Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Psychology of a Serial Killer–Guest Blogger

The Psychology of a Serial Killer by Janice Gable Bashman and Jonathan Maberry

It’s often difficult for writers to get inside the head of a serial killer, to understand his or her motives, background, etc. After all, who wants to think like that? But in order to create three-dimensional characters, we must delve into that psychology and understand what drives killers to perform the acts they do. For our book WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE we asked the experts about the psychology of a serial killer. Here’s what we discovered:

JOHN DOUGLAS: Most [serial killers] have some type of dysfunction in their background in early childhood, a homicidal triangle that includes enuresis due to abuse, fire setting and animal cruelty. This is a big predictor of future problems for law enforcement… Most serial killers, no matter how they look or come across, have really low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacies… and what they can do to become a somebody is take control and go on the hunt and find victims who are susceptible—someone drunk, someone with a broken-down vehicle, etc… Many of the serial killers have backgrounds where they want to be in law enforcement, counseling, and ministry—in all three of those occupations someone is going to them for help and there is an element of power in that…Serial killers don’t look like one eyed monsters but look like your next door neighbor.

MARK E. SAFARIK: Most serial offenders seek the feeling they get by being in control, by being all powerful.  There are few things that make you feel as powerful as controlling whether someone will live or die.  Many of them gain this feeling of power and control through sexual assault.  For many of them the killing and associated activity provides a sexual release sometimes though this is obtained through non-sexual activity (torture).

Most of these individuals would be diagnosed as psychopaths and as such, have no empathy or remorse for their victims.  They have shallow affects.  They are users and abusers of people and relationships so we would expect them to have poor interpersonal skills.  They can often mimic emotions but they do not feel them so most relationships are superficial.   Of course there will be some outliers but overall that statement is probably accurate.

There may be multiple motives during the course of the homicide.  These motives are complex, layered, and there is usually more than one.  They can rise and fall in importance depending on the current circumstances…People want men who are that dangerous and aberrant to be recognizable.  The sad reality is that the reason most serial killers are successful is because they blend into society.  They look and act much like everyone else except when they are satisfying their predatory appetite.

M. WILLIAM PHELPS: We all have demons to contend with. Some of us choose to get over them. Serial killers—especially the female—believe that what they are doing is what needs to be done; and because of that, they are unwilling to work through those demons. In turn, they need to act out on them. There is no other way.

Dr. CYNTHIA LEA CLARK: There are many reasons that serial killers evolve. One, they are created by circumstances such as humiliation, abuse, molestation, etc. Second, some are born that way. Third, chemical imbalances and certain medical conditions such as tumors, etc. can in some cases cause violence…. A potential serial killer may be cutting the grass next door and being seemingly human and then boom he snaps. Something has triggered him or her to start a series of murders. For the most part they are high stressors like the death of a parent, spouse, being fired for one’s job, etc.

GARY C. KING: In some respects, the serial killer is like the mythical vampire—neither can help themselves in the horrors they create toward mankind.  Of course, the vampire feeds on human blood for sustenance, and in a way the serial killer is able to sustain himself or herself through the pleasure they gain from taking another human life, often after torturing the victim.  The pleasure attained from killing or victimizing becomes addicting, and serial killers, much like the rapist, often get their kicks by the control they find they can exert over others.  But the serial killer has a choice—it’s just difficult for such people to control their urges, and they often go through a psychosexual offense cycle similar to that of the pedophile and/or sex offender, perhaps a way for the killer to attain some type of pent up psychological release.  Even with help, such beings will never be able to overcome their aberrant urges—the most they can hope for is to learn methods that can help them control their behavior when their unnatural urges to victimize other people strikes.

Meet the experts:

John Douglas is the former unit chief of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crimes. He interviewed, hunted and confronted many serial killers and is the author of MINDHUNTER: INSIDE THE FBI’S ELITE SERIAL CRIME UNIT and THE ANATOMY OF MOTIVE. There are dozens of articles about serial killer and other resources on his website.

