Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Myths Exposed

Serial killers are caught though DNA banks, profiles, and brilliant police deduction

While there are many wonderful police investigators out there doing some very fine work, the majority of the time it is not brains that catches serial killers. Usually it is just dumb luck. Ted was speeding. One Alabama serial killer I was investigating was doing just fine until he took a girl out to the woods to kill her. His car got stuck in the mud and he had to call a friend for a tow.

Technician working with DNA evidence
Technician working with DNA evidence

DNA banks only work if you have DNA. Then you have to match that DNA to someone. Either that someone must also be in a bank, like a felon DNA bank, or that person must already be a suspect and agree to the testing. If everyone in the United States were required to have DNA on record, this would work great. However, because of privacy issues, I don't think this is a methodology we will be able to depend on any time in the near future.

Profiles are the stuff television shows are made of. Profilers have become half psychic/half deductive beings that come up with the most amazing things to narrow down the leads. I wish I had the ability to tell that the killer has a stutter from just looking at the crime scene. Most real world profiles as they have been done in the past merely use inductive reasoning to give probabilities based on prior research in the field. Not only is this rather useless for a particular crime, but the conclusions are based on killers who were caught and clearly don't take into account the type that doesn't make those same mistakes. In other words, to base a profile on guesswork instead of crime scene analysis is of questionable benefit.

Brilliant police deduction rarely comes into play in the actual capture of serial killers. This is not to say it does not occur but it isn't like the movies in that "the puzzle" is not solved by the likes of Sherlock Holmes. However, there are police detectives and profilers that make good use of crime scene analysis, crime scene reconstruction, and behavioral analysis to determine what happened at the crime scene, what the motive might be, and what particulars one should look for when investigating and interviewing. Perhaps if these techniques were used more often, we might see a higher rate of capture. Unfortunately, for police departments to do this level of work, there is a need for special training, proper funding, and enough manpower to spare the time. In a department that is understaffed, struggling financially, and seeing a homicide a day dumped into their workload, the ability to put such an effort forth may be near impossible.

Charles McCoy, Jr.
Charles McCoy, Jr.

Outside of dumb luck, the number one way serial killers are caught is through the help of the public. The Columbus Ohio Shooter who stood on bridges and shot at cars was arrested after a tipster called the police with suspicions that Charles McCoy, Jr. might be the guilty party. Getting out information to the public is the best way for police to identify suspects. After all, the police investigators can hardly know everyone in town but everyone in town is known by someone. If that someone gets enough information to send up red flags about the behavior of a friend, relative, or neighbor, then the suspect may be hand delivered straight to the police, saving them a whole lot of time and saving the lives of innocent people.

Bobby Joe Leonard got caught by dumb luck and a dumb answer. After he strangled Janie, he left the premises and went merrily on his way. But he didn't strangle her well enough because she didn't die. She regained consciousness and staggered to a nearby office where she called the police. She described to them what had happened and the police detective had her write it down on paper. When the detective brought Bobby in for questioning, he showed him the paper. When he told him Janie had written down what had happened, Bobby exclaimed, "That's impossible! She's dead!"

Realizing that this brilliant statement got him arrested and tried for kidnapping, rape, and attempted murder, Bobby Joe Leonard went on to represent himself at trial and managed to get himself a verdict of guilty on all charges and a life sentence plus 30 years. Way to go, Bobby!

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