Killers who pose as photographers exploit specific vulnerabilities.
Posted May 07, 2020
Harvey Glatman went by “Johnny Glenn” the first time he used his pretense as a professional photographer to lure a woman he intended to kill. He also went through modeling agencies, learning how easy it was to exploit the aspirations of attractive young women. True detective magazines were popular during the 1950s, so he used their cover shot requirements to persuade the women to let him tie them up. He then took photographs as they realized he intended them harm. The photos show bound, gagged, and terrified women looking straight at his camera. He managed to murder three before a fourth escaped and alerted the police.
These photos later inspired Dennis Rader to become the “BTK” serial killer during the 1970s. As an adolescent, Rader took the magazine featuring Glatman’s victims out to the chicken house to perform his autoerotic rituals. He later said it was the greatest sexual rush he’d ever achieved. Although Rader did not become a predatory photographer like Glatman, he did take photos of several victims to document them. He hoped to capture the same expression he saw in Glatman’s images, because he wanted to exult in his domination of bound females.
In 1984, contractor Christopher Wilder came under suspicion in Florida in the disappearances of two women, so he fled across the country. Along the way, he lured several young women into his clutches. A chance survivor told the police about Wilder’s modus operandi. He’d follow a young woman in a mall or parking lot to tell her he was a photographer looking for a model. He’d lure her with flattery and the promise of a career, then show her his portfolio. As she relaxed her guard and began to believe his hype about her future fame, he’d force her into his car.
The survivor said Wilder had taken her to a motel and ordered her to strip while he masturbated. Then he’d made her perform sexual acts before raping her. During this activity, he’d watched television. After a few hours, he’d pulled out an electrical cord, which was cut in the middle, with a switch attached. He’d applied the open copper wires to her feet to painfully shock her. Wilder had used super glue to keep her eyes shut, ordering her to mimic the movements of women on an exercise show. If she did anything wrong, he’d shocked her.
Sexual predators generally study their victims to strategize how to get an advantage. Some look for victims they think won’t attract attention or police resources; some exploit victims who seem to need money; and others figure out what their targeted victims most want. The most successful predators equip themselves with convincing tools and ruses; they project knowledge and confidence to make their targets believe they can deliver on their promise.
William Richard Bradford also claimed to be a professional photographer. Like Wilder, he approached Shari Miller in Los Angeles and told her she could be a model. He offered to help her develop her portfolio. She agreed to accompany him to a remote campsite. After she posed for him, he strangled her, removed identifying marks, and dumped her body. Bradford was the last person to see a missing 15-year-old, Tracey Campbell, so police arrested him. They found photos of more than 50 women in his residence, including Miller and Campbell, which helped them to locate the campsite and Campbell's body. Bradford was convicted and sentenced to death. He hinted that he'd killed more. Almost two decades later, investigators released the photos in the hope of identifying more victims. One murder victim has been linked to Bradford.
Jeffrey Dahmer, killer of 17, identified young men he thought would respond to offers of money. Once he spotted a potential victim, he’d offer to pay them to let him photograph them. A 13-year-old victim of sexual assault in 1988 described how Dahmer had lured him, fondled him, and taken photos of him before he passed out. Dahmer was arrested, and several psychologists warned that he posed a danger. The judge listened instead to assurances from Dahmer and his attorney that he could change. Dahmer received a short sentence and probation. Once released, he returned to his MO, but with deadlier intent. He lured young men, drugged them, and killed them. He then dismembered them and took photos as he posed the bodies or parts in bizarre positions. Cops arrested him after an intended victim escaped in 1991 and reported Dahmer’s treatment of him. In Dahmer’s apartment, police found severed heads, bleached skulls, human hearts, a torso, dismembering tools, and a cache of gruesome Polaroid photos.
Rodney Alcala, the Dating Game Killer, murdered women and girls in several states. After a failed attempt to kill an 8-year-old in 1968 in LA, he fled to New York. There he posed as “John Berger” and enrolled in NYU’s School of the Arts to study photography. The FBI returned him to California, where he pleaded guilty to child abuse and served less than three years. During the summer of 1977, Alcala persuaded his parole officer to let him travel to New York. Posing as a photographer, he lured Ellen Jane Hover to her death.
Alcala charmed numerous young people to pose for him, including unclothed and in sexual positions. Many were underage. At Huntington Beach, he approached Robin Samsoe and Bridget Wilvert, both just out of seventh grade. He flattered Robin and took her picture. Then she disappeared. Wilvert gave detectives his description, which resembled Alcala’s mug shot. Eventually, Robin’s remains were found in the woods. Alcala was arrested, but evidence against him was slim.
Police learned about his storage locker in Seattle. There, they found a large cache of his photos. They published many of them, hoping to match some to cold cases of missing persons or Jane Doe murders. One photo closed a cold case in Wyoming: the 1977 murder of 28-year-old Christine Ruth Thornton. In 2016, Alcala was charged.
Knowing the details and intent of such ruses might inspire caution in vulnerable people, but desperation and desire can still override it.
Ramsland K. & McGrain, P. (2010). Inside the minds of sexual predators. Praeger.