Serial killers

captureAfterward, when the dust has settled and the killer of our worst fears is dead, what so many want to know is why.

Robert Hansen, the “Butcher Baker;” Israel Keyes, the bi-coastal serial killer finally caught in Alaska; and now James Ritchie.

Why? Why? Why?

What drives the madness to start humans hunting and killing their own for the sick fun of it? Some of the media has been in recent days chasing that question as regards Ritchie, the latest of these almost unimaginable monsters.

Anchorage law enforcement authorities have yet to officially label Ritchie a serial killer, but their investigation is proceeding as if they believe he is. Ritchie was killed while in possession of a .357-caliber handgun linked to five Anchorage murders, and police here have asked others around the country to search their files for bullets that might match that gun or killings like those to which Ritchie appears linked.

Four of the victims were killed on or near Anchorage bike paths, and in the fifth case, the only one to which police have publicly linked Ritchie, the dead mans’ bike was stolen.

Who was James Dale Ritchie? headlined above a story in which an unidentified former classmate from Ritchie’s school days in Anchorage was quoted as saying “he was the kinda guy everybody liked.”

The story went on to detail Ritchie’s downward spiral after graduating from East High in 1994: Drugs, jail, burglary,more jail.  The story sheds no real light on what drove Ritchie, who died in a hail of bullets after a policeman tried to question him as a possible witness to another crime.

Ritchie’s response to being approached by patrolman Arn Salao was to pull a gun and open fire. Salao was seriously wounded but returned fire. Another officer responded as well. They shot and killed Ritchie. Salao is now recovering from his wounds

And everyone is left to wonder what drove Ritchie? Why would he do this?

Why? Why? Why?

A question with no answer

The sad answer to the Ritchie conundrum is that there is no answer.

After a Serial Murder Symposium about a decade ago, a team of experts pulled together by the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) wrote a lengthy analysis of serial murders .

They agreed that all of them were psychopaths, but that was about it.

“Psychopathy is a personality disorder manifested in people who use a mixture of charm, manipulation, intimidation, and occasionally violence to control others, in order to satisfy their own selfish needs,” the report notes, “(but) all psychopaths do not become serial murderers.

“Rather, serial murderers may possess some or many of the traits consistent with psychopathy. Psychopaths who commit serial murder do not value human life and are extremely callous in their interactions with their victims. This is particularly evident in sexually motivated serial killers who repeatedly target, stalk, assault, and kill without a sense of remorse. However, psychopathy alone does not explain the motivations of a serial killer.”

Not to mention that no one really knows how a psychopath is created.

Clearly, there is a genetic component to it, notes the neuroscientist Berit Oskar Brogaard, but social factors enter the equation as well. Writing in Psychology Today magazine, she suggests nature might account for 60 percent of the blueprint, but that leaves 40 percent to nurture.

And what happens in the nurture part of the old nature versus nurture argument is horribly foggy.

“Social factors have some (even if only small) role to play in generating psychopathy. But after many years of investigating the minds of psychopaths, researchers have been unable to find any factors that could contribute to the development of psychopathic traits,” she writes. “…Serial killers like Charles Manson were abused and neglected as children, (but) the list of serial killers with a normal childhood is long. Famous serial killers such as Ted Bundy, Jeff Dahmer and Dennis Rader grew up in healthy households with supportive family members.”

Hunting ghosts

People like Ritchie once intrigued me. Like other journalists from a different time, I got into the reporting business because of the opportunity it offered to pursue one’s curiosities.

I was a reporter at the Juneau Empire in 1979 when two Juneau policemen were sent to investigate shots being fired on a city street. They walked into an ambush.

Louise Sorensen, a mailroom clerk for the Alaska Department of Revenue, was waiting with a semi-automatic rifle. He’d set himself up as a sniper at a second-floor window of his home. When patrolman Jimmy Earl Kennedy, 32 and traffic officer Richard J. Adair, 50, showed up, he shot and killed them both. Another officer was injured but survived.

Sorensen committed suicide when yet more police surrounded his house try to take him into custody.

Another reporter and I spent weeks after the shootings trying to figure out who Sorensen was and what drove him. There wasn’t much to find. He was 50 years old. He was a bit of a loner. He’d once been committed to a mental hospital.

There was no one who seemed to have any really insight into what made him tick, let alone why he’d decided to ambush two police officers.

By the time, the baker Hansen – Alaska’s most notorious serial killers – was caught, I was working at the Anchorage Daily News in the state’s largest city and got to watch Sheila Toomey, the kind of reporter Alaska badly needs more of today, try to unravel the workings of his twisted mind.

“Robert Hansen was a troubled child, a depressed teen, and consequently a mentally distraught adult,” she eventually wrote. The consequently might have been an overstatement. There are a lot of troubled children and depressed teens who grow up to be healthy adults.

“He had no self-esteem during his childhood years or as an adult,” she continued. “To compensate for this inadequacy he became a ‘great hunter’ in Alaska, winning trophies for his kills and therefore, winning the praise of the community. Eventually tiring of hunting wild game, he turned his attention to hunting human prey.

“He started out by stabbing his first victim to death as she tried to escape. It wasn’t long before his passion escalated into sadistic torture. He claims to have killed 17 women. Sadly, these young women were trapped and tortured, flown to his remote cabin in the wilderness; then let go to run for their lives only to be hunted down like wild game and shot. The ‘great hunter’ could not share his trophies now with the community, they would not bring him praise.”

It was all true and all sick, and Toomey didn’t get any closer to pinning down what went sideways in the brain of Hansen than I did trying to figure out went sideways in the brain of Sorensen.

