Diritto Criminologia e criminalistica

Features of the Serial Killer Concepts and Topic

(di Maciej Szostak[i] e Sorin Alamoreanu[ii])  [iii]

Serial criminality: What is about it that fascinates as horrifies at the same time civilized humanity? It has been the source of many successful TV series, it has filled with horror and fear the public opinion. It is studied by scores of scientists, criminal investigators, psychologist and criminologists and still remain in it’s inner sanctum a great an frightening unknown of human criminal behavior.

Many still believe, under the influence of movies and books, that the persons investigating serial killer cases are rather gifted with extra-sensorial powers, so they can see in a paranormal strike. But it has been repeatedly said and proved that the “ serial killer hunting” is a painstaking team effort . Beyond the “crime scene processing” which answers to the tasks of what one calls mainly in the USA “ Criminalistics”, we strongly believe   together with other authors[iv] that the future will see a turn in investigating serial criminality more from the angle of interpreting human behavior through it’s criminogenous orientation.. This will happen without lessening the importance of “classic” criminal investigation .

In a very simplified way one can define the serial killers in two groups: organized and disorganized.[v]


“Serial killer” has been used as a consecrated expression for the first time “per se” by Robert Ressler during the international meetings he attended.[vi] Previously the usual term was “crime without apparent reason”, Killing of unknown persons”, ‘random killings” and is considered opposed to the term of mass murderer.

The mass murderer is creating with his usually unique act a simultaneous plurality of victims. He often dies within the act, suicides with it’s ending or surrenders to the police.Mass murderers generally act out of frustration, they target certain groups which they feel excluded or neglected from.

The serial killing is according to a reputed Romanian psycho- criminalist “the suppression of several victims separated in time by periods of days, weeks, months even”.[vii] His actions express the need to dominate the victims, they usually have no material interest[viii].The target vulnerable victims like children, teenagers, women, rogues, members of the gay community,etc.


What is the reason such events occur?

The reason THEY offer as excuses range includes education received (Henry Lee Lucas). Jeffrey Dahmer claimed he was borned with “a missing part”. Ted Bundy blamed pornography as his motivation for killing. Herbert Mullin was hearing voices in his head telling him that “ the time has come to sing the death song”. Bobby Joe Long explained that a motorcycle accident has turned him into a hipersexed person and eventually a killer. John Wayne Gacy threw away his guilt by saying that his victims “deserved to dye . Even in the Romanian experience of serial killer investigation one could hear bizarre motivations. “The Hammer Killer “ Veres Romulus(killings during 1970-1972) was having “his spirit kidnapped by two Satans that took him to the places where they did the killings and forced him to watch their deeds”. Nicolae Pascu “The Angel of Death “ killed during July to September 1990 “of compassion for the victims suffering” after he raped them.”The Avenger” Adrian Stroe ( January –September 1992) blamed the suffering caused by his broken marriage, and “the frivolous life of the victims which have been to easy to pick up”.

The infamous Anatoly Chickatylo-“Citizen X” from Russia motivated raping ,killing and eating parts of his victims with the atrocious hunger he went through war time as a youngster.

Most of the serial killings have a sexual component, be it more or less visible manifested. Where does the urge to kill come from and what makes it so powerfull ? Is it genetically, hormonally, culturally, or biologically conditioned? Can serial killers control even in a minimal way their frightening urges? Almost all humans have experimented anger or strong sexual urges that they could cathegorize as unfit and everyone of us has his “inner cage for the monster within”. Then what makes a person a serial killer or offender?

Various opinions have been issued on this topic. They sometime contradict one each other, as in regard of the criteria used to define and classify.

In order to define the serial killer one must mention the fact they act under specific impulses. On first sight one might detect the lack of a visible motive. It is in fact a specific one. As Robert Ressler[ix] noted:that serial killers” are obsessed with their own fantasies and their attempt to turn it into reality through an unfinished act oe might say that it translates as the compulsion to reproduce over and over the same act until it perfectly superimposes the fantasizing.

