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WIDE WORLD OF MURDER; Professor David Wilson is Professor Of Criminology at Birmingham City University.

Byline: David Wilson

Time and again, the questions people ask me about serial killers are: "Why do they do it? What is their motivation?" and "What in this person's childhood drove them to carry out these atrocities?" There's a fascination in our culture with the psychology of the killer.

For instance, The Silence Of The Lambs film - which everybody loves - shows what an immense hold this type of offender has on our popular imagination. But this fascination turns the serial killer into a kind of celebrity.

These people must not be seen as celebrities, as they are plain evil. But by looking at their crimes there is much that can be learnt, including how we can prevent these terrible things happening again.

As a professor of criminology - and a former prison governor with serial killers including Dennis Nilsen in my care - I have spent a lot of time telling people that to understand this phenomenon we should be analysing not the serial killer, but the victims they prey upon.

It is not the motivation of the attacker we need to concentrate on but why certain groups are more vulnerable to attack. Heart surgeons and athletes are not preyed upon by serial killers. Bankers and university professors also tend to be safe.

Inevitably, the victims are the poor, the social outcasts, runaways, drifters and homeless people - those members of society who are not powerful. Getting police to take the disappearance of a sex worker seriously is often no easy job.

To be able to murder in greater numbers, a mass murderer needs to target people who will not be reported missing or who, if reported, police will not search for quite as they would if they were from the wealthier middle classes. In every country of the world, there is a variation of the five main groups of victims: prostitutes, gay men, children, the elderly and young 'runaways and throwaways'.

In the United States, the highest number of victims tends to be drawn from homeless people and prostitutes. If we look at the notorious US serial killers prostitutes dominate as victims, as we see in the case of Gary Ridgway, aka The Green River Killer. Meanwhile, John Wayne Gacy Jr targeted male prostitutes or young gay men.

The latter category was also where Jeffrey Dahmer found his targets.

Ted Bundy, by killing mostly university students, is the odd one out. He is interesting for a different reason - he was geographically mobile, which kept him ahead of police for a long time as he killed then moved on. America is unique because of the number of serial killers operating in the country. Its size makes it possible to hide the activities of one perpetrator killing in large numbers - as long as the killer changes location and is well organised.

That country's Federal Bureau of Investigation brought the phenomenon of serial killing to worldwide attention, by initiating the academic definition of a serial killer as "a person who kills at least three victims within a period greater than 30 days". In the past, the FBI tended to exaggerate the phenomenon, at one point claiming there were more than 5,000 victims of serial killers in any one year. They have since downgraded this total.

In doing so, they used public anxiety to gain increased power, to exert their authority over a national scale and to gain publicity at a time when resources were relatively scarce.

But a key fact is that only one per cent of murder victims in the Unites States can be attributed to a serial killer. It is, in reality, a very small phenomenon.

In Britain, the group targeted the most are the elderly, especially women, although this figure is skewed because of Harold Shipman. The reason why so many elderly are targeted here probably reveals something about the place of the elderly in our society. They tend to be voiceless and powerless, isolated and alone.

Shipman was so successful as a killer because he provided a service no other GP in Manchester offered, by visiting his victims in their home. Often he was the only person who did visit them. And he exploited this to deadly ends.

In countries where the elderly are more a part of the family unit, they tend not to fall victim to serial killers in this way. In Japan, with elderly people more integrated into family life, this group is not targeted.

On the other hand, where homophobia is prevalent we find higher victim counts among the gay community. In Pakistan, the serial killer Javed Iqbal targeted gay men. In countries where homosexuality is against the law, it serves to create the circumstances which allows a serial killer to prey on that group. There is a lot we can learn from studying the patterns of serial killers but it is not their personalities which are of interest. Their crimes highlight those who are most vulnerable in society.

Having worked with large numbers of serial killers, I have found trying to understand their motivation brings few conclusions because by and large they're a very silent bunch.

They rarely discuss their crimes. Many take their own lives. If they do talk about their murders, they may do so at length but without giving any meaningful insights. Look at the killers, and we are faced with the banality of evil. If you take away the killing, there is nothing fascinating about these individuals. Ted Bundy was a law student, a member of the Republican Party, and regarded as a "good catch". John Wayne Gacy Jr was very much integrated into the local community and dressed up as 'Pogo The Clown' to entertain children. Britain's Dennis Nilsen was a civil servant and former policeman.

There is nothing about them that shouts: "Look at me! I'm a serial killer!" Their psychology - their motivation - is not what will enlighten us.

If we are to learn anything about the serial killer phenomenon we must look at the victims, and try to understand what it is about these groups - these 'have-nots' rather than 'haves' - that makes them so vulnerable to attack.

It is also interesting to see which killers gain notoriety and which disappear from the public view. Bradford's Crossbow Cannibal has ensured he will be remembered, by giving himself this highly memorable name. However, very few people have heard of Trevor Hardy who murdered three women in Manchester in the 1970s.

While we must not seek to glorify these people, or their heinous acts, it remains vital that we study and analyse their crimes to learn lessons that may keep us all safer in the future.

Professor Wilson's book, A History Of British Serial Killing, is published by Sphere.
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Copyright 2011 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 29, 2011
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