Mark E. Safarik retired from the FBI after 23 years serving the last 12 as a senior profiler in the FBI’s famed Behavioral Analysis Unit and is now the Executive Director of Forensic Behavioral Services International, a consulting firm based in Virginia.

M. William Phelps is a crime/serial killer expert, investigative journalist and the award-winning author of fourteen nonfiction books, including KILL FOR ME, the final book in a trilogy about couples who kill.

Dr. Cynthia Lea Clark had conducted more than 70 interviews with serial killers and mass murderers.

Gary C. King has published numerous true crime books (RAGE, AN ALMOST PERFECT MURDER) and more than 400 articles in true crime magazines.

To dig deeper on this topic and for more information from these experts and others, check out the book WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE ( by New York Times bestseller and multiple Bram Stoker award-winner Jonathan Maberry ( and Janice Gable Bashman ( In bookstores everywhere.


Posted by on September 27, 2010 in Guest Blogger, Multiple Murderers


Dexter Made Me Do It

That’s the defense used by 18-year-old Andrew Conley in his bid to avoid a life sentence. There is no doubt that Andrew strangled his 10-year-old brother to death. He confessed that. He confessed to being driven to do it. He said it was like being hungry for a hamburger. After he killed his brother he visited his girlfriend to give her a “sweetheart ring.” Somewhere between touching and psychopathic.

It turns out that Andrew has fantasized about killing people since he was in the eighth grade. He said he once stood over his sleeping father, knife in hand, and contemplated killing him. He apparently was a big fan of DEXTER and identified with everyone’s favorite serial killer. After all, Dexter killed his brother, too. What’s a boy to do? Of course, like Dexter, his brother was a serial killer, while Andrew’s brother was simply a young man with a future.

Dexter aside, if the facts are as reported, young Andrew might to be a serial killer in the making. The fact that he fantasized about murder for years, the fact that he considered killing his father, the fact that he did kill his brother, and the fact that after the murder he went about the seemingly normal task of giving a ring to his girlfriend, all point toward a lack of empathy and a large dose of sociopathy. I don’t know what Andrew’s ultimate penalty will be but I would suspect longer rather than shorter might be the safer route.

One more thing: DEXTER returns Sunday


Posted by on September 23, 2010 in Interesting Cases, Multiple Murderers


Succinylcholine: An Anesthetist’s View-Guest Blogger

As an Anesthetist for far too many years, let me tell you why succinylcholine is such a perfect murder weapon.

The best poisons usually have three things in common: small effective dose, also called Median Lethal Dose (or LD50), ease of administration, and rapid and definitive action. The fourth characteristic, the difficulty in detection by a forensics team is a big premium that most poisons don’t posses. Most poisons, that is, except succinylcholine and maybe a few others. Forensic scientists please correct me if I’m wrong.

A quick review of pharmacology shows succinylcholine is a muscle relaxant. Anesthesiologists and Nurse Anesthetists (CRNA’s) call it “sux”. Sux is commonly used before intubations, as it completely relaxes patients’ muscles and facilitates intubation of the trachea with an endotracheal tube. Sux is a rapidly acting depolarizer that can be given intravenously (IV) or intramuscularly (IM). Once administered, succinylcholine circulates in the blood, reaches nicotinic receptors on the surface of muscle cells, and there it imitates the action of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that our nerves naturally release to make our muscles move. When succinylcholine is given, seconds later the patient fasciculates, and all muscles in his body become depolarized. In essence, sux makes every muscle twitch to the point that it becomes unresponsive to any subsequent stimulation: you can’t breathe, you can’t even blink.

Sux is highly effective. In IV form, 100 mg of sux will depolarize every muscle in the body of a 70kg man in about 30-45 seconds. And the patient will not be able to take another breath for at least 5 minutes. So without assisted ventilation, he is dead as quickly as three minutes. The IM dose of sux is not much different, but takes two to four times the IV dose and takes 3-5 minutes to begin working.

