Former FBI agent answers the question, “Are Serial Killers Crazy?”

 

Pete M. Klismet, Jr.

Pete M. Klismet, Jr.

Pete Klismet, Jr., a former FBI profiler, says, no, they are not.  “In talking about serial killers, I’ve heard comments from my college students and police officers in the schools where I continue to teach. “What do you mean they’re not crazy?”  Usually followed closely by, “Don’t they have to be crazy to kill all those people?”  And then, “But if they’re not crazy, why do they do it?”

If there is anything we can agree on, it would be that the acts of a serial murderer are, to say the least, a great departure from what we think of as normal.  To put it mildly.  Clearly, most normal people don’t wake up one morning, have some coffee, read the paper, check e-mails, and then decide, “Hmmm…..what am I going to do today?  Awww, what the heck, I think I’m going to start killing people.”  And off they go to their new adventures.

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We are all driven to seek answers and explanations for odd behavior.  We want to understand why a seemingly mild-mannered, quiet man like Gary Ridgway (“The Green River Killer”) could kill at least forty-eight women in Seattle.  What creates a monster like law student Ted Bundy who roamed from Washington State to Utah, Idaho, Colorado and finally Florida, brutally killing and maiming women along the way, eventually killing thirty-three women that we know of.  And how do you explain Jeffrey Dahmer?  What could have caused him to strangle seventeen young men and boys in Milwaukee, eat body parts so they’d be “a part of me,” keep their corpses in his apartment for days, and then dissolve their bodies in acid inside his apartment?  And they all performed sex acts on some of their victims after killing them.  If for no other reason, that would seem to be a huge clue that they simply have to be crazy…but are they?

There are a lot of questions posed at this juncture, so let’s pause briefly and take a look at some facts, beginning with the commonly-accepted (except in Canada and England) definition of the term “Serial Killer.”

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A serial killer was defined by the Behavioral Science Unit (now the Investigative Support Unit) in Quantico, Virginia, and combines three basic factors:

          1.    A person who kills three or more victims (most often one victim at a time).

          2.    The killings occurred over a period of time, usually days, weeks, months or years.

          3.    There is a cooling off period between the killings.

The latter point (cooling off) is what separates a serial killer from a mass killer (Columbine, for example, where all killings occurred in a single event), and a spree killer (where there might be a continuing and sometimes connecting series of killings in different locations over a day or several days, but no cooling off period).  With these killings, there is often a long period of seething anger which eventually boils to a point the killer decides to take some form of violent action.

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Many people, particularly the media, want to say they simply “snapped.’”’  It makes it so much easier to understand then.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  The anger has typically welled up in them for months or even years, much like a pressure cooker on low heat.  Eventually the pressure builds up to the point where they are seemingly unable to control themselves, to refrain from doing what they do.  It’s nothing like suddenly and impulsively deciding to go to their workplace or school and kill people who they believe have treated them unfairly.

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Next we can pose the question, “Are mass killers crazy?”  And the answer to that is also no.  A more likely explanation is that they finally reached the boiling-over point with anger and frustration and could see no other way out of their dire situation.  What they eventually did was something akin to an irresistible impulse they couldn’t control.  But they certainly aren’t crazy.

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If that’s the case, then we should review what the term insanity means.  In medical and psychiatric terms, the word insanity is avoided in favor of specific diagnoses of particular mental disorders.  The presence of delusions or hallucinations is more broadly defined as psychosis.  Most courts in the United States accept a potential insanity defense when experts can identify
a major mental illness (psychosis), but will not accept the numerous and less-than-psychotic personality disorders.

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Personality Disorders are a separate classification of mental health disorders which include such issues as Borderline Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Dependent Personality Disorder, and Histrionic Personality Disorder (this is only a part of a much more exhaustive list).

Commonly-diagnosed mental health disorders such as Bipolar Disorder, Generalized (not chronic) Anxiety Disorder, PTSD, Schizophrenia, and Depression are among the classification of mental health disorders termed “Axis I” disorders.  None of them meet the criteria for psychosis.

While the diagnostic criteria and the multiplicity of possible disorders and psychoses can become a bit confusing to non-trained professionals, the key issue from a legal standpoint becomes relatively simple – did the person charged with the crime have the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, and did he know the behavior he engaged in was against the law?

