For those of us old enough to remember the 1970s, the arrest in the Golden State Killer case had the eerie feel of an old “Adam-12” or “CHiPs” re-run, like a ghost from a bygone era.
Serial killers were as much a part of the tapestry of that decade as wide-collar polyester shirts and Bee Gees albums, shadowy stalkers who became household names as they left a trail of bodies across the country. Ted Bundy, David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, the Freeway Killer, the Co-ed Killer and the Hillside Strangler – who turned out to be a pair of cousins.
But as the 20th century gave way to the 21st, the serial killer faded with it, giving way to another kind of prolific murderer, the mass shooter. They are as familiar to millennials as the serial killers were to ’70s baby boomers and Generation Xers – the Columbine killers, the Newtown shooter, the Aurora shooter, the Virginia Tech shooter, the Parkland shooter.
“Mass shooters are the new serial killers in many ways,” said Scott Bonn, a criminologist in Las Vegas and author of “Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.” While the number of serial killers has fallen, he said, mass shootings have become more frequent, with cultural and sociological factors playing a role.
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“What did the ’70s become known as? The ‘me’ decade,” Bonn said. “You had these serial killers who said, ‘you will know me.’ These narcissistic, self-aggrandizing serial killers emerged out of that environment.
“Today, you have a very different kind of predator out there,” Bonn continued. “Since 9/11, there’s been an environment of fear. We live in a very divisive political environment now, where many groups feel disenfranchised. This alienation that I believe exists today has percolated and exploded to a point where individuals who have certain grievances are taking it out on the streets and on society in general.”
Of course, both types of mass murderer have always been around. There was Texas Tower Sniper Charles Whitman’s 1966 shooting spree at the University of Texas in Austin. He killed 17 people – one of whom died decades later – before police killed him. And more recently in Florida, the Daytona Beach Killer methodically murdered four women from 2005 to 2007 and remains unknown.
But crime experts agree that mass shooters have largely replaced the serial killer.
“They’re both still around,” Bonn said. “But the trend of serial killers has dissipated in the last 25 years, whereas a pattern of mass public shooters has increased in the last 25 years. They’re still relatively rare, but we’re seeing on average one every four weeks.”
Jack Levin, professor emeritus at Northeastern University, co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict and co-author of “Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder,” said that while serial killers and mass shooters are “very different, the number of mass killers has not increased since the 1970s.”
“There’s no epidemic,” Levin said.
Apart from cultural changes, Levin said, improved public awareness may explain the shift in mass killing styles.
“People are more vigilant, maybe they’re a little more paranoid too,” Levin said. “They don’t let their children play in the front yard. … There are just a lot of different ways that people try to protect themselves that they didn’t do in the ’70s and ’80s.”
In addition, advanced law enforcement tools have made it much harder for serial killers to evade justice – in particular, the use of DNA, which authorities said led to the arrest of the suspected Golden State Killer more than three decades after the crime spree ended.
DNA has transformed criminal investigations in the way that fingerprints did a century ago. Like fingerprints, a person’s genetic DNA profile is unique. Since its first U.S. use in securing a criminal conviction in a 1987 Florida rape case, it has allowed police to link suspects to crime scenes based on blood, hair, skin cells and other bodily substances they left behind, even years after it was collected.
“A budding serial killer is more likely to be caught before he gets a chance to amass a large body count nowadays,” Levin said.
Both serial killers and mass shooters crave notoriety, and thrive on the publicity of their crimes. “BTK” killer Dennis Rader – who is said to have bound, tortured and killed 10 people in Kansas from 1974 to 1991 – would write to police demanding publicity.
“He was begging for headlines,” said Bonn, who interviewed him.
Likewise, today’s mass shooters seem to be competing for the biggest body count, Levin said. “They’d like to be the most dangerous mass murderers in American history.”
Some of the deadliest were in the past year: 58 fatally shot in October by a Las Vegas gunman who killed himself, and 17 fatally shot in February in a Parkland, Fla., high school.