So there you have it: succinylcholine is an easy to inject poison, it is highly effective, and is guaranteed-to-work quickly to kill.

The fourth characteristic of succinylcholine is sux is almost impossible to detect because its metabolites are all naturally occurring molecules. It works this way. Most molecules of succinylcholine break down in blood into succinylmonocholine and choline, thanks to a circulating enzyme called pseudocholinesterase. The process is so efficient only a small fraction of sux molecules given actually reach neuromuscular junctions. Succinylmonocholine is then hydrolyzed into succinic acid, or succinate, a naturally occurring substance.

Succinate is famous because it is an important player in TCA (Krebs) cycle, a series of chemical reactions that powers all living cells that use oxygen.The entire human complex pinnacles on the oxygen molecule. Take it away and our body chokes up and dies.

Ruby Johnson, CRNA,Phd


10 Shows for the Criminal Mind

From my friends at Criminal Justice U:

There are many television shows airing that follow the lives of detectives and investigators that are assigned various crime cases. While some of the shows are summaries of real-life events and others are fiction they are all definitely intriguing. The following are 10 shows that will keep the criminal minds entertained:

Snapped: Snapped is an American television crime series that airs on Oxygen that recalls the real life events of women who have committed or attempted to commit murder. Each episode details the events that occurred and includes clips of the trials, interviews with people that were involved in the case (family, law enforcement, attorneys, etc) and sometimes the accused themselves. The episodes end with the verdict and sentence of the case and an updated summary of where each defendant stands.

Cold Case Files: Cold Case Files is a documentary style series that airs on A & E that follows the investigations of cases that were never solved and then reopened many years later. Referred to as “cold cases” by detectives, these cases have been opened again because of emerging technological advances in forensics, recent breakthroughs in the case, or witnesses who come forward years later. The episodes of this show have been known to be used by law enforcement agencies across the country for training purposes.

Forensic Files: Forensic Files is a documentary type show that airs on Trutv and shows how forensic science is used to solve crimes. The show follows one case per episode, from the initial investigation to the legal resolution, with re-enactments and in some cases, name changes, for privacy. The show also features medical examiners, coroners and forensic detectives and specialists involved with the case and clips of their interviews are shown. Some of the best and most well-known forensic analysts in the country have also appeared on the show.

America’s Most Wanted: America’s Most Wanted is an American television show that airs on Fox and is meant to assist law enforcement in capturing fugitives that remain on the run. Many of the fugitives, who are wanted for murder, rape, kidnapping, child molestation, armed robber, and terrorism, and white collar crimes, are also on the FBI’s Most Wanted lists. The show has been fairly successful; over 1,100 people have been captured from being shown on the air.

48 Hours Mystery: 48 Hours Mystery is a program that airs on CBS that presents true crime documentaries and mysteries. The show does not use a host and rather is narrated by the reporter who was assigned the story and is also known to report on special cases such as past or current shocking events that were made media headlines. This program has been known to be quite popular and has received over 20 Emmy awards.

Law & Order: Law & Order is a police and law related drama series that is often based on real events that have made headline news or recently occurred. The show is usually separated into two parts: the investigation of the crime and the capture of the suspect, followed by the prosecution of the District Attorney’s office in the second part and is usually shown from the prosecution’s point of view. At the time of its cancellation, Law & Order was known as the longest running crime drama on American prime time television.

The Closer: The Closer is an American crime drama series that originally aired on TNT that follows a police detective that leads the Crime and Homicide Unit (depending on the season), teams that are assigned to deal with high profile murder cases. Each episode portrays the aspects of Los Angeles culture as it interacts with law enforcement and highlights issues of public policy, honor, faith, and government responsibility.

