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The Silence of the “Less-Dead”

All creatures kill—there seems to be no exception. But of the whole list man is the only one that kills for fun . . .

Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves.

The Postmodern Serial Killer

He was a handsome, athletic, well-spoken young man. He was unfailingly polite and popular, and appeared caring and concerned to those in his proximity. He was educated, sophisticated, and well mannered, a graduate with a university degree in psychology. He had plenty of friends of different ages and romantic relationships with women. Many other women considered him their trusted friend and confidant. An elderly woman he befriended described him as a “lovable rascal.” Another woman, a former police officer who would become America’s leading true-crime writer and who coincidentally knew him, described him as having “old-world gallantry.” He had worked as a suicide counselor at a phone-in crisis clinic and had been recently admitted into law school in Seattle. The state government hired him as a crime-control consultant and he even wrote a rape-prevention handbook for women. He was a hardworking volunteer for the Republican Party, an often-invited dinner guest, and a popular date, and was considered by his elders as somebody worth grooming for a possible future as state governor, perhaps even president. He was a necrophiliac who kidnapped, murdered, raped, and mutilated, in that order, twenty college-age women over a period of sixteen months. At one point he kept four of their heads in his apartment. He burned the head of another in his girlfriend’s fireplace.4 His name was Theodore “Ted” Bundy.

It is bitterly said that Bundy is our first “postmodern” serial killers. He came at the right time to be that—we would have first heard of him at the end of the 1970s. Back then, we the public did not use the term serial killer, nor had we such a concept in mind despite the fact that such a thing was on the increase and was being puzzled over by experts and police.

Yes, we knew that more people were being murdered. We had felt it since that Friday afternoon in November 1963 when JFK was assassinated in Dallas. Those of us who were children then remember how all the cartoon TV shows were preempted that afternoon and remained off the air until the next week. The only thing to see on the tube for the first three days were lots of shaken and frightened people. On the third day they put somebody on live TV and showed him being shot dead. Then they broadcast it over and over in replay. If Bert the Turtle warning us kids to “duck and cover” when the bomb fell hadn’t gotten to us before, then after the Kennedy assassination the world definitely became spooky forever. The death of JFK defined for us the halfway point between Pearl Harbor and 9/11—when bad things stopped happening “over there” and began to occur “over here.”

The statistics may prove something else, but that is when it really started to feel bad: in November 1963. It was precisely around that time, on the second day after the assassination, that the Boston Strangler was ushering in the new times by raping and killing his twelfth victim, a twenty-three-year-old Sunday school teacher. Twelve is a lot even by today’s standards—academics studying serial homicide describe it as an “extreme” case: more than eight. (How did they come up with that number—why not seven or nine?)

Things would get worse quickly. The times that followed were hyper-violent. People were being killed everywhere: in their homes, in church, at work, in the streets, overseas at war, in rice paddies, on college campuses, in cotton-belt bayous, in shopping centers, in riots. It was confusing. It was coming to and from all over, and out of it would spring forth occasional monstrous episodes: In 1966 we heard that in Chicago some alcoholic drifter killed eight student nurses in one hot amphetamine-frenzied night of binding, strangling, and stabbing. Three weeks later a crazed college boy in Texas climbed a clock tower with a high-powered rifle and gunned down forty-five people, killing sixteen. Then Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were shot months apart, with more street riots in between. And when our boys came home from My Lai as baby killers and Sharon Tate was hacked to death by crazed hippies, we could not imagine it getting any worse. But then the 1970s had not crawled in on us yet.

The first big case of that decade to reach public notice occurred in May 1971. Again, even by today’s standards, the number was huge; police dug up twenty-six bodies of transient agricultural workers in a California peach orchard. Juan Corona, a labor contractor and a father of four children, was charged with the murders. We did not get it: How can someone kill that many people and nobody noticed it? That they were killed over a prolonged period of time just did not compute. Nor was there much follow-up in the press—it looked like Corona was simply insane, and to boot, according to the press, some kind of closet-homosexual aberrant, while the victims were all transient agricultural workers and Mexicans hardly worth mourning over.

Likewise two years later, reports of Dean Corll’s murder of twenty-seven transient male youths in Houston also quickly faded, for he was a “white-trash homo,” and he was dead, as were his delinquent runaway victims—no trial, no story, nobody cared. The big wave was yet to come. A recent study of serial homicides in the United States between 1800 and 1995 discovered that 45 percent of known serial homicides would occur in the recent twenty-year period between 1975 and 1995.5

In 1976–1977, David Berkowitz was systematically shooting women in Queens, New York, and sending taunting letters à la Jack the Ripper, signed “Son of Sam,” to the police and press. This time everybody noticed when college girls on the way home from school or on dates were being slaughtered. New York City was in a panic. When Berkowitz was captured we were surprised by how mild-mannered, soft, and pudgy the killer looked. Again, he seemed totally insane, claiming to receive orders from a black dog, and that was sufficient explanation for us.

The whole serial-sequential aspect of these murders somehow slipped by us. These crimes were perceived as inexplicable, sudden explosive acts of deranged monsters, a perception that was still rooted in the 1880s with our experiences of Jack the Ripper. From Jack the Ripper to the Boston Strangler, there were many cases in between, but rarely any attempts to grasp exactly what was going on. These homicides were perceived as isolated acts of animalistic depravity, sometimes called “lust murders,” a symptom of the modern industrialized world, we thought.

It would be Ted Bundy who would define for us the new postmodern serial killer role model. His story first slowly trickled out in Colorado in 1977, when he was linked to seventeen homicides of young women, and then grew into a torrent everywhere after his two escapes and three subsequent murders in Florida. Many of his victims were “respectable” college students, and so was he. As Bundy’s trial in Florida was televised live and the scope of his secret life began to be understood, the concept of a particular type of multiple murderer who kills serially began to take form in popular lore. Ann Rule’s classic account of Bundy, The Stranger Beside Me, pioneered a whole new resurgence of true-crime literature. It introduced the general public to the concept of serial murder, even though the term never appeared in the text of her 1980 book.

Jack the Ripper was always imagined as an aristocrat with a top hat—the best of our society gone worst. The serial killers who followed were portrayed as depraved monsters—freaks of nature—outcasts and drifters whose demented criminal features should have given them away. But not Bundy—he was like so many of us: an attractive college student with typical ambitions who drove a cute Volkswagen bug. He was an updated and egalitarianized version of Jack the Ripper—a killer of superior social qualities attributed to all the young middle-class upwardly mobile professionals taking over America. In other words, unlike serial killers of the past, he was not one of “them” but one of “us.”

After Bundy, the crimes of Corona, Corll, and the Son of Sam began to take on a different perspective, and when people backtracked, they learned that there had been more serial killings recently than we realized. Near where Bundy started murdering, shoe fetishist Jerry Brudos had killed four women in 1968–1969, cutting off their feet; in Michigan, John Norman Collins murdered seven young women between 1967 and 1969. And apparently there were others who entered guilty pleas, while some never went to trial by reason of insanity, so we never heard much about them. In Santa Cruz, California, John Frazier killed five people in 1970, while Edmund Kemper, also in Santa Cruz, killed eight women between 1972 and 1973; at about the same time, in Santa Cruz once again, Herbert Mullin killed thirteen people. That one California town contributed a huge body count all on its own.

Toward the end of the 1970s Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono dumped their ten victims on Hollywood hillsides and Wayne Williams threw the last five of his twenty-two victims into the river in Atlanta, while Richard Cottingham cut the heads and hands off his and set their torsos on fire in fleabag hotels in New York City. By now everyone knew what this was. By then the FBI was on it, trying to figure it out by asking the killers themselves what they thought they were doing and why. From those interviews a new system of criminal profiling would emerge. In the meantime, more and more new reports kept coming in, faster and faster:

In Chicago, a middle-aged man was a successful construction contractor and a respected figure in his community. He led the annual Polish Constitution Day parade and in his spare time he volunteered to entertain sick children at local hospitals, dressed as “Pogo the Clown.” He was a Democratic Party precinct captain and when the president’s wife, Rosalynn Carter, was in Chicago on a community visit, he was one of her escorts. In his house, buried in a basement crawl space, police found the trussed-up corpses of twenty-eight boys and young men. John Wayne Gacy was convicted of killing thirty-three victims, despite his assertion that “clowns can get away with murder.”

In rural Missouri, a man working for a friendly seventy-five-year-old farmer and his sweet sixty-nine-year-old white-haired wife discovered a skull while plowing a section of their fields. The worker reported his find to the police, and a subsequent search of the property revealed five male bodies, all shot in the head with a .22-caliber rifle. In the house, a notebook was found with lists of temporary employees hired at the farm, some of the names marked with a sinister X. Upstairs in the bedroom, the police discovered a patchwork quilt spread on the bed, made by the wife from pieces of cloth torn from the clothing of the victims buried in the fields out back. The couple, Ray and Fay Copeland, became the oldest convicts on death row in America.*

A Cincinnati hospital orderly, Donald Harvey, pleaded guilty to murdering thirty-four elderly patients by suffocating some with a pillow or plastic bags or by cutting off their oxygen supply. Others he killed with arsenic, rat poison, cyanide, colostomy cleaner, and adhesive remover. He explained, “I felt that what I was doing was right. I was putting people out of their misery . . . I’m doing them a favor.” After his sentencing in Ohio, Harvey was extradited to Kentucky, where he pleaded guilty to another nine homicides. Then he was returned to Ohio to stand trial for the murder of a neighbor. Eventually he confessed to a total of fifty-eight murders. Until Gary Ridgway’s guilty plea in November 2003 for the forty-eight Green River murders of prostitutes, Harvey had the highest convicted victim count of any American serial killer.


