Serial killers - where are they now?

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Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by Bird on a Fire » Thu Oct 07, 2021 6:06 pm

Inspired by the other thread.

My impression is that in the "old days" (second half of the twentieth century" there were lots of serial killers - Ted Bundy and Peter Sutcliffe were mentioned, plus there were other weird unpleasant individuals like the Zodiac killer and various Night Stalkers and Fred West.

I can't think of many more recent ones, except for Harold Shipman and that "crossbow cannibal" guy (forgot his real name).

My question is, am I right in thinking fewer serial killers are apprehended these days, and if so why?

Do they get caught first time, because conviction rates are up?

Do they never get caught?

Is media reporting of active cases less sensationalised?

Are fewer people actually serial killers now, and if so why? Unleaded petrol? Less trauma from war?

I find a lot of true crime a bit unpleasantly prurient when it shades into mythologising people who were usually horrible and brutal but by no means geniuses or particularly unique. But I'm up for some stats.
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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by Woodchopper » Thu Oct 07, 2021 6:34 pm

Yes, there did seem to be more serial killers in the 70s and 80s.

If there has been a decline the most obvious explanation is technology.

Forensic science is far more advanced, particularly the ability to trace DNA from minute particles found at a crime scene. So the presence of a killer at multiple murders could be discovered and the DNA used in court.

People also have mobile phones which mean that they can call for help, video or photograph someone who appears to be suspicions, and their location can be tracked (so long as its switched on).

Ubiquitous CCTV also means that an individual who was close to several crime scenes or victims could be identified. Use of facial recognition will make it even harder to avoid detection.

So overall, its far more risky to be a serial killer now than it was in the 1970s. If you're watching a police show set in the 2020s they usually have to write into the plot an explanation for why they don't just quickly solve the murder via DNA etc.

Serial killers could outwit all the above by having a good reason to be so close to lots of dead people (eg a doctor), or finding a way to kill people without anyone noticing (either people who are expected to die anyway, or people who aren't reported missing).

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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by plodder » Thu Oct 07, 2021 8:35 pm

yeah, training to be a doctor is a very roundabout career path to be a serial killer.

Does challenge the pathology behind it a bit though, presumably a serial killer wouldn’t stop just because they were in prison?

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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by Stranger Mouse » Thu Oct 07, 2021 8:54 pm

It strikes me that kidnapping and/or killing people seem o be the crimes that are most likely to result in you leaving DNA traces and also most likely to maximise the police resources used to track you.
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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by monkey » Thu Oct 07, 2021 8:56 pm

Woodchopper wrote:
Thu Oct 07, 2021 6:34 pm
Yes, there did seem to be more serial killers in the 70s and 80s.

If there has been a decline the most obvious explanation is technology.

Forensic science is far more advanced, particularly the ability to trace DNA from minute particles found at a crime scene. So the presence of a killer at multiple murders could be discovered and the DNA used in court.

People also have mobile phones which mean that they can call for help, video or photograph someone who appears to be suspicions, and their location can be tracked (so long as its switched on).

Ubiquitous CCTV also means that an individual who was close to several crime scenes or victims could be identified. Use of facial recognition will make it even harder to avoid detection.

So overall, its far more risky to be a serial killer now than it was in the 1970s. If you're watching a police show set in the 2020s they usually have to write into the plot an explanation for why they don't just quickly solve the murder via DNA etc.

Serial killers could outwit all the above by having a good reason to be so close to lots of dead people (eg a doctor), or finding a way to kill people without anyone noticing (either people who are expected to die anyway, or people who aren't reported missing).
Looking at the US (where most serial killers seem to be, as per your link), it seems the proportion of murders "cleared" has decreased since the 70s - (I haven't got a direct source for the graph, but this claims to come from the FBI's stats - clicky). This could mean you are less likely to be caught you used to be. However, "cleared" just means arrested and charged, not convicted, so the police might just be better at being sure they've got the right guy before putting them in jail to await trial, which presumably would also be aided by better technology and policing methods (fewer false positives). That makes sense to me, but that would be a lot of wrongful arrests in the 60's, 70's and 80's, and presumably wrongful convictions too.