CSI: CSI is an American drama television series that follows criminalists that use evidence to solve brutal murders. Many episodes on the show feature lengthy scenes that focus on technical work, experiments and tests that usually involve high-tech technology and gadgets that don’t exist. The series is also known for using unusual, close-up camera angles and graphic and sometimes gory portrayals of murders.

NCIS: NCIS is a drama television series that premiered on CBS that revolves around a fictional team of agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. This team conducts investigations involving the Marine Corps and the US Navy and is often assigned to high profile cases including terroristic threats, deaths, kidnappings and bomb situations.

Bones: Bones is a crime drama series that premiered on Fox and is based on forensic anthropology and focuses on cases concerning the human remains found by FBI detectives and given to a forensic anthropologist for analyzing. The show is based loosely on the life of Kathy Reichs, who is a forensic anthropologist and also produces the show.

Jay Smith

Criminal Justice University


Posted by on September 16, 2010 in Guest Blogger, Writing


Hyperspectral Imaging and Corpse Location

One of the most difficult things criminal investigators can face is locating a corpse that has been dumped in a remote location. Large number of searchers will fan out in any area where the body might be and spend many hours and days searching, often without result. Cadaver dogs can help in that they can detect the odor of decomposition, even in buried corpses. Arial infrared scanning can also be useful since a decomposing corpse tends to produce heat, which the scanner can detect against the cooler background of the surrounding soil. Also, aerial photography can help by indicating areas where the natural vegetation has changed in some way.

A decomposing corpse can initially produce a toxic environment for plant growth and can therefore make the vegetation less lush in that area. As the decomposition process progresses however it often serves as fertilizer and enriches plant growth so that they are greener, more lush, and appear different than the surrounding growth. Aerial photography can often detect this.

A new technique has been developed by scientists at McGill University. It is called Hyperspectral Imaging. It is similar to aerial photography but more sensitive. It also can be useful over a longer period of time.

Initially the chemicals of decay released by the body can inhibit plant growth and alter the way light is absorbed or reflected by the plants near the burial site. Early on they don’t reflect visible and infrared light as well but after several years they tend to reflect light much more readily. This new hyperspectral imaging system can detect these differences and therefore locate the burial site. Burial sites as old as 50 years have been detected using this technique. Exciting stuff and it will be interesting to see how this develops.

For more on locating and then identifying corpses check out my book Howdunnit: Forensics.


Guest Blogger: Lisa Black on Fingerprints


One of the most pervasive and annoying myths of those perpetuated by television shows is that a cop somewhere in Nowheresville, Florida can put an unknown print into his computer and search the fingerprints of anyone who has ever been fingerprinted in the United States, including job applicants and military personnel. This is not true. This has never been true, and is unlikely to become true at any point in the immediate future. Someday, yes, but not in time to make the deadline for your next book.

Here’s how it really works: I am a latent print examiner and CSI for a police department in Florida. I scan in unknown prints (generally called ‘latent prints’) collected at crime scenes or from pieces of evidence. I search those against ‘known’ prints, which are the ten fingerprints and two palm prints collected from each person arrested in my town. I can also do a remote search of the database in the next town, because they are on the same software system. I cannot remotely search the county or state database, because they use different software and though the company has been working on a conversion patch for years, it has not yet been accomplished. However, as of about a year ago we are receiving the known prints for their arrestees—apparently that conversion patch has been accomplished—so I am in essence searching their database, but only the past year’s portion of it. With me so far? I have no access to the state database; when a latent goes unidentified, we make a copy for ourselves and then send the original print off to the state, where some counterpart of mine has to scan it and mark its information and redo all the work that I have already done. All of the county goes to the state, so when the state database is searched we’re also searching the county portion that I have not had access to. We have made hits this way (good!) but it takes four to five months (not so good!).

If all of this sounds like a haphazard patchwork of practices, it is. But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and constantly-improving technology is constantly extending my reach (just as we’ve gone from rotary dials to being able to watch videos of your grandchildren on a phone the size of a slice of cheese).

