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The Steps In Understanding Serial Killers

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What is a serial killer? There are many definitions for the term serial killer, but a common definition by the FBI is the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offenders, in separate events. In modern society, serial killers are looked at with a sense of terror and wonder for how a human being could possibly commit such horrendous acts. Yet many people are likewise fascinated by these individuals who can commit these blood-chilling murders and show little to no remorse. The sociology behind serial killers is intriguing and piques the interest of people across the country. This is seen by the popularity of TV shows, movies, books, and documentaries about serial killers. Serial killers are a unique type of criminal and can be better understood by looking at the history of the FBI behavioral science unit, the criminology behind certain ones, and how profiling enhances law enforcement.

The first step in understanding these unique types of criminals is by studying their behavior. That was precisely the purpose of the creation of the bureau's criminal profiling program which fell under the FBI behavioral science. It was founded by two FBI agents, Robert Ressler and John Douglas. In the 1970s, they coined the term serial murder as a murder that involves at least four events that take place at different locations and are separated by a cooling-off period. In the 1990s, the number of murders was lowered to three. However, this definition can be misleading if a serial killer was to commit two murders and be caught before he could take another victim. That is why currently the definition of a serial killer is the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offenders, in separate events. Robert Ressler and John Douglas recognized that these specific types of killers were not normal and needed to be studied more precisely.

In 1977, John Douglas, a former hostage negotiator, transferred to the BSU where he started the program with Robert Ressler. Over a multitude of years, the two agents interviewed famous killers focusing on serial killers and gained a database of information that would later become the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViACP). They were later assisted by a doctor named Ann Burgess who specialized in nursing science. Ann Burgess was an expert in the treatment of trauma victims and was a co-founder of the crisis counseling program at Boston City Hospital when she began consulting with the FBI. With Ann Burgess assisting the operation, she was able to make connections from childhood traumas, particularly parent abuse, which has been crucial to our understanding of serial killers even to this day. Further growth of the program led to Robert Ressler’s founding of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. This currently houses the BSU's modern equivalent, Behavioral Analysis Unit 5, and was announced by President Reagan in 1984. In 1988, the trio presented their findings to the public, and in 1992, they published a textbook titled, A Standard System for Investigating and Classifying Violent Crimes.

The FBI to this day still profiles criminals based on the criteria built by the studies that Robert Ressler and John Douglas conducted. Profiling is defined as the investigation of a crime with the hope of identifying the responsible party, that is, an unknown perpetrator, based on crime scene analysis, forensic psychology, and behavioral science. When looking at a crime scene, the first classification that can be made, based on the data provided, is whether the crime was organized or disorganized. John Douglas and Robert Ressler would split the criminals up into these two widespread categories. Organized murder is classified when someone gives the appearance of one who plans his or her kills in advance and goes about them demonstrating control over the victim at the crime scene. Disorganized murder is less thought out and the crime scene will display unsystematic behavior. When a crime scene has characteristics of both categories, it is classified as a mix.

Following classification, a criminal profiler will attempt to build a connection between the criminal’s behavior and timeline, so that he can apply it to subsequent murders or sexual assaults. That is why John Douglas and Robert Ressler’s work has been so vital for solving crimes even to this day. They laid the foundation and conducted the interviews for the discovery of the commonalities between the behaviors of previous serial killers. Those interviews created a database of information to compare possible motives and methods for individual murders that would make no sense on their own. The next step in the profiling process is narrowing down motive and finding commonalities from the crime scenes to formulate a theory. After the profilers come up with a working theory on how the killer operates, they will attempt to connect the commonalities of the crime scenes to find the killer's signature. A serial killer’s signature is his or her phycological way of gaining gratification from performing the act of the crime.

The studies show that the three most common motives of a serial rapist or murder are domination, manipulation, and control. After all the considerations, a profile is made and can entail personal detail of the criminal’s demographics, family, upbringing, education, and possible background serving in the military. John Douglas and Robert Ressler’s role in the birth and growth of the bureau's criminal profiling program cannot be overlooked. The statistical evidence of profiling has always been called in to question, but the two agents in 1981 showed a questionnaire in which 77% of FBI field officers reported a profile from the BSU had aided in the ensuing capture of a suspect.