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This is the difference between someone being legally sane vs. insane.  However, evidence and testimony from mental health professionals as to those issues must be clearly presented to the court or jury who must then make that decision.  And therein lies the crux of the matter when we’re considering serial murderers.  Conjecture, speculation and comments such as “Well, he just acted crazy all the time,” or “He was odd,” won’t work.  The word “crazy” doesn’t exist in the legal or psychiatric arenas, but the word “sanity” does.

A few specific cases can serve as a reference point. Several years ago a woman in San Antonio, Texas, killed and ate the body parts of her baby, including the brain. Most of us would call that crazy.

Story can be found here:  http://www.nbcnews.com/id/32171926/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/t/investigators-stunned-child-dismemberment/

After lengthy psychological evaluation, this woman was diagnosed with a psychotic disorder. The woman believed the devil made her mutilate and dismember her newborn son.  She was subsequently found not guilty of the crime by reason of insanity and was committed to a mental institution until deemed to no longer be a danger to herself or others.

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In a similar case in 2001 Andrea Yates of Houston, Texas, was shown to have been suffering from postpartum psychosis and, in this psychotic state, drowned each of her five children.  She later explained that Satan was inside her, and she was trying to save her children from going to hell. A jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity, and she was committed to a mental institution.

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In 1982 John Hinkley, Jr., was found to be not guilty by reason of insanity after attempting to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. Hinkley had a long history of psychiatric care when he was younger, and his statements made it clear he did not have his psychological act completely together. Hinkley has been confined to a mental institution in the Washington, D.C., area for nearly 30 years.  While he’s gained some privileges, it is doubtful he’ll ever be completely free and on his own.  Hinkley will probably never become a person who can function in society on his own.

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So, you might ask, how are the two women noted above different from Jeffrey Dahmer?  It certainly seems they did similar things.  Dahmer killed seventeen people, strangling most, drilled holes in their heads to inject acid in the process of making sex zombies (by his own admission).  He dismembered and disemboweled his victims, ate body parts, saved others, collected skulls and dissolved their bodies in a huge vat of acid.  And he’s the one who is NOT psychotic!  Not crazy?  How on earth can that be true?

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Here’s the difference, why Dahmer was found to be sane despite the manifestly “crazy” things he did.  Dahmer showed planning and premeditation in every one of his killings, and the prosecutors skillfully pointed this out.  A psychotic person does not have the cognitive (or mental) organization to create the detailed plots and plans that Dahmer created.

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He hunted for his victims in gay bars only and sought victims who were light-skinned black males, young and slender. Very specific criteria and not random victims. Thus he wasn’t a killer who would simply murder anyone who got in his way, although some serial killers do.  Ted Bundy was similar to Dahmer in his selectivity, as most of his female victims had long dark hair, parted in the middle, and, we later learned, looked a lot like a girlfriend who had dumped him several years before.  Bundy also brought with him items he’d need to gain control of the victims and would commonly use an arm sling or crutches to make his victims feel immediately safe.  All of these things require some thinking and planning which a psychotic person could not typically accomplish in his delusional state.

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Dahmer constantly fantasized about and was obsessed with killing over and over. His obsession developed into a compulsion and then a need, and he eventually became addicted to killing.  Yet he could compartmentalize that secret part of his life and create the image that he was perfectly normal.  He fit well into society. He was attractive, dressed well (some suggested “dressed to kill”) and used this to his advantage in luring potential victims.  He hunted only on Friday nights because if he was successful, he would have the victim for a couple of days and then would have time to do what he wanted to do with the body.  He never used a car because he knew he could be identified by the type of car he drove.  He installed extra locks and a security camera on his apartment to thwart anyone from entering.  But he also presented a normal side when talking to his parents, the police on a couple of occasions, and people he worked with.  He was able to hide in plain sight, appear perfectly normal, and no one would have imagined it was him committing the horrible crimes he did.  An insane person couldn’t begin to accomplish all of those things.

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On the other side of the coin are several serial killers who were probably insane yet were adjudged to be sane in court.  Richard Trenton Chase, for example, killed several people in Sacramento, California, eviscerated at least one victim, and sat beside the victim, drinking her blood from a cup.  Chase had a long psychiatric history and told investigators he was drinking blood because space ships from other planets were sending radiation down to earth which was turning his blood into powder.