So who does have that all-seeing national database of fingerprints? The FBI…so to speak. Not because they have a supercomputer with tentacles snaking throughout the computers of every police department in the US, but because every police department sends a copy of the known prints they collect to the feds to enter in their database. They receive all job applicants, too, but it used to be these were only checked via classification system to see if the applicant had a criminal history. Now, reportedly, thanks to the ease of modern technology these prints are also being scanned into a searchable database. It does now have military records, but only since 1990.

And these are only known prints. The FBI cannot search every print from every burglary in the US—no computer is that huge. If I had an entire family slaughtered, or some serial killer at work, then we would pack up the latent prints and contact the FBI with our pleading tale and send the prints off to wait in a queue with the other slaughters from across the country. It would take months, not less time than a commercial break while I sit in front of my monitor (which would be quite unhelpfully flashing the picture of every single print it searches…why exactly it would be wasting bytes on such pointless graphics has always been a mystery to me) sipping coffee and looking sexy in my lab coat. This would not be possible, and not only because lab coats are stiff and bulky and quite untailored. I cannot put in an unidentified latent from Nowheresville, Florida and hit on, say, an unidentified latent from Bupkiss, Iowa, thereby connecting our two crimes…maybe the same killer is at work? I’d better get together with the handsome detective in Bupkiss and do a crossover show…alas, no. Things don’t work that way.

Again, if this all sounds haphazard, it is. You can only work with what you got. Here in my little burg we identify a latent print in 11% of our cases in which usable latent prints are submitted. Considering the vast and sundry circumstances at play, this is an excellent record

So go find your local latent print examiner and give her a hug. I can assure you her job looks so much more glamorous on TV.

Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue, working as a forensic scientist in the trace evidence lab until her husband dragged her to southwest Florida. Now she toils as a certified latent print analyst and CSI at the local police department by day and writes forensic suspense by night. Her fifth book, Trail of Blood, involves the real-life Torso Killer, who terrorized Cleveland during the dark days of the Great Depression.


10 Criminals Dumber Than Crime-Guest Blogger

Everyone knows crime does not pay- someone should have told these criminals this- as they clearly did not get the message. The following criminals should have researched their crime books a little closer:

Jeff Rarey- Rarey, a 54 year old man made his way through an Indianapolis Airport and when he reached the security check point he told security that he had “a big bomb in his belly.” Of course, Rarey was referring to the Cinnabon and pizza he had rumbling around in his stomach, but security didn’t think it was too funny and he was arrested on a charge of false reporting.

Henry Lee Bobo– When police showed up to investigate a robbery, they didn’t have to look very far- Henry Lee Bobo had left his id behind. Not surprisingly, when cops caught up with him a couple blocks from the store, he was wearing the stolen items with the price tags still attached and was arrested.

Kevin Crockett– 25 year old Crockett robbed a bank in downtown Cincinnati, giving the tellers notes that demanded cash and then fled the bank. Only problem was, Crockett was so fast to get away he dropped his wallet on the sidewalk outside, which was stained with ink from an exploding dye pack in the bag of cash. Crockett’s wallet contained identification and he was found and arrested a couple of days later.

Andrea Elliot– Police were attempting to arrest 44 year old Andrea Elliot when she called 911- on herself. Elliot, who was being arrested for aggravated disorderly conduct called 911 and said she needed help because she was being arrested. Elliot was also slapped with an additional charge of making a false 911 call.

Ricky Hefflin– While attempting to enter a Fulton County Courthouse, Hefflin was stopped after looking nervous before going through the metal detectors. Noticing a bulge in Hefflin’s pocket, an officer asked him to empty out his pockets to which he refused and claimed he didn’t have anything on him. After being searched, police found a bag with 19 smaller bags inside containing marijuana and he was arrested.

