The phenomenon of serial murder is not one that is isolated to the United States. Instead, it is a global problem. In the United States, there are several agencies including the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that have valuable resources to assist investigators in identifying and locating serial killers. However, even with all of the resources that are available, there are several problems faced during this process. Before we delve into these problems, let us look at what makes an investigation successful. A successful investigation is one where the killer is apprehended and brought to justice therefore avoiding more victims.
In order for an investigation into serial murder to be successful, there must be effective communication between various law enforcement agencies and a willingness to share information. This can only help to ensure that the investigation will run as smoothly as possible. However, even with these practices in place, there are still problems that are faced by the investigative team. Among these problems are governmental differences between states and countries, cultural differences, the involvement of multiple jurisdictions, a lack of commitment, the media, and pressure put upon investigators by the families of victims and the general public. This is in addition to the fact that serial murder is more complex than the single homicide. A single homicide is typically a crime of personal relationship or unintended consequences of another crime but the serial murder involves multiple victims killed over a longer time span, possibly in more than one jurisdiction.
As a means of filling in the gaps between the various views of the problems associated with serial murder, the FBI held a symposium in San Antonio, Texas in 2005. The purpose of this symposium was to allow a group of experts on serial murder to come together and discuss the various issues regarding serial murder and learn new techniques for a multi-disciplinary approach. During this five day event, several issues were discussed including the typologies, causality, forensics, the organization of the investigative team, and the role of the media as well as a few others. Still, other topics covered by members of the symposium were Analytical tools, leadership, identifying serial murders (linkage blindness), data management, and training.
According to those who participated in the symposium, linkage blindness or identifying a series of homicides as the work of a serial killer is the main challenge to investigators. This blindness, permits the serial killer to continue his killing spree until the agencies involved put agreements into place which allow them to network and link the cases together. Identifying serial murders is easier when they involve low risk victims and are high profile cases because they tend to draw widespread media attention. On the other hand, victims with a high risk lifestyle spread across multiple jurisdictions present a challenge. Combine this with a breakdown in communication between law enforcement agencies and a difference in methods of managing records and you end up with several homicides that are not linked together to one killer.
To combat this problem, networking among varying law enforcement agencies was stressed. This networking is critical to the successful investigation because even though most serial killers tend to operate within their comfort zones, there are those who move from state to state or even to different countries. Several methods including the National Law Enforcement Teletype System, Law Enforcement Online (LEO) Websites, and ViCAP were named as alternative means of sharing information. These methods allow investigators to share pertinent information in an efficient manner that makes it possible to link cases together.
Yet another topic of importance to investigators is the motive of the offender. According to the FBI, the primary motive of a serial killer is lust. This belief tends to limit the scope of the investigation because it excludes the contention that women are capable of becoming serial killers. It also excludes other motives such as greed or revenge upon society for a perceived injustice suffered by the offender. While female serial killers are rare, there have been quite a few of them over the past centuries. A large majority of female serial killers prey upon children but there have been some who have killed adults who were not able to defend themselves. For example, Madame Delphine LaLaurie is believed to have killed as many as ninety slaves on her estate during the early 1800’s. It is believed that she killed for pleasure. The motive of Amelia Dyer who killed fifty infants in Victorian England was financial gain. The same was true of Anjette Lyles who, in 1952, killed four people including her own family members in order to collect on their insurance policies. Among the serial murder cases that were examined between 1945 and 1995, seven female serial killers were identified.
Serial murder for financial gain has also been found to be a motive among male serial killers. Gerhard Schroeder from Bremen, murdered three prostitutes in the 1980’s because he believed they would have a substantial amount of money on them. Due to the occupation of the victims and the belief that the motive of serial killers was lust or sexual gratification, law enforcement were working with a faulty profile of Schroeder. This permitted him to escape capture while killing more victims.
More recently, investigators in Germany have begun using the Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System (VCLAS) which is comprised of a questionnaire that focuses on both evidence of the case and a profile of the offender. Some of the results found using this method mirror those found in the United States. German offenders often report childhood experiences similar to those of serial killers in the United States. Also of interest is that like American serial killers, those in Germany preferred to operate within an area close to where they lived. The intelligence level of the offender has also been found to play an important role in catching a serial killer. It has been found that the lower the IQ of the killer, the harder it is to catch them since they do not always fit the criminal profile established by investigators.
Besides forming a correct profile of a superkiller and contending with the networking abilities of law enforcement, investigators also have to deal with the media who have been known to sensationalize these types of cases. There are many reasons why this happens. Perhaps these cases attract widespread media attention because of the victims or the killers themselves are considered to be newsworthy. Because of the constant news attention, the relationship between the media and law enforcement is not always a good one. This can be attributed to unauthorized information being reported by the media, speculations on the progress on the investigation, and the talking head syndrome. There is also mistrust on the part of the media. Investigators have been accused of withholding too much information. It has also been said that communication between law enforcement and the media is not open as it should be.
There are methods available that can counter this relationship of mistrust. An effective media plan should be established whereby information that does not hurt the investigation can be released to the media. This can useful in both educating and gathering important information from the public. It would also ensure the accuracy of information reported by the media, keep public fears at bay, and reduce political and public pressure by keeping everyone informed on the status of a particular case.
It should be noted that law enforcement worldwide now realize the importance of networking to share valuable information on both active and cold cases as well as what has been learned from various studies on serial murder. By sharing this information, methods that are not in widespread use but have been deemed effective can be adopted by law enforcement both domestically and worldwide. Also, by working in conjunction with the media and the public, the release of important and timely information can be controlled. Most importantly though, by working together, serial killers worldwide can be caught and brought to justice.
Female Serial Killers. (2008). Retrieved November 3, 2010, from Edubook: http://www.edubook.com/female-serial-killers/8489/
(2006). German Serial Killers. In E. W. Hickey, Serial murderers and their victims (4th ed.). (pp. 292-93). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.
(2006). Global Issues in Serial Murder. In E. W. Hickey, Serial murderers and their victims (4th ed.). (pp. 291-292). Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning.
Serial Murder. (n.d.). Retrieved November 3, 2010, from The FBI: http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/serial-murder