Killers, on Killers

Do serial killers have superior insight about others like them?

Posted Mar 19, 2020

Popular fiction presents the idea that playing mental chess with a dangerous incarcerated serial killer can help bring others to ground. Hannibal Lecter is the clearest example, with the young Clarice Starling venturing close to him in his cell to pick up some pointers. But do killers really know something valuable about other killers that can assist with identifying a suspect?

Let’s look at some who’ve offered such advice.

The most famous, perhaps, is Ted Bundy. In October 1984, after he’d been convicted and sentenced to death for three murders in Florida, Bundy communicated with the Green River Task Force in Washington State. He'd read that they were looking for a killer of multiple sex workers. Bundy claimed that since he knew those areas, he had insight into the offender’s behavior that could help identify and stop him. The task force pulled in Robert Keppel, who’d been the lead King County detective on Bundy’s case during the 1970s. Keppel corresponded with Bundy and then visited him at the Florida prison.

He’d gotten advice for this interview from two forensic psychiatrists. “First, question the interviewee at his level,” Keppel said. “Use the same words that he uses and the same sentence structure. This would make Bundy feel comfortable. Don't ask questions over his head intellectually and, at the same time, don't ask questions below his intellectual level.” He also knew to prepare for Bundy’s inevitable lies.

“The questions we asked,” said Keppel, “were the type of questions we might ask about the Green River Killer. We hoped we might get Bundy to use the first-person when answering.” Bundy didn’t confess to his own murders during this encounter, but the seed was planted: Bundy was now comfortable with Keppel and would later confess to him. However, he didn’t offer anything that helped to identify the GRK, Gary Ridgway, who was arrested years later in 2001.

“Happy Face Killer” Keith Jesperson, now revealed as the mysterious “Raven” who spoke with M. William Phelps on Investigation Discovery’s Dark Minds, posed as a monstrous human with no remorse for his eight brutal murders. Given his own dark deeds, supposedly he would understand the nasty minds of serial killers not yet caught. Phelps hoped he’d provide valuable insights. Yet Raven’s tips didn't lead to an arrest in an ongoing case. He did discuss the addictive aspect of serial murder, but that wasn’t news.   

Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer in Wichita, Kansas, from 1974-1991, sent notes to newspapers and law enforcement. In some, he schooled his readers about serial killers. In one note, Rader explained his aberration as a “monster” in his brain that compelled him to kill. “The pressure is great and somt-times he run the game to his liking.” He said that the monster had “already chosen his next victim.” He included a list of other elite offenders he considered his equal, such as Jack the Ripper and “Ted of the West Coast,” stating that “Factor X” motivated them all. There was no cure and they could not stop. He’d studied other killers (including fictional characters) to learn their techniques. Now caught, he likes to discuss the news about other killers, especially those from his area or who use his MO. He's been asked to give advice on other killers, but only by journalists.

After Austrian murderer Jack Unterweger was freed from prison with the idea that his literary writing proved that he’d been reformed, a series of murders occurred in Austria and Czechoslovakia. Editors of newspapers and magazines thought hiring Unterweger to cover these crimes would be a terrific idea: get the unique perspective of a convicted killer who also had writing skills. He'd surely say things no one else could say. Unterweger agreed. He dutifully visited the murder areas and covered the cases as a journalist, mocking police for their lack of progress. One magazine even sent him to Los Angeles to cover prostitution there, and three sex workers turned up strangled. Despite his pretense, Unterweger had no intention of offering helpful advice about this killer, because he was the killer. It took a coordinated effort with the FBI to link him to nearly a dozen murders in three countries.   

Charles Cullen was a health care serial killer in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. After confessing in 2003 to 29 murders and six attempted murders in 10 different facilities, he advised detectives on how to thwart killers like him in the health care system. Since he knew how to get away with it, he considered his advice superior to that of law-abiding experts on health care security. The key problem, he thought, was too much trust, which was easily exploited.

Cullen said there should be firm protocols for accountability for staff and for drug-handling procedures. Among them would be installing surveillance cameras, using swipe cards and bar codes, and keeping a daily count of lethal medications. He also said there should be a national database for updating the employment history of health care workers, and hospitals should pay attention to the mental health of their employees. Poor performance (like his) should be reported to the state board of nursing.

Of course, it’s another matter when the partner of a serial killer helps police. Elmer Wayne Henley and Carol Bundy come to mind. They certainly had unique insight because they were part of the murder crew and knew where the bodies were. But they don't fit the helpful Hannibal mode.

It once made sense to think that a brutal killer might provide insight, such as we saw with the FBI prison interviews during the '70s and '80s that launched a database, but we have so much psychological information about them now that we'd rarely ever need a specialized criminal perspective. Although Cullen’s murders helped to repair the medical system’s handling of problem nurses and Rader’s case punctured misleading stereotypes, no serial killer’s distance diagnosis has become the missing link for identifying others. There’s no Hannibal Lecter providing point-by-point guidance that only a killer could know, and no one we must please in order to get privileged info. Most of what they might say today can be found through focused research.