Serial Killer Characteristics

September 2, 2008

The FBI has created a  list of different characteristics to identify serial killers.  In order to be classified a serial killer, murderers  must have 15 out of 21 of the characteristics; they must be methodical with their killings, killing three or more people over a period of time, spanning at least 30 days.  It’s fascinating to peek into the minds of serial killers, who are the most abhorrent examples of human kind.


Charles Starkweather and Elmer Wayne Henley represent opposing sides of the serial killer spectrum.


Charles grew up being bullied and teased because of a birth defect (bowed legs) and speech impediment. Abuse and alienation are typical precursors to the violent acts of these men and women, however, they are not always present.  Conversely, not all abused or alienated children become killers.  Charles also had a need to control others and be powerful.  According to a high school friend, Bob Von Busch “He could be mean as hell, cruel. If he saw some poor guy on the street who was bigger than he was, better looking, or better dressed, he’d try to take the poor bastard down to his size.”


84% of American serial killers are caucasian, 90% are male and 86% are heterosexual. 


When Charles was 18 years old, he began dating 14 year old Caril Ann Fugate  He quit school and took a job near Caril.  He was poor worker, considered slow and unintelligent.  The pair proved to be a deadly combination. Starkweather went to visit Caril and while she was out,  he argued with and shot her mother and stepfather. Once Caril arrived home, Starkweather strangled, and stabbed her two-year-old sister. He hid the bodies behind the house. The two stayed in the house for six more days, turning people away with a note taped to the door that read: “Stay a Way Every Body is sick with the Flue.”


Caril Ann’s grandmother called the police and the two murderers became fugitives, embarking on a killing spree across Nebraska and into Wyoming.  They were eventually apprehended, but left ten bodies in their wake. It is likely that Charles would have killed no matter what provocation, however, fueled by an ill fated romance, he became a notorious spree killer, classified as a serial killer because of a robbery and murder which occurred weeks earlier.


The pair’s story has inspired authors, including Stephen King who incorporated many variations on Starkweather in his work. The character The Kid, who appears in the complete and uncut edition of The Stand, is meant to be a reincarnated Charles Starkweather.  Starkweather also inspired the films The Sadist, Badlands, Starkweather, Murder in the Heartland , The Frighteners and Natural Born Killers.


84% of American killers are Caucasian and 89% of their victims are white. 16% of serial killers are black.


Unlike Charles,  Dean Corll was methodical and meticulous.  He was killed by an accomplice, Elmer Wayne Henley, aged 17.   Henley confessed to the rape and murder of twenty seven young boys and admits he recruited the victims for Corll.  Henley explained that he and another boy, David Brooks, procured boys for Corll to rape and murder for a finder’s fee of $200.


Serial killers tend to be intelligent with IQ’s in the “bright normal” range, however, they often do poorly in school, are unable to hold down jobs and often work as unskilled laborers.


Corll did not present many of the characteristics identified by the FBI. He had an unremarkable childhood, marred only by the divorce of his parents. He did well in school and was described as well behaved and polite.  Corll was drafted into the military and  discharged a year later so he could return home to help his mother.  She owned a candy business, which gave Corll access to children (he handed out samples and was known as the Candy Man.)


Many serial killers engage in sadistic activity at a young age, torturing animals or abusing younger children.  24% kill their first victim while in their thirties, 44% start in their twenties and 26% start in their teens.


Corll’s death left many questions unanswered.  Many families will never know for certain if their son was a victim to Corll or some other predator prowling the streets.  In all likelihood, Henley and Brooks would have branched out on their own given the chance.  Thankfully,  both were found guilty of murder for their participation in the crimes and are serving 99 years in prison.  Brooks was sentenced to 99 years – opposed to the six consecutive 99-year terms Henley received. Henley became eligible for parole in 1983.


More Statistics

The USA has 76% of the world’s serial killers. California leads the US with the most Serial Homicide cases, followed by Texas, New York, Illinois and Florida.  Maine has the lowest occurences (none) while Hawaii, Montana, North Dakota, Delaware and Vermont have each had only one case of serial murder.

Europe in second, has 17%.  Of these, 28% are from England, 27% from Germany and 13% from France.

65% of victims are female.


