Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killers Who Surrender

Surprises

Gary Ridgway
Gary Ridgway

Sometimes people don't confess until caught for something else; they might even be labeled as serial killers, but the authorities have no idea how many they actually killed, and for some reason, they decide to open up.

Robert Charles Browne made headlines in July 2006 when he claimed he'd murdered 49 people, becoming America's most prolific known serial killer. But when he beat by one the record set by "Green River Killer" Gary Ridgway (who also offered more than authorities realized), his confession triggered skepticism.

Robert Charles Browne
Robert Charles Browne

In 1995, Browne had pleaded guilty to the 1991 murder in Colorado of 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church. Five years later, he sent cryptic notes to Texas prosecutors that suggested more victims: "The score is you one, the other team, 48." Eventually he admitted he'd been killing since 1970, in nine different states. Yet he provided specific information in less than half of the cases.

It defies reason to confess to something you did not do, especially murder, but some ambitions override reason: notoriety, for example, gamesmanship, and even masturbatory self-aggrandizing.

H.H. Holmes
H.H. Holmes

H. H. Holmes was convicted in Philadelphia in 1896 for a fatal insurance fraud. He insisted he was innocent but for $10,000 proclaimed himself the world's most notorious killer, claming 100 victims before reducing that number to 27. "The newspaper wanted a sensation," he whined, and before stepping into the noose, he admitted to only two. The truth was probably much worse.

After the police arrested Glen Rogers in 1995, wanted in connection with five murders, he took credit for 70, including Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Then he said he was only joking. He was convicted in two.

Glen Rogers
Glen Rogers

The most infamous confessor was Henry Lee Lucas, arrested in 1983. He estimated he'd killed 100 people, but eventually raised that number to over 350 in 27 different states. Lawmen came to Texas to close their open cases, providing Lucas with outings and meals, but suddenly he recanted. Then he insisted he'd been forced to recant, confusing everyone. "I set out to break and corrupt any law enforcement officer I could get," Lucas said. "I think I did a pretty good job." When he died in 2001, the truth went with him.

Since so many serial killers are also psychopaths, lying is often a way of life with them. Some have also developed a need to outdo others, so they can be the "world's worst serial killer," or so they can strut safely around their prison. Some enjoy putting on the media.

Henry Lee Lucas
Henry Lee Lucas

It's not easy to know when to trust someone who has already exploited trust as a route to torture, rape and murder. Psychopathic killers view their victims as objects, useful only as pawns in their game, and they thus have this advantage: they feel no remorse. When they choose to communicate, they have their own agendas, formed in self-interest and calculation. What investigators might accept as a "confession," they may view as bait.

Even as they confess, they might conceal murders. Typically, their early efforts were botched and they might not want anyone to know abut their bungling. So even their voluntary confessions might be only part of the story.

So far we've addressed only male serial killers.  What about the females?

 

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