Statistically speaking, identified serial killers usually turn out to be white males of above-average intelligence who begin killing in their twenties or thirties, although some have been as young as ten years old when they first killed. Carroll Edward Cole in the United States was ten when he deliberately drowned a boy, and would go on to commit nine more homicides in his adult life—of women. In England, Mary Bell murdered and mutilated two boys on separate occasions when she was only eleven, probably the youngest serial killer on record, if you accept the definition of serial murder as more than one murder on separate occasions. Jürgen Bartsch, who killed five boys in Germany between 1962 and 1966, was fifteen when he started to kill, as was Edmund Kemper in California, when he shot dead both his grandparents in 1963. In his adulthood, Kemper went on to kill six young women, his mother, and her best friend. Some serial killers can be as old as seventy-five, like farmer Ray Copeland, described earlier, who was sentenced to death with his wife in 1991 in Missouri for the five murders.

Sometimes serial killers work in teams of two and sometimes they consist of husband-and-wife or boyfriend-girlfriend couples. There are also several cases of cult group serial killers consisting of more than two people.

In the United States, serial killers are most often individual white males, although African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and even an Eskimo have been convicted. The incidence of African American serial killers is currently increasing dramatically—from 10 percent of the total reported prior to 1975, to 21 percent currently.6 Frequently, but not always, serial murder is intraracial—white killers murdering white victims, blacks killing blacks.

A recent study identified 399 serial killers in the United States between 1800 and 1995 who were responsible for a number of victims between 2,526 and 3,860.7 Sixty-two females represented 16 percent of those serial killers, murdering between four hundred and six hundred victims. Seventy-five percent of known female serial killers have made their appearance since 1950. Of all the female killers, a third committed their crimes with an accomplice, frequently a male.8

Although victims of serial killers are often robbed, the most common driving force of serial murder is sexual control and dominance. Many victims are raped before or after being killed, while bondage, torture, dismemberment, and cannibalism are not uncommon features of a serial homicide. Other motives for serial murder have been financial profit; ritual, political, social, or moral imperatives (missionary murders); attention (mothers killing their children); and compassion (frequent in medical-type serial murders.)


In many of these cases, the killer and the victim did not know each other or were strangers who had just recently met. Most of the victims were not murdered while being robbed, nor did they get into an argument or dispute with their killers—they had no personal or business dealings with their murderer. The victims were strangers who were all murdered to be murdered. A perverse pleasure derived from killing them was the primary motive for their deaths. A study of 326 U.S. male serial killers between 1800 and 1995 concluded that 87 percent had killed at least one stranger among their victims, and 70 percent killed only strangers.9 In each of these cases, the killers carefully covered their tracks after the crime and maintained a normal-looking facade: farmer, doctor, businessman, harmless drifter, schoolteacher, law school student, deputy sheriff, office manager. After killing once, the killer rested for days, weeks, or months, then sought out a new victim and killed again and again.

Serial killers, although often described as “monsters,” rarely appear to be creatures with blood dripping from their fangs or crazed psychopaths babbling satanic rituals. While a few are exactly like that, many appear at first glance to be healthy, normal, and even attractive people. And that is precisely the problem—with a serial killer a victim rarely gets beyond the first glance. Others are simply invisibly unmemorable and unnoticeable, until somebody notices them killing.

Policemen would tell you that most murderers, when they killed, did not know that they were going to kill. They killed in the heat of an argument, in a jealous rage, or sometimes accidentally while committing another crime. And cops would tell you that if you were going to be murdered, it was statistically likely that your killer was somebody you already knew—and knew well. Your husband or wife, a parent or your own child, a friend, lover, relative, or acquaintance was more likely to kill you than a stranger. Murder was an intimate occasion that usually unfolded between friends and lovers. Often, remorse and horror quickly overcame those who found themselves having just committed a murder. Many sat passively waiting at the crime scene for the police to arrive. Some tenderly covered or washed the body of the victim they had just murdered. They quietly surrendered to police and quickly confessed; most would never kill again whether they ended up in prison or not. While even today the majority of murders still take place between people who know each other, the proportion is becoming significantly smaller. One’s chance of being murdered by a stranger has increased dramatically during the last three decades.

Serial killers deliberately and relentlessly hunt down their victims with the sole intention of coldly murdering them. The motive for a serial killer does not arise from factors in his* relationship with the victim—there usually is no relationship. The serial killer generally preys on strangers for a complex set of motives known only to him. The serial killer also prefers strangers because it makes him harder to catch and the anonymous fill-in-the-blank victim easier to torment and kill. At one time, serial murders were called “stranger-on-stranger” killings, but because there were sufficiently numerous exceptions to this (serial killers will also turn on those near them if necessary) other terms were applied: “motiveless homicides,” “recreational killings,” “thrill kills,” and finally “serial murders.”

Serial killers do everything in their power not to be caught by the police, so that they can remain free to kill again. While it can be argued that professional assassins, like Mafia hit men, also avoid being arrested by the police and kill many victims, they ostensibly kill for money and their victims are individually targeted by the assassin’s clients, not by the killer himself. Serial killers, however, murder for their own personal pleasure and carefully select their victims for their own reasons. Their killings are often highly sexual in nature and rarely offer any financial gain.

At one time serial killers were also called “mass murderers,” but today the term is reserved only for individuals who suddenly go berserk and indiscriminately kill numerous victims during a single frenzied suicidal episode. Mass murderers are out of control and totally deranged and are quickly captured or shot dead by the police, or they commit suicide once their ammunition begins to run out. Serial killers, on the other hand, slip back to their normal state of life between their murders. They are controlled, are aware of what they are doing, and scrupulously avoid arrest. Some studiously read police investigative-technique manuals and familiarize themselves with all levels of police procedure. This, and the fact that serial killers so often prey on strangers, makes them very difficult to identify and capture. Moreover, about a third of serial killers are highly mobile and travel undetected thousands of miles a year, crossing different police jurisdictions during their killing, which further makes investigation difficult.

Experts argue over how many victims define a serial killer. Some, like the FBI, insist on a minimum of three victims. Most agree that serial homicide is when victims are killed on separate occasions with a “cooling-off” period between the murders. Others, and I am in that school, argue that two or more murders on separate occasions with a cooling-off period in between are sufficient to define a serial killer. (As far as I am concerned, one murder is freaky enough; anything more is horribly incomprehensible.)

How and why do serial murderers kill again and again? Serial killing is an addiction, some experts say. Simply explained, once they begin killing (and sometimes they kill the first time by accident), serial killers find themselves addicted to murder in an intense cycle that begins with homicidal sexual fantasies that in turn spark a desperate search for victims, leading to their brutal killing, followed by a period of cooling off and a return to normal daily routine—with all its unbearable stresses, disappointments, and hurts, which lead back to the reemerging need to start fantasizing about killing again. Once a killing cycle is triggered, it is rarely broken. The worst aspect of this is that murder fantasies are often the only thing the budding serial killer has that gives him comfort and solace. Once he crosses the line and actually realizes his fantasy and discovers that actual murder is not as satisfying as the fantasy, he is driven into the depths of depression and despair, from which rise even more intense homicidal fantasies driving him forward to kill again in an attempt to realize in the reality of murder the same satisfaction he derives in fantasy. With time, trapped in this addictive cycle, serial killers become more frenzied, and the frequency and violence of their murders escalate exponentially until they are either caught or “burn out”—reach a point where killing no longer satisfies them and they stop on their own accord if nothing else interrupts their killing career. (Which is why some unsolved serial murders seem to mysteriously cease without the offender ever being identified.) Others commit suicide, move on to commit other crimes, or turn themselves in to police.

 A “Typical” Serial Killer: Gary Leon Ridgway, “The Green River Killer”

When fifty-four-year-old Gary Ridgway pleaded guilty in November 2003 to the murder of forty-eight prostitutes in Washington State in the 1980s, and as the result of his plea was spared the death penalty, the media lamented that there was nothing new to learn about serial killers from Ridgway.10 Even though he now holds the record in the United States for killing the most victims—and perhaps for evading authorities the longest—Ridgway seems to have eluded the kind of frenzied press coverage that serial homicide cases frequently attract. Ridgway was so typical and his victims, as street prostitutes, held in such low esteem in society that even the remarkable number of deaths did not evoke more than mildly routine press coverage outside the Washington State area.

Indeed, Ridgway does represent everything typically known about serial killers. Born in 1949, he is the middle child of three sons who grew up in a working-class neighborhood south of Seattle. His mother was reportedly highly domineering over the sons and her husband. According to one of Ridgeway’s former wives, she once broke a dinner plate over the father’s head.11

As a child Ridgway was a slow learner, failed twice in school, committed acts of arson, suffocated a cat, and paid a little girl to allow him to molest her, and as a teenager he nearly stabbed to death a six-year-old boy for no apparent reason.