Many of them have been abused during childhood or young age, some have cerebral damage, some are fascinated by the police or authority and have a past record of working as security agents ,soldiers or have even been rejected from the police. They are motivated by sadistic impulses in connexion with perverted sexual fantasy turned into extreme impulses of subdooing and manipulating the victims as a motric factor of their behavior during crisis times[x].


It could be defined through some of the following features:


Serial killings take place in a certain repetitive pattern, the killer intending as it has been said to relive his fantasy or to destroy the source of his previous suffering ( childhood tormentor, rapist, lost love, too severe mother, etc.).

The one-to-one situation

Most of the serial killer act alone for obvious reasons: it is safer to kill alone because of the subsequent secret. He and only he will know the number (and sometimes the location ) of the victims. Since the victim is also alone it will be easier to reduce the possibility of a strong back-fighting or escape. On the other hand, serial killers generally do not share their feelings with other people, living sometimes a honorable family life or being good neighbors.[xi]

The killer-victim relation is scarce or even does not exist.

Even if there wre cases in which some serial killers had amon their victims some members of the family , usually victims did not have previous contact with their killer.

The lack of a clearly defined and reasonable motive of the murder.

The lack of previous relations with the victims makes these killing difficult to assess from this point of view. The possible link can sometimes be found after the apprehension of the suspect, when connexions with other similar cases can be made. For most serial killers the act of kill it self is a motivation as it brings them to an ecstatic state.

A possible geographic widespread or concentration of the site where the killings took place

It is a criteria that can be used in assessing a possible future action of the serial killer, based on areas of concentration( e.g. Whitechapell District for Jack The Ripper) or on the trail of displacement of the places where victims have been missing or have been found

A very high degree of useless violence.

Victims are submitted to exaggerated violence. Their prolonged suffering or the sight or their horror while being mutilating is increasing the feeling of control the killer thrives in, thus he motivates himself for the future moments in killing.

As we have already said the simplest division is into organized and disorganized serial killers.

The organized serial killer

Serial killers are mostly men ( 80%), aged up to 40 years of age, wel built, sometimes even good looking.

This type of serial killer is supposed to premeditate his killings, seldom thorough and well planed. He has a hi IQ score, is sexually competent, has generally professional training and a rather well defined social status. His attitude during the action is generally self controlled, is mobile ,has a life partner ( sometimes even a family). At the same time one can notice as a general feature alcohol consumption, inconsequent or exaggeratedly severe education during childhood and youth. There is also generally discovered a traumatic past of disorganized family, intra-family violence. His assaults on the victims are carefully planed.

They are direct and brief in conversation. They avoid this way to get into longer contact with the victims which “will not be real enough to destroy their fantasy”.

Organized killers torture and humiliate victims . But as soon as the victim dies, “escaping the control” the killer feels himself again alone, abandoned and starts his new quest for the murderous chatarsis. Crime after crime he will sink deeper and deeper into unsatisfied fantasies , anticipating that the next murder will be the perfect (liberating) one.

Organized serial killers obtain control over their victims with he help of physical force, ropes, duck tape, belts, hand cuffs, drugs, etc. He is not accepting criticisms and has a very positive view on himself.

The victims are selected after certain criteria and are asked to be submissive, humble in order to fullfill strange ritualistic stage-ups. The killer is in a frenzy before the murder , but calm and relaxed during action. He fullfills his fantasy and seldom takes trophys[xii] from the victim. It will later help him to relive the feeling of complete domination. Crime scene is in these cases almost “ clean” with care for details . Sometimes the body will be moved in order to be hidden, sometimes it will be put in a grotesque display to draw attention on the murder. Some serial killers will return to the crime scene later and co-operate with police, following the news on the investigations.

Victims share common features ( age, looks, hair colors, occupation, life style, etc,.).

