There is no subject that brings in more reader reaction than when I write about serial killers. The answer to why we are so fascinated by these multiple murderers is mercurial, depending on whom you ask.
Dr. Scott Bonn, a professor of criminology at Drew University, says, “Serial killers seem to be for adults what monster movies are for children. It’s exciting, it’s arousing” to learn about their exploits.
Dr. Casey Jordan, a criminologist, behavioral analyst and attorney in private practice, says we are captivated by stories about serial killers because “we wonder to what extent they are just like us.”
I would take it one step further and say we are riveted to details about serial killers because we wonder if we might ever reach a point where we could do what they do.
I read as much about the topic as I can, and during recent research about serial killers I discovered an intriguing set of facts dating back four decades. You might say this is the 40th anniversary of the “Year of Fear.”
In the 1970s, the United States experienced a frightening uptick in the number of active serial killers. In that decade, according to the serial killer information center at Radford University, there were 450 individual serial killers at work. Over the previous decade, the number stood at 156.
What caused the spike? Were there that many more vicious and deranged predators roaming the country or did law enforcement become better able to identify those who killed over and over again?
Two years earlier, the FBI allowed a visionary special agent named Howard Teten to establish what would ultimately become the Behavioral Sciences Unit. Teten devised a groundbreaking analytical approach, now known as psychological criminal profiling, to try to identify unknown killers. His agents dedicated themselves to studying high-volume kill areas around the country and meticulously logged similarities between the cases. They analyzed the lifestyle, physical attributes and location of victims, the way the killers committed the murders and exactly how they left their victims.
Patterns emerged. There was a swath of the county where pretty brunette co-eds were repeatedly reported missing. Some hospitals experienced an extraordinary number of unexplained deaths. Bodies were found with similar and unique wound patterns. Victims had been left in similar provocative positions. All similarities were put together like pieces of a big ugly puzzle. Agents began to know the “how” and “where” of multiple murders but not the “who.” Not yet.
Although the exact date is unknown, this is the time the FBI began to use the term “serial killer” as opposed to the less precise “murder without motive” designation they used back then.
My research also led to a startling revelation I never knew about: 1974 was the year in which some of America's most notorious and prolific murderers began their reigns of bloody terror.
» Ted Bundy committed his first murder in January 1974.
» Dennis Rader (BTK-Bind-Torture-Kill) first murdered in January 1974.
» John Wayne Gacy killed the second of his 34 victims in January 1974.
» Coral Eugene Watts murdered the first of an estimated 90 victims in 1974.
» Paul John Knowles went on a killing spree, murdering 18 people in 1974.
What was it about 1974?
Retired FBI special agent Jim Clemente worked in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (the modern day name of Agent Teten’s original BSU) for the last 12 years of his 20-year career at the bureau. He told me, “At the time, the BAU had no idea how devastating a year 1974 would turn out to be. Some of the most brilliant and prolific serial killers would launch their destructive careers at that time. But it would be decades before they were all brought to justice.”
As FBI agents were building their multiple puzzles, the elusive Bundy would murder upward of 36 people over the next four years. Rader killed until 1991. Gacy wouldn't be caught until late 1978. Watts continued his bloody spree for more than eight years. The handsome Knowles was on a rapid path of destruction. His murder binge ended after five months when a police officer shot him dead.
Surely, there were news reports about some of these murders and missing people left behind in the frenzy of serial killing. But in 1974, the nation's attention was scattered. Vietnam was still ongoing. There was a frantic worldwide nuclear arms race under way. Watergate was toppling the administration of President Richard Nixon. Even though the daughter of multimillionaire Randolph Hearst was kidnapped this year, most Americans didn't notice that the nation’s crime rate was on the rise.
But the FBI knew the murderous score and, worried about creating public panic, kept the information quiet. Also in 1974, the agents were well aware of a murderous maniac operating in San Francisco who signed taunting, cryptic letters to police with the moniker “Zodiac” and someone else was systematically picking up military men home on leave in Southern California and dumping their dismembered bodies along major highways.
The takeaway from this look back at history is that since that peak of serial killing madness in the ’70s and ’80s — there were 603 serial killers identified in the ’80s — the numbers have decreased every single decade since. In the ’90s, there were 498 serial killers, in the 2000s there were 275. So far in this decade, there are just 67 active serial killers registered at the reliable Radford University site. It’s a testament to the perseverance of the FBI and to all law enforcement that studied and implemented Special Agent Teten’s revolutionary criminal profiling protocol.
Serial killers may still hold a place of fascination for many of us, but here’s hoping their number continues to dwindle.
— Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.