Also, the number of serial killers seems to track the number of murders (roughly at least, I didn't check properly) despite serial murders being a fairly small percentage of the total. People have debated about the causes of that since they first noticed it, along with crime falling in general too. It's plausible that the same cause might be behind both which may not be wholly about methods of policing and detection, but also culture being less violent and crimey than it used to be for some reason*. There could be a bit of a chicken and egg thing there though.


*I think I've written that sentence pretty badly, hope people know what I'm getting at.

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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by Millennie Al » Fri Oct 08, 2021 1:24 am

The science supporting investigations has improved dramatically in the last part of the 20th century. I would guess that a significant number of serial killers got caught because they couldn't take precautions against techniques that had not been invented when they started killing. If that is the case, the rate of solving cases would be expected to go down (essentially, getting back to normal) unless the science keeps advancing. And some advances are much more predictable than others - introduction of DNA testing would have been very unexpected, but increasing accuracy and ability to match ever smaller samples is easily predictable.
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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by nezumi » Fri Oct 08, 2021 6:55 am

plodder wrote:
Thu Oct 07, 2021 8:35 pm
yeah, training to be a doctor is a very roundabout career path to be a serial killer.

Does challenge the pathology behind it a bit though, presumably a serial killer wouldn’t stop just because they were in prison?
Interesting point you make there. My understanding is that the murder is tied up in a specific fantasy (usually) and therefore in prison the SK doesn't have access to their preferred victims. If they end up on Death Row they have access to no victims at all. This explains a lot of that trend.

Otherwise they are just being watched a LOT. They also tend not to join the type of cliques you find in prison (they are sex offenders in the main so not acceptable anyway) so they don't have the advantage of numbers that other inmates would have. I suspect that, even if they did want to carry on killing, there's not a lot of opportunity in prison.
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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by Woodchopper » Fri Oct 08, 2021 8:56 am

plodder wrote:
Thu Oct 07, 2021 8:35 pm
yeah, training to be a doctor is a very roundabout career path to be a serial killer.
It seems like pedophiles trained to be priests or teachers so they could get access to victims. But I don’t know whether doctors like Shipman or nurses like Elizabeth Wettlaufer started out with the intention of killing or whether they were tempted later.

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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by plodder » Fri Oct 08, 2021 10:45 am

I suspect they had proclivities early on, serial killing doesn't sound like something you'd stumble into.

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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by nezumi » Fri Oct 08, 2021 11:36 am

Serial murder is probably the hardest crime to solve. It's usually stranger on stranger with the perpetrator taking extreme measures to avoid being caught. Most of the time it is dumb luck when they are. I strongly doubt we're catching that many more than we used to because serial killers also watch stuff like CSI. The smart ones know to wear gloves, condoms, not use their own car, not use their card to pay for supplies and so on. Body disposal is a tricky one but even in built-up Britain there are plenty of places nobody would ever find a body dump. We in Britain and Western Europe almost certainly have fewer serial killers per capita than other less built-up, less surveilled societies but they do exist and there definitely is more than one actively killing and not being caught right now as we speak.
plodder wrote:
Fri Oct 08, 2021 10:45 am
I suspect they had proclivities early on, serial killing doesn't sound like something you'd stumble into.
You're absolutely right there. There's quite a body of evidence for a slope towards serial killing. Obviously that depends on where exactly the killer started out, for example, a burglar with serial killy tendencies would usually graduate on the attacking people in their own homes as opposed to someone whose history was violence in public places they would graduate on to killing in public places. There's almost always a previous criminal history but you can't point to a particular burglar or mugger and say "that one's going to end up a serial killer" because it's that rare. Most serial killers have a history that you can point to in retrospect and say "well, obviously they were going to end up murdery" but it's not something you can say in foresight.

There are a lot of risk factors for serial murder including such gems as childhood ODD, early sexual deviance, sociopathy and other disorders (including, sadly, schizophrenia), having been abused as a child and brain injury/tumor/maldevelopment. The old triad of bedwetting, arson and mistreatment of animals do occur in many cases but often this is due to having been abused in childhood and/or brain damage. Having said that, even people who have all of the risk factors almost certainly won't end up being a serial killer but equally there are plenty of serial killers who ostensibly have none of them.