He was married three times. His first wife claims their marriage failed because his mother dominated him. She described him, however, as socially and sexually normal.

When arrested, Ridgway was steadily employed as a $21/hour truck painter at the same place he began working in after graduating high school thirty-two years earlier. His fellow workers remembered him as a gregarious and pleasant fellow worker and would socialize with him after work. Some of the women he supervised recalled that he was a patient instructor who never yelled at them.

He owned a $200,000 house, had a son, walked his dog, was friendly with his neighbors, went to church, held garage sales, sold Amway products, had friends, and read the Bible avidly, and for a while he proselytized door to door, calling on his neighbors to come closer to God. He also strangled at least forty-eight prostitutes, dumped them in wooded areas in what he called “clusters,” and would return routinely to have sex with their decomposing corpses.

His second wife remembers him as a loner obsessed with anal and oral sex. Both his second and third wives recalled he used to like having sex outdoors. Only after his arrest did they realize that those locations were at or near those where some of his victims were dumped.

He killed most of his victims in a two-year span between 1982 and 1984. He carefully deposited cigarette butts and chewing gum belonging to others at the crime scenes and body dumps to mislead police. (He did not smoke or chew gum.) He trimmed the victims’ fingernails in case there was evidence lodged under them. He dropped advertising leaflets around the body of one victim, hoping to mislead investigators, and transported the skeletal remains of two victims in the trunk of his car to another state while on a camping trip with his son. Ridgway confessed that he had placed a mound of sausage, trout, and a wine bottle on one victim’s body, creating a “Last Supper” scenario in order to deliberately confuse the police. In police terminology, Ridgway’s attempt to give a false meaning to the crime scenes is called staging.

Ridgway became a suspect in 1984 when police caught him soliciting prostitutes; his co-workers often kidded about it behind his back, calling him “Green River Gary” and joking that the initials of his name were the same as in Green River. As soon as he became a suspect, Ridgway appeared to almost cease committing murders—he confessed to one in 1986, one in 1988, and another in 1998. Police suspect, however, that he may have committed another twenty murders in other jurisdictions. Only advances in DNA technology led to Ridgway’s arrest in 2001, nearly twenty years after most of the murders.

Ridgway explained to police that he chose to kill prostitutes because they would not be missed: “Prostitutes were the easiest. I went from having sex with them to just plain killing them . . . The young ones stood out more when they talked when they were dying.”

According to his plea-bargain statement, “I picked prostitutes as my victims because I hate most prostitutes and I did not want to pay them for sex. I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away, and might never be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.”

By now Ridgway is almost indistinguishable from other serial prostitute killers. Just like Richard Cottingham, Ridgway was steadily employed and had a wife, a house, and children (just like fifty-year-old Robert Yates, who had five children, a wife, a house, and a mortgage. Like Ridgway, Yates quoted biblical scriptures as he murdered thirteen women in the Spokane region.) Although many of them were in failed relationships, the failures were often no more extraordinary than the typical divorce. Cottingham, for example, had separated from his wife, but had a relationship with a girlfriend until the day he was arrested. She described him as entirely “normal” even though he did take her several times to the same Quality Inn in New Jersey where he murdered two of his victims and was arrested torturing his last. William Lester Suff (thirteen prostitute murders) and Arthur Shawcross (eleven victims) were in long-term relationships when they committed their murders.

Ridgway represents truly everything we know about serial killers today—everything and nothing at the same time—because the answer to the main question of why continues to elude us.

The Serial Killer Epidemic: The Statistics of Murder

How many serial homicides take place? Almost every month somewhere in the world a new case of serial homicide is reported by the police, and except for Antarctica, no continent has been spared. From Alaska to New Zealand, from South Africa to China, cases of serial murder appear to be on the increase—slowly in the Third World, and alarmingly rapidly in the industrialized nations. Anybody could be a potential victim of a serial killer—absolutely anybody: man, woman, child, old, rich, poor, obscure, or famous—nothing makes one immune from being a potential victim, as the murder of Gianni Versace demonstrated. And should anybody suggest the obvious, there is even a case of a serial killer being killed by another serial killer! (In August 1970, Dean Corll, who murdered at least twenty-seven male youths, was killed by Elmer Wayne Henley, one of his partners in the murders.)

As noted earlier, while not all serial killings are stranger-on-stranger, many are. Serial murder statistics are buried somewhere within the rising rate of “motiveless” and stranger murders, which have been on a breath-takingly dramatic rise since the 1970s. The FBI reported that motiveless crimes accounted for 8.5 percent of all homicides in 1976; 17.8 percent in 1981; and 22.5 percent in 1986.12 Serial murders were considered motiveless and fell into that category. (Today, serial murders, because of their sexual component, are often defined as felony-related.)

By 1995, when the aggregate numbers of homicides in the United States peaked, an extraordinary 55 percent of victims were slain by strangers and persons unknown—a total of 11,800 people!13 Before going further here, however, we should make one thing clear: “Strangers” means that the investigation determined definitively that the victim did not know the killer. This includes not only random victims of serial killers, but also, for example, store clerks shot dead by strangers in the course of a robbery. “Persons unknown” on the other hand, means precisely that—investigators simply did not know whether the victim knew the murderer; it does not necessarily mean that the perpetrator was a stranger—only that the relationship to the victim was not determined or not entered into a supplementary report upon which these statistics are based. There has been a tendency in the past, especially on the part of the media, to lump together “stranger” and “unknown” killings and issue alarmist reports that serial homicides by strangers are approaching 50 percent of all murders, without drawing attention to the ambiguity in the categories as explained here. Moreover, the FBI has done little to discourage that practice for its own political reasons, as we shall see further on.14 However, the fact remains that serial murder victim totals fall into those two categories—stranger and unknown—and the proportions of these categories among total murder statistics continue to rise.

Throughout most of the 1990s, the murder rate in the United States (as opposed to aggregate numbers of murders) has been dramatically declining, with a drop from 9.8 per 100,000 citizens in 1991 to a record low of 4.1 by 2000.15 But since 2001 the rate has begun to creep upward again, and this is without including the deaths on 9/11 incurred during the terrorist attacks that year. Moreover, the volume of homicides by persons unknown and strangers continued to climb steadily to a current rate of 57.7 percent of all murders in 2001.16 Of that number, strangers perpetrated 13.1 percent, while in the remaining 44.6 percent of homicides the relationship between victim and offender was simply unknown. There are no precise figures as to how many of those homicides were committed by serial killers. This does not bode well when accompanied by the fact that in 2001, only 62.4 percent of homicides were cleared, a percentage that has been continually declining since 1961, when 94 percent of the 8,599 U.S. murders that year were routinely solved.17 Today one’s chances of getting away with a “perfect murder” are steadily creeping toward fifty-fifty.


How many unidentified serial killers are currently out there? Serial killers stop murdering because they move to a different jurisdiction, are arrested for some other crime, die, are killed, commit suicide, or simply grow old, mature, and become bored with or burned out on their fantasy by the process described previously. Many such unresolved serial murders seem to mysteriously cease on their own, such as the infamous Zodiac Killer, who killed between six and thirty-seven victims in San Francisco between 1968 and 1969; the Southside Slayer, who killed twelve black women in Los Angeles beginning in 1984; and the Black Doodler, who killed fourteen gay men in San Francisco nearly two decades ago. The Green River killings appeared to mysteriously cease in 1984 and remained unsolved until 2001.

Serial killers sometimes do burn out, and depending on the personality of the individual they either allow themselves to be captured, commit suicide, or cease killing on their own and quietly fade away back to where they came from. Some are arrested for other crimes after they stop killing and end up suddenly confessing, like Albert DeSalvo (the Boston Strangler) or Danny Rolling (the Gainesville Ripper). Obviously there is no known fixed number of victims before a serial killer stops: Edmund Kemper killed ten women before he ended his career by killing his mother and then surrendered quietly to the police. Henry Lee Lucas, on the other hand, began by killing his mother and went on killing for decades before he murdered the only person he said he truly loved—his thirteen-year-old common-law wife—who, at least according to Lucas, was his 360th victim. (Lucas’s claim is highly contestable.)

Nothing, however, short of capture, will stop a serial killer if he is in his midcycle of murder. Arthur Shawcross first killed two children in upstate New York, was quickly arrested, and served fourteen years in prison before being released in 1987. He immediately began where he left off and killed eleven women in a twenty-one-month period in Rochester, New York, before being rearrested.

In New Jersey in 1958, Richard Biegenwald was arrested after committing his first murder and served seventeen years before being released in 1975. When he was rearrested in 1983, he had killed at least seven additional victims by then.

In Toronto, Canada, seventeen-year-old Peter Woodcock murdered two boys and a girl between September 1956 and January 1957. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined in a psychiatric facility. He was treated for thirty-five years and was eventually groomed for gradual release back into society. On July 13, 1991, the now fifty-two-year-old Woodcock was given his first three-hour pass allowing him to leave the grounds of the psychiatric facility to go for a walk in town and buy a pizza to bring back to the hospital. Before he could make it off the hospital grounds, Woodcock battered, hacked and stabbed to death, then sodomized a fellow inmate in a bushy area on the facility’s perimeter. Using his pass, he then walked two miles to a nearby police station and confessed to the crime.

