CRIME

Coming to grips with random killers

Shona McKay July 8 1985
CRIME

Coming to grips with random killers

Shona McKay July 8 1985

Coming to grips with random killers

CRIME

Shona McKay

It was pure chance that led police in Calaveras County, Calif., into one of the most gruesome cases of multiple murder in American history earlier this month. They detained Leonard Lake, 39, in connection with a shoplifting incident, but when the ex-marine and self-styled survivalist committed suicide by swallowing cyanide in their custody, the police began investigating his wilderness ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. There, they discovered video tapes that they say show Lake and his companion, Charles Ng, 24, humiliating and torturing women victims. In one scene Lake told a handcuffed woman, who was pleading for her baby while Ng sliced off her clothes with a knife, “You will meet our demands or we will kill you.” And officers digging outside a cinder-block shed, which they believe Lake and Ng had used as a sexual torture chamber, uncovered six corpses in shallow graves and 45 lb. of charred human bones and bone fragments.

In similar fashion, traffic violations first led police to both David Berkowitz, the notorious “Son of Sam” who murdered six women in New York City in the

late 1970s, and Theodore Bundy, a Utah law student who was convicted for the 1978 murders of two women and one girl. Even Henry Lee Lucas, the notorious Texas drifter who confessed to hundreds of killings in his wanderings throughout the continent, successfully evaded all suspicion until police arrested him on a weapons charge and he volunteered his lurid tales of random murder. And in 1981 a simple car crash put Canadian Clifford Olson into the hands of police, who, hobbled by a lack of evidence, paid him $100,000 to reveal the names and the locations of the corpses of his 11 victims.

The chance occurrences all put an end to some of the most horrible crime sprees of modern times, but they also underscored the fact that police rarely have any better way of catching so-called “serial” murderers (distinguished from mass murderers, who claim several victims in a single explosion

of rage). The record of investigations shows that despite the massive effort Montreal police are now making to track down the suspected killer of as many as four young boys in the city, their best chance of success lies in luck. And in hunting murderers luck is an unreliable ally; the FBI estimates that in the United States alone, unknown serial murderers claim as many as 6,000 victims a year. For every suspect that is caught, dozens remain at large—at least 30 in the United States at any one time, according to FBI estimates which many experts consider to be conservative.

To many observers, those statistics suggest an epidemic of random murder, but the psychological and social insights that might help to control it are scarce. Few experts have studied the phenomenon in detail, and those who have often present conflicting theories. Some psychologists characterize serial murder simply as an inevitable product of modern life, deviance encouraged by television violence and pornography. Others say it stems from childhood neglect or suffocating mothers, and at least one expert argues that serial killers are born with personalities capable of random, apparently motiveless murder.

Still, there are several traits that unite such criminals. Almost all are men of above-average intelligence who rarely show signs of obvious derangement. But beneath an often placid surface psychologists say that serial murderers are crippled by the inability to separate sex from aggression. In his book Murder and Madness, Dr. Donald Lunde, a forensic psychiatrist and associate professor at California’s Stanford University, wrote that serial killers derive “sexual pleasure from the killing and mutilation or abuse of his victim.” And Ezzat Fattah, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, declared: “That is the reason why the murderer kills again and again. They kill for pleasure, each time their deviant sexual urge arises.” Indeed, the confusion between sex and aggression is obvious in many of § the most vicious “recrey ational murders,” as po^ lice often call them, y Peter Sutcliffe, known as 5 the Yorkshire Ripper, £ who was convicted of

murdering 13 young women in northern England between 1976 and 1981, routinely brutalized his victims sexually before he killed and mutilated them. Like Jack the Ripper, who stalked prostitutes in London’s Whitechapel district in the 1880s, Sutcliffe stabbed his victims repeatedly—many of them up to 50 times. John Wayne Gacy, the Chicago building contractor convicted of murdering 33 young men in 1978 and who had been jailed previously for sodomy, concentrated almost exclusively on young, male homosexuals. In a 30-inch crawl space beneath Gacy’s house police found 32 bodies, many of them still with cords around their necks and underwear stuffed in their mouths.

Some experts speculate that earlychildhood abuse accounts for the current proliferation of recreational murder. And again, the backgrounds of many such criminals support the conclusion. Still, most criminal and health professionals are uneasy about attributing the emergence of sadistic monsters simply to parental abuse. Said Fattah: “Not everyone who is hurt as a child becomes a sexual sadist, and not every sexual sadist becomes a multiple murderer.”

Similarly, few experts agree with the notion that violent pornography alone has produced such criminals. But at least one serious researcher is willing to speculate on the existence of a single underlying reason for serial murder. Said Chicago psychiatrist Dr. Helen Morrison: “Whether for genetic, chemical or hormonal reasons, the serial killer has a psychological deficit that is present at birth.”

Unlike most theorists, Morrison has spent thousands of hours interviewing

multiple murderers, including Gacy and Wayne Williams, the freelance photographer who was found guilty of two Atlanta child murders in 1982 and was implicated in another 26. Morrison says that recreational murderers have more than a biological quirk in common. Said Morrison: “To begin with, they are usually corpulent and have mixed malefemale characteristics that could show up as abnormal breast development. They are all men who usually start killing in their 20s and have exhibited erratic and petty criminal behavior since their early teens. And all are incapable of forming a normal relationship or un-

derstanding normal human feelings.” Such personalities have never gone through the developmental stages that normally occur in infancy, according to Morrison, and, as a result, guilt does not restrain them from committing murder. Said Morrison: “They do not see themselves as separate human beings or recognize the separate humanity of any other being. They have no conscience. After spending hundreds of hours with some of them, I know that I am no different or more animate to them than a pen or a door. They are totally distorted personalities.”

Indeed, the total absence of human conscience is often the most shocking feature of serial murderers, even more than their sexual perversion. San Francisco’s Edmund Kemper in killed six female hitchhikers after murdering his grandparents when he was 15. Then, at the age of 24, Kemper stabbed his mother to death. Henry Lee Lucas also chose his own mother as his first victim. He stabbed and strangled her to death and molested the corpse. And human conscience was equally absent from the mind of German mass murderer Klaus Gossmann, who was convicted in July, 1967, of killing six people in random incidents over seven years. Said the unrepentant Gossmann at the end of his trial: “People are no more than inanimate things to me.”

The frequent inability of serial murderers to feel remorse often has an eery parallel in their desire to boast about their crimes—a desire that has often benefited police. In one notable case, however, police proved too eager to believe such a killer. On trial for the murder of an 80-year-old woman in 1983, Lucas confessed to the crime, adding, “And, by the way, I’ve got a hundred more.” Subsequently, Lucas confessed to more than 600 killings, encouraging detectives from all over the continent to visit him in jail and close hundreds of unsolved murder files on the basis of their interviews. But in April Lucas disclosed that his morbid boasts were a hoax. Said Morrison: “The incident is understandable. Police, like all rational people, want these murderers caught.” Sadly, the incident also illustrates the sheer helplessness of police in dealing with many of the most irrational crimes. Said Fattah: “In most cases the murderer has no relationship to his victim and so the police have few clues.” Indeed, his complete lack of guilt and lust for blood places him outside the boundary of most human comprehension. As the number of his victims increases and he grows more expert in covering his tracks, bad luck often becomes his only effective enemy.

Christopher Reed