Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

EVIL, PART ONE: ITS MANIFESTATIONS

Thrill Kills

Nathan Leopold (left) and Richard Loeb (CORBIS)
Nathan Leopold (left) and
Richard Loeb (CORBIS)

The year was 1924. The place was Chicago. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loebboth 19, brilliant beyond imagining, educated and wealthywere close friends. Loeb worshipped power and Leopold worshipped Loeb. They had a sexual relationship, although Loeb appeared to participate only as a means of controlling Leopold and making him participate in crime.

According to Professor Douglas Linder of the University of Missouri, Leopold was enamored of the idea espoused by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that superior men have no moral boundaries. Nietzsche proposed the idea of the Ubermensch who made and lived by his own rules. Leopold persuaded Loeb easily enough that they were among those exceptional beings and all they needed to do was prove it by performing the perfect crime. (This idea was hardly original to them. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevski had already proposed it in Crime and Punishment, through a character named Raskolnikov, who coldly murdered two women just to prove he could do it without moral repercussions.) They started with cheating friends at cards, shoplifting and burglary, says Hal Higdon, author of The Crime of the Century: The Leopold and Loeb Case. These acts thrilled them, but when their petty crimes received no attention in the press, they spent six months meticulously planning for something much more spectacular: They would kidnap and murder a young boy.

On May 21, they went out to select their victim. As claimed in Born Killers produced for The History Channel, at first they considered Loeb's younger brother, but then thought that if the victim were related to them, they'd quickly come under suspicion. Thus they decided to troll the area around the exclusive boy's school that Leopold had once attended, since many of the students there knew them and wouldn't hesitate to accept a ride. The plan was to grab one, kill him, and then get money from his parents.

They believed they had devised the perfect crime and were so obsessed with what it would prove about them that they rehearsed it down to the letter. They had repeatedly gone to the area to watch the boys, learning their routines and routes. To them it mattered little whom they grabbed. It had only to be someone they could quickly overwhelm and whose disappearance would generate publicity. Little did they know that this crimethe first known thrill killing in Americawould generate international publicity and stump criminologists for decades to come.

Bobby Franks
Bobby Franks

As they watched, 14-year-old Bobby Franks walked toward them. They offered him a ride and since he knew them, he climbed into the car. Within a block, one of them hit him with a chisel, and then smothered him by shoving a rag into his mouth. Afterward they drove some distance away so they could strip him and pour acid on his face and genitals to prevent people from identifying him. Then they ate dinner in the car while they waited for darkness. Finally they tossed the mutilated body naked in a culvert where Leopold often went bird watching, and then returned home to place a call and write a ransom note for $10,000 to the victim's parents.

It seemed impossible to them that anyone could link this crime to them. They doubted that anyone would even find the body. With the blindness of narcissistic arrogance, they continued with their plan.

However, the perfect crime is generally never as perfect as it seems. The body was found the next day and identified as the missing Bobby Franks. Nearby in some grass, investigators found a pair of glasses. These were no ordinary spectacles. They had a set of unique hinges that were easily traced.

Police investigate the crime scene where Bobby Franks' body was found (CORIBS)
Police investigate the crime
scene where Bobby Franks'
body was found (CORIBS)

After a pair of extremely unusual eyeglasses was found near Bobby Franks' body and was traced to Leopold, he was arrested and questioned for hours. The explanation was simple; he maintained that he'd been in that area birding. While he was being questioned, suspicion fell on Loeb as well and he was brought in, too. Yet neither broke and there was insufficient evidence to charge them with anything. They were free to go.

However, that was not the end of the investigation. Just as in Crime and Punishment where a persistent detective finally pressured the guilty Raskolnikov into a confession, something similar was not far away for this killing team. Leopold stayed quiet but Loeb began to talk to friends and reporters, offering theories about the crime and even suggesting that if he were a killer, Bobby Franks was the perfect victimhe deserved it.

The police continued to look into their backgrounds, aware that whoever wrote the ransom note was educated, and eventually they found samples of Leopold's typing that matched the ransom note. They did not find the portable typewriter in his possession, but when they caught the men in a lie, it wasn't long before first one and then the other began to confess. They quickly set about accusing each other.

As they coldly provided details, they revealed that the murder had been committed to entertain two bored intellectuals. "It was just an experiment," Leopold said. "It is as easy to justify as an entomologist in impaling a beetle on a pin." They simply wanted to test their ability to plan and carry out a crime without being caught. Neither expressed remorse or thought that what they had done was reprehensible.

The press reported this kidnap/murder as unique in the annals of American crime. There had been no particular motive other than to see if they could get away with it. The like had never been seen.

At trial, various alienists, as psychiatrists were called at that time, were brought in to "explain" their degenerate behavior, and even Sigmund Freud was offered an undisclosed sum to provide an analysis (he declined), but the judge was unimpressed. Yet he was also loathe to sentence such young men to die, so he gave them life imprisonment. Loeb died in prison after being fatally stabbed, but Leopold was paroled after 33 years and he lived out the rest of his years in Puerto Rico.

***

While the uniqueness of this type of crime might have been true in 1924, it's no longer true today, and the thrill killers are getting younger and younger. In 1993, for example, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, both age 10, casually took two-year-old James Bulger out of a shopping center in Liverpool, England. They were just looking for something to do, so they decided to see if they could get away with a kidnapping.

Robert Thompson and Jon Venables
Robert Thompson and Jon Venables

At some point, they stepped up the action by splashing James with blue paint, pelting him with bricks, and hitting him with an iron bar. They later confessed that they had laid him down on the railroad tracks, but they declined to admit to what forensics evidence indicated-that they kicked him in the head and groin, and removed his pants and underwear for the express purpose of sexual fondling. There was some speculation that they had pushed batteries into his anus. Horrifyingly, they both said that they'd continued the attack because "he just kept getting up."

James Bulger
James Bulger

Expert testimony from psychiatrists affirmed that these boys were not insane; they had understood the nature of their crime and knew it was wrong. Thus, their state of mind at the time of the crime was not psychotic. In essence, they acted with adult consciousness. The pathologist confirmed that the wounds showed brutal intent.

******

On April 19, 1997, Thomas Koskovich, 18, and Jayson Vreeland, 17, ordered a pizza from a Dunkin' Donuts in Franklin, New Jersey. They called several places until they found one that would deliver. They asked for two cheese pizzas to be delivered to an address that was actually an abandoned house. Then they went there to wait for their prey.

Jeremy Giordano, 22, and Giorgio Gallara, 24, went out to make the delivery. As they approached the house, Koskovich and Vreeland came up to the car. Gallara, sitting with the pizzas on the passenger side, rolled down his window to ask for the money. Koskovich pulled out a .45 caliber pistol and shot seven times. Giordano was killed when one bullet severed his spinal cord, while Gallara received bullets in the face, arm, and shoulder. The bullet to the back of his head that killed him came from Vreeland's gun.

The killers then searched the bodies for money and then they hugged over the excitement of what they'd done. "I love you, man," Vreeland reportedly said. When they couldn't steal the delivery car, they then went back to their car, changed clothes, and went to church because Vreeland felt remorsewhich he later denied to police.

A former girlfriend turned them in because when she heard about the murders, she recalled Koskovich telling her that he had planned to do something like it. He'd wanted to join the Mafia or become a Navy Seal, and he believed that killing someone would help him to achieve his goals. There was also an element, according to the first prosecution team, that he just wanted to do it to see what it felt like. In his confession, he claims that he said excitedly to Vreeland, "I can't believe we did that!"

Many people think that killing just for a lark is the essence of evil, but some crimes between parent and child might rival these.

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