In conclusion: Yes there is a history of escalating violence and paraphilia in the majority of serial killers but it doesn't have predictive power.
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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by IvanV » Fri Oct 08, 2021 12:17 pm

monkey wrote:
Thu Oct 07, 2021 8:56 pm
Looking at the US (where most serial killers seem to be, as per your link), it seems the proportion of murders "cleared" has decreased since the 70s - (I haven't got a direct source for the graph, but this claims to come from the FBI's stats - clicky). This could mean you are less likely to be caught you used to be. However, "cleared" just means arrested and charged, not convicted, so the police might just be better at being sure they've got the right guy before putting them in jail to await trial, which presumably would also be aided by better technology and policing methods (fewer false positives). That makes sense to me, but that would be a lot of wrongful arrests in the 60's, 70's and 80's, and presumably wrongful convictions too.

Also, the number of serial killers seems to track the number of murders (roughly at least, I didn't check properly) despite serial murders being a fairly small percentage of the total. People have debated about the causes of that since they first noticed it, along with crime falling in general too. It's plausible that the same cause might be behind both which may not be wholly about methods of policing and detection, but also culture being less violent and crimey than it used to be for some reason*. There could be a bit of a chicken and egg thing there though.


*I think I've written that sentence pretty badly, hope people know what I'm getting at.
There's some more disaggregated data here, with some brief discussion. NBC: solved murder rates by race and location

Some places still have very high solved murder rates, they tend to be places like Idaho. Things get worse in places like Washington DC, Illinois, NY, etc. And where things are getting worse, the solution of murders of blacks is notably worse too.

My suspicion would be that gang violence/organised crime has become a higher proportion of homicides in such places, as other kinds of homicides - family disputes etc - get rarer. And violence is inevitably higher in more marginalised parts of society.

There's been discussion of the kind of serial killers who is a psychotically disturbed individual who does it for the kicks. But I think there is another kind of serial killer who might be an organised crime enforcer.

There is an alleged serial killer awaiting trial atmo in UK called Lucy Letby. She is a nurse. She is charged with 8 murders and 10 attempted murders of babies in a hospital. It goes against all our ingrained ideas of who might be a serial killer.

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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by purplehaze » Fri Oct 08, 2021 5:03 pm


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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by Iron Magpie » Fri Oct 08, 2021 11:00 pm

If it is true that most serial killer investigations look heavily toward the killers first victim as that is where most mistakes are likely to have been made then could that in itself provide the answer? That serial killers in the making are getting caught on their first offence?
Just an idea....

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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by sTeamTraen » Fri Oct 08, 2021 11:27 pm

I don't know about serial killers (as in, those who kill 2 or is it 3 people in separate incidents), but my impression is that compared to the 1970s and 1980s, there seem to be far fewer stories of brutal murders of children or women by strangers. My recollection is that in the 70s there was some kind of story about a schoolgirl or young woman getting killed on the way home every few months in the tabloids, whereas since Rachel Nickell and Suzy Lamplugh there seem to be far fewer of these cases that hit the headlines (with Sarah Everard being a tragic recent exception). But I'm not sure whether or not there are in fact fewer such crimes, or they just get less publicity for some reason, or it's just that I'm not paying attention. I don't know if there are any published statistics on this.
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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by Tessa K » Sat Oct 09, 2021 7:46 am

IvanV wrote:
Fri Oct 08, 2021 12:17 pm

There is an alleged serial killer awaiting trial atmo in UK called Lucy Letby. She is a nurse. She is charged with 8 murders and 10 attempted murders of babies in a hospital. It goes against all our ingrained ideas of who might be a serial killer.

It is a lot easier to get away with it if you're female and/or a POC as the stereotype is white and male, at least in Western society. From TV we learn that you're less likely to be caught if you don't have a specific type of victim, don't kill in a distinctive style and choose random locations away from your local area.

It's interesting to compare killers on different continents. This lists ten notorious Indian serial killers - two of them are women

https://www.scrolldroll.com/10-notoriou ... -in-india/

and some African ones, including two women

https://owaahh.com/7-most-brutal-africa ... l-killers/

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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by dyqik » Fri Oct 15, 2021 6:26 pm

Tessa K wrote:
Sat Oct 09, 2021 7:46 am
IvanV wrote:
Fri Oct 08, 2021 12:17 pm

There is an alleged serial killer awaiting trial atmo in UK called Lucy Letby. She is a nurse. She is charged with 8 murders and 10 attempted murders of babies in a hospital. It goes against all our ingrained ideas of who might be a serial killer.

