Writing Serial Killer Thrillers (Part II)

Writing Serial Killer Thrillers (Part II)

In Part I of this blog series, thriller writer Rick Reed discussed writing serial killer novels. Why the location and condition of the body are important elements of the story.

In Part II he will explain the various categories of serial killer: Homicide vs Murder vs Mass Murder vs Spree Murder vs Serial Murder. He will describe possible motivation, mobility, the value of profiling, and the importance of body count.

In Part III of this series he will discuss the international aspects of serial killing.

Rick was a homicide detective and gained a unique perspective when he caught a serial killer in 2000. He retired from law enforcement after 26 years. He earned two Masters Degrees and became a professor of Criminal Justice. He has developed and taught a course titled Serial Killers the Global Perspective. He is the author of the Detective Jack Murphy thriller series.

As I said in Part 1 of this blog topic, I can’t teach you how to write. I can only tell you what I have learned about serial killers and share my own style(s) of writing serial killer thriller novels.

Homicide vs Murder vs Mass Murder vs Spree Murder vs Serial Murder:

No two killers are alike. We can all agree that If you end someone’s life, whether purposefully or accidentally, you have still killed that person. You can smooth out the language by saying “caused the death.” But the reality is the person would still be alive if not for you, and that is killing.

Homicide and Murder have the greatest impact on a community more than any other felony. Serial killers are at the top of that food chain. Therefore they get the most ink. The public expects these crimes to be handled competently and quickly. They pose the greatest challenge to an investigator. Your character; whether victim, witness, suspect or investigator, will each perceive the crime from their own experience. (Also, be aware that the elements of murder in one state may be different in another state. This blog will give general definitions.)

Here are some definitions that law enforcement and the court use:

Homicide:  The killing of one human being by another. All homicides are criminal.

  • Justifiable Homicide: The intentional but lawful killing of another.
    • Some examples are:
    • The state carries out the death penalty.
    • A police officer kills an armed robber (there are requirements in this case. Look them up.)
    • A person kills while in defense of their own life or that of another.
    • Some states have a stand and defend law. Some require the dead to have been an imminent threat.
  • Excusable Homicide: A person killing another by accident or with gross negligence and WITHOUT the intent to injure.
  • A hunter kills someone and not the deer
  • An officer shoots a suspect who has pulled something from a pocket or has something in his hand. The officer discovers the object was a phone or lip gloss or a candy bar or whatever. There will always be questions. These types of incidents raise public emotions. Good writing material. Just ask the news media.

Murder:   Also called Criminal Homicide. There are two categories. Murder–Manslaughter.

  • Murder: Unlawful killing of another human being with malice. Premeditation. Killing during the commission of a felony even if the killing is unintentional. (Bank Robbery)
  • Manslaughter: Unlawful killing of another human being without intent to effect death.

There are also degrees or classifications of Criminal Homicide.  First degree vs second degree. Voluntary (heat of passion) vs involuntary manslaughter (reckless or vehicular).

  • An example of involuntary manslaughter would be kids playing with a gun they didn’t know was loaded.
  • An example of voluntary manslaughter in the heat of passion I will give you a real case scenario.

A man goes to a ‘no-tell’ motel, the pay by the hour type, where he knows his wife is inside the room with another man. He causes a disturbance in the parking lot and the police arrive. Four officers are standing around him. One officer knocks on the door. When the woman opens the door—naked—the husband pulls a gun and shoots her dead. It was ruled “Heat of Passion.”

The legal definition of ‘heat of passion’ is an uncontrollable state of mind caused by being hit or punched (this is not to be confused with self-defense unless you are in fear for your life. I’ve been punched, kicked, spit on, and wrestled to the ground and didn’t shoot. Of course that was my wife’s way of asking where I’ve been so late.) Heat of passion can also be provoked by something personal. Like your wife coming to the motel room door, naked.

Mass Murder:  Generally kills several individuals or groups of people at one time or within

hours and one location.

  • Mass murderers are caught fairly quickly and either kill themselves or are killed.
  • They don’t necessarily avoid being caught.
  • The murders are their “final statement”. Their legacy.
  • Mass murders are generally more than two victims.

Spree Murder:  Three or more victims killed by the same suspect within a period of days or

hours and in different locations.

  • Act in a frenzy and make little effort to avoid detection or conceal the crime
  • There is no cooling-off period between the killings as in serial killing.
  • Sometimes can be multi-state killings. (Find Andrew Cunanan from San Diego, CA)

Serial Murder:  The San Antonio Symposium in Texas, 2006, where a group of 150 experts

in the fields of psychiatry, forensic pathology, law, criminal investigation and behavioral analysis made the determination of what constituted a serial killing.

