane Cassell or Cole, described as a display artist. They were both working on the Queen Elizabeth 2, he as a steward. When they left the ship, they lived together in Essex. It was their ambition to run a public-house, but the brewer refused to give a tenancy to an unmarried couple. They therefore got married. Diane-aged 52 in 2006-has said that she has regretted it ever since, but once they were wed they became the proprietors of the Ferry Boat Inn, in the red light district of Norwich. It was a recognised haunt of prostitutes. The marriage lasted less than a year. Wright decamped with another woman. He did various jobs, including assistant in a Felixstowe bingo hall, and, until the end of November, 2006, a fork-lift driver for an insulation firm in Hadleigh, west of Ipswich. He never married again, but lived with a long-term partner, Pam, who worked nights at a computer firm. They shared a [pounds sterling]100-a-week, two-storey flat in London Road, Ipswich, on the rim of the town's vice area.
In common with many serial killers, Wright was a regular customer of prostitutes, whose easy availability and somewhat nomadic lifestyle make them prime targets for sociopathic sex slayers. Indeed, so familiar a figure was he, trolling and kerb-crawling in Ipswich, habitually wearing army camouflage trousers, that they nicknamed him 'The Soldier'. His caparison embraced also cross-dressing, and it was his frequent wont to don a PVC skirt, high heels, and a black wig. The spectacle of the military-looking Wright dolled-up as a woman was scary, and did in fact frighten some of the vice girls. All his victims were, in classic serial killer mode, strangled, and their clothes were removed, either as a safeguard against the discovery of possible forensic evidence, or as trophies-the serial killer's penchant for the collection of a wide range of selected keepsakes, such as Christie's tobacco tin of assorted pubic hairs and the fragmented ossuary of the Milwaukee necrophilic anthropophage, Jeffrey Dahmer, to Shipman's magpie tangle of jewellery, filched from victims. Others prefer what might be described as more dynamic aides-memoire, such as the 'snuff movies' made by Lake and Ng as they tortured and abused their three sex slaves at Wilseyville, California (1985). Anthropophagous culinary delights were enjoyed, Dahmerlike, by Albert Fisher, the Mad Bogeyman of Wisteria Cottage, White Plains, N.Y. (1934) and Joachim Kroll, the West German Girl Slayer, who had a meal of human flesh and vegetables bubbling away on the stove when he was arrested (1976).
The clues that brought brought about Wright's not before timely capture were provided by DNA samplings and CCTV footage. It was DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) profiling that ended the long hunt for the Wichita B.T.K. (Bind. Torture. Kill.) serialist with the arrest of Dennis Rader (2005).
The comparatively recent recognition of the serial killer notwithstanding, he is by no means a new, essentially 'modern', species of homicide monster. It is just that, like the dinosaur in Jurassic times, he has increased and multiplied to crescendo proportions since the 1980s. Serial murder is a growth industry.
The typical serial killer is defined as Caucasian, male, aged 18-32. A notable exception to the Caucasian qualification was Wayne Williams, the black Atlanta Child Killer (1982). Neither has the age-span specification, advanced some years ago, held. The Wichita B.T.K. serial killer, Dennis Rader, captured after a hunt that extended over more than thirty years, proved to be a 59-year-old pillar of heartland American respectability. Another long-running performer, the elusive Green Riverman, of Kent County, some 48 women's lives sacrificed to his sexual gratification over his eighteen year murder spree, Gary Ridgway, (2003) was 54, and John Glover, the Australian Granny Killer (1981) was 59.
The bulk of serial killers are heterosexual, but John Wayne Gacy, the Killer Clown, Chicago (1980), was bisexual, and William Bonin, 'The Freeway Killer', California (1982), Nilsen, and Dahmer, were exclusively homosexual. The most general definition is that of one who has murdered a minimum of three to four people over a period of time, with a cooling off period of varying length length-weeks, months, or even years- between killings.