Tools, guns or the way rope is used can be following a pattern.

The disorganized serial killer.

Killers of this sort act randomly, at a moments decision, on outbursts of violence. They are often homeless persons, suffering from personality disorder, with lower education, socially unfit, fears capture and sometimes relive the killings as moments of penitence. They are harder to figure into a pattern, as they are generally ramaging the country. He is in an anxious state during the killing, does not follow the news. Seldom this type of serial killer has physical defects, is possessed by obsessive thinking, lives alone or with one of his separated parents.

Victims of the disorganized serial killer are chosen with no logical criteria. The weapons are improvised, accidentally chose at the crime scene. They will not talk to victims, which needs to be depersonalized, seldom the faces or parts of the body will be brutally mutilated.

Mutilating the face will indicate that the victim represented for the killer a previous “tormentor of his soul”. The death of the victim is followed by sexual acts on the body, genital mutilations, vampirism or similar acts.

Crime scene is chosen at random and left in a mess. It will provide numerous material evidence. The victims is attacked very rapidly and left in it’s original position.

Serial killers will not stop until their capture. It has been said that serial killers start generally with minor crimes- torturing animals, theft, putting fire to things, etc. as gradually shift to more an more dangerous behaviors[xiii].

The few features exposed in the above are very general and only try to shine a tiny light on the complex world of investigating serial killing. It is not the simplest area of Forensic Psychology, but still it answers to the complex and paradigmatic character of modern Forensics.


[i] Prof. Maciej Szostak – University of Wroclaw in Poland

[ii] Conf. Dr. Sorin Alamoreanu – University “Babes Bolyai” in Romania

[iii] This is a shortened version of the Lecture delivered by the authors at The Chair of Criminalistics of the Law School inWroclaw on June 5 2005.

[iv] Dr.T.Severin Butoi –Criminali in serie, Phobos Publishing. Bucharest 2004.

[v] The division created by the Behavioral Study Group of the FBI is widely accepted , but Carmello Lavorino offered a more precise division n four groups:organized, part organized, disorganized and mixt organized tipes. It is our opinion too that this nuanced division is more accurate and at the same time one can not always draw a firm line between certain tipes of serial criminal behavior.

[vi] Robert Ressler,Tom Shachtman– Vinator de ucigasi Ed. FFPress Bucharest 1993,pag.102

[vii] Tudrel Butoi-op.cit.pag. 75

[viii] Except for the cases of “Niyregi Angelics”where supposed soldier widows in a Hungarian village after WW I have killed their husbands returning from in order to collect the pensions. Also the case of an Australian Woman who opened a house for the babies of single mothers and killed them short time after, continuing to receive monthly fees for baby care even several months after.

[ix] Robert Ressler,Tom Scachtman– op.cit, pag.41.

[x] Valerian Cioclei-Ucigasul in serie-Repere criminologice-Revista de Criminologir, Criminalistica si de penologie nr. 4/2004 pag. 54

[xi] There are still exceptions from this with the killer couples . Usually male-female couples, bonded in sexual relations, sharing or pursuing bizarre fantasies-they torture, rape and kill their victims as one person (usually the male) dominates the relation. Also gay couples have been known to act as serial killers.

One may notice Killer partners-Burke and Hare had been killing for several years person in order to sell their bodies to a doctor as “research material”. They sometimes killed separately, they did not share mutual fantasies, also living in an envious relation in order to have control over the “busyness”.

[xii] Ranging from body parts, to jewels, clothes, videotapes, etc.

[xiii] The Hammer Killer Romulus Veres in Cluj started with clubbering and undressing his victims and continued with hitting, stabbing and raping the victims and consequently setting the place on fire by placing fire between the bed sheet,pillows or in the cupboarrds. He had a strange attraction for the bed clothing and cupboard .He even kept his diary writing on the inside of the doors of his cupboard.