How to Write

True Crime Stories

 How Serial Killers Work




Governor Eliot Spitzer busted in a prostitution sting

March 11, 2008

I was watching the news last night and saw a headline story that sounded more like the plot of John Grisham political thriller than real life.  The scrolling ticker on the screen shouted “New York Governor Eliot Spitzer busted in a prostitution sting!”    

Imagine this story in the hands of a competent writer – full of intrigue and subterfuge. If you’re writing in this genre, you can review this True Crime Story and model the investigation and political fall out.   

The Characters

New York Gov. Spitzer cultivated a reputation of a straight laced, corruption busting prosecutor and politician.  He defended the everyman on Wall Street, taking on the big shots who weren’t playing fair.  As attorney general he was named “Crusader of the Year” by Time magazine in 2002 and as governor, he was known as “Mr Clean.”  He is married and has three daughters.  His wife Silda stood by his side as he made a statement to the press. “I have disappointed and failed to live up to the standard I expected of myself…I must now dedicate some time to regain the trust of my family.”

The Plot

Spitzer is accused of meeting a prostitute in Washington, D.C the day before Valentine’s Day. His involvement in the prostitution ring was uncovered by the NY Times based on tip, after prosecutors arrested four people. Spitzer was not charged, however, he has been identified as “Client 9”.  Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap making arrangements to meet a prostitute from the Emperors Club. A prostitute known as “Kristen” is one of the defendants arrested in the sting.  She has given $4,300 in cash by Client 9, payment for her services and a down payment for future trysts.  The Emperors Club maintains a web site and advertises hourly rates for prostitutes rated one to seven diamonds. The highest ranked prostitutes cost $5,500 an hour.  The IRS initiated the investigation and then it was referred to the Public Corruption Unit of the US Attorney’s Office. There is some speculation that the hand off occurred when agents identified Spitzer. Spitzer has made several enemies on Wall Street and in political circles.  He once told a Republican legislative leader: “I’m a steamroller, and I’ll roll over you and anybody else.”  The news couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Democratic Party and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in particular. She is still fighting for the Democratic Presidential Candidacy.

The Plot Twists

Was he framed by a former nemesis?  A Wall Street power broker with access to millions sets up an elaborate trap, or blackmails an investigator who went bust.  Or is it a set up by a political advisory conspiring to sabotage the presidential election. 

Forensic Botanists Discover Clues to the Crime

February 25, 2008

Fiction writers need to be aware of the advances in forensic science and techniques for gathering and analyzing evidence so their stories are relevant in today’s market.  The following true crime story was featured on a show called Forensic Files which airs on TRU TV. I thought it was interesting because police investigations are becoming more sophisticated.  Shows like CSI dramatize the facts, but there are still elements of truth.   Fourteen year old Genna disappeared from her home and no one witnessed anything suspicious in the neighborhood.  The next day, her nude body was found in a ditch 20 miles outside of town.  The coroner determined cause of death was strangulation, however there were other injuries, including blunt force injuries to the head and post mortem pressure marks. These marks would normally fade quickly, but when the blood doesn’t circulate away from the pressure spot the color remains.  Police checked the Genna’s home, but found no signs of struggle.  Police began to check into alibis of Genna’s family, her mother, her older brother and her step father Doug.   Doug said he was at work in the morning, however, the security cameras were off that day.  He provided a second alibi, a fast food restaurant.  Amazingly, the fast food restaurant’s cameras weren’t working either, so police could not verify Doug’s alibi.  They searched his car and didn’t find any blood or signs the vehicle had been recently cleaned.  They did find plant material under the car.   Forensic Botanists examined the material and found yellow star thistle which was present at the crime scene and on the body.  Diagnostic characteristics are unique aspects of the plant which differentiate it from other plants of the same species, such as developmental life cycles of each plant.  The plant was too common to tie Doug to the crime scene. Police investigators returned to the marks on Genna’s body to find more evidence.  Photographs of the marks were sent to a Photogrammatrist, who was able to create a 3 dimensional image of the skin pattern and precise measurements of the object which created the marks.   Acting on a hunch, investigators placed a model, similar is size and weight to Genna, in a vehicle similar to Doug’s and found the pressure marks were made by a seat belt buckle and an edge of carpeting.  He was convicted, but maintains his innocence to date.

