In 2005, the Behavior Analysis Unit of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime organized a five-day symposium on serial murder. Their goal was to bring together experts in serial murder to identify common ground.

135 renowned experts attended the five-day event. These people included law enforcement officers who have successfully investigated and apprehended serial killers; academic experts who have studied serial killers and disseminated their expertise through education and publication; court officials, who have tried, prosecuted, and defended serial killers; and members of the media, who inform and educate the public when serial killers strike.

One of the themes addressed during this unique symposium was the fact that the rarity of serial killings combined with inaccurate, anecdotal, and fictional portrayals of serial killers has given rise to a number of common misconceptions. As a result of their deliberations, the panel of experts identified 7 main myths about serial killers. These were:

Serial killers are dysfunctional loners

Most serial killers are not reclusive social misfits living alone. They are not monsters and may not appear strange. Many serial killers hide in plain sight within their communities. Serial killers often have families and homes, are gainfully employed, and appear to be normal members of the community. Because many serial killers can blend in so easily, they are often overlooked by the police and the public.

Robert Yates killed seventeen prostitutes in the Spokane, Washington, area during the 1990s. He was married with five children, lived in a middle-class neighborhood, and was a US Army National Guard helicopter pilot. U.S. decorated. During the time period of the murders, Yates routinely frequented prostitutes, and several of his victims knew each other. Yates buried one of his victims in his yard, under his bedroom window. Yates was ultimately arrested and found guilty of thirteen of the murders.

The Green River Killer, Gary Ridgeway, confessed to killing 48 women over a twenty-year period in the Seattle, Washington area. He had been married three times and was still married at the time of his arrest. He worked as a truck painter for thirty-two years. He attended church regularly, read the Bible at home and at work, and discussed religion with his coworkers. Ridgeway also frequently picked up prostitutes and had sex with them during the time period in which he was killing.

BTK killer Dennis Rader killed ten victims in and around Wichita, Kansas. He sent sixteen written communications to the media over a thirty-year period, mocking the police and the public. He was married with two children, was a Boy Scout leader, served honorably in the US Air Force, was employed as a local government official, and was president of his church.

Serial killers are all white men.

Contrary to popular belief, serial killers span all racial groups. There are white, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian serial killers. The racial diversity of serial killers generally mirrors that of the general American population.

Charles Ng, originally from Hong Kong, China, murdered numerous victims in Northern California, along with Robert Lake.

Derrick Todd Lee, an African American, killed at least six women in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Coral Eugene Watts, an African American, murdered five victims in Michigan, fled the state to avoid detection, and murdered 12 other victims in Texas, before being arrested.

Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, originally from Mexico, murdered nine people in Kentucky, Texas and Illinois, before turning himself in.

Rory Conde, a native of Colombia, was responsible for six homicides of prostitutes in the Miami, Florida area.

Serial killers are only motivated by sex.

All serial murders do not have a sexual basis. There are many other motivations for serial killing, including anger, excitement, financial gain, and attention seeking.

In the case of the Washington, DC area serial sniper, John Allen Muhammad, a former US Army Staff Sergeant, and Lee Boyd Malvo killed primarily out of anger and emotion. They were able to terrorize the Washington, DC metropolitan area for three weeks, shooting 13 victims and killing 10 of them. They contacted the police by leaving notes and tried to extort them to stop the shootings. They are suspects in several other shootings in seven other states.

Dr. Michael Swango, a former US Marine, ambulance worker, and physician, was a health care employee. He was convicted of just four murders in New York and Ohio, though he is suspected of poisoning and killing 35 to 50 people across the United States and on the African continent. Swango’s motivation for the murders was intrinsic and he never fully identified himself. Interestingly, Swango kept a scrapbook full of newspaper and magazine clippings about natural disasters, in which many people died.

Paul Reid killed at least seven people during robberies at fast food restaurants in Tennessee. After gaining control of the victims, he either steadied or shot them. The motivation for the murders was mainly the elimination of witnesses. Reid’s purpose in committing the robberies was for financial gain, and some of the ill-gotten proceeds were used to purchase a car.

Serial killers operate interstates

Most serial killers have very defined geographic areas of operation. They carry out their murders within comfort zones that are often defined by an anchor point (for example, place of residence, employment, or residence of a relative). Serial killers sometimes spiral their activities out of their comfort zone when their confidence has grown through experience or to avoid detection. Very few serial killers travel interstate to kill.

Serial killers can’t stop killing

It has been widely believed that once serial killers start killing, they cannot stop. However, there are some serial killers who stop killing completely before they are caught. In these cases, there are events or circumstances in the life of the criminals that prevent them from going after more victims. These may include increased participation in family activities, sexual substitution, and other diversions.

BTK killer Dennis Rader murdered ten victims between 1974 and 1991. He did not kill any other victims before being captured in 2005. During interviews conducted by law enforcement, Rader admitted to engaging in autoerotic activities as a substitute for his murders. .

Jeffrey Gorton killed his first victim in 1986 and his next victim in 1991. He did not kill another victim and was captured in 2002. Meanwhile, Gorton engaged in cross-dressing and masturbation, as well as consensual sex with his wife.

Serial killers are mad or evil geniuses

Another myth that exists is that serial killers have a debilitating mental condition or are extremely intelligent. As a group, serial killers suffer from a variety of personality disorders, including psychopathy, antisocial personality, and others. Most, however, are not judged insane under the law.

The media have created a series of fictional serial killer “geniuses”, who outsmart law enforcement at every turn. However, like other populations, serial killers range in intelligence from borderline to above average levels.

Serial killers want to be caught

First-time offenders are inexperienced. They gain experience and confidence with each new offense, eventually succeeding with few mistakes or problems. Although most serial killers plan their crimes more thoroughly than other criminals, the learning curve is still very steep. They must select, target, approach, control and dispose of their victims. The logistics involved in committing a murder and disposing of the body can become very complex, especially when there are multiple sites involved.

As serial killers continue to commit crimes without being caught, they may become empowered, feeling that they will never be identified. As the series progresses, the assassins may begin to take shortcuts when committing their crimes. This often puts the killers at more risk, leading to identification by law enforcement. It’s not that serial killers want to get caught; they feel like they can’t be caught.

Serial Murder: Multidisciplinary Perspectives for Researchers

In addition to posting the above information on the myths surrounding serial killers, notes taken at the FBI Serial Murder Symposium were also made available during presentations, panel discussions, and breakout sessions regarding:

  • Definition of serial murder
  • Causality and the serial killer
  • Psychopathy and serial murder
  • Motivations and types of serial murders
  • Research Issues and Best Practices
  • Forensic Issues in Serial Murder Cases
  • Prosecution of serial murder cases
  • Media Issues in Serial Murder Investigations

This fascinating post is just the first of many that I will be making available as part of the Forensic Psychology eBook Collection. Please see the link below for your free copy of Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives For Investigators

Forensic psychology ebook collection.