For some killers, fantasy is a stage for predatory rehearsal.
Posted Dec 06, 2020
Recently, two British men were found guilty of murdering and dismembering a woman. One of them claimed to have found release from years of “pent-up fantasy and desire.” He’d long envisioned how he’d do it.
Nathan Maynard-Ellis, 30, and David Leesley, 25, acted together in May 2019. Maynard-Ellis had studied film, especially the horror genre. For years, the prosecutor stated, he’d envisioned raping, killing, and dismembering women. He had a collection of ornamental weaponry like swords and axes, as well as dolls' heads and DVDs of films featuring serial murder, necrophilia, and violent sexual abuse. He’d reportedly seen a psychiatrist about his violent fantasies and he’d attempted to rape another woman. Leesley, who denied involvement, was implicated as an accomplice.
Maynard-Ellis met Julia Rawson at a pub and took her to his apartment, where he bludgeoned her to death with a rolling pin. He and Leesley then dismembered her body and placed the parts into black plastic bags. They hid the bags near a canal. The victim’s head, hands, and feet had been removed, and her right kidney was missing.
“We suggest that this scale of dismemberment,” said the prosecutor, “points clearly towards the gruesome fantasy aspect of this case, rather than towards any practical necessity after the death.”
We could name many other killers who admitted to having violent fantasies for years before they made their move. “Yosemite Killer” Cary Staynor, for example, said he’d begun to think about killing women when he was just seven. He couldn’t seem to make a relationship work during his teen years, which frustrated him. When he later took a job as an adult at the Cedar Lodge outside Yosemite National Park, he dated a woman who worked in a restaurant there. She had two young daughters, both of whom adored him.
Staynor made a murder kit and a plan. He targeted them for murder on three separate occasions, yet each time he was thwarted. Then in February 1999, he looked in a window at the lodge and saw Carol Sund with her daughter Juli, 15, and a friend, 16-year-old Silvina Pelosso. Noting that no man was present, he entered, subdued and bound them. He murdered Carol, raped the girls, and killed both. He held Juli for hours longer, assaulting her numerous times before he slit her throat. A few months later, he murdered and beheaded naturalist Joie Armstrong, which led to his capture.
In 2018, a 20-year-old man named Sunil was arrested after the discovery of the body of a missing three-year-old. During his confession, Sunil said that over the past two years, he’d lured nine girls from four different towns to break their legs, because this act aroused him. Such deviant fantasies develop over time, growing more vivid and detailed. Continued mental rehearsal offers a mechanism for planning and preparing. Sometimes it fuels an urgent need to act.
Not all who fantasize about harmful sexual trespass become actual offenders; the fantasy alone might satisfy them. Similarly, not all who act on their fantasies become predatory. Some act on a temporary compulsion or in response to a sudden opportunity. They might not repeat it. However, those who act out repeatedly tend to become addicted to their fantasies. Like Sunil, they want more.
A 2015 study on the fantasy lives of homicidal offenders showed a greater incidence of fantasy with deviant content than for non-homicidal offenders. Most used the fantasy to psychologically confirm their sexual power. The form their fantasies took had a significant impact on how they approached and killed their target victims.
When Michael Ross was interrogated in 1984 about the rape and murder of a young woman in Connecticut, he admitted to attacking nearly a dozen women and killing six. He said his violent fantasies of abusing girls stretched back to his childhood. They made him feel safe. From his confession it was apparent he’d derived the greatest pleasure from the image of unclothed girls on their knees, terrified and obedient. By the time he was fifteen, he’d molested several. Even after a humiliating arrest, his fantasies continued to grow increasingly more violent.
As Ross was set to graduate from Cornell University in 1981, he chased a coed, grabbed her, and forced her into a secluded area. He ordered her to remove her clothing and get on her knees to give him oral sex. She complied and, afterward, he fled. Ross convinced himself he’d never do this again, but within three days, he grabbed a second girl. This time he placed a rope around her neck, which increased his sense of domination. When one of his victims later recognized him, he killed her. Thereafter, the idea of strangling a woman at the height of his orgasm obsessed him. The image entered his fantasies as a form of absolute control.
The secretive nature of fantasies makes it difficult to use them as indicators of a future risk of violence. However, we need to study them when offenders describe them in order to provide effective treatment when someone like Maynard-Ellis does seek help. This includes identifying the factors in such treatment's failure.
Ramsland, K. (2018). The Ivy League Killer. Crimescape.
McGrain, P., & Ramsland, K. (2010). Inside the Minds of Sexual Predators. ABC-CLIO.
Chan, H. C., & Beauregard, E. (2015). Non-homicidal and homicidal sexual offenders prevalence of maladaptive personality traits and paraphilic behaviors. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. doi.org/10.1177/0886260515575606