One Little, Two Little, Three Little Serial Killers
"So how many ARE there?" I am asked over and over again. Concerned citizens and confused students have seen numbers ranging from just ten individuals to over five hundred serial killers in existence in the United States at the present time which seems a mighty big range for any statistically oriented or even nonstatistically oriented person. Quite frankly, the problem lies in both definition and identification. Add to that the manipulation of statistics downward to calm public fears and to the manipulation upward to promote the need of profilers and the numbers can say whatever you want. I have my own definitions, guesses, and purposes and I will attempt to at least make the topic understandable, if not subject to argument.
I will begin with definition. What IS a serial killer? The most widely accepted definition is a person who has killed three or more people over a period of time. This means, guys shooting down folks in a herd on a bad hair day or some nutter driving down the coast knocking off one person per state on a spree doesn't qualify as a serial killer. A serial killer is defined as someone who kills, takes a break, kills again, takes another break, kills again, and so on. He likes killing and will continue to do so as he sees fit. He tends to have some pattern to his peculiarities and his murders will be recognized as part of a group of homicides. Or WILL they?
Now we come to MY definition. A serial killer is someone who has killed once and is likely to kill again given time and opportunity. We can't say how often this will be or if there might even be a gap of five or ten years between homicides. Serial killers don't kill when the moon is full. They kill when they have a need to regain power and control. When they get to this point is a very individual thing. Like an alcoholic, a serial killer can be on the wagon for quite some time, fall off, and then choose to kill again. Many times a murder is committed and then when all is quiet and nothing bad happens for a long time, the murder is considered to be a one time event. When there ARE a number of murders occurring in an area, law enforcement often doesn't like to admit homicides are connected thereby causing the citizens to worry about their safety and to bother them about getting that killer off the street. Serial homicides are often explained away as one-off murders. A bad boyfriend, a drug deal gone bad, a robbery gone awry...yep, this is just a homicidal "accident" and the killer wouldn't think of doing it again. Only when bodies pile up in one particular field or people turn up murdered on a weekly basis in the same area, do the police grudgingly admit the murders may be connected.
Also, there are serial killers people forget are serial killers. Women who exhibit Munchausen by Proxy and kill their own children or children in their care, and black widows who marry and kill numerous times, and nurses who off their patients during their rounds at the hospital; these too are serial killers. Often these deaths are not even labeled homicides. They are "natural" deaths. There are also deaths labeled suicides that are that are really homicides. Murder itself is an underreported activity.
Often history will "show" in many jurisdictions, we have had no serial killers active in a decade. It is interesting to consider what these "statistics" mean. If we have fifty raped and murdered women over a period of ten years, do we really believe that the kind of person who would cross the line to brutally rape and murder a woman does it on a whim and has no desire to do it ever again? It is far more likely that the number of serial killers of this fictional city are more likely to number somewhere between five and fifteen depending on how often they decide to kill and can get away with it. Some serial killers end up dead, incapacitated or in jail which brings an end to their career, but they WERE a serial killer nevertheless for the time they were active. Also, keep in mind, that the extremely low closure rates for serial homicides prevents an accurate tallying of serial killers. We can only guess the number there might be.
So, being a profiler and also an advocate of public safety, I will lean on the side of caution when I guess and aim for the high side. Not being a statistician and quite frankly having no desire to become one, I will show you my very childish method of guesswork in this. Hmm....let's see. In my neck of the woods, I am aware of at least four serial killers by name that are out and about. I know they do not account for all the homicides on our area homicide list, so I think I am probably unaware of at least half a dozen more. So I have about ten just here in the Washington DC and I haven't even looked the thirty minutes drive north to Baltimore or the two hours north to Philadelphia or the two hours drive south to Richmond, a rather busy little homicide area. Even the beach areas of Ocean City, Maryland have known serial killers and the rolling farmlands and growing developments of Spotsylvania, Virginia have a serial killer in their midst and have no idea who he is.
So, with a guess of three large city areas per state and a bunch of small towns and cities that I will add up to make an equivalent of another city, I come up with four cities per state with ten serial killers each. Forty per state times fifty (we do have fifty states still, don't we?) and there we have the number of serial killers at 2000! High? Perhaps. But, remember, these are not all active at the same time, so over a decade, some may do little and some may be very busy. You can do your own math and guesswork, but the point is that serial killers are out there in numbers the police and government officials do not like to admit. Ah, statistics.......can't figure 'em out...can't make 'up that well either.
I hope that this unmathematical and unresearched guesswork has at least given you food for thought. We truly DON'T know the number of serial killers because of the inability to identify the homicides they commit and therefore any statistic you see quoted should be suspect. Just be aware that serial killers are in our communities and they ALWAYS present a danger to us and for that reason, no homicide should be "taken lightly" and shunted aside as just a one time homicide. All murders should be considered serial homicides until proven otherwise and all killers should be considered possible serial killers unless proven otherwise and not returned to the streets with the charming notion that they wouldn't THINK of doing it again.