A Newfoundland anthropologist has become an expert on serial killers
Murder, he wrote
A Newfoundland anthropologist has become an expert on serial killers
Elliott Leyton awakens every day before 6 a.m. in a bedroom that overlooks the green waters of Newfoundland’s Conception Bay and the barren majesty of Bell Island. In summer, whales snort and dive in the darkness, and vast white icebergs float by. No matter what the season, the Memorial University anthropology professor throws on warm clothes, calls Basil, his yellow Labrador retriever, and heads out the back door for a 90-minute walk along the sheer cliffs above the bay, 15 km northwest of St. John’s. Back home, he pumps weights down in the basement gym. Then, he walks up the stairs to the second-floor room where the blinds are pulled tight to block out the distracting view. He also closes the door—because he never wants what is inside the room to escape into the rest of his life. Sitting down at his personal computer, he stares into the dark soul of humanity.
Fourteen years ago, nightmares plagued Leyton. He had just started writing the book that would make him one of the world’s ranking experts on serial killers. Then, he learned what every homicide officer knows—how to compartmentalize the ghastly aspects of his work to stop it from tainting other facets of life. “In here I think about murder,” said the 55-year-old Leyton, sitting in the bookcaselined study. “When I close the door, zap, that’s it, I forget about it.” Getting out of the office is what is hard: in the compact, woodfloored room he stays in touch with his vast network of police contacts, from London’s Scotland Yard to the FBI’s Academy in Quantico, Va., the law-enforcement centrepiece of the Oscar-winning Jonathan Demme film, The Silence of the Lambs.
And, of course, he crafts his authoritative, stylishly written books: Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer,
which is required reading for North American homicide detectives; Sole Survivor: Children Who Murder Their Families, now in its fourth printing in Europe, and his work-inprogress tentatively titled Men of Blood: Homicide in Modern England. “It’s strange,” says Det. Const.
Rupert Heritage, who runs a unit, of the Surrey (England) Police that specializes in developing psychological profiles of criminals. “Elliott manages to do all this great work even though he’s sitting out there on the far end of nowhere.”
Professionally, that is mostly what he does—sit and work. He is not a swashbuckling Indiana Jones or a street-smart Sherlock Holmes stalking evildoers in foggy London. But he is
sometimes called upon by baffled police forces to help get inside the criminal psyche. His hair is dark and thick, and decades of hiking, lifting weights and practising karate—he has a black belt—have kept the flab off his strong frame. An expert shot, he once won the Atlantic Canada shotgun target championship. He favors corduroys and sweatshirts, fitting garb for a tenured professor who spends as little time on the St. John’s campus of Memorial University as possible, even though the third-year anthropology course he teaches, War and Aggression, is a cult campus favorite. To add to his mystique, Leyton is something of a recluse, who can usually be found inside the cliff-top
pine home that he shares with his sculptor wife, Bonnie (they have two grown sons and one grandchild), and where only a highly sensitive security system indicates the owner’s unusual occupation.
Leyton is lucky and knows it. A physician’s son born in tiny Leader, Sask., he went on to become an academic, teaching at Queen’s University of Belfast and the University of Toronto and writing a couple of dry, mostly unread books on such topics as friendship and the family. “I knew I wanted to write books that would challenge the thinking of our entire civilization,” he recalls. “It seemed pointless to write an important piece of work that six people will read.” Finding a subject was the problem. One day, he picked up a copy of a book his wife had been reading about Ted Bundy, the American who murdered dozens of young women in the
Wall of Shame
1970s. Leyton was fascinated: here was someone who killed strangers, an act that seemed incomprehensible to him. He went to the university library to examine the academic writing on the subject—only to find that there was none. Bells went off. He locked himself in his study with a stack of criminal diaries and confessions and psy-
chiatric interviews—and emerged four years later with the manuscript for Hunting Humans. In it, Leyton concludes that mass murderers and serial killers are not freaks. Instead, they can only be fully understood as “the logical extension of many of the themes in their culture—of worldly ambition, of success and failure and of manly, avenging violence.” For police and academics struggling to understand these human predators, this thesis represented a breakthrough in thinking—and made Leyton the acknowledged expert in the field. “He gave us a whole new way of identifying and interpreting criminal behavior,” explains Sgt. John House, head of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary’s newly formed criminal behavior analysis unit.
Today, on the walls of his study, Leyton’s career is on display: covers from the various editions of his books, which have been published in Canada, the United States and Britain and will soon come out in Japan; plaques from the South Yorkshire (U.K.) police and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary thanking him for assistance he has provided. Leyton refuses to name the cases or discuss details of them, though he does drop tantalizing hints: one, he notes, is a serial sexual assault case now before the Canadian courts. He remains a member of an informal, international working group on serial sexual assaults and homicides—
which includes members of the FBI, Scotland Yard and Interpol—that meets yearly to develop new techniques for profiling criminals. He says, however, that he prefers not to become directly involved in investigations. “That is not the level I like to function on,” he says. “Cops know
more about being cops than I do. If I did have some abilities in this area, my life would be ruined because I would spend all of my life doing police work.”
He certainly spends plenty of time doing media interviews—about 150 a year, by his count. “There is a natural human fascination in acts that are regarded as appallingly evil,”
he explained after a long day working on his latest book. “I think that is very healthy in that it allows people to redefine for themselves the difference between good and evil.” Healthy to a point, that is. Leyton—who walked out of The Silence of the Lambs and refuses to see Oliver Stone’s blood-soaked satire Natural Born Killers—draws the line at the current flood of books, films and television shows that portray these monsters as celebrity heroes. “These are not supermen,” he says, emotion straining his voice. “These are losers and goons—recreational killers— who are so socially incompetent that the only way they can relate to other human beings is to humiliate or destroy them.”
The murderers who appear in Leyton’s books are anything but heroes. When he examined American serial killers like Florida’s Bundy, Albert (the Boston Strangler) DeSalvo and New York City’s David (Son of Sam) Berkowitz for Hunting Humans, he found men with high opinions of themselves who felt they had been denied their just desserts by society and murdered strangers both as a form of revenge and because they enjoyed it. The killers he considered in Sole Survivor were well-off kids who grew up in aggressive, socially ambitious families. The troubles began when the parents started to unload their failed ambitions upon their children, obliterating their personalities, making them totally dependent and finally causing them to explode in an orgy of murder. “People like these don’t appear at random,” says Leyton. “They show us what happens if we ignore how our children are reared and treat our children with contempt as modem societies more and more often do.”
His opus on homicide in England—where murder on a per capita basis occurs only half as often as it does in Canada—has given him a measure of sympathy for the common killer, as distinguished from the serial killer. In virtually all cases they are poorly educated, chronically unemployed people—mostly male—who inhabit a section of society in which none of the major messages about self-control have filtered through. “Even then,” Leyton adds, “the vast majority of these killings are just mistakes by pathetic, limited people who didn’t know it was going to happen and are filled with remorse for the rest of their lives.”
If Leyton sounds like he is mellowing, maybe there is a reason. Most days, he would be perfectly happy puttering around with his six-year-old grandson, Mark, with whom he spends all of every Monday. Fifteen years of thinking and writing about homicide has left him feeling a bit burned out. “I’d like to get out of this murder business altogether,” he says. And maybe he would—if the question of how one person can consciously kill another did not still haunt him. For now, that is enough to keep him behind drawn blinds in that secondfloor study, puzzling over the criminal mind.
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