Dr. Katherine Ramsland is a multi-published and widely-known expert on forensic psychology. She earned a master’s degree in forensic psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Duquesne University, and a Ph. D. in philosophy from Rutgers University. She currently chairs the Department of Social Sciences at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, where she teaches forensic psychology and graduate-level criminal justice.
DPL: Katherine, welcome to the Writer’s Forensics Blog. Great to have you here.
KR: Thanks for the opportunity.
DPL: Let’s just jump right into it: Serial Killers? Nature or nurture?
KR: It’s a complex question, Doug, because it’s certainly both, but no one knows just how much of each part is most evident. In fact, the balance between physiological/genetic make-up and environmental influences (parenting, toxic substances, mental health resources, drug abuse, peers and role models, poverty, gang proximity) differs from one individual to another. A head injury, for example, could cause impulsive violence in one person, while the same injury has no effect on someone else, and a third might be violent without any head injury. That’s a simplistic way of saying that for any supposedly causal factor, it will not operate in the same way, across the board, in every individual. I heard a case once that I thought summed it up: Two brothers were watching a hanging scene in a Western. One was indifferent, the other masturbated to it. See what I mean? The combination of physiology, genetics, role models, reactions and responses is the most salient factor, but you can’t easily work with that in the categorical manner that criminologists and media professionals prefer. There really is no single influential fact across the cases, but for some reason, people want to believe there is. Maybe to isolate it would make us feel safer, but that’s not consistent with the phenomena. It’s one of the reasons I wrote “Inside the Minds of Serial Killers.” I was tired of the tendency to lump all serial killers together with a single type of motive or causal agency.
DPL: The recent case of the Florida teenager who has been charged with brutalizing, dissecting, and posing cats on the owners’ lawns has buzzed around the media. We know the triad of bed wetting, fire starting, and animal cruelty is in the background of many serial predators. What other behaviors might indicate future violence?
KR: The supposed “triad” is based on a very limited and non-randomized sample of interviews with incarcerated white male criminals in a few prisons who were willing to talk, so we don’t really know if it holds true as a general factor. I prefer other studies that have more validity. Future violence is actually best predicted with the various types of psychopathy scales that have been devised for children. The behaviors that stand out for budding psychopaths who are the most apt to become violent involve unmotivated deception, tendency to blame others, callous disregard, and ADHD – a combination of them all. Such children will tend to manipulation, deflect responsibility, damage property, steal, do poorly in activities that require sustained discipline and focus, and play cruel pranks. They will also exercise their need for control on others who are weaker, including animals, and this could involve experiments, mutilation and killing. The bedwetting part, which is not true across the board, seems to be tied into the same brain mechanisms that feed impulsivity, so this could be a brain disorder.
DPL: The posing of the cat corpses could be considered the “Signature” of this killer. What are the most unusual signatures you’ve encountered in your work?
KR: Surgical removal of the eyes, biting in specific patterns, blood drinking, odd postmortem sexual practices, and specific types of complicated knots in ligatures. One of the most interesting cases lately involved the female serial killer in Iran who utilized methods from Agatha Christie novels. That’s more of an MO than a true signature, although it does reveal things about her personality, too.
DPL: Are tandem and female serial killers truly as rare as they seem? How do female and team killers differ psychologically from the more common male predator?
KR: I’m afraid this question would require pages and pages to answer. I’ve seen figures in some studies of about 15% for team killers, but in my own study of over 1,200 serial killers from around the world, about seventy-five are known to have committed murder in a partnership with one or more accomplices (although it’s possible that other accomplices were never identified). So I would place the figure at about 6-8%. There can be two, three, four, even a dozen working together. They can be all male teams, male/female, or even all female.