True Crime Stories – Women who kill

February 5, 2008

Most True Crime Stories you read involve men.  That’s because 93% of murders are committed by men but women are also capable of horrific acts.  Women are less violent then men due to brain anatomy.   The amygdala is used to assess threats and the Orbital Frontal Region is used to act on them. Men have a smaller Orbital Frontal Regions. 

Mothers and caregivers who are expected to nurture, but they murder instead. 

Jean Harris, a headmistress at a girl’s school, killed her lover in a crime of passion.  The majority of female killers kill loved ones.

MaryBeth Tinning killed her own children, three in the span of two months.  She thrived on the outpouring of sympathy she received.  As a child she received little attention, especially from her father.  He died without ever showing her the affection she craved.  Over the next three years, four more children would die, the cause of death deemed Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).  By 1981, suspicious grows when an adopted son dies and one more biological child. Nine Tinning Children died in 14 years.  She suffered from Munchausen by Proxy.  

According to KidshealthIn MBPS, an individual – usually a mother – deliberately makes another person (most often his or her own preschool child) sick or convinces others that the person is sick….Typically, the perpetrator feels satisfied when he or she has the attention and sympathy of doctors, nurses, and others who come into contact with him or her and the child. Some experts believe that it isn’t just the attention that’s gained from the “illness” of the child that drives this behavior, but there is satisfaction gained by the perpetrator in being able to deceive individuals that they consider to be more important and powerful than themselves.”

Susan Smith killed her two small boys and claimed they had been taken in a carjacking.  Smith exploited public sympathy but police were suspicious of her story.  Nine days after her sons’ disappearance, she confessed to drowning her sons by strapping them into their car seats and driving her car into a lake.  Susan Smith killed her children to continue an affair. 

Cathy Wood and Gwen Graham played a vicious game. The two work in as nurses in an elderly care center and begin to have an affair.  They planned to murder victims whose initials would spell MURDER.  The game was meant to draw the two together forever; however, Gwen left Cathy for another woman.  Cathy confessed their crimes to her ex husband and he went to the authorities.  Cathy testified for the persecution claiming Gwen was the mastermind behind the game.

Aileen Wuornos is the first female serial killer according to FBI profiles. She is unique for her method of killing and targeting stranger victims.  Many violent women studied had troubled childhoods, anti social behavior disorder and a history of substance abuse.  Wuornos was motivated by revenge against men, perhaps in response to rage from her adolescence, in which she claimed to have been raped.  

Belle Gunness murdered for financial benefit, murdering suitors and burying their dismembered bodies.

Nanny Doss poisoned four husbands. She is also suspected of killing her mother and two children.

Women are rarely sadistic killers. Teresa Knorr was an exception.  She was a controlling wife and mother. She shot her first husband during an argument and claimed self defense.  She married three more times and had five children.  Her children suffered torture at her hands, burned with cigarettes, stabbed, shot or locked in a freezer.  Suesan was shot and the wound became infected. Knorr took Susan to a field and set her on fire, burning her to death. Sheila was locked in a freezer and starved to death.     

True Crime Stories – Revenge Killers

February 3, 2008

Writers know there is a wealth of story ideas in daily headlines. True Crime Stories fascinate audiences and inspire writers who interweave fact with fiction.  Revenge killers are not satisfied until the objects of their anger are destroyed.   Coy Wayne Westbrook killed his estranged wife, Gloria, driven to a point of no return.  He was overcome with jealousy and rage when he witnessed Gloria having sex with a party guest.  He had no previous violent tendencies, yet the humiliation he endured that night resulted in the deaths of five people.    Coy suffered from dyslexia and dropped out of school, as a result, he suffered from low self esteem as an adult.    Anger that builds to uncontrollable rage may be a result of diminished brain function.  As areas of the brain are activated they use more oxygen.  Researchers can identify brain activity by monitoring isotopes delivered with oxygen to regions of the brain. The Orbital Frontal Cortex (OFC) is activated when subjects visualize their angriest moments.  However, some people have reduced levels of functionality in the OFC and they are unable to control their actions.  Revenge is a need to punish those who have hurt us.  In 1973, Archie Mccafferty discovered his infant son accidentally smothered to death by his wife, who rolled over on him in the night.  He fantasized about killing others to relieve his overwhelming grief.  He planned to kill seven people in a spree of vengeance.   He abducted and killed three victims, with no sympathy.  He planned to finish his spree by killing his wife and her family, but instead, he turned on one of his own gang members.  The gang member turned him in to authorities. Even incarcerated, he wanted to complete his mission to kill seven victims believing it would bring his son back to life.  Unlike Westbrook, Mccafferty had a history of violence. He was abused as a child and seemed destined for a life of crime. He was a thief and had been incarcerated for much of his youth. Mccafferty was released after 25 years in prison and is deported to Scotland, where he lives today.    Love seems to have destroyed and saved Mccafferty.  The connection between love and revenge is strong.  Having a loved one near by has been shown to help subject regulate stress and anxiety.      