We know so little

“Attendees at the Serial Murder Symposium agreed that there is no generic profile of a serial murderer,” that FBI monograph would summarize years later. “Serial killers differ in many ways, including their motivations for killing and their behavior at the crime scene. However, attendees did identify certain traits common to some serial murderers, including sensation seeking, a lack of remorse or guilt, impulsivity, the need for control, and predatory behavior. These traits and behaviors are consistent with the psychopathic personality disorder. Attendees felt it was very important for law enforcement and other professionals in the criminal justice system to understand psychopathy and its relationship to serial murder.”

The monograph makes for interesting reading even if it focuses as much on what serial killers aren’t as what they are.

“The relative rarity of serial murder combined with inaccurate, anecdotal information and fictional portrayals of serial killers has resulted in the following common myths and misconceptions regarding serial murder,” it says:

“Myth: Serial killers are all dysfunctional loners.

“Myth: Serial killers are all white males.

“Myth: Serial killers are only motivated by sex.

“Myth: Serial killers cannot stop killing.

“Myth: All serial murderers travel and operate interstate.

“Myth: All Serial killers are insane or are evil geniuses.

“Myth: Serial killers want to get caught.”

There’s probably a myth on that list to fit everyone’s preconception of what a serial killer is supposed to be. I admit that up until the time I read the monograph I believed that serial killers cannot stop killing, that murder is to them an over-powering obsession, an addiction that can only be cured with a fix.

And it is only in fairly recent times – with the discovery of killers Dennis Rader in Kansas in 2005, and Jeffery Gorton in Michigan in 2002 – that authorities encountered serial killers who stopped. Rader terrorized Witchita from 1974 to 1991. He killed 10 people and sought to publicize what he’d done.

After one killing, he called police to report it. After another, he wrote a poem about the murder that he sent to a newspaper. Apparently not satisfied with that, he sent a letter to a television station.

He stopped his killing spree in the late 1970s, but surfaced again in 1985 only to disappear entirely in 1991. Thirteen years later, the Boy Scout troop leader and active member of his local church, was finally caught after he began anonymously bragging to media and law enforcement about his past crimes.

Forensic psychologist Dr. Katherine Ramsland earlier this year published a book about Rader: “Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer.”

It revealed a lot, and it revealed nothing.

“Rader worked with Dr. Ramsland because he wanted her to uncover the thing inside him that made him ‘go dark,’ an element that he calls ‘Factor X’. But like most serial killers who talk to the press, he doesn’t like that it wasn’t that hard,” Rolling Stone’s Hannah Murphy reported in September. “He wants it to be this intense, deep mystery that no one will ever quite access. So instead, (Ramsland) helped him pick himself apart. They watched documentaries and read analyses of other serial killers, to try to give him the vocabulary and frame of reference to create his ‘guided biography,’ that walks us through his childhood fears and titillations, his sexual obsessions, the red flags that revealed his violent and narcissistic behavior.

“For her part, Dr. Ramsland is confident that “Factor X” is less of a mystery than Rader imagines. ‘I call it the trajectory toward violence,’ she explains. It’s the combination of his unique sexual impulses, desire for fame, and delusions of a spy-like double life, she says, intersecting with his fantasy life and, most practically, the opportunity to commit the murders.”

None of which really tells us anything about how a quiet and polite high  school student who enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1996, rose to the rank of sergeant, earned the good conduct medal, was honorably discharged, got married, went back to school, earned an associate degree in electronics, and again went back to school to get his bachelor’s degree decided to murder an entire family of four in 1974, including children ages 9 and 11.

And thus began Rader’s killing spree.

Ramsland might not think that “Factor X” a mystery, but without it, none of the abnormal behavior of serial killers makes any sense. What kind of sick, overpowering obsession is it that gives them a thrill? What neurological misfiring drives it? What biochemistry kicks it off?

And most of all, how do we, as a species, identify and eliminate the causative factors? That’s the truly big and fundamental question.

How do we stop “the guy everybody liked” from becoming the next Jame Ritchie?






6 replies »

  1. Craig,
    I agree with you that childhood stressors or (ACES) as they are now called in the therapy world do not necessarily lead to a poor adult life….I am currently reading “Season of the Witch” by David Talbot and it is very relevant to this discussion on serial killers/mass murderers.
    Dan White was a supervisor in S.F. that decided one day to murder the mayor and one of his fellow city hall supervisors (he was currently on the board at the time of the killings)…he was ex-military just like Israel and many other mass murders/ serial killers in U.S.
    Another key part of the Talbot story speaks how Dianne Feinstein had a very difficult childhood with a Russian mother that had mental issues and abused her mentally and physically, well she went on to a very successful political (and real estate) career.
    I believe society has to realize the amount of soldiers returning to the homeland with PTSD and work more to help them….as well as end foreign wars for oil among other things…
    Good story, I am still wondering if James or his father had any military or government experience, since a Google search showed he once lived very close to Quantico in Virginia?

  2. Hansen had terrible acne and stuttered as a young boy- and was ridiculed for it, bullied and rejected. Instead of getting him help, his mother beat him. His behavior started with vandalism- burning school bus barn for example. More cries for help. So many places along the “nurture chain” where perhaps he could have been helped. Perhaps one caring adult could have altered that course of horrific events. We just never know the range of our efforts and too often don’t even try. Hurt and powerless children grow into hurt and reactive adults.

    • parenting is the most undervalued activity in this state, Mary. a bad childhood certainly handicaps kids in all sorts of ways. but there’s no concrete evidence that it flips the switch to turn them into psychopaths. i know some people who had pretty awful childhoods to grew up to be successful and, better yet, good nurturing parents, which is the kind of parent with which i wish everyone was blessed.

    • thank you, Pat. hard working without a net and spell check is only sometimes your friend. it appears it did make things consistent. crowd-source copy editing always appreciated.

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