It was a small but horrifying item in the Los Angeles Times: “Police are asking for the public’s help in identifying what they call a ‘serious, dangerous serial killer’ operating in Orange County. Police believe one person is responsible for stabbing three middle-aged homeless men. He is (considered) extremely dangerous to the public.”
Another serial killer, I thought. And then the question: How many serial killers are out there in America?
John Douglas, a former chief of the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit and the author of “Mind Hunter” says, “A very conservative estimate is that there are between 35 and 50 active serial killers in the United States” at any given time. Often, Douglas told me, they will “kill two to three victims and then have a ‘cooling-off’ period between kills.” That period can be days and, in some cases – such as the BTK Strangler, Dennis Rader, convicted of killing 10 people from 1974 to 1991 – even years.
But others who study serial killers – defined as someone who kills three or more people – think there are many more of these demented predators out there than the FBI admits to, maybe as many as a hundred of them actively operating right now.
Why don’t we know the exact figure? Because serial killers are a secretive and often nomadic bunch.
Right before his execution in January 1989, the widely traveled Ted Bundy, described as a charismatic killer, admitted to 30 murders across half a dozen states from Washington to Florida.
Andrew Cunanan killed at least five people during his wanderings through Minnesota, Illinois, New Jersey and Florida, including fashion designer Gianni Versace in Miami.
The FBI knows death travels, and five years ago it set up the Highway Serial Killings Initiative. The bureau reveals it has “a matrix of more than 600 victims and potential suspects in excess of 275.” Since the bodies were found off major highways, top suspects are long-haul truckers who may pick up prey in one state and dump the body several states away.
I know this is disturbing to read, and you may wonder, “Why should I care? I’m not going to hitchhike at a truck stop!”
Well, realize that lots of serial killers stay close to home and their victims are random. The aforementioned Dennis Rader found all his victims in Kansas not far from the Wichita home he shared with his wife and two kids. Rader, the president of his local church, knocked on his victims’ doors and they simply let him in.
John Wayne Gacy met many of his 33 victims, all young men and boys, at charity events where he appeared dressed a clown. After luring them to his house and murdering them, he stuffed them under his Cook County, Ill., home.
Gary Leon Ridgway, the so-called Green River Killer, was convicted of strangling 49 random women he met in Washington. He confessed to killing 71, but authorities believe the number of victims could be over 90.
Jeffrey Dahmer of Milwaukee admitted to killing and cannibalizing 17 young men and boys before he was arrested. Dahmer’s mother, Joyce, once told me her son wished doctors would come study him in prison to help figure out what drove him to do it.
We who write about crime are told that law enforcement nationwide is doing a better job of communicating with each other about suspected serial killers. Indeed, the item I read about the homeless murders was a milestone. In the past, detectives were loath to tell the public about a serial killer on the loose for fear of spooking people. Now they’ve come to realize that knowledge is power and citizens’ information can be a huge help in solving crimes.
Hardly a state in the union hasn’t had a serial killer. California, Texas and Florida seem to have more than their fair share. And mass graves have been found all around the country. Two examples: The 11 bodies of young women and an infant found on the isolated West Mesa outside Albuquerque. And an eerily similar case thousands of miles away in Long Island, N.Y., where authorities unearthed 10 bodies – eight women and a toddler along with a man dressed in women’s clothes.
These are among the serial killer dumping grounds that have been found. Many others may go undetected forever.
The best thing we can do is be vigilant. Know that many victims of serial killers put themselves in harm’s way. Most are women who have some contact with the sex trade or illegal drug underworld, and if they have children, they are in grave danger, too.
Dr. Maurice Godwin has studied serial killers for years, and one in-depth analysis of 107 of them revealed important information. Godwin found that 55 percent of serial killers began having trouble in childhood and had criminal juvenile records; 45 percent had been convicted of a previous sex crime.
As with so many criminals it goes back to their early formative years, and the best lesson we can learn is that when we find a troubled child, we’d best help them. Failure to do so could result in another serial killer walking among us.