Serial killing appears to be incurable: Time or prison does not relieve the need that serial killers feel for murder—only killing does.


It is impossible to get an accurate estimate of how many serial killers and victims there are. In 1987, the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that serial killers murdered between 1,000 and 2,500 people that year.18 Other sources cited a number as high as 6,000 a year.19 In the Green River region in Washington Gary Ridgway murdered forty-eight women by himself in a twenty-month period in 1982–1984.

Remarkably, nobody even knows precisely how many homicides in total take place annually in the United States, as there are all sorts of reporting discrepancies. It is believed that until the recent decline in murders, approximately 20,000 to 22,000 murders occurred every year in the United States, but some sources estimate that the number is as high as 40,000 due to variations in reporting procedures.20 (By 2000 the number of murders declined to 15,586 but began to rise in 2001 to 15,980, not including the victims of 9/11—an increase of 2.5 percent. Preliminary statistics for 2002 indicate a further increase of 0.8 percent in the number of murders. This recent rate is distributed strangely across the United States: a decline of 4.8 percent in the Northeast but a rise of 5.2 percent in the West. Cities of more than a million inhabitants show a decline in murders of 4 percent, while towns of 50,000 to 100,000 show a dramatic 6.7 percent rise in homicides in 2002. Suburban counties reported an extraordinary 12.4 percent rise in homicides.21)

These statistics do not include the number of people who appear to mysteriously disappear. An often-cited 1984 U.S. Department of Health report estimated that 1.8 million children vanished from home every year. Of those, 95 percent were listed as “runaways” and 90 percent of those returned home within fourteen days. That left 171,000 runaways simply unaccounted for! The other 5 percent of the missing were victims of abduction, of which 72,000 were abducted by parents in custody disputes. The remaining 18,000 children and adolescents simply vanished with no further explanation, according to the statistics.22

The fate of missing adults is even harder to determine—if anybody notices them missing in the first place. In 1971, when Juan Corona initiated the era of big-number serial murder, none of his twenty-six transient victims were reported missing until their graves were discovered. Five remain nameless to this day. Some of the victims for whose deaths Henry Lee Lucas was convicted remain unidentified. During his trial they would be named for articles of clothing they were wearing when their bodies were found. A young woman Lucas picked up hitchhiking in Oklahoma City was found dead in a culvert wearing only socks. She remained known to the police and the courts only by the name “Orange Socks.” Richard Cottingham’s teenage victim found in the Times Square hotel with her head severed remains unidentified. Some of the bodies dug up from under Gacy’s house remain anonymous.


While serial murder is not a new phenomenon, its dramatic rise in incidence in the last three decades is. Eighty percent of all known male serial killers in the United States appeared between 1950 and 1995. Serial killers between 1975 and 1995 accounted for 45 percent of the total of both male and female killers in the United States between 1800 and 1995.23 Between 1960 and 1990, confirmed serial homicides increased by 940 percent.24 By early 1980, the rapid rise in serial murder was causing a panic that seized the nation. Most frightening were statistics that began to emerge from reliable sources that a huge number of children were being abducted by serial killers. Congress began to look into the issue, declaring that the nation was facing a “serial killer epidemic.” Even Atlanta’s Centers for Disease Control got into the controversy with its assessment of serial murders as an increasing cause of death in America.

In the 1990s there were all sorts of secondary stories related to serial killing. First was the movie Silence of the Lambs, which introduced into mass consciousness the idea of FBI profilers and the character of serial killer Hannibal Lecter. The controversies of Bret Easton Ellis’s book American Psycho, the marketing of serial killer trading cards, AOL’s closing of Sondra London’s serial killer Web site, the market for artworks created by serial killers, and online auctions of their artifacts all contributed to a prevailing serial killer culture.

The 1990s marked a continuing wave of serial homicides heavily covered by the media. Television satellite trucks rushed to Gainesville, Florida, to cover practically live the five gruesome mutilations of college students in August 1990. In July 1991, an estimated 450 journalists covered the trial of Jeffrey Dahmer, who was charged with cannibalizing seventeen victims in Wisconsin and Ohio. The capture of serial bomber Ted Kaczynski—the Unabomber—after twenty years of bombings dominated headlines in the mid-1990s, and media organizations paid $6,500 for the privilege of access to his subsequent trial. The murder of Italian fashion mogul Gianni Versace in Miami propelled the issue of serial spree homicide into the headlines in 1997. In 2001 there was the arrest of Gary Ridgway, the suspect in the Green River murders, which had remained unsolved for twenty years.

It just keeps coming and coming. In the autumn of 2002, the Beltway Sniper murders were covered on live television as they unfolded—another case of serial spree killing. In May 2003, police arrested a man suspected in a series of seven rape murders in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and later that year police in Washington State announced the closing of the Green River Killer case with Gary Ridgway’s guilty plea in an astonishing forty-eight murders. In February 2004, law enforcement in Arkansas and Mississippi joined agencies from Texas and Oklahoma to search for a killer who police say is a long-haul truck driver and preys on women around truck stops. The bodies of ten victims, many of them prostitutes, were dumped near a river, creek, or around bridges in four states between 1999 and 2004.25

As this book went to press in the spring of 2004, Kansas suddenly became the nation’s serial murder hotspot. In Witchita, after a silence of twenty-five years an unidentified serial killer known as the “BTK Strangler” suddenly contacted authorities by mailing them identification of one of his previous victims and photographs of her corpse. The killer had murdered at least eight people between 1974 and 1986, including a family of four, while taunting police with letters and phone calls. He frequently entered the victims’ homes, sometimes during the day, cutting their phone line before proceeding to torture and strangle them. He wrote in one letter [spelling as in original]:

I can’t stop it so the monster goes on, and hurt me as well as society. Society can be thankful that there are ways for people like me to relieve myself at time by day dreams of some victims being torture and being mine. It a big compicated game my friend of the monster play putting victims number down, follow them, checking up on them waiting in the dark, waiting, waiting . . . the pressure is great and sometimes he run the game to his liking. Maybe you can stop him. I can’t. He has aready chosen his next victim or victims. I don’t who they are yet. The next day after I read the paper, I will know, but it to late. Good luck hunting. P.S. Since sex criminals do not change their M.O. or by nature cannot do so, I will not change mine. The code words for me will be . . . Bind them, toture them, kill them, B. T.K., you see he at it again. They will be on the next victim.

Then suddenly, in 1979, the BTK strangler broke off contact and except for the 1986 murder of Vickie Wegerle, which was not at first linked to him, he appeared to have stopped killing. By 1987, the special BTK task force was disbanded.

In January 2004, Kansas newspapers marked the thirtieth anniversary of the BTK killer’s first murders—the strangulation of the Otero family. Six weeks later, police announced that photos of Vickie Wegerle’s body taken by the killer had been mailed in to a Wichita paper. Police are now combing prison records in the hope that perhaps the BTK strangler has been incarcerated on other charges during the last two decades and can be identified.

Meanwhile, in Kansas City, police announced in April that they had charged a suspect in a series of twelve rape strangulation murders of women between 1977 and 1993. The accused is a forty-three-year-old married supervisor in a Kansas trash-collecting company who was linked by DNA traces to the victims: nine white and three black women ranging in age from fifteen to thirty-six. Eleven of the victims, according to police, were prostitutes, while the twelfth was a mentally ill woman known to wander the streets and accept rides from strangers.*

In Canada, police have spent $25 million so far investigating farmer Robert Pickton, who is suspected in the disappearances of some sixty Vancouver women, many of them down-on-their-luck street hookers and drug addicts. Investigators have been sifting the grounds of his pig farm for eighteen months, recovering the remains of twenty-two bodies and DNA traces linked to some of the missing women. Pickton is currently charged with fifteen counts of first-degree murder, but in January 2004, police announced that they discovered the remains of an additional nine women on the pig farm. Six of the nine were identified through DNA testing. Prosecutors informed the courts that they would be charging Pickton with additional counts of murder. His trial is scheduled to begin in 2005.26

In China, in April 2004, police dug up more bodies on the property of Huang Yong, the twenty-nine-year-old son of a pig farmer. He had already confessed to killing seventeen high school boys he lured from Internet cafes and video game centers. He tied his victims to a table, tortured them, strangled and dismembered them, because as Yong explained, he liked to “experience the sensation of killing.” Yong had been executed in December, but relatives continued to search his property discovering additional bodies.

China has been recently plagued with cases of serial murder. Xu Ming, a twenty-six-year-old man in China’s Hebei province, raped at least thirty-seven women between the ages of seventy-one and ninety-three. Older women were “easier to control,” he told police. Yang Xinhai, China’s worst serial killer to date, murdered sixty-five people and raped twenty-three women. In the southern city of Shenzhen, a couple murdered seventeen young job seekers. In Beijing, a taxi driver and his wife killed seven people, including four prostitutes whose bodies they chopped into pieces and partially ate. In Nanjing, a snack-shop owner who grew worried about competition put rat poison in a rival’s products, killing thirty-eight people.

