Much of the information that the public knows about serial murderers has come from Hollywood movies and television programs, which have been exaggerated and dramatized for entertainment purposes, resulting in a significant amount of misinformation.
But it's not only the public that has fallen prey to inaccurate information concerning serial killers. The media and even law enforcement professionals, who have limited experience with serial murder, often believe the myths generated by the fictional portrayals in movies.
According to the FBI, this can hinder investigations when there is a serial killer loose in the community. The FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit has published a report, "Serial Murder - Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators," which attempts to dispel some of the myths about serial killers.
According to the report, these are some of the common myths about serial killers:
Myth: Serial Killers Are All Misfits and Loners
Most serial killers can hide in plain sight because they look just like everyone else with jobs, nice homes, and families. Because they often blend into society, they are overlooked. Here are some examples:
- John Eric Armstrong confessed to killing prostitutes in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, and to 12 other murders that he committed around the world while he was in the Navy. He was a former U.S. Navy sailor known for being a good neighbor, who was a committed husband and devoted father to his 14-month-old son. He worked at Target retail stores and later with the Detroit Metropolitan Airport refueling airplanes.
- Dennis Rader, known as the BTK Killer, murdered 10 people in Wichita, Kansas, over a 30-year period. He was married with two children, a Boy Scout leader, employed as a local government official and was the president of his church congregation.
- Gary Ridgway, known as the Green River Killer, confessed to killing 48 women over a 20-year period in the Seattle, Washington, area. He was married, held the same job for 32 years, attended church regularly and read his Bible at home and work.
- Robert Yates killed 17 prostitutes in the 1990s in the Spokane, Washington, area. He was married, had five children, lived in a middle-class neighborhood and was a decorated U.S. Army National Guard helicopter pilot.
Myth: Serial Killers Are All White Males
The racial background of known serial killers generally matches the racial diversification of the overall U.S. population, according to the report.
- Charles Ng, a native of Hong Kong, China, possibly tortured and killed as many as 25 people with his partner, Robert Lake.
- Derrick Todd Lee, a black man from Louisiana, killed at least six women in Baton Rouge.
- Coral Eugene Watts, a black man from Michigan, known as the Sunday Morning Slasher, killed 17 people in Michigan and Texas.
- Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, a Mexican national, killed nine people in Kentucky, Texas, and Illinois.
- Rory Conde, a Colombian native, murdered six prostitutes in the Miami area.
Myth: Sex Motivates Serial Killers
Although some serial killers are motivated by sex or power over their victims, many have other motivations for their murders. Some of these include anger, thrill-seeking, financial gain, and attention seeking.
- D.C. Area Sniper, John Allen Muhammad, and Lee Boyd Malvo killed 10 people to cover up the fact that Muhammad's eventual target was his wife.
- Dr. Michael Swango was convicted of four murders in the U.S. but may have poisoned as many as 50 people in the United States and Africa. The motivation for his murders was never determined.
- Paul Reid killed at least seven people during robberies of fast-food restaurants in Tennessee. His motive for the robberies was financial gain. He killed the employees to eliminate witnesses.
Myth: All Serial Murderers Travel and Operate in Multiple States
Most serial killers operate within a "comfort zone" and definite geographic area. Very few serial killers travel between states to kill.
- Ronald Dominique of Houma, Louisiana, confessed to murdering 23 men in nine years and dumping their bodies in sugarcane fields, ditches, and small bayous in six southeast Louisiana parishes near his home.
Of those who do travel interstate to murder, most fall into these categories:
- Individuals who constantly move from place to place.
- Homeless transients.
- Individuals whose employment lends itself to interstate or transnational travel, such as truck drivers or those in military service. Rodney Alcala murdered women in both L.A. and New York because he lived in both cities at different times.
Because of their traveling lifestyle, these serial killers have many comfort zones.
- Randolph Kraft, known as the Freeway Killer, was a serial rapist, torturer, and killer who murdered at least 16 young males from 1972 through 1983 throughout California, Oregon, and Michigan. He was linked to 40 additional unsolved murders through a cryptic list found during his arrest. Kraft worked in the computer field, and he spent a lot of time on business trips to Oregon and Michigan.
Myth: Serial Killers Cannot Stop Killing
Sometimes circumstances will change in a serial killer's life causing them to stop killing before they are caught. The FBI report said the circumstances could include increased participation in family activities, sexual substitution, and other diversions.
- Dennis Rader, the BTK killer, murdered 10 people from 1974 to 1991 and then did not kill again until he was caught in 2005. He told investigators that he engaged in auto-erotic activities to substitute for killing.
- Jeffrey Gorton killed his first victim in 1986 and his second victim five years later. He did not kill again until 2002 when he was caught. According to the FBI, Gorton engaged in cross-dressing and masturbation, as well as consensual sex with his wife between the murders.
Myth: All Serial Killers Are Insane or Monsters With Exceptional Intelligence
In spite of fictionalized serial killers in the movies who outsmart law enforcement and avoid capture and conviction, the truth is that most serial killers test from borderline to above average intelligence.
Another myth is that serial killers have a debilitating mental condition. As a group, they do suffer from a variety of personality disorders, but very few are found legally insane when they go to trial.
The serial killer as an "evil genius" is mostly a Hollywood invention, the report said.
Myth: Serial Killers Want to Be Stopped
The law enforcement, academic and mental health experts who developed the FBI serial killer report said that as serial killers gain experience with killing, they gain confidence with each offense. They develop a feeling that they will never be identified and never be caught.
But killing someone and disposing of their body is not an easy task. As they gain confidence in the process, they can begin to take shortcuts or make mistakes. These mistakes can lead to them being identified by law enforcement.
It is not that they want to get caught, the study said, it's that they feel that they cannot get caught.