Serial Killers: The Criminal Investigation Process

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Serial Killers: The Criminal Investigation Process

How John Wayne Gacy & Gary Leon Ridgway Reveal Flaws in the Criminal Investigation Process

The Flaws in The Investigative Process

A great deal of confusion and myth surrounds serial killers and the investigative processes used by law enforcement. Much of this myth and confusion results and promulgates due to media coverage. Further confounding this problem, an extreme lack of professional expertise in serial murder exists due to rareness of serial killers, making difficult for expertise to be obtained by any professional in the psychiatric or criminal justice fields. Serial killers reflect how the criminal investigation process becomes flawed by bias, lack of expertise, and perhaps ultimately by the cost to train those professionals and police.

The Cost of Training Police

Police academy training costs $6,500, but that’s just the start. Officers need at least $100,000 more for on-the-job training and probation period. In big cities, it can take years and up to $240,000 to fully train an officer.

None of this cost includes training to recognize or link crimes to identify serial killing. 

John Wayne Gacy

Serial killer, John Wayne Gacy serves as a model for understanding the application of the BAU’s investigative practices. One of the worst difficulties when investigating serial killers stems from law enforcement's susceptibility to the same myths, misconceptions, and biases that haunt the general public. The FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit's Serial Murder:

Law enforcement professionals are subject to the same misinformation from a different source: the use of anecdotal information. Professionals involved in serial murder cases, such as investigators, prosecutors, and pathologists may have limited exposure to serial murder. Their experience may be based upon a single murder series, and the factors, in that case, are extrapolated to other serial murders. As a result, certain stereotypes and misconceptions take root regarding the nature of serial murder and the characteristics of serial killers.

The misinformation factor often has a blinding effect on law enforcement, especially in the identification process, which the BAU identifies as the most important practice in serial investigation. One readily sees the importance of this point in the investigative process during the John Wayne Gacy case. Between 1972 and 1978, Gacy raped, tortured, and killed a known thirty-three young men. Gacy killed so many individuals primarily because he went unidentified as a serial killer until 1978. In 1976 a family member of one of the victims urged police to investigate Gacy and twice after that incident Gacy would be accused by two individuals of rape, but police failed to act. Compounding this failure is the fact that Gacy already served time in prison for sodomizing a young man.

Gacy continued killing due to the fact that, in many instances, police lacked the investigative skill or means to identify the serial killer. Serial killers are rare and most law enforcement does not have the expertise to identify or link situations in a way that reveals the possibility of serial killing taking place. Circumstance adds to this problem as the police involved with Gacy also found the claims of the persons who accused Gacy to lack credibility, primarily because they were gay.

At the time, communication proved problematic also because incidents could not be connected by investigating officers since police who investigated the second complaint had no idea of a prior complaint. When police agencies don’t talk to each other and use different systems to keep records, they miss the chance to connect the dots and catch a serial offender. Communication has historically been an issue in serial killing investigation because serial killers don't respect jurisdictions and often travel across state lines, making linking cases difficult even today.

Despite inability to recognize Gacy as a serial killer, once known, extremely proficient leadership of the investigation began quickly piecing together the Gacy murders from individual family and victim reports. The lead investigators were both competent homicide detectives and this was exactly what was needed according to the BAU's Serial Murder.

In serial murder cases, the actual investigation should be directed by competent, homicide investigators, who have the experience to direct and focus the investigative process. Law enforcement administrators should not run the investigation but rather ensure that the investigators have the resources to do their job. Supervisors should also act as buffers between investigators and the other levels of command.

Once investigators began focusing on Gacy, they were allowed to handle the case with very little pressure from superiors and from the public. Gacy was arrested after several months of investigation and a confession was obtained after his arrest. The investigation of Gacy included the questioning of victims and associates of Gacy which allowed for investigators to obtain search warrants in order to search for bodies in the Gacy residents. In many ways, the Gacy investigation was a model serial killer investigation because there were no strong or public personalities involved and there was little micromanagement of the investigation process.