Geographically, the serial killer is found on every continent, except Antarctica. Serial killings are usually intra-racial.
Undeniably, it is the United States that has yielded the richest, thickest, and most variegated crop of serial killers, and, counter-balance-wise, evolved the most sophisticated, high-tech, state-of-the-art techniques for the tracking of them down.
The foundation, in-depth, behavioural analysis study of the serial killer phenomenon was undertaken by a crack team of FBI specialists, the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU), at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. The Behavioral Unit compiled its initial database between 1979 and 1983, interviewing 36 incarcerated sex murderers, of which 25 were serial killers. It was the Quantico behaviourists who put together the typical profile of the ur serial killer. Most are solitary males, although some hunt in pairs, a coming together in a sort of lethal folie a deux-Bianchi and Buono, the Hillside Stranglers (1983); Lake and Ng (pronounced 'Ing'), the Californian Torture Duo (1985); even mixed sex pairs, Douglas Clark and Carol Mary Bundy, the Sunset Slayers (1980); Gerald and Charlene Gallego, the Sex Slave Murderers (1983); Frederick and Rosemary West, the Sex Killers of Cromwell Street, Gloucester (1994)-and sometimes in teams, Williams Bonin and Dean Corll, 'The Candy Man Killer', Houston, (1974).
The taxonomy of the group begins with a basic bipartite division- (1) The Psychotics. They are a minority. The genuinely insane. They hear voices, see visions, fail to perceive reality correctly. Murder is a symptom of their madness. (2) The Psychopaths (also designated Sociopaths). They are McNaughton sane; they know right from wrong-but don't care. They lack conscience and the capacity for empathy. They feel neither guilt nor remorse. They kill because they want to: they like it. Two traits invariably present: lust for power and paraphilia, or sexual abnormality, such as voyeurism, undinism, coprophagia and piquerism (self-stabbing with sharp insruments).
No serial killer in England has successfully pleaded insanity, or even manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility, in the last fifty years. Christie pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity; Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper (1981) attempted to find shelter behind diminished responsibilty and paranoid schizophrenia; Nilsen plumped for diminished reponsibility due to severe personality disorder.
The FBI's BSU further classifies the serial killer into: (a) Asocial. Disorganised. A loner. Withdrawn. His job will be menial. More cowardly and will knock the victim unconscious first. Picks victim from near where he lives or works. Leaves a disorganised crime scene with evidence of little or no preparation for murder. Despatches victim swiftly. (b) Non-social. Organised. Positively anti-social, although more gregarious. Superficially quite normal. Maintains conventional relationships. More organised. Mobile. More imaginative and creative. More adaptive. Plans ahead. Tends to have a preferred type of victim. Stalks prey. Imports weapon. Slow, sadistic kill. Inclined to taunt the police. Intends to shock the community. Will leave victim's corpse on show.
Rape murders are committed purely as a matter of utility. Lust murders, on the other hand, are the consequence of pure pleasure in the act of killing, and can be further divided into (a) sadistic, and (b) non-sadistic procedures.
Psychologist Dr. Joel Morris, a founding member of the International Committee of Neuroscientists to Study Episodic Aggression, distinguishes seven phases of serial killer activity. (1) Aura--day dreams and fantasies. (2) Trolling--cruising and contact. (3) Wooing--luring into clutches. (4) Capture. (5) Murder. (6) Totem--collection of trophies, souvenirs. (7) Depression--post-homicidal deflation, like post-coital tristesse.
Serial killers are, generally speaking, of at least average intelligence. Some, such as Ted Bundy (1978), the law student, IQ 124, Gary Heidnik, wealthy, skilful stockmarketeer, Slave Master of the Philadelphia Sex Cellar of Horror (1987), IQ 130-148 on various testings, and Gacy, the thriving businessman, were well above average, and there have, of course, been a number of serial killing doctors.