As for the second question, it’s really not possible to give a simple answer, because once again, there are many individual differences from case to case, just as there are among male killers. Even in a small subcategory, such as healthcare serial killers, the female and males nurses differ from one another in terms of psychological development and motive. So, I can’t really answer, except that I will say that there are many more female serial killers than most people realize. In part, this is because they haven’t received anywhere near the same amount of attention from the media or from criminologists as males have. Even researchers on psychopathy have tended to focus on male populations. There’s a common erroneous assumption that because females are “nurturing,” they won’t be violent. But we’ve had female serial killers who have shot, stabbed, smothered (with her enormous weight), and even used chain saws and ice picks.
Aileen Wuornos is not the first female serial killer or even the first to use a gun. We have many myths about serial killers in this country, but that’s a whole lecture in itself. Suffice it to say that while there are fewer female serial killers (that we know of), they are just as lethal, they can be predatory, and they can even be motivated by lust. It’s true that serial killers tend to select victims that they believe they can control, and so because women tend to be weaker (with the exception of the female wrestler in Mexico and six-foot farmer Belle Gunness), they will tend to select children or other females. They will rely on weapons they can control or get easy access to, such as poison. But their victims are equally as dead as those that males kill with knives or strangulation or guns.
DPL: Which serial killer do you find most intriguing and why?
KR: I like Jack Unterweger, the Austrian serial killer who was also a journalist. He was clever, saucy, slick, and resourceful in ways that most serial killers are not (despite how we like to portray them in fiction and film). He learned how to write in prison, penned a bestseller, and convinced the literati that art had cured him. Once free, he killed eleven women in three countries in about a year. He even exploited LA cops to show him where his victim pool hung out, and when he was caught, he lied about his mother in order to make the jury feel sorry for him (and many journalists accepted whatever he said as true). But…he was convicted. So, he exercised his final Ace, and killed himself.
DPL: Do you believe that serial killers and other serial predators can be rehabilitated, or rewired so to speak, or is their pathology so ingrained that treatment is of little help?
KR: To this date, no psychopath has been “cured.” Gregg McCrary, a former profiler and one of my co-writers, likes to say, “When you educate a psychopath, you get an educated psychopath.” However, I will say this. Contrary to the myth that they’re all psychopaths, some have been psychotic (which can be treated), and some have been remorseful – turning themselves in or killing themselves. I know of none who was freed and then went on to live a productive life as a contributing citizen. I know of several who were freed who then started killing again – one within hours. However, there is work ongoing to use atypical treatments. Whatever might develop in the future, I cannot say, but I think a treatment of some type might yet be found, especially if some cases of serial murder are caused by brain disorders.
DPL: What’s the good, the bad, and the ugly in offender profiling? Does it typically help investigators or can it lead them down the wrong path?
KR: It can do either, Doug. A profile is only as good as the input data and the person who develops it. Profiling is just one possible tool, not a magic wand, and the intention of a profile is to assist with narrowing down the pool of suspects. It has certainly assisted in some cases, both for murder and for rape, but it has also mislead investigator…and juries. Howard Teten, who founded the FBI’s initial Behavioral Science Unit back in the 1970s, said in an interview that profiling should be used as a last resort, because it can cause tunnel vision. Thanks to the way it’s been elevated by TV and film, this has certainly happened. The media glitz has also caused some investigators to be carelessly dismissive of a good resource. Solid profiling has been valuable, when used in the right context. The fact is, experienced detectives who know how to think critically and creatively already know how to profile behavior. This technique was nothing new to them, which is why you hear some of them grumble about bringing in a profiler. You can see profiling at work in cases as far back as the 19th century. In fact, the first official profile was done by a surgeon on the cases attributed to Jack the Ripper. However, it’s also true that profilers, with considerably more wide-ranging experience in crime scene behavior than most detectives have, can offer insights and ideas that haven’t occurred to the investigative team. Why not utilize every productive route? It’s as silly to dismiss it as it is to over-rely on it. Judge a profile for what it’s worth, I say: take what’s valuable and ignore what’s not.
Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and experience with us.
Visit Dr. Ramsland’s Website
Buy and read Katherine’s books. They are all excellent resources for writers.
Read about Jack Unterweger: