- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 27, 2002

By operating in the age of terrorism and continuous, instantaneous news coverage, the culprits in the Washington-area sniper shootings quickly propelled themselves to a top place in the evil pantheon of historic serial killers, experts say.
Killing methodically, publicly, defiantly, in a media-rich environment, threatening children, tantalizing police with messages, and steadily lengthening the killing spree over three weeks, the slayers may have pushed to the head of an ugly line. Think Albert De Salvo ("the Boston Strangler"), David Berkowitz ("Son of Sam"), John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, the Zodiac killer, the Green River killer, the Hillside Stranglers and University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman.
Even those murderous predecessors never achieved quite this level of national attention.
"By the timing and location and the frequency in this short amount of time, it certainly makes this one of the more notorious criminal events in recent history," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernadino and a former New York City police officer.
Criminologists said the killer or killers, preying on a wide range of targets, may surpass legendary villains with even longer victim lists and may ultimately leave deeper and longer-lasting scars on the public psyche.
The measure of the shooting spree lies in the range of the terror it spread, the closing of schools over a wide area, and the demonstration that "if people are worried about the inner cities, the suburbs are no longer safe either," said Charles Bahn, a criminologist and professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
The gripping drama combined the sensational elements of a fiction writer's dream or nightmare. An anonymous assassin kills random targets at long range, each time with a single shot, then vanishes, slipping past roadblocks, leaving letters for authorities, telephoning police, demanding money, convulsing the populace surrounding the nation's capital. All of it played out daily on 100 million television screens.
Peter L. Sheras, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, said the modus operandi, added to the vulnerabilities people feel in the aftermath of September 11, ensure the case will be one for the history books.
Even before the arrests of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo, novelist John Camp, who has written numerous books about serial killers, speculated that "more than one person might be involved," that the sniper might have a collaborator.
Mr. Camp said the case made an impression on the public surpassing "one of the most memorable and publicized killers who ever existed Ed Gein, who did the most awful things to a group of women and was the inspiration for the "Psycho" and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" movies. But nobody remembers him anymore because he came from the back woods of Wisconsin and we didn't do publicity like we do now."
The new coverage, approaching a public obsession, is a natural consequence of round-the-clock reporting and the killer or killers' choice of the capital area, a nerve center of news resources, experts said.
"In terms of media attention, this is unprecedented," said Harold Schechter, a criminal historian and author of "The A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers."
"It's like a true-life episode of all the police procedurals so popular now, and it demonstrates how unrealistic the make-believe shows are when they use sophisticated technology to neatly solve crimes so easily," said Mr. Schechter.
"Someone like this on the loose stirs up very primal fears, although the kinds of crimes this guy is committing, horrific as they are, are not as outrageously grotesque as, say, Jeffrey Dahmer's, in sheer perversity and depravity," Mr. Schechter said. Dahmer was the Milwaukee man convicted of killing 17 men and boys in crimes that included cannibalism. He operated secretly over many years.
University of Central Florida criminal justice professor Ray Surette said it is too soon to tell if the Washington-area killing spree will have any long-term historical impact. He noted that the news media slapped the label "trial of the century" on 32 different criminal cases in the last 100 years.
"These things always look more lasting when you're up close to them," Mr. Surette said. "If this has some lasting value, it's because it fits the icon of the predator criminal."
Mr. Surette said television has made commonplace the notion of crime as the work of a random, violent stranger, "and this is just the epitome of that just shooting people without rhyme or reason."

Miles Benson and Chuck McCutcheon are columnists for Newhouse Newspapers.


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