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Serial Killers

Do Serial Killers Have Unique Insight?

The idea that we need offenders to solve murder puzzles is fiction, not fact.

Key points

  • Killers have been consulted on homicide investigations as if they can contribute something both unique and essential.
  • The concept of criminal autobiographical insight has a long history, and some killers have offered valuable information.
  • Yet, no case or research confirms that killers know more about catching others like them than investigators do.
Drawing by K. Ramsland
Drawing by K. Ramsland

The image of Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs “whispering” Hannibal Lecter into an investigative collaboration is gripping. It’s also fiction. Serial killers who’ve offered such advice do solve puzzles but mostly just those about themselves.

Ted Bundy wanted to help with the Green River Killer investigation in 1984. Desperate to prove his unique acumen, he enticed a team of Seattle detectives to travel to his Florida prison to hear what he had to say. He’d read some reports and offered his thoughts, but he mostly spun ideas off his own predatory MO. Detective Robert Keppel exploited Bundy’s sense of grandiosity to collect information about Bundy. The notorious offender didn't help to ID or trap the Green River Killer. Instead, Gary Ridgway was caught in 2001—with DNA.

Likewise, “Toolbox Killer” Roy Norris failed to point LAPD Detective Robert Souza toward an effective way to catch Bill Bonin, the Freeway Killer. Norris had tortured and murdered five young women in 1979 with Lawrence Bittaker. He’d cooperated with law enforcement to get a deal, so Souza thought Norris would talk to him about the string of murders of young men they couldn’t seem to stop. Norris admitted he’d been reading about the cases in the paper. He told Souza the guy probably had a partner (like he did) and traveled in a van with a sliding door (like he did) to better facilitate abduction. The killer would know ahead of time where he’d dump the bodies. Although Souza was impressed, Bonin’s notions added little. It was one of Bonin’s multiple accomplices that led cops to him.

This notion of special insight seems related to the groundbreaking work during the 19th century of French pathologist Alexandre Lacassagne, who urged incarcerated offenders to write “criminal autobiographies.” He hoped to learn from them whether they had been born with a criminal disposition or were influenced by outside factors. Each week, Lacassagne would check the prisoners' notebooks, correcting and guiding them toward personal awareness. In the process, he learned that many family histories of violent offenders were full of abuse, criminality, tension, and disease. Lacassagne influenced a new awareness of the complexity of conditions that influence crime.

We can certainly learn things from offenders. When prison psychologist Dr. Al Carlisle performed in-depth assessments of Ted Bundy, Arthur Bishop, and other serial killers, he devised a theory about their ability to compartmentalize that helped to explain the psychological dynamics of offenders who were otherwise socially functional. But none of their interviews with him presented a talent for productive investigative partnerships.

During the 1980s, agents from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit started their own collection of criminal autobiographies. While on the road teaching local police jurisdictions about behavioral analysis, Robert Ressler decided that he and his partner, John Douglas, should visit local prisons to interview extreme offenders. He thought that if they could devise a protocol of questions and get detailed responses, they could start a database about traits and behaviors that such offenders had in common. They hoped to gather information about how the murders were planned and committed, what the killers did afterward, what fantasies they had, and what they did before the next incident. Among their subjects were Edmund Kemper, Jerome Brudos, and Richard Speck. The agents did learn about such things as the motivational role of sexual fantasies, degrees of recall, addiction levels, self-justifications, and how a modus operandi might evolve. However, no singular insight emerged for any open investigations that showed the value of including notes from a killer.

Decades later, the TV series, Dark Minds, invited serial killers Keith Jesperson (code-named Raven) and Joel Rifkin (code-named 13) to give opinions on several series of unsolved homicides. Investigative journalist M. William Phelps and criminal profiler John Kelly presented the case details. Although Phelps insisted that “through the eight episodes, ‘13’ has become, really, an invaluable part of this, because he’s given insight that nobody else could give,” David Hinckley for the New York Daily News said, “The main disappointment, though, is that ‘13’ doesn't seem to have insights that differ dramatically from those of other psychological profilers on other, similar TV programs.”

Among the cases on which Raven advised was the Original Night Stalker, who’d terrorized California from the mid-1970s through the mid-1980s, committing 50 rapes and 10 murders. However, it was the innovative method of genealogical DNA that broke the case in 2018 and allowed for the arrest of Joseph DeAngelo. Nothing Raven said had been either necessary or sufficient—or even significantly helpful—to solving these cases.

The more we learn about serial killers from research, the less likely it is that any given offender will possess such exceptional insight about other killers as to inspire law enforcement to provide them with full case reports. “Serial killer,” after all, is just a description of behavior (at least two murders on two separate occasions), with plenty of variation in motive, developmental factors, and modus operandi. As enticing as it is to think we need a killer to catch a killer, we really don’t. Even if a few select offenders have a valuable insight, from what we've seen thus far it’s unlikely to be one that only a killer could offer.


Artières, P. (2006). What criminals think about criminology. In Peter Becker and Richard F. Wetzell, eds., Criminals and Their Scientists: The History of Criminology in International Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 363-375.

Carlisle, A. C. (2000). The dark side of the serial-killer personality. In Serial Killers, edited by Louis Gerdes. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press.

DeNevi, D. & Campbell, J. H. (2004). Into the minds of madmen: How the FBI Behavioral Science Unit revolutionized crime investigation. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Ramsland, K. (2012). The mind of a murderer. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

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