Back on the Pacific coast of the U.S., not far from where Gary Ridgway murdered forty-eight victims, David and Michelle Knotek—husband and wife—stand accused of the torture murders of at least four people at their idyllic white-picket-fence farmhouse decorated with smiley faces. At this writing they are awaiting trial. Meanwhile, farther south along the coast, in California, as Scott Peterson stands charged with the murder of his pregnant wife, Laci, his defense is hinting that he has been “framed” by a serial killer, the real perpetrator of her murder.

As I write here, you cannot turn on the TV without major network news magazine shows like Dateline or 20/20 running previously broadcast episodes or updated shows on some serial killer. Tune in to the Discovery Channel for the “science of catching serial killers.” Go to the History Channel and you will find the “history of serial killers.” PBS offers us “The Mind of a Serial Killer,” while the Biography Channel . . . well, you guessed it. Only the Food Network seems to have resisted presenting serial killer cannibal recipes.

No wonder they call this the age of serial slaughter; we seem to live in a world truly plagued by an epidemic of crazy homicides that do not appear to be waning.

Behind the Making of the “Serial Killer Epidemic”

If I have been doing my job right as a popular writer so far, you should be breathlessly alarmed by this described sudden and steady three-decade onslaught of crazed serial killers threatening us in every corner of the world. The alarm you feel feeds sales of books, magazines, and commercial time on television. The historian in me, however, wants to know what really happened, even if the truth is more prosaic than the myth. This wave of serial murder is not as simple a story as a lot of true-crime literature, the government, and the media have been presenting it.

Yes, it felt as if an epidemic of serial murder were starting in the 1970s, just the way I described it, but first we need to acknowledge that the population had risen rapidly over the last half of the century. More people; more victims; more serial killers.

Second, in the earlier part of the century, television did not exist and newspapers were not linked by wire services and syndication deals to the extent they are today. Stories of serial murder often did not get reported beyond a local region, and therefore historians have a hard time identifying cases in the past with which comparisons can be made. By the 1960s, news reporting had become highly centralized by wire services, modern communication, and corporate amalgamation, and thus stories of serial murders, even in remote regions, were more likely to be broadly reported during the 1970s and 1980s, giving us this sense of a sudden epidemic of unprecedented serial killings. Reports of almost any multiple homicides anywhere would be big news and received national distribution on the wire services.

Finally, our “serial killer epidemic” can be attributed to the fact that many of the startling crime statistics in the early 1980s were issuing forth from the U.S. Department of Justice and anticrime lobbies and victim advocate groups. The FBI at precisely that time was lobbying the government for funding for new programs. The FBI had realized that some murders were not being recognized as having been committed by the same person because of jurisdictional disparities (a failure called “linkage blindness”) and was calling for a massive database system to address this issue.

The FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit (BSU) at Quantico, Virginia (of Silence of the Lambs fame), which was first formed for psychological studies of hostage takers, began to investigate the psychology and techniques of serial killers in an attempt to model their behavior into identifiable patterns. Between 1979 and 1983, agents from the BSU conducted intimate and detailed interviews in prisons with thirty-six convicted sex murderers, of whom twenty-nine were serial killers.27 Everything was asked of them, from their earliest childhood recollections to the most horrifying details of their crimes and motives. The families, friends, and acquaintances of the killers were also extensively interviewed, as were their surviving victims. The BSU also made a detailed study of the 118 dead victims attributed to the killers in the study: their occupations, their lifestyles, vital statistics, where they encountered their killers, their autopsies, and the conditions in which their bodies were found. All that data served as the basis for the FBI’s profiling system.

In order for the profiling system to be applied usefully to serial crimes in different parts of the United States, there needed to be some kind of formal, centralized organization and system of collecting very detailed crime data, storing it, and making it available for analysis. Big money would need to be allocated for that.

At the exact same time (1981–1983), three major committees on Capitol Hill were looking into the issue of increasing violence, linkage blindness, the kidnapping of children, child pornography, and serial killers: the Attorney General’s Task Force on Violent Crime; the House Committee on Civil and Constitutional Rights; and Senator Specter’s Juvenile Justice Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. Senate.

The start of these hearings in 1981 was punctuated by several dramatic cases of child murders. In Atlanta, Wayne Williams was arrested for a series of murders of black male children and youths; in New York, Etan Patz vanished on his way to school; and in Florida, six-year-old Adam Walsh vanished in a mall when his mother left him alone for a moment. The boy’s decapitated remains were found floating in a canal. An out-of-state car was linked to the crime but the perpetrator was never identified. There would later be some controversy that it might have been Ottis Elwood Toole, Henry Lee Lucas’s partner (the two dubiously claimed killing a total of 360 victims as they roamed the highways). Adam was the son of John Walsh, who would become a vocal victims’ and missing children’s advocate and host of America’s Most Wanted.

A year after his son’s murder, the tragic figure of John Walsh testified before the Senate committee describing recent cases of serial murder and suggesting that missing children are in a large measure murdered by serial killers. The problem, Walsh said, was linkage blindness and the failure of law enforcement agencies to coordinate information and intelligence across multiple jurisdictions. Because of this weakness, young people were disappearing without a trace, until they might be found in a mass grave somewhere. Using the controversial Department of Health figure that 1.8 million children go missing every year, Walsh testified that every hour 205 children go missing, many of whom he said, would be found murdered. He failed to explain that that 95 percent of those missing were confirmed runaways, of whom 95 percent would return home within fourteen days.28 Instead, headlines screamed: “205 MISSING CHILDREN EVERY HOUR!”

“The unbelievable and unaccounted for figure of fifty thousand children disappear annually and are abducted for reasons of foul play,” Walsh claimed in his testimony.29 “This country is littered with mutilated, decapitated, raped, and strangled children,” Walsh warned.30

On February 3, 1984, in her nationally syndicated column, Ann Landers published a letter written by the executive director of the Adam Walsh Center. It opened, “Dear Ann: Consider these chilling statistics: Every hour 205 American children are reported missing. This means 4,920 per day and 1.8 million per year.”31

It was spooky stuff and mothers across the nation huddled up their children behind locked doors. But where did that 50,000 figure that Walsh cited come from? According to recent research by John Gill, it was Senator Claiborne Pell, Democrat from Rhode Island, who in 1981 was the first public official to formally claim that the Department of Health and Human Services stated that 50,000 children vanish each year. Officials at HHS denied making that estimate and Pell’s staff doesn’t remember which official they spoke to.32

As the hearing progressed, all kinds of speculative statements were entered into the record and presented at press conferences. The most prevalent trend was to combine the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports homicide categories of unknown and stranger into one figure, pumping up the percentage of killings that appeared to be motiveless murders by unknown perpetrators, presumably roaming serial killers. Using this kind of “fuzzy math,” it was claimed that nearly 25 percent of all murders—a total of 4,000 to 5,000 each year—could be attributed to serial killers. The only thing that could save us now was funding from Congress.

This claim was gleefully picked up by the press and true-crime authors. Even serious academic studies on serial murder bought into this big number. For example, an often-cited work by Holmes and De Burger states that in 1988

[b]etween 3,500 and 5,000 persons are slain by serial murderers each year in this country. We emphasize that this is an estimate, but we believe that it represents a reliable approximation, given the data available and the input of various experts now engaged in efforts to deal with this problem. (italics in original)33

This figure is still being thrust on us today. The back cover art of a recently published edition of Michael Newton’s Encyclopedia of Serial Killers features a specially highlighted box with a blurb promoting the book: “The starting point for any serious study of the serial or addicted killers who claim an estimated 3,500 victims each year—and evade detection . . .”34

But these numbers were never realistic and by now everyone should know it. The total maximum number of all known serial killer victims in the United States over a span of 195 years between 1800 and 1995 is estimated at only 3,860 tops.35 Of this total, a maximum of 1,398 victims were murdered between 1975 and 1995, at an average rate of 70 victims a year. Even if we account for unknown victims, that figure is nowhere near the 3,500 annual number so often bandied about. But 3,500 victims a year sells better than 70. As Joel Best put it in his analysis of child abduction statistics in the 1980s, “Three principles seem clear: Big numbers are better than small numbers; official numbers are better than unofficial numbers; and big, official numbers are best of all.”36

For the record, a study of 1,498 child murders in California between 1981 and 1990 determined that not stranger serial killers, as John Walsh claimed, but relatives, predominately parents, are the most frequent killers of children up to age nine. Strangers were involved in only 14.6 percent of homicides of children between ages five and nine; and 28.7 percent of those between ages ten and fourteen. The offender relationship was unknown in 10.4 and 20.1 percent of homicides in the two age groups, respectively. Acquaintances murdered 30.2 percent and 39.2 percent of victims in each age group, and females comprised 36.4 percent and 18.7 percent of the killers, while relatives including parents killed 44.8 percent and 11.9 percent, respectively.37 Of children between ages ten and fourteen the motive behind their murder was a dispute in 60.9 percent of the cases, a firearm was used in 64.2 percent, and a public place was the location in 51.5 percent. In summary, young children are killed at home by relatives, while more mobile and independent older adolescent children are increasingly killed by acquaintances first, and then by strangers in public places.

