The nation killer's Words, Traits Familiar to the Experts Like Dennis Rader, most serial predators crave control. Many were abused, but what pushes them, and not others, to murder is a mystery

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Killer's Words, Traits Familiar to the Experts

Like Dennis Rader, most serial predators crave control. Many were abused, but what pushes them, and not others, to murder is a mystery.

By Nicholas Riccardi and Alan Zarembo

Times Staff Writers

June 28, 2005

Monday's confession by BTK killer Dennis L. Rader was a rare public look into the eerie world of serial killers, one that is full of tantalizing patterns but governed by a violence that scientists and profilers do not understand.

Most serial killers are publicity hounds. But details of their crimes usually come out in the relative privacy of a jailhouse interview rather than in open court. The terms Rader used to describe his killings — "trolling" for victims, "stalking" his prey — startled former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt.

"He's quoting serial killer tradecraft," Van Zandt said. "These are the words I would use standing up in front of a class of FBI agents or law enforcement officers talking about serial killers."

Rader's words weren't the only thing crime experts found familiar. His personal history and tightly controlled demeanor dovetail with those of most other serial killers.

"These are guys with an excessive need for power, dominance and control," said Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University. And they don't seem to be able to satisfy it, he said, in any socially acceptable way.

Even though decades of field and academic study have mapped commonalities among serial killers — they are mostly men, abused as children, obsessed with power and status — experts said they were far from determining what creates them.

"There are lots of children who are abused and abandoned," Levin said. "They feel an exceptional amount of powerlessness, and they grow up and compensate by being CEOs and businessmen."

Others, he said, turn into the BTK killer.

Serial killers tend to exist on society's margins, feeling neglected and passed over. Rader, a city ordinance officer, had been unable to become a cop; Ted Bundy, who killed dozens of women, flunked out of two law schools. Cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer was stuck in a menial job in a chocolate factory.

Dennis Nilsen, convicted in the 1980s of murdering 15 homosexual men, was a civil servant in London who would often tie his dead victims in chairs and lecture them about civil service regulation.

The publicity gained through their crimes offsets that perceived neglect.

The killings "are the fundamental achievements in their entire lives, the high points," said Elliott Leyton, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Memorial University of Newfoundland and author of "Hunting Humans: The Rise of the Modern Multiple Murderer." The killings, he said, are typically recounted "the same way a craftsman would talk about a fine piece of furniture he made."

Serial killers' need to control their victims was chillingly illustrated by Rader. He always brought a gun to his crime scenes, but used it only if a victim was about to escape. He preferred to kill up close, by strangulation.

"They enjoy the physical contact, they love squeezing the last breath," said Levin, who has written several books on serial killers. "They love hearing their victims scream … killing is almost incidental. Power is the motive."

As, frequently, is sex. For many serial killers, sexual urges have become linked to violence, and the sense of power provided by murder is coupled with an erotic release. Rader said that he killed to satisfy "sexual fantasies," which he did not detail in court Monday.

The killers often are victims of childhood trauma that blended control, sex and violence.

Gary Ridgway, the Green River killer who murdered 48 women before he was caught in 2001, wet the bed as a child. His mother, sometimes in a revealing nightgown, would drag him into a bathtub, strip and clean him.

Ridgway was confused by the mix of anger, humiliation, lack of control and love for his mother, tinged with eroticism, said Tomas Guillen, a professor at Seattle University who has studied the Green River killer's recorded confessions. "I'm angry at Mom, I want to kill her, but I love her," is how Guillen summarized Ridgway's thoughts.

Many serial killers target victims who are not part of their world — in Ridgway's case, prostitutes.

What sets Ridgway and Rader apart from most, however, is that they both had lengthy marriages, owned homes and attended church. Most such criminals are loners and drifters who have a hard time maintaining relationships.

Many serial killers also are aware of their peers. "We've arrested these guys over the years, and they've got all the articles on Ted Bundy all over the house," Van Zandt said. "It's the same reason why generals read books about other generals — how did they make their decisions? What would they do in this situation?"

Sometimes the killers get competitive. In the 1980s, Dave Reichert, now a congressman, was a detective investigating the Green River killings when he received a letter from Bundy, who was in a Florida prison awaiting execution.

Bundy told the detective that he could give him insight into the mind of a serial killer.

Reichert and a colleague visited him for two days and found him congenial. But his motive for offering help was clear: Another killer was making a bigger name for himself. "Bundy was out of the limelight," Reichert recalled. "He wanted a way to get attention."

In his correspondence with law enforcement and the media before his capture, Rader would frequently mention other serial killers and demand their level of notoriety. One spelling and typo-ridden letter to a Wichita television station in 1978 summed up his yearning for celebrity, along with the inability to explain what drove him to kill.

"You don't understand these things because your not under the influence of factor x," he wrote. "The same thing that made Son of Sam, Jack The Ripper, Havery Glatman, Boston Strangler, Dr. H.H. Holmes Panty Hose Strangler of Florida, Hillside Strangler, Ted of The West Coast and many more infamous character kill…. There is no help, no cure, except death or being caught and put away."


Riccardi reported from Denver and Zarembo from Los Angeles.

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