Public Enemy # 1 – John Dillinger

January 25, 2008

We’ve all heard of the FBI, the agents depicted in books, movies and television. Sometimes it’s hard to separate the fact from fiction.  There was a time when the FBI was just a small, unknown department of the government instead of the law enforcement entity that creeps along the edges of our civil liberties.  Here is a little history about the FBI that writers can incorporate into their next novel.  At the very least, they’ll be able to impress friends at the next dinner party. 

Based on the documentary: 18 Months of Mayhem, January 2008  

June 17 1933, convicted bank robber, Frank Nash was on his way back to prison after he escaped. He never made it. Gunmen shot down Nash at the Kansas City Union Station, along with four officers and 2 others were injured.  Newspapers called it the Kansas City Massacre.  It was just the beginning of an 18 month crime spree.   The government appeared helpless to stem the tide of crime or the depression.  Law enforcement was local, town and county, with few state agencies and no Federal law enforcement. President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned to an understaffed unit of the government, the Federal Bureau of Investigations. 

J. Edgar Hoover was appointed head of the FBI and he staffed the bureau with agents who had little or no law enforcement experience. John Dillinger was an experienced criminal by the time he walked into a bank in Daleville, Indiana on July 17, 1933.  He was a high school drop out and military deserter when he robbed a shopkeeper.  He received 10 years in prison and he used the time to fine tune his criminal skills. He learned to case a bank for days or weeks, gathering information on security rounds, vault systems and escape routes.  Dillinger robbed small town banks, putting many out of business.   

John Dillinger

Oklahoma City July 22, 1933, Charles Hirshel was kidnapped by George Barnes, AKA Machine Gun Kelly.  Barnes was a college educated, middle class man who got involved in boot legging during the depression.  He and his wife, Katherine, collected $200,000 for Charles Hirshel just 8 days later.  Katherine’s mother was arrested in connection with the crime, so Katherine tried to make a deal to exchange George for her mother.  Even though the deal was refused, the FBI had a lead on the couple’s whereabouts. They were captured in Memphis, on September 26, 1933. 

George (Machine Gun Kelly) and Katherine Barnes

On September 22 in Dayton Ohio police moved in on a tip to apprehend Dillinger and he was taken in without a fight.  On October 12, he was busted out of jail by friends from prison. The men took police issue weapons and bullet proof vests from the police station.  Dillinger settled in Chicago, going to nightclubs and spending money lavishly.  He continued to rob banks in surrounding towns to finance his lifestyle. 

Masses of people were out of work and homeless. Farmers fled to the West, their farms seized by banks, their crops destroyed by drought.  The public began to romanticize the criminals and Dillinger made a point of keeping the people on his side, tearing up deeds and giving patrons cash from the robbery.  Movie heroes of the day were gangsters.  In January 1934, the nation got its first look at John Dillinger in movie theater news reels. He became a rock star of the era.  He had a likeable demeanor and played to the cameras. Dillinger was taken into custody again, but like Houdini, he was master escape artist.  He was on the cover of every newspaper in America.  Hoover and his national police force became a laughing stock and enhanced Dillinger’s legendary status.  Hoover issued a kill order for Dillinger.   

Without his gang, Dillinger began robbing banks with Baby Face Nelson. George Baby Face Nelson robbed banks, using a Thompson Sub Machine Gun and he didn’t hesitate to use it.   He was born Lester Gillis and spent most of his life institutionalized.  He earned an illegal living, moving moonshine and mugging people on the street.   

The FBI’s Chicago office became the largest field office, headed by Agent Melvin Purvis.  Receiving a tip that Dillinger was Wisconsin, a dozen agents were assembled and sent to apprehend him.  Three innocent bystanders were shot by overzealous agents, which alerted Dillinger and Nelson to the FBI’s presence.  After a brief shoot out, the criminals escaped.   Gangsters tried to remove their fingerprints with acid or attempt to reconstruct their faces to hide their identities.  Dillinger had surgery, and felt confident appearing in public, despite being named Public Enemy Number One and having a $15,000 reward issued for his capture.  

 Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were notorious partners in crime.  The two robbed mom and pop establishments, killing six men along the way. Clyde had spent hard time in prison and he vowed he would never go back. On July 19, 1933, in Platte City, Missouri, Bonnie and Clyde were armed with assault rifles and plenty of ammunition during a stand off with police.  They were able to escape. A local farmer spotted the gang days later in Iowa and notified law enforcement of the gang’s whereabouts.  Once again, the high fire power allows to the gang to escape capture.  

Bonnie and Clyde took on legendary status when photos of the two were leaked to the press. Tired of running, Bonnie and Clyde settled down, hoping for a new start.  Instead, a former gang member set a trap for Bonnie and Clyde in exchange for parole.  The two were killed in an ambush on May 23, 1934. 

Bonnie and Clyde

 Dillinger was shot execution style on July 22, 1934, by an agent coming out of a movie theater.  His death marked the end of the 18 month crime spree that swept through the nation.  The FBI became a recognized force in America. Only Machine Kelly wasn’t killed by law enforcement. 

Melvin Purvis resigned from the FBI after Dillinger’s death.        

Spree Killers

January 23, 2008

Spree killers target innocent bystanders, thrilling in the destruction of the public’s well being. Their acts of violence are motivated by revenge or a misguided need to be noticed.

On April 28, 1996, Martin Bryant opened fire at a popular café.  He killed 35 people and wounded 19 others in a single day.  Bryant was a troubled and tormented youth, lashing out in anger.   He lashed out in defense against bullying and was diagnosed with schizophrenia and mild retardation.  As a young adult he became isolated and desperate sought companionship, striking up conversations with random women.  His attempts were thwarted and he became angry at society in general and planned revenge.    After the shootings, Bryant fled to a nearby inn and was surrounded by police.  He set the inn on fire and was badly burned.  He recovered from his injuries and was sentenced to 35 life sentences after pleading guilty to murder.  

Martin Bryant

Social exclusion seems to be a common indicator in spree killers. Test subjects were tested to see the impact of social isolation and rejection.   After being rejected, subjects were asked to fill in blanks on several words.  Rejected subjects repeatedly choose violent words. 

On August 1st 1966, Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother, then packed a footlocker full of weapons and drove to the University of Austin.  From a clock tower on the college’s campus Whitman killed 15 people and wounded 31 others.  Whitman was raised in a physically abusive home. He left home at 15, joining the Army and was sent to the University of Texas on scholarship.  He married but struggled to overcome the violence of this past.   He was court martialed after a violent public outburst and his scholarship revoked.  He is ashamed of his behavior, but unable to control them. He wrote about his struggles in his journal and confessed his desire to kill bystanders from the clock tower to a psychiatrist.  After the attack, an autopsy was performed and a tumor was discovered.  

Charles Whitman

Borderline personality disorder is a mental illness that can cause impulsive behaviors, fits of rage or inappropriate emotions.  The amygdala is the part of the brain that regulates fear and anger.  Those with borderline personality disorder have heightened activity in the amygdala, which may inhibit an individual’s ability to control their rage.


19 year old Charles Starkweather and his 14 year old accomplice, Carol Fugate embarked on a killing spree after Starkweather killed Carol’s parents.  They claimed 10 victims, lashing out at any one who crossed their path.  Starkweather was an outcast at school, bullied and teased, he fantasized about revenge. Carol and Charles had a passionate affair and planned to marry, but her family stood in their way, so they were eliminated.  Starkweather shot Carol’s mother, stepfather and 2 year old sister then took their blood lust on the road.   They killed seven more people before they were apprehended. Carol Fugate claimed she was a hostage but both were convicted.

Charles Starkweather and Carol Fugate

Spree killers are becoming more deadly and methodical, attacking at schools, malls or other crowded public places.  Understanding the motives and traits will hopefully help law enforcement prevent tragic blood shed in the future.