The incredible stranger child abduction figures of 30,000 to 45,000 so often cited became more frequently challenged in the late 1980s. People began to wonder: Where were these abductions occurring? Why were they not being reported in the papers? Where were the anecdotal accounts? Who were the serial killers committing these abductions? Finally Congress sponsored a program to determine exact statistical data on missing and abducted children called the National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Thrownaway Children (NISMART).

The study determined that there were two definitions of “abduction”: a legal one and a stereotypical one held by the public. In public perception a child abduction occurs when a victim is taken away by a stranger a great distance, held for ransom, kept overnight or longer, or killed. Crimes such as the 1993 abduction-murder of Polly Klaas or the recently resolved kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart fit the public perception of the threat posed by strangers to children. But the law is broader than the public’s perception. For example, California courts define abduction as when a victim is lured or forcibly moved farther than twenty feet or held longer than half an hour if no movement occurs.38 So when the FBI reported an annual average of 90,000 forcible rapes in the 1980s, in which teenage girls comprised commonly a third to a half of the victims, still defined as children, the circumstances of many of these crimes easily fit the legal definition of child abduction. Thus the figure of 30,000 to 45,000 “abducted children” emerged under those kinds of definitions. But this was not what the public was thinking in their definition of the type of child abduction they feared.

The NISMART study reevaluated child abduction statistics in the context of the public perception of abduction. The study determined that in a twelve-year period between 1976 and 1988, an average of 43 to 147 children were victimized yearly in the United States in the stereotypical public perception of abduction. That brings the statistic more in line with the highly rare anecdotal and press reports of stranger abductions of children that we hear about. The reality is that the abduction and murder of children by strangers is a very rare crime. The degree of fear and concern generated by exaggerated and misrepresented statistics during the early 1980s far exceeded the reality of the danger. This fear persists to this day, despite the extremely low probability of such threats to children. Of course, this fact is of little consolation to the parents of the 43 to 147 children who on average every year are abducted by strangers.


Back in 1981–1983, as the committee hearings unfolded in Washington, the press darted like schools of fish to the Senate hearings and the various press conferences. Articles in large-circulation magazines such as Time, Newsweek, Life, Omni, Psychology Today, Playboy, and Penthouse, painted a picture of the United States plagued by an “epidemic” of senseless random homicides committed by roaming anonymous monsters who often victimized our children.

All those fearful and perhaps exaggerated cries came to some fruition. In 1982 Congress passed the Missing Children’s Act and in 1984 the Missing Children’s Assistance Act. President Ronald Reagan personally announced the establishment of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC), to be housed at the FBI Quantico Behavioral Sciences Unit. The data collected by the BSU sexual killer study is applied today in a program known as VICAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program). When police suspect that a serial offender is loose in their jurisdiction, they can fill out a standard VICAP questionnaire consisting of 188 questions about their homicide case and submit it to the Investigative Support Unit requesting a profile of the unknown offender. (See Chapter 9 for a more detailed account of profiling and its problems.) The fill-in-the-blanks questions on the form range from the description of the location of where the victim’s body was found down to the details of the nature of the assault and mutilation of the victim, the condition of the suspect’s car, and his method of approaching the victim if it is known.

The result of a VICAP crime report is twofold. First, a computer analysis of the responses can identify patterns that may link the offender to other crimes he may have previously committed anywhere in North America. Each serial killer is known to have his own personal “signature” of which he is often not aware, and a properly completed VICAP questionnaire can identify this signature, while the computer can match it to other incidents.

Second, the data supplied by the VICAP report allows analysts to profile the killer, something that the FBI has developed into a reasonably effective but not entirely perfect technique. An analysis of the data in the report can often identify a high probability of the killer’s race, age, social status, employment, intelligence, and sexual preference; how he dresses, and even the type of car he drives. Successful profiling can greatly narrow the field of suspects.

This means that there is an identifiable method to the madness committed by serial killers. Since the BSU study was completed, much has become known as to how and why serial murderers come to develop and act on their killing addiction.

Previous Serial Killer “Epidemics”

Let us return once more to the question of the rising wave of serial murders over the last thirty years. Is it real, or is it exaggerated media hype intended to address political agendas and sell papers? Philip Jenkins, a professor at Penn State, is probably the most recognized debunker of serial homicide statistics. Jenkins, for example, cites working lists of all known serial killers compiled by the Justice Department for use at the Behavioral Sciences Unit. He noted that in 1992, the FBI list of serial killers in the United States from 1900 to 1970 contained 447 names and an additional 365 names from 1970 to 1992, linked to 2,636 known victims and suspected in an additional 1,839. But after combing through the lists, Jenkins found enormous faults of duplication—for example, each of the convicted killers in the Manson Family was assigned the same list of victims, making the number of victims of spree killing in 1969 three times greater than it really was.39 Jenkins found case after case of similar such multiplication of victims in the use of “suspected victim” categories and discredited confessions such as Henry Lee Lucas’s confession of 360 murders. So the good news is that there are fewer serial killers and victims in recent times than the FBI claims.

The bad news, according to Jenkins, is that the apparent rise in serial murder in the last three decades, while not as big as once thought, is nevertheless real—and worse, it is not our first. It merely follows several previous waves of serial killer epidemics over the last hundred years, each bigger than the last. Jenkins identified two previous periods during which there were surging waves of serial homicides: 1911–1915 and 1935–1941. He found that the FBI list, while duplicating some of the more modern serial homicide cases, entirely overlooked the existence of earlier ones.40

The FBI study, for example, lists a total of thirteen serial homicide cases in a twenty-five-year period between 1900 and 1924. But by merely looking through back issues of the New York Times, Jenkins identified a wave of seventeen cases just in the short period of five years between 1911 and 1915! Clearly the FBI was underestimating the prevalence of serial murder in America in earlier years.

Henry Lee Moore, for example, between 1911 and 1912, was a traveling serial killer who murdered more than twenty-three people—entire families. But little is known about him—he is a mere footnote. In September 1911, using an axe, Moore killed six victims in Colorado Springs—a man, two women, and four children. In October he killed three people in Monmouth, Illinois, and then he slaughtered a family of five in Ellsworth, Kansas, the same month. In June 1912, he killed a couple in Paola, Kansas, and several days later he killed seven people, including four children, in Villisca, Iowa. Moore then returned home to Columbia, Missouri, where he murdered his mother and grandmother. At this point he was arrested and prosecuted in December 1912. But Moore was not immediately linked to the previous crimes until a federal agent investigating the Villisca homicides was informed by his father, a warden of the Leavenworth Penitentiary with contacts throughout the prison system, of the nature of Henry Lee Moore’s crimes in Missouri.

In another case, in Atlanta between May 1911 and May 1912 twenty light-skinned black women were murdered on the streets in Jack-the-Ripper-style mutilations. Between May 20 and July 1, 1911, the unknown killer murdered the first seven victims—one every Saturday night like clockwork.

In Denver and Colorado Springs in 1911–1912, seven women were bludgeoned to death with the perpetrator never being caught.

Between January 1911 and April 1912, forty-nine victims were killed in unsolved axe murders in Texas and Louisiana. Very similar to the Moore murders, entire families were wiped out: a mother and her three children hacked to death in their beds in Rayne, Louisiana, in January 1911; ten miles away in Crowley, Louisiana, three members of the Byers family in February 1911; two weeks later, a family of four in Lafayette. In April the killer struck in San Antonio, Texas, killing a family of five. All the victims were killed in their beds at night and nothing was stolen from their homes. In November 1911 the killer returned to Lafayette and killed a family of six; in January 1912 a woman and her three children were killed in Crowley. Two days later, at Lake Charles, a family of five were killed in their beds, and a note was left behind: “When He maketh the Inquisition for Blood, He forgetteth not the cry of the humble—human five.”

In February 1912 the killer murdered a woman and her three children while they slept in their beds in Beaumont, Texas. In March, a man and a woman and her four children were hacked to death in Glidden, Texas, while they slept. In April a family of five were killed in San Antonio again, and two nights later, three were killed in Hempstead, Texas. The murders were never solved.

In New York City a “ripper” killed a five-year-old girl on an errand inside her apartment building on March 19, 1915. He sent taunting letters to the victim’s mother and the police, signing himself as “H. B. Richmond, Jack-the-Ripper” and threatening to kill again. On May 3 he killed a four-year-old boy playing in a hallway and stuffed his body under a tenement staircase. The offender was never identified.

Again in New York City, in 1915 the corpses of fifteen newborn infants were recovered, suspected to be linked to some sort of “baby farm” operation.

These murders were all spectacular crimes, some widely reported in their time, others not, but all forgotten today. Jack the Ripper with his five victims is immortalized, but the Louisiana-Texas axe murderer with forty-nine victims is entirely forgotten. The primary difference is that London was the center of a huge newspaper industry while Louisiana and Texas were not. The story of Jack the Ripper was retold and entered popular myth and literature—while the Louisiana-Texas axe murderer faded from public consciousness. Serial murder “epidemics” are as much about reporting as they are about killing.