Nathan Pugh– Attempting to rob a bank that he was a customer of, Nathan Pugh handed the teller a Whataburger bag with a note inside that read, “this is not food” claiming that the bag was a “bom.” The teller asked Pugh to see identification after he demanded $2000 and he complied as she hit the silent alarm and was arrested before he could even leave the bank.

Crystal Whittaker– Along with an accomplice, Whittaker stuffed $300 worth of clothing in a shopping bag inside of the JcPenney’s dressing room and ran off. Only problem was Whittaker left something behind- her 10 month old baby. While making her dash through the parking lot, she also threw her purse which had her identification in it.

Charlie Horn– 22 year old Charlie Horn was arrested for burglarizing a home in Ohio. After initially trying to deny the incident and claim his innocence police were convinced they had their man- Horn had been wearing a court-ordered GPS tracking unit. The police were able to put him at the scene of the crime and track his every move.

Yancy Cochran– Cochran showed up at an Iowa Courthouse to bail out one of his friends who had been arrested for unpaid parking tickets. After Cochran paid the 300 hundred dollar fine in fake 50 dollar bills he was arrested and later confessed to making the bills at his home. Cochran was charged with a felony, forgery that is punishable by up to 5 years in prison.

Dwayne Davis– Police in Florida had been showing a store’s surveillance video and asking for help from the public in apprehending an unidentified man seen pistol whipping another man. A news station had been showing a segment of local unsolved crimes and Davis phoned the police department to ask why his picture was on the news.


Posted by on September 6, 2010 in Guest Blogger, Interesting Cases


Q&A: How Was Breast Cancer Treated in the 16th Century?

Q: I am currently writing a novel set in the 16th century. Can you tell me what symptoms a young woman, in her mid to late 20s, with breast cancer, would have experienced in this era where modern treatments were unknown? Also, if you know of anything that might have been done to ease her pain, that would be helpful.


A: Breast cancer then is exactly as it is now. The difference is that we now have treatments and we understand what it is and how it works. Back then, they were aware of it but there was no real way of diagnosing it early and no way of treating it.

The symptoms that your young lady could have would be a painful lump in one breast, a discharge from the nipple that could be clear, milky, or blood tinged, and painful enlargement of the lymph nodes in the axillary area (armpit) on the same side. If the disease had spread to the lungs she could be short of breath, have sharp chest pains in the area where the metastatic lesions were, and a cough that could be dry or could produce sputum, even bloody sputum. If the disease spread to the liver, she could have abdominal pain in the right upper side and could also be jaundiced, which is a yellow hue to the skin. If it metastasized to the bones, these can be very painful. This type of cancer can metastasize to the ribs, the spine, the shoulder blades, the hips, and almost anywhere. There could be deep, burning pain in these areas. If it metastasized to the brain, she could have severe headaches, intolerance to light, paralysis on one side, difficulty with speech or hearing, seizures, and finally coma and death. Which exact symptoms she had would depend upon exactly what part of the brain the metastatic lesions settled in.

She could have any or all of the above symptoms and each symptom could come in any degree of severity. This gives you a great deal of leeway in how you plot your story.

A common analgesic at that time would have been opium, a drug whose use dates back to 4000 BC. It’s a white powder that could be ingested though it has a bitter taste. Sometimes it was mixed with alcohol to make an elixir that was then drunk. As a narcotic it is highly effective at numbing pain, though the pain of bone lesions is extremely severe and often resistant to even this form of therapy. It also makes the victim lethargic and sleepy. It can make some people have bizarre nightmares and even develop delusions and hallucinations. You might be able to use these in your story.

Another option that also dates back to 4000 BC or so is alcohol. This was a staple for pain management and even for surgical anesthesia for thousands of years.

These would have been the two most common and readily available analgesics at that time. When used in combination they are even more powerful as far as controlling pain and sedating the patient.


Posted by on September 2, 2010 in Medical Issues, Poisons & Drugs, Q&A

%d bloggers like this: