Criminals Who Go Dormant… for a While

Criminals Who Go Dormant

Criminals Who Go Dormant

Serial criminals. They capture our imagination—in novels and real life—because they’re sort of like the bogeyman. It’s bad enough that someone in your life could hurt you (most violent crime is perpetrated by someone the victim knows), but to be targeted from a distance by someone you don’t even know is watching until it’s too late? Terrifying! Usually, once serial criminals start, once they get a taste for their crime of choice, they don’t stop. Not until someone stops them.But there are those rare serial criminals who are splashed across the news for months or years, and then seem to disappear. Why would a serial criminal go dormant? There are the obvious reasons: death or sickness. There are ironic reasons: being caught and jailed for a totally different crime. There are self-protective reasons: there’s someone in their lives who might notice and turn them in. Finally, there are sinister reasons: they’ve found victims in an easier capacity or they’ve kept trophies that are satisfying them for now.Usually, we don’t think of serial criminals as having the self-restraint to stop on their own once they’ve started. Serial killers are a prime example. Most of them have (or at least start with) patterns: specific timing between kills. On rare occasions, serial killers stop on their own and then end up back in the limelight years later.One such killer was the “BTK Killer.” He named himself; he actually sent letters to the press suggesting names the media could use in their headlines about him. BTK—“Bind, Torture, Kill” after his sadistic crimes—is the one that stuck. In 1974, he murdered a family of four. He killed once more that year, then twice in 1977, once in 1985, once in 1986, and then again in 1991. He chose victims of diverse ages and genders and employed several different methods of killing, ultimately settling on strangulation as his favored choice.

BTK went dormant for fourteen years until he was finally arrested—after he started sending letters to the press again. Serial killers usually crave attention, and he was no exception. A city worker and volunteer at his church and for the Cub Scouts in his regular life, BTK might well have remained free had he not started sending the letters again. Instead, Dennis Rader is currently serving ten consecutive life sentences.

Why did he go dormant? Famous former FBI profiler John Douglas suggested in one of his books that it was because police were getting too close, and BTK was in control enough to resist killing again to keep from getting caught. Rader himself later told police he never stopped looking for victims, and there’s been some speculation that he began to worry about his ability to control younger victims (his last victim was his oldest victim).


Why did he put himself back in the limelight? Some theorize that serial killers subconsciously want to get caught. Most of the time, I think that’s untrue. Most of the time, I think they want to keep killing. However, they do want the attention. For Rader, that was seeing his name in the news again. In one of his early communications, this murderer wrote to the media and, by proxy, to the police and FBI: “How many do I have to kill before I get my name in the paper or some national attention?” Ultimately, his desire to see his name back in the headlines allowed police to trick him into communicating with them in a way they could track. Then, DNA did the rest. More than thirty years later, he’s in jail for ten murders, and he’ll never get out.

Serial killers (and other serial criminals) are relatively rare. Rarer still are the ones who go dormant and then return to the limelight. Why that might happen is a fascinating question, and one I did a lot of research on when writing the second novel in my Profiler series, VANISHED. In it, the Nursery Rhyme Killer, who abducted FBI profiler Evelyn Baine’s best childhood friend and then disappeared, returns after eighteen years of silence. This time, if Evelyn doesn’t find him, she may be the next to vanish.

ELIZABETH HEITER likes her suspense to feature strong heroines, chilling villains, and psychological twists. Her research has taken her into the minds of serial killers, through murder investigations, and onto the FBI Academy’s shooting range. 
New York Times bestselling author Tess Gerritsen said of Heiter’s debut, “HUNTED is a nonstop, thrilling read that will leave you breathless, and Evelyn Baine is a sharp and gutsy heroine you’ll want to follow for many books to come.” Bestselling author R.L. Stine said of the sequel, “Want to read a top-rate thriller? VANISHED had me turning page after page. Wow. When you talk about our most promising new thriller writers, put Elizabeth Heiter on the list!”

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