- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 5, 2005


The accusations that a churchgoing, married father of two was Kansas’ infamous BTK killer have shaken the Hollywood image of the serial killer as a disenfranchised loner. And it has people wondering just how many of their mild-mannered colleagues, spouses and fellow parishioners might secretly be monsters.

Estimates of how many serial killers are operating in the United States at any given time are, like the killers themselves, all over the map.

Jack Levin, who studies violence at Boston’s Northeastern University, estimates that there are about 20 serial killers operating nationwide, accounting for about 200 victims a year. Ann Rule, a true-crime author and serial killer expert from Seattle, figures there are about 300 such predators lurking “just below our level of awareness.”

A few years ago, the FBI — which defines a serial killer as someone who has killed three or more over a period of time — declared that the country was experiencing an epidemic of serial killings, and estimated that anywhere from 20 to 50 were prowling the country. But the bureau has since backed away from trying to quantify the threat.

“In the past we have had people here on our staff that have tried to make educated — or uneducated — guesses,” says FBI spokesman Ken Gross.

The Feb. 25 arrest of Dennis Rader, 59, a code enforcement officer and former Cub Scout troop leader, in the Wichita area’s “Bind, Torture, Kill” slayings is yet another blow to some commonly held myths about serial killers.

Katherine Ramsland says the sooner people are disabused of such outdated notions, the safer they’ll be.

“There’s no single profile, despite what people are writing,” says Miss Ramsland, a forensic psychology professor at Pennsylvania’s DeSales University who is writing a history of serial killers.

She said she cringes when she hears that serial killers most likely are white and male, when she knows there have been plenty of black and femaale killers across history.

“They get perpetuated from one source to another,” Miss Ramsland says. “That’s why someone like Dennis Rader can get away with what he’s doing, because these social stereotypes crop up. … We have cultural assumptions that they exploit.”

While about half of all serial killers are caught within a year, Mr. Levin says many are hard to run down because of the victims they often choose — prostitutes and runaways who were strangers to the killer.

“What happens is the police typically have the dump site, but not the crime scene,” says Mr. Levin, who recently published “Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder.” “And by the time they locate the body, they’re left with skeletal remains. They don’t have DNA, they don’t have fibers, they don’t have fingerprints.

“They’re lucky if they can identify the victim, let alone the killer.”

Because serial killers are individuals with their own histories and motives, it is very hard to talk of them generally, Miss Ramsland says. One common trait, she says, is that they are psychopaths, who brain scan studies show fail to process “the emotional content of situations, such as empathy, concern or alarm.”

Back when he coined the phrase “serial killer,” former FBI profiler Robert Ressler could safely say that most of his prey were single, white, unemployed males. And it seemed the United States had the market cornered.

Now, he travels the world, lecturing on black, Hispanic and Asian killers; on killers who target acquaintances, not just strangers.

“These things emerge and change,” he says. “The old rules of the ‘70s just don’t apply anymore.”

Profiling is rapidly giving way to the use of linked DNA and crime databases.

“Years ago, you solved the serial murder case strictly by luck,” Mr. Ressler says. “Today it’s by technology.”

BTK eluded capture for 30 years. But police say they lucked out when Mr. Rader left an electronic fingerprint: A floppy disk sent to a Wichita TV station by the BTK killer was traced back to Mr. Rader’s church.

Mr. Ressler is annoyed by complaints he’s read about how long it took to arrest someone in the BTK case. He says those people have no idea what they’re talking about.

“When you get a person that is a ghost, who is operating in an invisible status, it can take a long time.”

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