Preying on weak makes serial killers hard to detect

Police unable to see patterns in disappearances of 'the less dead'

Chris Nuttall-Smith
Vancouver Sun

Wednesday, April 03, 2002

Kathleen Hallmark, whose daughter is among the missing, was angry Pickton didn't appear in person.

As Robert Pickton was charged Tuesday with his third, fourth and fifth counts of first-degree murder -- charges that make him, by definition, an accused serial killer -- experts in the study of serial murder said the disappearances in which Pickton was charged, and the investigation of those disappearances, fit well-worn and troubling patterns.

According to one U.S. academic and former homicide investigator who is considered an authority on the study of serial killing, the disappearances of some 50 women from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside fit the hallmarks of many serial murder sprees.

In addition, said Steven Egger, who with his wife, researcher Kim Egger, has compiled a database of 1,400 serial killers who were active in the last century, the police investigation into the women's disappearances suffered from many of what he calls "the seven major problems with serial killing investigations."

"Most of the victims of serial killers would fall within what I would define as 'the less dead,'" said Egger. "The prostitutes, the homeless, the vagabonds, the migrant workers, the homosexuals, people with not a lot of power, not a lot of prestige."

Egger and other serial murder specialists all said that serial murder investigations are often the hardest to solve.

But Egger said that in a pattern he sees all the time, and which he has studied and written about extensively, investigators in Vancouver suffered from what he has termed "linkage blindness": they took far too long to recognize and acknowledge they might be dealing with a serial killer.

Elliott Leyton, a Newfoundland-based anthropologist who also studies serial murder, was even more critical.

"Often serial killers move around in vague, general, large areas and they're really hard to nail," said Leyton, who grew up in Vancouver and has been following the Vancouver case.

"But when someone is picking up women from such a relatively confined area, from such a small social niche -- street women -- I mean, God in heaven, by serial killer investigation standards, it's relatively easy."

The broadest definition of a serial killer is someone who kills more than once with a cooling off period in between. Most police put the minimum number of murders at three. People who kill several people all at once are termed mass murderers.

But criminologists have also been able to develop a broad list of characteristics that many serial killers share.

According to Egger, Leyton and Neil Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University, serial killers are hard to catch because they don't usually kill people they know.

Unlike one-off killers, serial killers most often do not use a gun or a knife, Boyd said. Usually they pick their victims from one class or social, political or racial stratum. They kill for reasons of sex, for power or for what Boyd called "some bizarre notion of reality."

"Often the only difference between a serial killer who murders two people and a serial killer who murders 20 people is the quality of the police investigation," said Leyton.

Egger, who wrote The Killers Among Us: An Examination of Serial Murder and its Investigation, has identified seven major pitfalls of serial murder investigations.

The first two and the most important, he said, are investigators' frequent inability to find linkages between disappearances or murders that point to a serial crime.

Second, said Egger, of the 1,400 serial killers he has studied, some 75 per cent preyed on people belonging to lower social strata. Because of that, their disappearances often do not get the attention needed from police or from the larger society that spells out its priorities to police.

Third, investigators are often unwilling to admit there is a serial killer in their jurisdiction. Such an admission is an embarrassment and acknowledgement that policing has failed, he said.

The rest of the problems Egger has identified are linked more closely to the management of investigations: police often do not know how to organize large amounts of information, often they can not coordinate between multiple forces and jurisdictions, often their adversarial relationship with news media hurts them, and often they are not aware of how past serial murder investigations have been successful.

In an investigation last year, The Vancouver Sun showed how Vancouver police were slow to recognize the scope of the disappearances of women, mostly prostitutes, from downtown Vancouver, and how police did not commit adequate resources to the investigation in its early days.

Police have also faced criticism for waiting so long, in spite of reports from investigators that a serial killer was at work, to acknowledge that that might be the case.

Leyton, a former member of the World Working Group on Serial Sexual Assault and Murder, said once police have determined they might be dealing with a serial killer, their best move is often to begin blanket surveillance of the area and the people the suspected killer is targeting.

That, and a good deal of luck.

"The best of course is when you combine the two. When you've got a real high-level surveillance saturation campaign combined with a lot of people on the beat of good quality, who are freed up by the bureaucracy to pursue any leads," Leyton said.

"So many of these most famous cases have been aborted because some intuitive, intelligent person on the beat saw something that looked suspicious: Ted Bundy backing out of a middle-class driveway in the middle of the night, or the Yorkshire Ripper looking suspicious and dropping his metal killing tool against the concrete trying to hide it."


The 20th century's most prolific serial killers

- Pedro Alonso Lopez,

Colombia, 300 victims

He was captured in 1980 and sentenced to life in prison.

- Dr. Harold Shipman, U.K.

Found guilty in January 2000 of murdering 15 women patients. Investigators believe Shipman killed at least 236 and up to 345.

- Henry Lee Lucas, U.S.

Confessed in 1983 to 360 murders and led police to 200 murder sites. On death row in Texas.

- Hu Wanlin, China

Believed to have killed an estimated 196 people, though he was sentenced in 2000 in the deaths of three people.

- Luis Alfredo Gavarito, Colombia

Confessed in 1999. Estimated to have killed 140 people.

- Dr. Jack Kevorkian, U.S.

"Dr. Death" was convicted of second-degree murder for his involvement in the suicide of one U.S. man. However, he has admitted to assisting in about 130 suicides. He is serving 10 to 25 years.

- Donald Henry (Pee Wee) Gaskins, U.S.

May have killed 200. A more conservative estimate puts his victims at 100. Executed in 1991.

- Javed Iqbal, Pakistan

With two accomplices was found guilty in March 2000, of murdering boys in Lahore. Sentenced to be publicly strangled, dismembered, and his body dissolved in acid.

- Delfina and Maria de Jesus Gonzales, Mexico

Sentenced to 40 years in 1964 after 91 bodies were found on their property.

- Bruno Ludke, Germany

Confessed to murdering 86 women between the 1920s and 1940s.

Source: The Top Ten of Everything, Canadian Edition, 2002


The list of Canada's most prolific serial killers includes:

- Clifford Olson, who was convicted of murdering 11 Lower Mainland children in 1982.

- Michael Wayne McGray, who was convicted of killing six people, but has claimed to have killed 16 others.

- If he is to be believed, William Patrick Fyfe, a handyman convicted of killing five women in the Montreal area, also killed four others, bringing his total to nine.

- Allan Legere, killed three women and a priest in Quebec.

- John Martin Crawford, convicted in 1992 of killing three native women in Saskatoon. He had also served a manslaughter sentence for beating a native woman to death in 1981.

 Copyright  2002 Vancouver Sun




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Updated: August 21, 2016