Like Dahmer, he had body parts in his refrigerator and had used a blender to chop up other human organs, mixing them with blood.  While all of that doesn’t sound like the acts of a sane person, one never knows what will happen when a case goes to court.  Chase was adjudged to be sane despite considerable evidence to the contrary.  I’ve researched this case and still am clueless how he was found sane.

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The idyllic beach town of Santa Cruz, California, in the early 1970s seemed to be one of the most unlikely places to become the murder capital of the U.S.A.  Edmund Kemper was a prime contributor to the high murder rate, picking up hitchhikers in the area, killing them and dismembering their bodies.  But Kemper’s issue was not insanity. It was anger, due in large part to his dominant and verbally abusive mother.  Since he couldn’t violently strike back at his mother, he could against other women, which is exactly what he did.  But investigators and prosecutors were able to show the planning and premeditation Kemper went through to both gain control of his victims and dispose of their bodies.

While Kemper was terrorizing Santa Cruz and keeping investigators busy, another killer, Herbert Mullin, was on an even worse killing spree.

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Mullin had a lengthy psychiatric history as far back as his early teen years.  His father sought counseling and had him committed, but after each period of evaluation he was then released on the belief that he was no longer a danger to himself or others.  Let’s say that diagnosis wasn’t entirely accurate.  As Mullin’s psychosis deepened, he developed an obsession with earthquakes, and of course California is prone to have them occasionally.

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Mullin then added a delusion to the obsession, namely that he could prevent earthquakes from occurring if he killed people.  He randomly selected victims who, in his delusional state, he believed were telepathically telling him to kill them and the problem of earthquakes would stop.  His victims were simply unfortunate people who appeared on his radar screen on any given day, male and female and even some children. There was no pattern or logic to what he did or the victims he chose.

This is the antithesis of Dahmer’s and Bundy’s process of victim selection by certain well-established and defined criteria.  Mullin was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to the state mental hospital after his trial.  Kemper, on the other hand, offered an insanity defense but was adjudged sane and received a life sentence which he is currently serving.

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Virtually all serial killers are found to have been sane at the time they committed their crimes.  David Berkowitz, the infamous “Son of Sam” killer who paralyzed New York City for over a year, tried an insanity defense, as many have.

Despite claiming a satanic demon inhabited the body of a dog next door and that the dog spoke to him with instructions on what to do and how to kill people, Berkowitz was found to be sane.

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Kenneth Bianchi, one of the “Hillside Stranglers” in Los Angeles, claimed to be a multiple personality and that the “Bad Ken” was the one who did the killings.  Confronted by a psychiatrist who told Bianchi that people with Multiple Personality Disorder usually had at least three distinct personalities, Bianchi promptly came up with a third one.  That didn’t work, and Bianchi is currently on a full-ride scholarship in a Washington state prison, having also been convicted of killing two women in Bellingham, Washington, after his nefarious murders in Los Angeles.

In conclusion, very few serial killers even come close to meeting the exceedingly strict criteria for insanity. The challenge to investigators is in discovering those things in their lives they did which displayed their true sanity.  They are not crazy as we’d like to think.  A very small percentage of those we’ve identified over the years qualified as being legally insane.  Every year we identify more of them, and the certainty they face is the death penalty or a life in prison.”

Wow! Thank you, Pete, for stopping by my blog this month. Pete has agreed to talk about what a FBI agent really does next month, and he’s going to give us the breakdown of the acronyms they use.

And don’t forget to pick up a copy of Pete’s new award winning book, FBI Diary: Profiles Of Evil.

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Remember, when writing a villain who is a serial killer, keep in mind what Pete has taught us. Most are nice looking, very personable and blend in to be the guy next door, someone you would never think could be killing people. These villains, to me, are far more scary because you don’t see them coming. Until next time.

Happy writing,

Diane Kratz

You can connect with Pete at:

Website:  www.criminalprofilingassociates.com

Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/pete.klismet

Book trailer for: FBI Diary: Profiles of Evil:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcmgAPGHFbo

Blog edited by Sally Berneathy