It is a lot easier to get away with it if you're female and/or a POC as the stereotype is white and male, at least in Western society. From TV we learn that you're less likely to be caught if you don't have a specific type of victim, don't kill in a distinctive style and choose random locations away from your local area.
OTOH, there have been a number of cases of highly flawed accusations and convictions of multiple killings against women/women of color healthcare workers, where there's good evidence that the accusations were based on a mix of statistical flukes/bad statistics and antipathy to them.

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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by monkey » Fri Oct 15, 2021 6:59 pm

IvanV wrote:
Fri Oct 08, 2021 12:17 pm
There's been discussion of the kind of serial killers who is a psychotically disturbed individual who does it for the kicks. But I think there is another kind of serial killer who might be an organised crime enforcer.
Sorry, meant to respond to this bit and forgot. The thread bump has reminded me.

Yes, there is a disparity between how the FBI define a serial killer and what the general public think a serial killer is. I guess motive (if known or suspected) might be something you could sort by.

But you get the same thing with mass shootings too. In the US these mostly only local* news stories when they are related to crime/gangs, even when there are multiple deaths. Here's last years list clicky. 696 shootings, more than one a day.


*Local can mean statewide to me.

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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by Aoui » Sat Oct 16, 2021 9:52 pm

I have no idea the numbers, but an insane number of black and indigenous women go missing in the U.S. every year. White females get all the media attention, but I see new pictures of FB almost daily of indigenous women who families are searing for and they often are never found. (I see them because I have a fair number of Comanche, Kiowa and Cherokee friends and a few woke non-indigenous friends...but otherwise I'd never see those pictures) The police just don't give a rats a lot of the time. Non-indigenous people can go onto Indian land or reservations and do what they will (this happens more than you would imagine) and tribes can do nothing about it and the states don't care. Either there are an unbelievable number or people who kill just one indigenous woman or there are more serial killers than anyone has bothered to imagine. People just don't seem to care much when minorities go missing and never show up again...

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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by Fishnut » Sat Oct 16, 2021 10:26 pm

Native Women's Wilderness has some statistics on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women in the USA. These include,
- As of 2016, the National Crime Information Center has reported 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls
- Indigenous women have a murder rate 10x higher than any other ethnicity
- According to the Center for Disease Control, murder is the 3rd leading cause of death for Indigenous women

I don't know how regularly the webpage is updated but they have a list of States with publicly available reports or statistics identifying the number of murdered and missing indigenous women. There are only 13 that did when they last checked.

Canada had a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls which published its findings in 2019. I've had a skim through the Executive Summary (in itself a 121-page document) but can find no actual statistics in it. This may simply be me missing them, but it may also be that after all that work they still haven't quantified the scale of the problem.

Australia, disappointingly but not hugely surprisingly, doesn't seem to even be attempting to quantify the situation. I found this ABC investigative report from 2019 with some awful statistics, but the most awful aspect was the police/government agencies aren't even capturing the data that would be needed to quantify things.
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Re: Serial killers - where are they now?

Post by Tessa K » Sun Oct 17, 2021 10:27 am

Fishnut wrote:
Sat Oct 16, 2021 10:26 pm
Native Women's Wilderness has some statistics on Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women in the USA. These include,
- As of 2016, the National Crime Information Center has reported 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls
- Indigenous women have a murder rate 10x higher than any other ethnicity
- According to the Center for Disease Control, murder is the 3rd leading cause of death for Indigenous women

I don't know how regularly the webpage is updated but they have a list of States with publicly available reports or statistics identifying the number of murdered and missing indigenous women. There are only 13 that did when they last checked.

Canada had a National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls which published its findings in 2019. I've had a skim through the Executive Summary (in itself a 121-page document) but can find no actual statistics in it. This may simply be me missing them, but it may also be that after all that work they still haven't quantified the scale of the problem.

Australia, disappointingly but not hugely surprisingly, doesn't seem to even be attempting to quantify the situation. I found this ABC investigative report from 2019 with some awful statistics, but the most awful aspect was the police/government agencies aren't even capturing the data that would be needed to quantify things.
There's a crossover here with the violence against women thread, sadly.

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