  • Premeditatively kill three or more victims over a period of days, weeks,

months, or years.

  • Suspect can be male, female, young, old. They have to be able to form intent and then act.
  • Murders have common characteristics to suggest they were committed by the same suspect(s)
  • Can be individual or more than one killer acting together
    • Team killers
      • Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono (The Hillside Strangler murders)
      • Leonard Lake and Charles Ng (California)
    • Alaska is the state with the most serial killings.

Motivation:  Motivation is an integral part of the elements of the crime.

There have been exhausting studies, interviews and publications on the art of criminal profiling. But motivation can’t be guessed. Profiling can only give you a glimpse into the motivation for and type of person you might be looking for. But if you’re a good investigator you take help wherever you can get it. Flip a coin. Like a horoscope, a profile fits everything and nothing. As a detective you take you keep the profile in mind and continue your investigation. Serial killers are like most of us in that they want to be thought well of. They want to fit in. They hide in plain sight. They are one of us. They are predators with a forest full of targets.

  • Most serial killings involve some element of sexual contact or gratification.
  • Gary Dahmer had sex with his male victims and kept trophies (sometimes the entire body in a steel drum)
  • John Wayne Gacy raped and murdered 33 male victims, usually young boys
  • Lavonia Fisher killed an unknown number of travelers staying at her hotel for money
  • Herman Webster Mudgett aka/H. H. Holmes began killing to steal money, then killing randomly including girlfriends, mistresses, and customers of his hotel in Chicago.
  • Other reasons are anger, thrill-seeking and attention seeking. Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer and others left notes taunting the investigators.

Profiling Value:  VICAP (Violent Criminal Apprehension Program) is responsible for the analysis of serial violent and sexual crimes. Within that are CIRG (Critical Incident Response Group) and BAU (Behavior Analysis Unit.)

  • VICAP is a system of information designed to track and correlate information on violent crimes, especially murder but not limited there.
  • Their database is available to state and local law enforcement to compile information about certain crimes.
    • Solved and unsolved homicides, particularly involving kidnapping, motiveless, random or suspected part of a series.
    • Missing persons where killing is suspected.
    • Unidentified bodies where killing is suspected

In my serial killer case I requested a search from VICAP for unidentified, missing person, dismemberment, strangulation, and several other factors such as dump mannerisms. I received almost thirty hits on my search. Several of these had sexual connections, necrophilia, and mutilation, but no dismemberments. The FBI typically has a lot of resources to throw at these types of investigations and are very accommodating.

Body Count:  Body Count becomes a factor in determining the type of killing.

Three or more in different locations or in a period of time, etc.  Where we find body count as a factor are mall and school shootings.

Mobility:  The murders spread over a large geographical area.

  • Wayne Adam Ford, long haul truck driver picked up hitchhikers, killed them in his truck, kept the bodies in the truck for several days. Said “God told him to do it.”
  • Jason Dalton, Uber driver in Michigan. Shot 8 passengers, killed 6 of them. Picked up fares in between murders. Don’t want an Uber killer? There’s no app for that.
  • My serial killer was an addicted gambler and traveled the U.S. visiting casino’s. He picked up hitchhikers and hired prostitutes. He hated women.

Wrap up:

Of course the names Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, H.H. Holmes and others will be in our minds when we hear the term serial killer. I believe everyone is capable of murder given the right set of circumstances, the right motivation, the opportunity. It is estimated by the FBI that there are as many as 51 serial killers at work in the U.S. at any given time. I think there are more than that. How many is anyone’s guess. Personally, I vote for the Bureau of Motor Vehicle clerks spawning a serial killer.

Serial killing is a rather new concept in the U.S. compared with other countries, with the oldest case in the U.S. reported in the late 1700’s with Lavinia Fisher in Charleston, South Carolina at the Five Mile House and Six Mile House. But outside of the U.S. the history of serial killing can be found as early as 1430 in France.

In my next blog I will discuss the global perspective of serial killers; like Japanese serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, also known as the Otaku Murderer or Little Girl Killer or Rat Man. He was a rapist, cannibal and necrophile. Russian serial killer, Andrei Chikatilo, Aka/Butcher of Rostov, the Red Ripper who murdered and mutilated more than 50 women and children between 1978 and 1990. There is an interesting story behind why he wasn’t stopped sooner.

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