Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Sniper Serial Killers' Narrow Range of Motives

They tend to have a mission, or to seek a rush or attention.

Key points

  • The Stockton serial killer fits a rare pattern.
  • We can look to earlier serial shooters to consider a motive that might help to anticipate his next move.
  • Armed with information on a possible motive, cops can form a viable strategy.

We typically think of serial killers as offenders who murder people in ways that get them close to their victims. However, some keep more distance between themselves and their targets. As California authorities try to identify and apprehend a person (or people) who might be responsible for six recent killings, we can look at similar past similar cases to anticipate a motive. Generally, in serial snipers, we see thrill, fame, gain, and mission. The mission motive provides the best roadmap.

Lone Wolf vs. Team Killer

A "person of interest" in the Stockton, California, incidents shows up in a surveillance video as a male figure dressed in black, walking oddly. It’s unknown whether it’s the killer, but, even if it is, this image doesn’t prove he’s operating alone. There’s potential for a team.

In Phoenix between May 2005 and August 2006, for example, Dale Hausner and Samuel Dieteman participated in drive-by thrill-motivated shootings of random people. They killed at least six and wounded 18, as well as shooting several dogs and a horse. They also set fire to two stores. The shootings occurred at night, targeting pedestrians and bicyclists. Sometimes the shooters returned to the scene to get a thrill from watching the response.

The Stockton Shooter

From what's known so far, the recent shootings in California appear to have started in April 2021, when a man was fatally shot in Oakland, CA, some 70 miles from Stockton. Ballistics evidence connects it to the other known incidents. Between July and September, they’ve been clustered in a tight geographical area in Stockton. There’s also a seventh victim there—a female—who was shot much earlier. She survived, and because she says she advanced on the man, it’s unclear if he’d have targeted her. This means his intended targets might be male. She described a figure dressed in black that resembles the surveillance image.

All of the shootings occurred during evening or early morning hours when witness potential was low; they happened where few cameras could record activity. The victims, all adults, were alone. Most were Hispanic. Most were male. None was robbed.

Photo by K. Ramsland; Permission CRC
Source: Photo by K. Ramsland; Permission CRC

Former FBI profiler Mark Safarik, co-author of Spree Killers: Practical Classifications for Law Enforcement and Criminology, has a lot of experience with this topic. He makes some distinctions: “Serial killers utilize a variety of methods to kill their victims. Most prefer to engage up close and personal, often using their hands to strangle their victim. Others prefer sharp force, such as cutting and stabbing, while still others prefer using blunt force to beat their victims to death. The personal nature of this type of killing makes them feel powerful, omnipotent, and in total control. Most derive immense pleasure— even sexual pleasure—in watching the life drain from their victim. However, those who kill from a distance with a firearm rarely see the victim’s reaction. In many cases they flee the scene before their victims succumb. They use this passive-aggressive manner of killing because they’re not comfortable engaging their victims in their personal space.”

Another Sniper Team

Safarik points to the Beltway Snipers as an example. In October 2002, John Muhammad and his teen accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, rigged a Chevy Caprice so they could shoot people at random from a hole in the car’s trunk. They used the extensive news coverage to make demands. Their spree began around Rockville, MD, and spread to Washington, DC; Fredericksburg, VA; and other places in the tri-state area. They shot 13 people with a Bushmaster .223 caliber semi-automatic rifle. Ten died. This team terrorized the area for three weeks and demanded $10 million before being arrested. In his confession, Malvo said the shootings had been carefully planned. They’d watched the news and moved around to create maximum fear and confusion.

“They found it thrilling to kill people from a distance,” Safarik said. “Thrill is often the motive when shooting victims like this, especially when there’s no sexual assault or robbery. They can still feel the power of deciding who lives and who dies.”

He thinks the Stockton shooter, with murders over a relatively short period in a tight geographic territory, is more accurately identified as spree killer, or a spree mixed with serial (to include the Oakland victim). Many spree killers who act in such a predatory manner have a specific purpose. “His preferred victims appear to be homeless men; he may see eliminating them as his mission.”

The behavior so far suggests planning, such as scouting for sites that give him protection. The shooter has not communicated with authorities or media, so fame doesn’t seem to be driving this spree. Neither does gain. Maybe it's just thrill, but if there’s a mission, the killer might be delusional or angry. His victims would not be entirely random but would be members of the group he targets. If he remains uncaught, there will be more. As a preemptive strategy, police can look for places where such victims are available during his preferred hours and set up surveillance.

“It's unlikely he will stop on his own,” Safarik predicts. However, since this shooter has shifted his territory at least once already, and given the intense scrutiny aimed at his crimes, he might move again.


Safarik, M. & Ramsland K. (2021). Spree Killers: Practical Classifications for Law Enforcement and Criminology, CRC.

More from Psychology Today

More from Katherine Ramsland Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today