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The next step in understanding serial killers better is to look at the life of a particular one and see the criminology behind his acts that correspond with others. One of the most popular serial killers of the late 20th century is Ted Bundy. This specific serial killer was known for having killed at least 36 women and instigating the nation's fear and fascination with serial killers. What shocked the world when Ted Bundy was finally caught was just how normal of a guy he seemed to be. At this time, the FBI still had not gained enough information on serial killers and had no clue of their capabilities to blend into the public. Ted Bundy's capture and life story have given the FBI a much better sense of the true capabilities that serial killers possess.

Ted Bundy was born on November 24, 1946, in Burlington, Vermont. His mother was Louise Cowell and had him out of wedlock which brought her family shame. To conceal this, Ted grew up believing that his mother was his sister and that his grandparents were his parents. This alone could have caused incredible psychological damages to his maturing. Growing up, he showed signs of interest in knives and macabre which are disturbing pictures of death. As he matured into a teenager, an increasing number of signs of his serial killer traits were made present. Ted Bundy did well in school, but he made no connections with his peers. He would also peer into people's windows and showed no restraint from stealing things that did not belong to him. In 1972, Ted Bundy graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in psychology, and then started to pursue a law degree in Utah which he would never finish.

While attending the University of Washington, Ted Bundy fell in love with a young, pretty lady from California. She came from a wealthy family that had class and influence, things Ted Bundy grew up lacking. They dated for a while but eventually broke up which devastated Bundy. This possibly could have been a trigger for Ted Bundy as many of his future victims resembled that of his college girlfriend with long, dark hair. After the breakup, Ted Bundy started changing his personality, exuberating more confidence and becoming involved in social and political matters. He concealed his true personality well and even received a letter of recommendation from the Republican governor of Washington. With a transformed personality, Ted Bundy began a new relationship with Elizabeth Kloepfer. The two met at a bar, and Elizabeth was a single mother who struggled with alcoholism. Her relationship with Ted Bundy would be crucial for his discovery and arrest.

The exact number of Ted Bundy’s killings and the year that they began are uncertain, but most sources believe he started his rampage in 1974. This was the year that many women in the Seattle and Orogen area began to go missing. Ted Bundy confessed to killing 36 young women, but experts speculate that the actual number is above 100. Ted Bundy had a methodical way of luring his victims into his car. He would go to college campuses and pretend to be a student with a broken arm to garner sympathy from women and receive assistance. Ted Bundy was also good looking and had a very charming personality which made unperceiving women easy prey. These characteristics made it easy for women to trust him enough to get into his car, and once that happened, it was over. Ted Bundy’s murders all had a gruesome pattern of him raping them and then beating them to death.

In the fall of 1974, when Ted Bundy moved to Utah to attend Law School, women started disappearing there too. In 1975 he was pulled over by the police, and a search of his vehicle revealed burglary tools, a crowbar, a face mask, rope, and handcuffs. This led to him being arrested for the possession of them, which aided the police in connecting Ted Bundy to the more serious crimes that were taking place. Later that year he was arrested and convicted for the kidnapping of one of the few women who managed to escape him whose name was Carol DaRonch. From here, Ted Bundy would manage to escape prison twice and end up making his way to Florida, where he would go on a murderous rampage before his final arrest. A vital tip for the police to identify Ted Bundy was given by the assistance of Elizabeth Kloepfer. She had been suspicious of Ted Bundy's habits and for keeping items like a meat cleaver in his desk. Surprisingly the police did not take her seriously the first time she went to them with concerns. Due to how normal Ted Bundy seemed, but once he moved and murders followed him, they looked at him more seriously.

In the review of the life of infamous serial killer Ted Bundy there are clear signs of him being a disturbed individual that could have been noticed even at a young age. Many characteristics of his life are like those of other serial killers. A troubled childhood that most likely caused him to have psychological issues his entire life. An interest in knives and looking into other people's houses. Lastly not being able to relate with any of his peers and showing no hesitation from taking things that do not belong to him.

The last step in understanding serial killers is looking at how the police use the information of their behavior and life experiences to catch them.

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The Steps In Understanding Serial Killers. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 24, 2024, from
“The Steps In Understanding Serial Killers.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022,
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The Steps In Understanding Serial Killers [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2024 Feb 24]. Available from:
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