3 Key Takeaways from Listening to Killers
Besides making a case, there are significant benefits for criminal psychology.
Posted July 21, 2022 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- Dissecting the motivation for serial murders is a complex process.
- Facets of life history are key to getting the motivation right, especially if it’s complicated.
- For maximum benefit, the interview method for gaining psychological information should be individualized.
Recently, I watched No Man of God, a scripted docu-film about the encounters that FBI Special Agent and “mindhunter” Bill Hagmaier had with Ted Bundy between 1985 and 1989. He’d volunteered to interview Bundy as part of the now-famous prison interview program, although no one believed Bundy would cooperate. Long story short, Hagmaier’s long game worked better than expected. The film shows Bundy offering a few insights about serial killers but it concludes with a hollow takeaway: Bundy killed because he “wanted to.”
In fact, Hagmaier got more of value than the film suggests (as did other detectives). Bundy described how serial murderers go through a developmental process, starting with an experimental period in which they make mistakes. As they improve, they also get better at distancing from their feelings about killing another human being. Bundy said he usually got drunk. Although Hagmaier didn’t fully explore the roots of Bundy’s motivation — why he "wanted to" — he discovered a productive approach to a killer as cagey as Bundy.
In an earlier post, I discuss tips for getting such confessions. This post focuses on what we gain from deeper exploration than an interrogation tends to offer. Hagmaier went further than the film suggests but perhaps not as far as he might have. Below I discuss some key takeaways from interviews like this.
1. The motivation to murder isn’t simple.
Besides lust, there are multiple compelling reasons offered by serial killers, from anger to greed to delusional beliefs about a mission. Even sexual murder appears to have multiple components, depending on the person committing them. Myers, et al (2006) argue that sexual arousal is at the root of domination and control, anger is inhibitory, and sexual motivation is expressed “either overtly or symbolically.” Still, the achievement of punishment or revenge has confirmed success for some killers — especially those on a mission.
2. Motivation arises from a variety of developmental factors; there’s no simple formula.
The so-call Macdonald Triad (fire setting, bed-wetting, animal cruelty) just isn’t a clear or definitive signal of a developing serial killer. It also shortcuts the process. Psychologist James Garbarino, who has interviewed killers of all types, believes it’s important to find their human side, because past trauma often influences the later infliction of pain on others. He claims that analysis of facts from multiple domains of an offender’s life is crucial. “I believe it all starts with a fundamental refusal to dissociate and disconnect from their humanity.” Since “understanding them is the key to begin making a safer, less violent society,” we should take seriously the process of learning the whys. No Man of God might leave viewers wondering, “Is that all there is”? (I would have if I hadn’t known Hagmaier’s work.)
In the film, Hagmaier keeps saying, “I want to understand.” Psychological interviews like he claims to be doing are not focused on leads or confessions. They’re about collecting life details that can educate us about offenders’ points of vulnerability, violence triggers, past traumas, and decision-making strategies. One of the best opportunities he seemed to have, although he didn’t exploit it, was getting Bundy to talk about being a father. Bundy was protective of his family, but by exploring his sense of his daughter, Hagmaier might have elicited more details about Bundy’s own childhood than he managed.
When I interviewed the “BTK” killer, Dennis Rader, we spent a lot of time on the mundane details of his all-American Midwestern childhood. I learned about a few head injuries and hypoxic events that might have affected his brain development, but it also became clear that there was no neglect or abuse believed to be instrumental in launching a serial killer’s deadly career. Thus, he offered details about a different kind of developmental pathway, contributing more to the criminological story.
3. Discerning motivation can require patience, finesse, and gamesmanship.
Hagmaier learned that trust, consistency, and a willingness to talk about mundane subjects had to be part of his strategy. Bundy needed to tease, chew gum, and find out about his questioner before he yielded ground on his murders. Bergen County Detective Robert Anzilotti learned the same thing with Richard Cottingham, who’d been convicted of five murders but was suspected in more. He met with Cottingham over the course of 15 years to build a rapport and watch for openings. Little by little, Cottingham offered cold case information, along with his motivations. Cottingham’s default was to speak in vague terms, but Anzilotti needed specifics. He got them by learning Cottingham’s manner of delivery, which included his need to justify his murders as the elimination of victims that might lead back to him.
The film is entertainment, certainly, but it fails to reveal what a psychological interview can — and did — achieve.
Garbarino, J. (2015). Listening to killers: Lessons learned from my 20 years as a psychological expert witness. University of California Press.
Geberth, V. (2015). Practical homicide investigation: Tactics, procedures and forensic techniques, 5th ed. CRC Press.
Myers, W.C., Husted, D.S., Safarik, M.E. and O'Toole, M.E. (2006), The motivation behind serial sexual homicide: Is it sex, power, and control, or anger? Journal of Forensic Sciences, 51: 900-907.
Ramsland, K. (2016). Confession of a serial killer: The untold story of Dennis Rader, the BTK killer. ForeEdge.
Wilson, M. (2021, June 13). How a New Jersey detective coaxed a confession from a serial killer to solve the decades-old murders of 2 teen girls: ‘This case was always haunting me’. The New York Times.