How to Identify a Killer in a Homicide Series


The word killer is a synonym for homicide and evokes images of brutal and bloody crimes. The macabre nature of these crimes generates public fascination that has generated countless books, articles, and movies. The murders of prostitutes in Whitechapel, London in the late 1880’s spawned legends such as Jack the Ripper and spurred a public interest in serial killing that has endured throughout the decades.

Unlike a single murder, where forensic and behavioral evidence can help lead to the identification of an offender, identifying multiple homicides committed by a serial killer is often more challenging. Serial murder investigations can be complex and involve many jurisdictions. The resulting media frenzy can detract from the investigative process. The Symposium participants agreed that the key to success in these cases is the establishment of a clear chain of command. Leaders at all levels must clearly define the investigative functions and firmly establish the supreme goal of arresting and prosecuting the offender.

The initial identification of a homicide series by forensic or behavioral evidence is the primary investigative challenge identified by the Symposium participants. Identifying the offender and connecting the murders requires an understanding of how serial killers operate. They typically commit the crimes within specific geographic areas or “comfort zones” that may be defined by their place of employment, residence, or the home of a relative. The majority of serial killers do not travel interstate. The exception to this rule are itinerant individuals such as truck drivers and those in military service who have the ability to travel extensively.

Attendees at the Symposium agreed that there is no generic profile of a serial killer and they differ from one another in their motivation for killing, crime scene behavior, and other factors. They do, however, share certain traits and behaviors including sensation seeking, a lack of remorse or guilt, impulsivity, and predatory behavior. These traits and behaviors are consistent with psychopathic personality disorder, the underlying cause of many serial killings.

Symposium attendees felt it was essential for law enforcement and other criminal justice professionals to understand psychopathy because it is a significant contributing factor in serial killing. It is also important to understand how and why a person develops into a serial offender. This is accomplished through an understanding of causality which includes heredity, environment, and choices a person makes throughout his or her development.

The Symposium attendees also discussed the importance of working together on serial killer cases. They agreed that it is important to maintain and update a comprehensive serial killer database for use by law enforcement agencies. This collaborative effort, initiated at the 2012 FDIAI Conference by Radford University and FGCU, is currently underway. The goal is to expand the database to include spree and mass murders as well as serial killings. The database will be available to researchers and other law enforcement professionals in the United States and internationally.