When we think about serial killers and other multiple murderers, we think of Berkowitz (Son of Sam) in New York, Bundy in Seattle and Tallahassee, Speck and Gacy in Chicago, Dahmer in Milwaukee, Buono & Bianchi (The Hillside Stranglers) and Manson in LA, the Zodiac in San Francisco, and Corll, Brooks, and Henley in Houston. Now such a killer is loose in the rural community of Gaffney, SC, a city of 15,000 or so.
This killer has murdered four and seriously injured another in the past week. The police aren’t saying how they connected the murders but since a gun was apparently used in each, it is reasonable to assume the connections are due to matching bullets or shell casings found at the scenes. This killer has been tagged as a serial killer, but is he?
Multiple murderers tend to fit into three broad categories: Mass, Spree, and Serial. The definitions of these vary from expert to expert and change from time to time but these definitions are as good as any:
Mass Murderers kill more than 4 people in one place at one time and tend to have a clear agenda, They want to send a message. This is the killer that walks into his workplace or school and shoots several people in a rapid-fire assault. The attack often ends with the killer taking his own life or in a shoot-out with the police. The motive is often some perceived wrong. Examples would be Charles Whitman and the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
Spree Killers kill several people at two or more locations with the killings linked by motive and with no “cooling off” period between. The spree killer goes on a rampage, moving from place to place, city to city, even state to state, leaving bodies in his wake. It’s as if an underlying rage pushes the perpetrator to act and once he begins, he doesn’t stop or deviate from his goal. As with Mass murders, the spree often ends in suicide or a confrontation with law enforcement. Andrew Cunanan offers an example of a spree killer.
Serial Killers kill several people at different times and locations with a “cooling off” period between the killings. The cooling off period, which may be days, weeks, months, even years in duration, distinguishes serial from spree killers. The catalog of serial killers includes some very famous names: Bundy, Gacy, Berkowitz, Ridgeway, Dahmer, Kraft, Rader, Corll, and the list goes on.
The first question that might come to your mind after reading these definitions is what is meant by a cooling off period? It is difficult to define but basically means that there is a period of relief or loss of drive. A serial killer is driven by some psychological need, some basic desire that is poorly understood by the rest of us, and the murder tends to fill this need and to relieve the stress that accompanies it. The killer is satisfied, for lack of a better word. Over time, and this may be hours, days, months, or even years, the need rears its head again and the killer is pushed to action. During this cooling off period, he may return to normal activities, as was the case with Bundy and Rader, the BTK killer. Both blended into their respective communities without notice.
On the other hand, a spree killer tends not to have a cooling off period in that his rage and anger drive him continually forward. There seems to be no period of satisfaction or stress relief, but rather the rage that drives him continues within and pushes him to the next killing. This does not mean that he simply goes from house to house shooting people. That would be more like a mass murderer. There may be many days between the killings but even during those times the rage is pushing him for. This was the case for Andrew Cunanan, whose killings were spread over many weeks and many states, ultimately ending with the murder of Gianni Versace followed by Andrew taking his own life.
So how do you classify the South Carolina killer? We don’t know yet. He could be a serial killer or he could be on a spree. Once his identity is uncovered we may know what the driving force was. If he is angry or enraged by some perceived wrong within his community or against a particular individual or group, then he might be better classified as a spree killer. On the other hand if these murders are satisfying some deep psychological need and that in between the killings, he feels relief from having committed the murders, then he could be classified as a serial killer.
Serial killers are often thought of as hands on killers in that strangulation and knives are often their weapons of choice. But this is not always the case. Berkowitz and the Zodiac both used guns as their weapons and tended to kill their victims from a distance. A short distance, but not within arms reach nonetheless. In fact, Berkowitz the Son of Sam, was also dubbed the 44 Caliber Killer. So the fact that the South carolina killer sues a gun does not preclude his being a serial killer. We’ll have to wait and see.