Almost a third of all known serial killers turn out to have been mental patients of ex-convicts. They come from all walks of life and are frequently the products of broken, or severely brutal homes, where they have themselves been subjected to gross cruelty, sexual abuse, and in some cases prolonged and systematic torture, in deprived childhood: negative parenting as the jargon has it. Vulgatim: the brutal father is father to the brutal father. Interestingly, there is a comparative derth of serial killers from a good socioeconomic background.
Quite often they have at some time in their lives sustained head injuries. The Human Gorilla, Earle Nelson, the strangling rapist of the America of the 1920s, was thrown off his bicycle by a trolley car when he was only ten, and lay comatose for the better part of a week. Bobby Joe Long, the Classified Ad. Rapist of Tampa (1989), sustained massive head injuries in a motorcycle accident when he was twenty. Richard Speck, the Chicago Nurses' Home Slayer (1966) had a history of repeated head injuries. That great Family Man, Charles Manson (1969) and the Texas multicide, Henry Lee Lucas (1983), also endured similar significant injuries in their early days. And when he was a boy, Gacy was hit on the head by a swing, and for the rest of his youth suffered from fainting fits. But the cerebral trauma theory of causation is far from universally well regarded. Head injuries are, after all, a childhood commonplace.
A large number of serial killers have such characteristics in common, as being essentially a loner, experiencing difficulty with relationships, and showing, psychopathically, neither empathy, conscience, nor remorse, only arrogance. They routinely graduate to thievery. Later, fear and mistrust of women may be manifest. Part of the pattern, too, is alcohol, and, ever increasingly nowadays, drugs, plus pornography, as buttresses for the serial killer's high dominance requirements, and short-cut escape-routes into comfortable realms of fantasy. Bondage beckons temptatiously. There are, too, imputations of sexual impotence (Christie) of the ability to achieve sexual excitation only during the frenzy of killing (Chikatilo, the Rostov Ripper, 1992), or to have satisfactory sexual relations solely with a corpse (Nilsen and Dahmer).
There is little doubt that the serial killer derives a considerable amount of his satisfaction from the hunt itself for a victim--trolling. And each serial killer has his own favourite trolling ground. It could be at twilight in a shopping mall, amid the bustle of a crowded department store, under the bright lights of a particular busy street, of the murky darkness of a lonely rural road. Gacy favoured the demi-monde of male hustlers, Dahmer loved shopping precincts, Bundy went for the bracing air of the college campus, Nilsen was pleasantly stimulated by the cut glass and mahogany of Victorian London pubs. Old folks' homes and singles' bars, nurses' residences and university hostels are all beckoning locations, but the surest territory is unequivocally a red light district.
There is very sound evidence to suggest that sexual murder is not about sex ... it is about power, the power to dominate. And that is the driving force behind the practice of torture common to so many serial killers. It has been well described as the stock-in-trade of the organised serial killer. Andrei Chikatilo stabbed his victims, young women, girls and boys, probably more that 52 of them, slowly to death, relishing their anguish. Robert Berdella of Bob's Bizarre Bazaar, Kansas City, (1988), homosexual sadist, tormented his bound captives for days before finally dispatching them. It is all about the need to make a victim scream for mercy, beg for life, wield the power of a god over life and death. The act of pre-mortem mutilation also spells power.
Possibly of significance in this power play is the observation of the FBI agent John Douglas. He says: 'Almost all serial killers are police buffs. When we ask them what they would do if they could start again and select another occupation, they choose law enforcement. Many of these guys in fact will have tried, but didn't make the grade. A lot end up as security guards'.
Gerard Schaefer (1972), a Florida deputy police officer, persuaded a number of young girls to take rides in his car, drove them to a secluded spot in the woods, put a noose round the girl's neck, tied it to the limb of a tree, and settled back to enjoy the spectacle of his victim's slow demise. It was suspected that he was responsible for something like twenty murders. He was sentenced to two concurrent life sentences.
Returning to the scene of the crime is another not uncommon behavioural feature: sometimes for practical reasons, such as checking on the progress made by the police, sometimes to gloat, to re-live the experience of the crime, sometimes for purposes of necrophilia, or perhaps to engage in onanistic activity over the corpse. The revelatory clues of such activity are little more than semen stains and pubic hairs. In some cases semen has been recovered from the victim vaginally or rectally. Interestingly in this context, the British serial killer, John Francis Duffy, the Railway Rapist, whose sexual assaults escalated to murder in 1985-6, having perhaps heard of the then recent forensic advance afforded by DNA, or possibly aware that blood group identification could be made from sperm, stuffed burning paper handkerchief tissues into his victims' genitals in order to destroy sperm traces.
In the course of the last couple of decades, major scientific advances have become available to help very materially in what used to be the near-hopeless search for the peripatetic serial killer. Blood grouping was one aid; the theory of 'interchange' patterns-every environmental contact takes something away from the scene and leaves something behind--could
Recently a group of scientists have done a 'geographic profiling' that they think will help with serial killers. The 'profiling' has been done on bumble bees. The BBC reported on 30 July that this study shows bees create a 'buffer zone' around the hive and they do not forage in that immediate area. Dr Nigel Raine of Queen Mary College, University of London, pointed to a parallel with serial killers as 'Most murders happen close to the killer's home, but not in the area directly surrounding a criminal's house, where crimes are less likely to be committed because of the fear of getting caught by someone they know.' Dr Raine added 'We're really hopeful that we can improve the model for criminology'.
DNA fingerprinting has proved the most dynamically positive discovery of all. Applied to 'cold cases', where evidence has been preserved, as for example those of James Hanratty, the A6 Murderer (1961), Colin Pitchfork, the Black Pad Murderer (1988), and Andrew George, convicted, in 2005, twenty-one years after the event, of the murder of Hilda Murrel (1984), the results have been startling.
There seems to be no way as yet devised to detect embryonic serial killers, nor to deter them once set upon their course. The once beguilingly persuasive theory of chromosomal imbalance--due to the presence of an extra male 'Y' chromosome in the genes--culprit, fell from grace following the discovery that Richard Speck exhibited no such genetic abnormality, together with the revelation of subsequent research that those who do present with chromosomic imbalance of this kind show absolutely no tendency to violent behaviour.
From time to time it looks as if there is going to be a break-through, the detection of some chemical imbalance or interruption of the synapses perhaps, but it all comes to nothing. Each serial killer thinks that he or she is unique, but is really a robot, made of parts common to all. The realisation in 2008 that our collateral ape ancestors sometimes fall upon another of their own kind with intent to kill is scarcely reassuring.
Meanwhile, the continuing lives of serial killers held in prison or asylum are scrutinised. Experts interview them for hours on end, record every last detail of their childhood traumas, assiduously tape their memories of how they felt as they committed their last crimes. And, especially in America, their brains are scanned for physical or physiological clues, before and after death. Indeed, the bottled--or, rather, plastic-boxed--brain of John Wayne Gacy, torture-slayer of 33 boys and young men, executed by lethal injection at Stateville Prison on May 10th, 1994, reposes still, amid her children's bicycles, hockey sticks, and a chugging boiler, in the basement of pathologist Dr. Helen Morrison's elegant Illinois home. A somewhat more civilized last resting place than the crawl space under his house at 8213 Summerdale Avenue, in Chicago's Norwood Park Township, which Gacy allocated to his pathetic teenage lad victims.
If we look to the future there is unfortunately little cause for optimism, because there is no reason to think that the phenomenon will fade away. It is, in fact, on the increase. Although it is easy to be discerning with hindsight, there is still hardly any understanding of such aberrant behaviour, and however many points of similarity can be extrapolated from all the known cases, the condition remains impossible to predict or treat.
Richard Whittington-Egan is an acknowledged authority on Jack the Ripper and has collaborated with his wife, Molly, in The Bedside Book of Murder.