Levin also noted that “there is a copycat factor in mass murder,” both for the ’70s serial killers and modern-day mass shooters, many of whom cited as their inspiration the two students who shot 13 classmates and staff to death at their Columbine High School before killing themselves.
But Bonn said the similarities end there.
“The motivation of a serial killer is very, very different than a mass shooter,” Bonn said. “A serial killer kills out of some fantasy. They enjoy it. It’s like a drug addiction – they have to do it again and again and again.”
Levin noted that “serial killers usually don’t use a gun, they use an intimate, hands-on method in order to inflict pain and suffering.”
For mass shooters, he said, the thrill comes chiefly in planning the act.
Rather than being motivated by a sick fantasy, Bonn said, “with the mass shooter, there’s some sense of rage and retaliation and payback, some group that’s done them wrong – society in general, an organisation or a racial group.”
And often, he said, they are suicidal, planning to take their own lives or be killed in the act.
“There’s always this rage and anger factor, and about half do die at the scene,” Bonn said. “What’s happening in our country is a natural environment for these sort of alienated, frustrated fearful individuals to emerge.”
NOTORIOUS CALIFORNIA SERIAL KILLERS
Zodiac Killer: So called for taunting letters to the press, believed to have killed at least five people in 1968 and 1969 in the Bay Area and perhaps many more. Remains unknown.
Co-ed Killer: Edmund Kemper was convicted of 10 murders from 1964 to 1973 including his mother, grandparents, and Santa Cruz area students and hitchhikers. He is serving a life prison sentence.
Herbert Mullin: Confessed to killing 13 people mostly in the Santa Cruz area in 1972 and 1973, which he believed would stave off a big earthquake. Serving a life prison sentence.
The Hillside Strangler: So called for where the victims were found in the Hollywood Hills. Cousins Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono were convicted of kidnapping, raping and murdering ten women and girls in 1977 and 1978 and sentenced to life in prison. Buono died in 2002.
The Freeway Killer: So called for where his victims were found in southern California, William Bonin was convicted of raping, torturing and murdering 14 boys in 1979 and 1980 and executed in 1996.
Golden State Killer: Originally two separate cases, the East Area Rapist in Sacramento and the Bay Area and the Original Night Stalker in southern California, believed responsible for at least 50 rapes and a dozen murders from 1976 to 1986. Based on a DNA match, authorities arrested Joseph DeAngelo as suspect.
Charles Ng and Leonard Lake: Believed to have raped, tortured and murdered at least a dozen people at Lake’s Calaveras County cabin dungeon from 1983 to 1985. Lake committed suicide and Ng is on death row.
The Night Stalker: Satanist Richard Ramirez was convicted of 13 Los Angeles-area murders in 1984 and 1985, sentenced to death and died of cancer in 2013.
NOTORIOUS CALIFORNIA MASS SHOOTERS
Gian Luigi Ferri: Shot up a law office with semiautomatic assault pistols at 101 California Street, San Francisco in 1993 and killing eight and then himself as police closed in.
Buford O. Furrow Jr.: A white supremacist, he wounded five people at the L.A. Jewish Community Center in 1999 then murdered a mail carrier before surrendering to authorities.
One Goh: Killed seven people at Oikos University in Oakland in 2012 where he believed administrators were conspiring against him. Sentenced to life in prison.
John Zawahri: Killed five people in a 2013 attack that started at his dad’s house and ended at Santa Monica College where he was fatally shot by police inside the school’s library.
Elliot Rodger: Killed six people near the UC Santa Barbara campus, including roommates and three women students outside a sorority house, then killed himself inside his vehicle in 2014.
Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik: Killed 14 at a 2015 holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, Calif. The pair fled in a rented SUV but were later killed in a shootout with police.
Jimmy Lam: A UPS driver who used a stolen assault-style pistol to shoot up a San Francisco employee meeting in 2017, targeting specific coworkers and killing three before taking his own life.
Kevin Janson Neal: Killed his wife and fatally shot four people with a semi-automatic rifle in Tehama County in 2017 before being shot to death by police.
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