Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Myths Exposed

Serial killers are strangers who leap out at you in the night

There are two kinds of serial killers as far as the victim is concerned: the kind that you don't see before they pounce on you and the kind you see and don't expect to pounce on you. Both kinds can be either someone you know or a stranger. There are those who simply hide behind a tree in the park and grab the first lone victim to come along and there are those who watch the houses on a street to see which woman lives alone with her cat. Then there are also those you chat with on the bus, or see every day at work, or perhaps he is the security guard you ask to walk you to your car (for the last time).

We assume people we know can't be serial killers. We think we would know if that guy in our church was a serial killer. Unfortunately, there really is no way of knowing. We can know that he is weird, know that he makes us uncomfortable and maybe even think that he is a psychopath. But, even knowing all that does not mean he is a serial killer. Most of the time we don't even give weirdoes that much thought.

Many times we believe that if we are working with the guy he must have passed a background check to get his job. Few people realize that almost no place actually does any kind of real background check. Those "references" we are required to give are always people who will say kind things about us. Some serial killers who can't find anyone to say nice things about them just make up a bunch of phony names and phone numbers. They know that few employers will waste their time making the calls. As one jaded manager of a mail room told me, "When everyone who applies for the job is pond scum, it is a waste of time to get references." Doing a real background check is next to impossible. Few agencies can afford to do any real investigation. Unless the employer is a federal or state agency using FBI or NCIC records, private investigators charging high hourly rates will have to go to the local courthouse and try to find the applicant's criminal record. Some states have computerized information that pulls all the records from each county but other states actually require the investigator to go to each and every courthouse in the state to gather the information! If that isn't enough work, if the company wants a national background check, an investigator would have to repeat the effort in every state in the country to be absolutely sure the applicant had no record anywhere. Of course, we are seeing simpler methods now through Internet investigative services but the costs are clearly too high for a company to spend on every applicant.

Often, a serial killer has no felony record. So just because he is an armed guard and passed a rigorous background check doesn't mean he isn't a dangerous criminal.

How is it that serial killers can get away with killing people they know? The same way they get away with killing people they don't know. They make sure no one sees them together at the time of the crime. The man you work with stops by your house one night after dark and you let him in because you know him. When they find your body the next day, no one has a clue that your co-worker had dropped by. The security guard who walks you to your car has no worries if no one else sees you leave together. Or if there is someone who does see you leave together, all he has to say is, "I walked her to her car and she was fine when I left her there."

Bobbie Joe Leonard starts to hatch his plan after Janie comes to spend the night. Because he sometimes gives her a ride to work at the temp agency, he decides to tell her they have work early in the morning. He wakes her up and tells her they need to get on the road. They drive away toward the work site. However, when they arrive at the location (where they clean apartment buildings after they are constructed), no one is around. Janie thinks it is odd but Bobby just tells her they will be there soon. He suggests they go smoke some pot in the building and although Janie really doesn't feel like it, she does what he wants. They enter the empty building, and Bobby begins his assault on her.

How is Bobby going to explain what happened to Janie when she doesn't show up with him at work and later when she turns up dead? After all, didn't they leave together in his car? Bobby isn't worried. He will tell police he dropped her off at the motel where she was staying before; that she changed her mind and was going to meet some people she knew. If the police don't find evidence at the scene of the crime, they will never be able to prove Bobby was involved.

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