How Do Serial Killers Avoid Detection?

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This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," February 28, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Police say they are confident they finally have the BTK (search) killer in custody. If so, the suspect, Dennis Rader, has been hiding in plain sight from the very beginning.

Dirk Gibson, no relation, is the author of "Clues from Killers: Serial Murder and Crime Scene Messages." He is an associate professor at the University of New Mexico.

So, Mr. Gibson — it's always good to have Gibson on here — how can a guy like Dennis Rader (search), literally hide in plain sight for 30 years? How's that possible?

DIRK GIBSON, AUTHOR, "CLUES FROM KILLERS": Well, actually, I've been studying serial killers for about 10 years now; I've examined 500 such cases, and this is not unusual. That's why they're serial killers. I can give you six quick reasons why these things happen:

First are their victimology selections. They pick the victims at random; there's no connection between them.

Secondly, these are very intelligent people; they're just disturbed.

Thirdly, they want the interpersonal and psychological gratification of their crimes and communication to continue so they take great pains to mask their activities and to hide their activities.

Fourth, they look just like you and me. They're not abhorrent in appearance: they're not drooling, whacked out looking people.

Fifth, they've learned how to mask their behaviors. Most of the time, they look just like you and I: in church, at the PTA.

And sixth, and finally, they pay close attention to media reports of their crimes and they adjust their crimes over time, if they need to, to avoid detection.

GIBSON: Well, is there any explanation you can figure out why this particular guy, if he is the BTK killer — and there are reports he's confessed — why he took such a long break from this murder spree?

D. GIBSON: Yes, in fact, I have a strong opinion about that. There was a killing in 1987 of the Fager family (search): Phillip Fager and his two daughters and the police at this time don't attribute these killings to the BTK. I believe they were BTK murders because of the modus operandi and the communication. One of the girls was bound and both were strangled. They were both dipped in a hot tub, pulled out, dipped in the hot tub again, pulled out — so he tortured them. When the crime was over, he drove the family car away. So, the modus operandi was similar to other crimes. The reason the police discount this crime is BTK sent letters to the police and to the surviving member of the family, the mother, Mary Fager, saying he didn't commit the crime, but was a fan of whoever did.

Now, typically criminals don't write to deny complicity in a crime they have not committed. So, it's my belief that something happened at the crime scene, or as he was leaving the home, I think he was afraid he'd be incriminated and because he wanted to continue the crimes, I think that he sent the letters denying responsibility and then took a long layoff.

GIBSON: Do you think there's any reason that authorities should have suspected this particular individual and, for some reason, they overlooked him?

D. GIBSON: No, I don't believe there is.

Serial crime investigations are extraordinarily difficult investigations. I don't fault the Wichita Police at all for the investigation. Where they made the mistake was in their media relations. They could have used the media more effectively earlier in the case and even more recently to elicit tips from the public. But for a long time, they kept a hands-off attitude, and they misinformed the public and refused to give information. But as far as the basic investigative techniques, as far as I know, they did things by the book.

GIBSON: Dirk Gibson, author of "Clues from Killers: Serial Murder and Crime Scene Messages." Mr. Gibson, good to have you on. We'll have to have you back.

D. GIBSON: Thank you.

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