Lately my life has been steeped in more serial murder discussions than is probably recommended for sound mental health. Always fascinating, if a little macabre. Take last Saturday, when I sat at my dining room table across from serial murder expert Prof. Steve Egger and, over coffee and chocolate chip cookies, talked for two hours straight about violent crime.
Let me back up. A couple of weeks ago a man named Bob Ladendorf reached out to me through email. He explained that he was the Chief Operating Officer of an organization called the Center for Inquiry – Los Angeles (the website states its missions as “working to promote and defend reason, science, and freedom of inquiry in all areas of human endeavor”). I’m familiar with CFI, as I drive past their offices in East Hollywood several times a week. Bob said he’d read my article in Los Angeles magazine on the Golden State Killer and thought I might be interested in attending an upcoming talk at CFI by his friend Steve Egger, a serial murder expert. Maybe the three of us could meet and talk at some point?
Sure, I replied, and invited them to my house for coffee the day before the talk.
I think what struck me most about my talk with Steve were three words he uttered that you almost never hear from serial murder experts, but probably should more often: “I don’t know.”
I’d asked him if he had any insights into the Golden State Killer’s background. Since GSK attacked in these suburban middle-class areas, did that mean he was from that stratum of society, or was he lashing out at them because he was resentful?
“The amateur profiler would probably tell you that,” Steve said, “but the truth is no one knows. Could be any number of reasons. I’m constantly asked what are the similarities among serial killers? As far as I can tell there’s only one.”
A quick note about Steve’s background here. He’s worked as a police officer and homicide investigator, and is the first person to write a dissertation on serial murder. He’s written four nonfiction books on the subject, and is currently an Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Houston at Clear Lake. He is a board member of the Innocence Project of Texas.
“They pick vulnerable victims,” Steve said about the only trait, in his opinion, all serial violent offenders share.
Mostly that means choosing victims that live high-risk lifestyles, like prostitutes and drug abusers. But in the GSK case, it pertains to the way he targeted victims when they were in their beds at night sound asleep, at a distinct disadvantage and with little ability to fight back.
I asked Steve about one of the issues that puzzles me most about GSK --- how a man that was so consistently and brutally violent could manage to not have a significant criminal record in California, as the lack of a DNA match with anyone in the prison system seems to suggest. I know it’s a common trope in the movies, I said to Steve, but in his experience was it realistic that an offender like GSK could lead an outwardly normal, placid life, masking his considerable rage and keeping it in check?
Absolutely, Steve said, and referred me to a book called Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, by Robert Jay Lifton. The book is full of examples of men carrying out horrific acts of mass murder and then seamlessly resuming their banal domestic lives. Dennis Rader, the BTK killer, was another example, Steve said. Rader referred to his murders as “projects.” His victims were “things.” He was also a doting father of two and a church leader.
For the most part Steve seemed wary of the bold pronouncements of criminal profilers. We had a laugh about a certain media-friendly profiler’s insight about the unidentified Long Island serial killer. The profiler’s expert observation?
“He probably lives in the area.”
One of the things about the GSK case that stuck out to Steve right away is an issue he’s been talking about for years --- how ingrained police behavior and procedure impedes serial murder investigations. He explained that police are taught to quickly control the situation, and part of that is controlling the flow of information in a case. The problem is that that overriding need to control frequently prevents different jurisdictions from sharing information. Turf battles erupt. Investigators become concerned with their own clearance rates. The result is “linkage blindness,” or the inability to see that several different homicide cases might in fact be connected.
Police networking and technology is an important issue to Steve, as he was once the project director of the Homicide Assessment and Lead Tracking System (HALT) for the state of New York, which was the first statewide-computerized system designed to track and identify serial killers.
“They have to get better at sharing information,” he said of law enforcement agencies, “or cases will go unsolved.”
Steve and I discovered that we’d both spent a lot of time in southwestern Michigan, where he grew up and my family has a summer cabin. Michigan signifies to me beach bonfires and picking blueberries. For Steve, it’s where he first fell into serial murder investigation. He was a young patrol officer in Ann Arbor in the late ‘60s when a number of co-eds went missing and were murdered. John Norman Collins was eventually caught and convicted for “the Michigan murders.”
Talking with Steve was an interesting and dark way to spend a sunny Saturday in Los Angeles. The next day, the day of Steve’s talk at CFI, the Huffington Post ran a story about Samuel Little, a transient serial killer with an astonishing 100-page rap sheet (crimes in 24 states over 56 years) who roamed the country preying on troubled women. Here was another example of Steve’s “vulnerable victims” and police “linkage blindness” at work.