The Global Rise of Serial Murder

The rise in cases of serial murder in the last three decades is not a uniquely American problem. Although the United States is the primary location for serial murders, it does not exclusively harbor this trend. While 76 percent of all recently reported serial killings in the world took place in the United States, 21 percent occurred in Europe, where England led with 28 percent of the European total, followed by Germany with 27 percent and France at 13 percent.41

Serial murder was once considered only an American phenomenon, but Europe is also increasingly reporting a resurgent rise in the rate of serial murders. In England, police uncovered twelve murders committed between 1971 and 1987 by Rosemary and Fred West in Gloucester, England, including that of their sixteen-year-old daughter, who vanished in 1987.

In another case, the residents of a London apartment building complained that their toilets were not flushing properly. When a drain company operator inspected the plumbing he found it blocked by greasy fragments of human remains. Dennis Nilsen, a former police constable who lived in the same building, confessed to killing sixteen young men, cutting them up into pieces, and flushing them down the toilet.

In 2000, English doctor Fred Shipman was convicted of murdering fifteen of his elderly patients, while the actual number of his victims is believed to be four hundred—making him the possibly the most prolific serial killer in recent history. (Once a serial killer is successfully convicted for a few murders, authorities often do not pursue further convictions in the same jurisdiction.)

In France, Paris police announced in 1998 the arrest of Guy Georges—the “Beast of Bastille”—who raped and murdered seven women. Described as “unstable,” Georges is said to be a persistent sexual offender who had been living in cheap hotels and squats for some time. In court, Georges was described by the public prosecutor as “the incarnation of evil,” and psychiatrists warned that he could not be cured of his desire to kill. Born and raised in Angers, he is also being questioned about three rapes and murders committed there between 1991 and 1994. All the victims were young women, some found tied to their beds with knife or razor cuts to their throats. In 2001 he was sentenced to life with no chance of parole for twenty-five years.

In Copenhagen, Denmark, two surgeons, one of them a police pathologist, were sentenced to life in prison for the murders of ten women. The police pathologist had performed the forensic autopsies on some of his own victims.

Italy is not immune to the current rise of serial murder in Europe, as illustrated by the well-known case of the Monster of Florence, who killed eight couples between 1968 and 1985 and mailed pieces of their bodies to police and the media. In another case, two young men in their twenties—“yuppies”—one the son of a renowned plastic surgeon in Verona, the other of a managing director of the Verona branch of a German insurance company—were charged with twenty-seven homicides. One victim was a priest who had a nail driven through his forehead followed by a chisel with a cross attached to it.

More recently, in Apulia, in September 1997 police arrested a suspect in the murders of at least eight elderly women, each of whom lived on the ground floor of her building. Meanwhile in Verona, Gianfranco Stavanin was convicted in 1998 of murdering and dismembering six women between 1991 and 1994 and burying their remains in nearby fields.

That same winter in 1998, Italy was electrified by a dramatic series of murders of women on trains along the vacation coast between Genoa and Monte Carlo. The killer would surprise women inside the washroom by opening the door with his own special key. After murdering his victim, he would relock the door and slip back to his compartment in the dark while the train was passing through a tunnel. By the time a conductor would get around to checking the locked toilet, the killer had long ago gotten off the train. Police eventually arrested forty-seven-year-old professional gambler and petty criminal Donato Bilancia and charged him with a total of seventeen homicides over a six-month period. His victims consisted of nine males and eight females and included not only women on the train and roadside prostitutes, but criminal associates and friends and acquaintances. One victim was strangled; the rest were shot.

But Belgium appears to be inexplicably emerging as Europe’s newest serial slaughter hot zone. After awaiting trial for eight years, Marc Dutroux, 47, and his two accomplices, one of whom is his ex-wife Michel Martin, 44, finally went on trial in March 2004 for the horrific kidnapping, rape, and murder of four girls during the mid-1990s. Dutroux, a previously convicted rapist and pedophile is also charged with killing a fifth victim, an accomplice who Dutroux claims allowed the girls to die from starvation during their captivity in a secret dungeon. In court, Dutroux admitted to the raping of the kidnapped girls, some were as young as eight, but he denies killing them. The bodies of the girls and the accomplice were found on Dutroux’s property. Police also rescued two girls, ages 12 and 14, found alive in a cage in Dutroux’s house. Dutroux admitted to raping the twelve-year old victim at least twenty times during her seventy-nine-day captivity. Belgians have been angrily protesting the eight-year delay of the trial amidst allegations of the existence of a highly placed and powerful pedophile ring in that country.

In another case, in October 1997 Belgian authorities charged a man identified as Andras Pandy—a seventy-year-old Protestant pastor from Hungary—with the murder of two of his ex-wives and four of his children. His daughter, Agnes, confessed to helping him kill five relatives—her mother, two brothers, a stepmother, and her daughter—and is now being investigated for possible links to the disappearance of others in the family. Authorities have also linked Agnes to the disappearance in 1993 of a twelve-year-old girl whose Hungarian mother had a relationship with Pastor Pandy. It was reported that Andras Pandy fostered an undetermined number of orphaned or homeless Romanian children in his home in Brussels. The children—who became orphaned or homeless in Romania’s 1989 revolution that toppled communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu—were taken in by a charity club named YDNAP (PANDY backward) founded by the pastor. They stayed under his care for varying periods of time, “and nobody knows what happened to them or if they returned home.”

Also in Belgium, police admitted they were nowhere near finding the serial killer who scattered up to thirty bags of severed and precisely measured body parts of six women around the city of Mons. The city’s public prosecutor’s office said eight inspectors and a police commissioner had conducted seven hundred interviews and received six hundred items of information since the first bags were discovered in March 1997. The killer is believed to be a man, probably with local geographic and historical knowledge. Belgian authorities have called on the FBI for help profiling the elusive killer. The serial killer seems to be taunting authorities by leaving the dismembered remains of his victims in places with emotive names. The remains have been left in the Rue du Depot (Dump), near the River Haine (Hate), on the Chemin de l’Inquietude (the path of Worry), and on the banks of the River Trouille (Jitters). The last of the bags found containing body parts was on Rue St. Symphorien, named after a third-century French saint who was decapitated and whose relics are in church nearby. Apparently the killer did not dismember the bodies by hand. He rolled his victims through a machine—used for chopping logs—with circular blades placed at twelve-inch intervals. Each body fragment so far found measures exactly one foot.

Until recently the Third World accounted for only 3 percent of the world’s reported serial murders, but by now that number must have climbed.42 Because these regions have police systems that are underfinanced—or focused on political repression—and huge populations of impoverished, underprivileged, and unwanted people, Third World serial killers individually murder extraordinary numbers of victims.

Pedro Alonso Lopez is another of the twentieth century’s most prolific serial killers. A native of Colombia, he is believed to have murdered three hundred girls in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador. His prostitute mother threw him out of their home at age eight for fondling his younger sister. He was then picked up by a pedophile and sodomized against his will. By the time he was eighteen he had been gang-raped in prison and retaliated by killing three of his assailants. After his release he migrated to Peru, where he killed at least one hundred girls, until he was confronted by an angry mob in a marketplace when he attempted to walk away with a victim. He moved on to Ecuador, where he said girls were “more gentle and trusting, more innocent.” He murdered three girls a week until he was captured in 1980, when a flood exposed some fifty-three buried victims, all girls ages eight to twelve.

In 1999, police in Colombia arrested Luis Alfredo Garavito in connection with the murders of 140 children. Police recovered 114 mutilated bodies of mostly boys between ages eight and sixteen. Garavito was the oldest of seven children. He was repeatedly beaten by his father and raped by two male neighbors. Garavito was also a heavy alcoholic and was treated for depression and suicidal tendencies. He said he committed most of the murders after heavy drinking. Garavito had just five years of schooling and left home at age sixteen, working first as a store clerk and then as a street vendor who sold religious icons and prayer cards. Prosecutors said Garavito found most of his victims on the streets, gaining their confidence by giving them soft drinks and money.43

On March 16, 2000, a Pakistani court in Lahore sentenced Javed Iqbal to death for the murder of more than a hundred children. His three accomplices, including a thirteen-year-old boy identified only as Sabir, also were found guilty. Sabir was sentenced to forty-two years in jail; the other two accomplices were sentenced to death. Iqbal wrote in a letter to the police that he killed the children, who were mostly beggars, in retaliation for the abuse they inflicted on him following a previous arrest when he was accused of sodomy. On October 25, 2001, Iqbal and Sabir were found dead in their cell. Their apparent suicides by poison—as stated by prison authorities—came just four days after Pakistan’s highest Islamic court had agreed to hear Iqbal’s appeal against the death sentence.

South Africa, somewhere between the Third and First Worlds, for some reason has recently hosted a remarkably high number of serial killers in recent years—estimated to be as high as thirty-five. Recently captured or currently believed to be on the loose in South Africa are Lazarus Mazikane and Kaizer Motshegwa, charged with fifty-one rape-murders of women and children in Nasrec; Moses Sithole, thirty-eight victims; Cedric Maake, the Wemmer Pan Killer, twenty-seven victims; Norman Afzal Simons, the Station Strangler, twenty-two victims; Sipho Agmatir Thwala, the Phoenix Strangler, nineteen victims; the River Monster, ten victims; and Simon Majola and Themba Nkosi, the Bruma Lake serial killers, eight victims.44 In 1999, South Africa had a murder rate of 53 per 100,000, compared to 6 per 100,000 in the United States, and apparently has the second-highest rate of serial homicide after the United States.45

China, which is rapidly capitalizing, is also reporting cases of serial murder. Cement truck driver Hua Ruizhuo was executed last year for picking up fourteen prostitutes near the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing, handcuffing them in his van, raping them, and leaving their bodies in garbage dumps around the city.

