If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few days, it’s that nothing incites public fascination as much as a serial killer.
In the 1970s, John Wayne Gacy, Jr. killed 33 men and boys and buried them under his Chicago home. Then came Ted Bundy, who confessed to at least 30 murders, escaped from jail twice and was the topic of two feature films. Robert Lee Yates dominated conversation for a time in the ‘90s, after killing 16 women over a period of three years in Spokane, Wash.
And one of the most infamous serial killers of all time – Dennis Rader – known as the BTK Killer -- terrorized a Kansas community when he killed 10 people during a murder spree that spanned almost 20 years, all the while sending letters to law enforcement and local media outlets describing his crimes in gruesome detail.
Now, we have what law enforcement suspect may be a serial killer leaving a trail of death along the beaches of Long Island’s south shore.
According to recent reports, the alleged “Long Island Serial Killer” may have killed up to 10 people, including one child. The investigation, which has been unfolding since police found the first set of bodies in December, has really ramped up over the past couple of weeks, dominating news coverage and web searches as more bodies are discovered.
We mythologize these serial killers to an extent in our culture -- imagine their scope and threat to be boundless – even when their murders are confined largely to one location. We pore over news reports trying to understand them and their methods.
This, of course, is also the goal of law enforcement officials: To understand the anatomy of being a serial killer. So I talked Dr. Michael Baden, chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police and Fox News contributor, for an intricate look into the job of tracking a serial killer.
First, Baden said, just because a number of bodies are cropping up along the same coast does not mean there’s a serial killer on the loose; however, it is a pretty good indication.
Of primary concern is to first identify the bodies of the victims. This is where a forensic pathologist steps in. An autopsy is performed, both to look at organs and bones for possible injury and to collect DNA. The DNA is then compared to that of reported missing persons to see if there is a match.
Dr. Baden told me that this process can be confirmed in a week or less, so even though we as a public have not been told the names of the most recent victims found, the police have already compared the DNA to the remains of the DNA of the missing people in their database, and may have even uncovered a few of their identities.
The autopsy also points to the method of murder. If a gun is used in a killing, the medical examiner obtains the bullets, and if there is rape involved, they can collect DNA by using vaginal swabs. This kind of information can help lead police in the direction of the perpetrator, Baden said.
In this case, at least one murder has been confirmed as asphyxiation.
“This is unsurprising given that the victim worked as a prostitute before her death,” Baden said. “Strangulation is a common method of killing among prostitutes. Usually, it’s a dispute over money, sex, whatever; and the perpetrator is a male who is stronger. Strangulation is a strength thing, stronger over weaker.”
When there is a grouping of murders, as there is in this case, one of the next steps is to try to link the killings together. Law enforcement officials have confirmed that at least four of the victims identified had something in common: They were prostitutes or escorts advertising their services on Craigslist.
Another indication that the killings are the work of the same person is the fact that the victims have all been found on a stretch of New York beaches several miles long.
He pointed to the case of Joel Rifkin, another Long Island-based serial killer who was convicted in 1993 of murdering of nine New York City prostitutes.
During Rifkin’s killing spree, there were two other murderers operating at the same time, but the bodies were dumped in different places, according to the people who murdered them, Baden said.
Police have not released all the details in the latest group of remains recovered from Long Island beaches, but we do know that they were not wrapped in burlap like the first four victims to be identified. But this does not necessarily mean that two separate people are committing these crimes.
And contrary to popular belief, serial killers have been known to change their modus operandi from time to time, sometimes even altering their methods of killing victims. For example, one serial killer in Buffalo started out by shooting people, then moved to New York City where he stabbed his victims, before returning to Buffalo where he attacked people with a hammer.
The one aspect of the current cluster of murders that doesn’t make sense, according to Baden, is the reports of the remains of a baby that were allegedly found on the beach.
“Either the mom brought the baby with her, and the person decided to kill the baby – that’s possible -- but what’s more likely is that while they’re looking all over Long Island, they found evidence of a separate murder,” Baden said. “It may be that someone abused their child, the child died, and they buried the body where they could to avoid going to jail.”
Unless the baby’s remains were found next to another female’s, it’s highly unlikely that this murder could be linked with the others, he added.
Baden also has his doubts about the possibility of a former police officer committing the murders, as recent reports have suggested.
“I think that’s pure speculation,” he said. “Right now, it’s silly talk. Based on the kind of information they have so far, unless the person dropped their badge. It could be anyone. Just from watching CSI you could know that you shouldn’t talk on the phone for more than three minutes and you should do it in a crowded place to avoid identification by cameras.”