Another area of competency seen in the Gacy case elucidates from the use of analytical tools. The investigators were skilled in many areas such as “crime scene analysis, offender profiles, case linkage analysis, interview strategies, and prosecution strategy”. For example, the lead investigators entered the Gacy home at his invitation and while one investigator kept Gacy busy the other was able to go into the bathroom where he smelled decomposition coming from the air vents. Prior visits from police were unable to detect this smell (Federal Bureau of Investigation). Investigators were also able to create accurate timelines of victims and link these cases in a meaningful way for the prosecution to use at trial. Investigators were able to obtain future search warrants due to their ability to accurately investigate the scene. The competence of investigators and their use of analytic tools were important factors for bringing Gacy to justice. This is especially true during this time period when DNA testing was not being used. The investigation depended strongly on the ability of investigators to link Gacy with victims and discover other forensic evidence such as victim belongings and match them to the victims using family and acquaintances.

The fact that investigators were well trained and had operational discretion over the Gacy case highlights the need for serial investigations processed within specific parameters and standards. The Gacy cases show how identification is perhaps the most important aspect of the serial killer investigation but the case also highlights how a case should be conducted once the serial killer is known.

One of the major issues which often occurs during serial killer investigations is what is known as the talking head phenomena. Described in Serial Murder: Multi-Disciplinary Perspectives for Investigators, the issue of self-proclaimed experts who are given credibility by the media in serial killer cases often cause disruptions in the investigations. These so-called authorities often appear on television and in other media outlets and speculate concerning the motives and the causes of the serial killer as well as possible characteristics of the offender despite having no direct involvement with the case. Unfortunately, the talking heads can often create barriers to the investigation because they perpetuate myths and misperceptions that impair nonexperts in law enforcement. The FBI's Serial Murder: Pathways for Investigations lists some of the myths perpetuated by the talking heads and media outlets:

  • Serial killers are dysfunctional loners
  • Serial killers are all white
  • Serial killers are only motivated by sex
  • All serial murderers travel and operate interstate
  • Serial killers cannot stop killing
  • All serial killers are insane or evil geniuses
  • Serial killers want to get caught.

Except for being white and having sex as a part of his modus operandi, Gacy did not exhibit any of the other myths perpetuated in media concerning serial killers. In fact, Gacy was described as being a likable and respected member of the community who participated in community affairs. Gacy also did not operate across state lines and stopped murdering for extended periods. Certainly, Gacy did not desire to get caught, judging from the lengths he went to avoid capture.

The media attention or lack thereof may have influenced the investigation and arrest of Gacy, a serial killer who appeared normal and respectable. In contrast, another serial killer who also had a seemingly normal facade, the Green River Killer, was identified by the police much earlier in his killing spree.

Gary Leon Ridgway

The Green River Killer, whose real name is Gary Ridgway, admitted to murdering 48 women over two decades in the Seattle area. He had three marriages and was still with his third wife when he was arrested. He worked as a truck painter for 32 years. He was a regular churchgoer, read the Bible at home and at work, and discussed religion with his colleagues.

The Green River Killer was spotlighted in the news and a task force was formed in the early 80s but Gary Leon Ridgway would not be apprehended until 2001. The length of time involved in apprehending Ridgway was due to the fact that he did not fit the profile myths that are typically perpetrated by media and by so called experts.

The Ongoing Problem of Serial Killers & Implications for Law Enforcement

Reflecting the seriousness of this problem, the Atlanta Murders from 1979 to 1981 did not sway the bias of police in the Green River Killer case. Wayne Williams, a black serial killer, for many months eluded investigators looking for a white male until one investigator realized the necessity of the killer to be black to enter all black areas and operate unnoticed. This factor impeded the investigation for a long time, but once investigators refocused themselves to a new subject, they began making headway in the investigation.

It is cases such as these and other serial murders that reflect both beneficial and negative practices. The rareness of serial killing dictates the need for officers to have more training and more standardized practices for proficient identifying and processing of serial murders. While John Wayne Gacy reflects failure in law enforcement recognizing the serial murders, his case also provides a model for how the investigative process should be handled. In the future, law enforcement, hopefully, will continue to improve as units such as the BAU continue to collect data and provide more effective practices for serial killer investigations.

Beyond training the problem with lack of expertise dually exists in media and law enforcement, such that very few experts on serial killing actually exist. To say we must train police more effectively loses strength in the rareness of the crime that does not allow for training costs of mental health profilers and officers. Perhaps more than any other issues with the investigation process for serial killers is the dollar value that ultimately dictates who lives and who dies. 

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