A gang of four murderers in the central province of Henan murdered seventy-one people and evaded capture for months in 2000. Their modus operandi was to break into homes using battering rams. Once inside, they killed the inhabitants, frequently castrating male victims with cleavers. They left behind calling cards: cloth masks with eye holes burned out by cigarettes.

In 2001, Duan Guocheng, a twenty-nine-year-old security guard in the Hunan province, was charged with the murders of thirteen women—many of whom were wearing red dresses when they were killed.

In July 2003, two serial killers in separate incidents in China were accused of targeting migratory street workers and vagrants. One twenty-nine-year-old man is charged with killing sixteen vagrants, while another twenty-year-old is charged with killing ten street workers (migratory junk and garbage collectors from rural areas who often live without a permit in major Chinese cities and are disliked by the wealthier urban populace).

Why the Rising Wave of Serial Killing 1970–2000?

While we understand that waves of serial murder come and go, what we do not know is why there has been such a rise in cases in the last three decades. Some criminologists suggest that there are not more serial killers, but more potential victims. Steven Egger, who coined the term “linkage blindness” and is the former project director of New York State’s serial killer computer analysis program HALT* and the current dean of the School of Health and Human Services at the University of Illinois, is today one of the leading proponents of the victim-driven scenario behind the rise in serial death.

Egger argues that there is an increased incidence of social encouragement to kill a type of person who, when murdered, is “less-dead” than other categories of homicide victims. Prostitutes, cruising homosexuals, homeless transients, runaway youths, senior citizens, and inner-city poor, according to Egger, are perceived by our society as “less-dead” than a white college girl from a middle-class suburb. Egger explains:

The victims of serial killers, viewed when alive as a devalued strata of humanity, become “less-dead” (since for many they were less-alive before their death and now they become the “never-were”) and their demise becomes the elimination of sores or blemishes cleansed by those who dare to wash away these undesirable elements . . . 46

The serial murders of five University of Florida students in Gainesville inspired breathless national coverage by Time magazine and network television, while the systematic killings of eleven crack-addicted black prostitutes in Detroit hardly made page three anywhere—nobody cared, for they are the “less-dead.”

Certainly when one begins to digest the backgrounds of serial killer victims, it does become evident that a large proportion of victims are prostitutes, inner-city poor, homeless drifters, cruising gays, and runaway kids—all marginalized members of our society about whom few are concerned and whose deaths some even celebrate. As Gary Ridgway, the recently confessed Green River Killer of forty-eight prostitutes, commented to police, “I thought I was doing you guys a favor, killing, killing the prostitutes. Here you guys can’t control them, but I can.”

Only the frequent presence of female college students and children among categories of victims preferred by serial killers does the “less-dead” characterization falter. More traditional views argue that the frequent types of victims “facilitate” their own murders by the lifestyles they lead. A serial killer desiring to kill a female can easily lure a prostitute into a vulnerable situation. College girls and children, by virtue of the impetuous nature of youth, become easy targets as well. Traditionalists argue that it is a matter of convenience, not social marginalization, that certain types of victims are selected.

While this callousness toward the underprivileged in our society is not new, Egger argues that our culture today actually encourages the serial murderer to increasingly target the “less-dead.” A killing culture is being defined by true-crime literature, fiction, movie entertainment, and news coverage, which all focus on the serial killer’s skills in eluding the police and the nature of his acts, while the victims are mere props in the story—or worse, justify their own deaths.

Egger, for example, despises the portrayal of the two serial killers in the movie The Silence of the Lambs, which essentially introduced into popular culture the concept of serial killers and profiling in the early 1990s. Egger was appalled that audiences identified with the clever, sophisticated, and cultured Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter played by Anthony Hopkins, and that he became the real star of the movie, not Jodie Foster as FBI Agent Starling. Egger is concerned that

[i]t was not only the brilliance of Anthony Hopkins that transformed this serial killer from a cruel, sadistic animal to an antihero. Acting skills notwithstanding, the public is preprogrammed to identify with or even laud the role of the serial killer in our society.47

The Chianti-sipping Lecter was a “good” serial killer, while the sexually confused, dirty, poverty-ridden, rural shack-dwelling, pseudotranssexual Buffalo Bill, who kept his victims in a stinking pit and skinned them, was the “bad” serial killer. Buffalo Bill was himself “less-alive.” As one critic pointed out, many would enjoy the company of the cannibal Dr. Lecter at a dinner party (as long as they weren’t on the menu), but who would want to be even seen in public with Buffalo Bill?

Egger argues that such demarcation between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” serial murder paves the way for our society to attach a value to the serial killer, raising him in status above “ordinary” killers who slay their spouses:

For many, the serial killer is a symbol of courage, individuality, and unique cleverness. Many will quickly transform the killer into a figure who allows them to fantasize rebellion or the lashing out at society’s ills. For some, the serial killer may become a symbol of swift and effective justice, cleansing society of its crime-ridden vermin. The serial killer’s skills in eluding police for long periods of time transcends the very reason that he is being hunted. The killer’s elusiveness overshadows his trail of grief and horror.48

Social critic Mark Seltzer also subscribes to a version of this viewpoint. According to him, serial murder culture in the United States has supplanted an earlier uniquely American cultural institution:

Serial murder and its representations have by now largely replaced the Western as the most popular genre-fiction of the body and of bodily violence in our culture . . . the Western was really about serial killing all along.49

Seltzer links the popularity of true-crime literature, movie-of-the-week crime stories, and news accounts of serial murder to what he calls a Wound Culture—“the public fascination with torn and open bodies and opened persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound.”

This kind of cultural insemination of serial murderers is echoed in historian Angus McLaren’s analysis of the nineteenth-century serial murderer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who killed women coming to him seeking abortions. McLaren proposes that Dr. Cream’s crimes “were determined largely by the society that produced them.” In Cream’s time and place, Victorian London, single pregnant women seeking an abortion were the focus of the most intense scorn and disdain. The serial killer, according to McLaren, rather than being perceived as an outcast disconnected from society, is “likely best understood not so much as an ‘outlaw’ as an ‘oversocialized’ individual who saw himself simply carrying out sentences that society at large leveled.”50

Mark Seltzer suggests that serial killers today are fed and nurtured in a similar cultural dialogue, to which they respond with their own homicidal contributions in a process that he calls “mimetic compulsion.” Or, as once put more simply by the late Robert Kennedy, “society gets the kind of criminal it deserves.”

This kind of culturalist scenario explaining the increased serial murder rate is a perspective rapidly gaining currency as we begin a new millennium.


Today there is a creeping nonchalance toward serial murder cases, especially if the victims are society’s throwaways. The arrest of Gary Ridgway—the Green River Killer—and his guilty plea to the murders of forty-eight prostitutes garnered routine media coverage. Although most can identify Ted Bundy or Andrew Cunanan, few people can identify serial killers with names like Kendall “Stinky” Francois or William Lester Suff, despite their relatively high number of victims.

Twenty-seven-year-old Francois killed eight prostitutes from 1996 to 1998 and stored their corpses in his attic, but he and his victims hardly made the news. Moreover, Francois was doing his killing in Poughkeepsie, New York, a town on the Hudson River halfway between Albany and New York City—too far south to enter the Albany television market and too far north to be covered by the New York City TV footprint. That’s like saying it never happened. And of course, by the end of the 1990s, eight victims was a relatively mediocre performance if numbers count for anything: There was no “hook” to the story—he was not eating his victims, or even taking a bite and spitting it out—he was just strangling them and stacking their corpses in plastic garbage bags up in his attic while his parents complained about the smell. (Dead raccoons, he told them.)

Even William Lester Suff with his thirteen victims in the Lake Elsinore region of California from 1986 to 1992 is relatively obscure, having killed again outside the convenient Los Angeles television footprint. Suff killed drug-addicted street prostitutes and left their bodies behind strip mall garbage Dumpsters, posed so as to call attention to their drug habits. But Suff went on trial in the middle of the O. J. Simpson case; what are thirteen dead crack whores compared to two shiny-white Starbucks victims in Brentwood at the hands of an enraged celebrity? And how about Joel Rifkin, who murdered seventeen street hookers in the New York–Long Island area? The media abandoned his story in the rush to cover the deaths of six “respectably employed” train commuters at the hands of Colin Ferguson. The trial of Joel Rifkin was wrapped up in relative obscurity despite the seventeen murder victims. We might not even know his name if an episode of Seinfeld had not made it a butt of jokes.

For the press covering serial murder these days it is not the sheer number of snuffed-out lives that count, but their celebrity status or visible credit rating—the trade-off comes in at around one SUV in the garage for every five dead hookers in the Dumpster.