Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What makes a Serial Killer a Serial Killer?

Getting Into the Mind of a Serial Killer

In my newest project, the Cal Jessup series, my protagonist, Cal Jessup is called back to the San Antonio Police Department to aid in finding a serial killer he was tracking when he retired five years before. In researching this plot line, I found out some interesting things about serial killers.

Serial Killer – A person who kills three or more times over a period of time, with a cooling off period in between murders. Prototypical serial killer: Caucasian male, 25 to 45 years of age. Above average intelligence. Strong personal and social skills. Usually employed in a menial position, often below their abilities.

What is a Signature?

For one thing, not all serial killers leave a signature, as Hollywood would have us believe. So what is a signature? In the case of a serial killer, it is something that makes their crime unique, adds a personal touch. But as I mentioned, it is very rare for a serial killer to do this. So, how do the Police or FBI know that a serial killer is at work? On rare occasions, a fetish may be mistaken for a signature. Say the killer has a foot fetish for example. He, and the majority of serial killers are male*, may take the time to put polish on his victims toenails.

In the movies, or on television, the signature is always clear. The killer will usually pose his victims, or leave a distinctive mark. If only it were that clear in real crimes. No, unfortunately, leaving a signature is not so much a norm as it is a rarity, created to help us make some sense out of the senseless killing.

Modus Operandi (Mode of Operation)

As a rule, serial killers stalk their victims in three ways. These ways are: Nomadic, Territorial, and Stationary. On rare occasions, a killer will change his or her technique to avoid capture. However, these deviations never last long.

Nomadic – The Traveler. These types of killers never stay in the same place for very long, preferring to move from one city to the next, and killing as they go.

Territorial – The Stalker. These are the most common type of serial killer. They prefer to stake out an area and stay close to their victims. A good example would be David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, who preferred to stalk a particular neighborhood. Another example, though this killer ranged out further, would be Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer. Ridgway took his victims along the roads and highways between Seattle and Tacoma.

Stationary – The Homebody. These are the rarest of all serial killers, claiming most of their victims in one area. They are divided between those that kill at home and those who kill at work. One famous, or infamous Black Widow, was Judy Buenoano. Buenoano killed her first husband by poisoning him with arsenic, and paralyzed her 19 year old son with the same poison and pushed him out of a canoe. All of this was in order to collect $240,000.00 in insurance money.

John Wayne Gacy, who would dress up as a clown, brought strangers back to his home and killed them, burying them in the crawl space under his house. Gacy murdered at least 33 teenage boys, and was sentenced to death for twelve of the murders.

Stationary killers may be forced to move from time to time for reasons unrelated to their crimes, but will normally maintain their hunting pattern.

*Females make up less than 20% of all serial killers. However, their killing sprees tend to go longer than male serial killers. Between eight and eleven years compared to two for male serial killers.


  1. Eeww .. reading all that just gave me the creeps. An appropriate post for Halloween.

  2. Glad you liked it. It wasn't my intention to creep anyone out, but I'll take it.

  3. This just shows how important research, even basic research, is. A story needs to be believable, with no plot holes. This is great for anybody looking for some basics.

  4. Van, you are so right. I think I love doing the research almost as much as I love writing.

    I have gone in much deeper on the subject. Very disturbing subject matter. This post has given me the idea of doing a series of post on serial killers. Perhaps I'll feature a "Serial Killer of the Week".