M. William Phelps On The Real World of Serial Killers

mw_phelpsBy M. William Phelps

I despise serial killer lists. Those top ten reasons why killers kill. The top ten myths most people believe about serial killers. The six deadliest female serial killers of all time.

That sort of nonsense distills murder—and the victims and families left behind—down into an insulting competition.

It’s destructive and counterproductive to put these types of vicious, methodical and merciless killers into a box and say they act a certain way, are all built the same, or one is better (or more popular) than the other. Seeing these lists always brings me back to Hollywood’s version of the serial killer—that cartoonish character Tinseltown has created over the years, painting serial psychopaths with such a dramatically broad brush one walks away thinking a majority of serial killers are theatrical, theme-driven, Caucasian men living in the basement of their mother’s house, obsessed with porn; diabolical geniuses that like to play can-‘n-mouse with police and dress up in female clothing; make lamp shades out of human skin and create elaborate puzzles for investigators to solve.

It’s simply not like that in the real world of serial killers. I think we all know that.

If there is one thing I have learned while hunting serial killers on Dark Minds, it’s that no two serial killers are alike, in any way; and that once we think we’ve figured them out, we’re the idiots for generalizing in such a supine manner.

You will never know the why,” Raven, my serial killer consultant on Dark Minds, always tells me. It’s almost as if he is keeping this information for himself. “The killers who get away with murder for a period of time do not draw attention to themselves,” Raven says. “They run from it.”

Take this young English woman, Joanna Dennehy. By now most of us have seen photos of Dennehy brandishing that large medieval-looking knife, wearing a skull cap, that silver ball-bearing piercing in her tongue, a crude star tattoo on her cheek. Dennehy pleaded guilty to murder on February 28, 2014, and was sentenced to life in prison. In March 2013, she embarked on a “13-day stabbing spree” and reportedly murdered three men and severely injured two others. Apparently, she planned her nearly two-week run of violence years before, a friend claims, because she wanted to become famous.

©Rex Features via AP Images

Joanna Dennehy – ©Rex Features via AP Images

According to several published reports Dennehy is an addict/alcoholic, a former drifter, a woman with an explosive temper—or deep-seated, “volcanic rage,” as my profiling guru on Dark Minds John Kelly would say—who became “thrilled” by the mere thought of “violence.” Dennehy told her psychiatrist: “I killed to see how I would feel, to see if I was as cold as I thought I was—then it got more-ish.” Dennehy ran with three known and seasoned criminals, who were supposedly “aiding her” (a not-so-common characteristic of serials, I might add).

This type of volatile spree killer is dangerous. The notion that she killed to gain notoriety is frightening. Equally as troubling, I think the English press has built Dennehy into some sort of quasi-celebrity (we would have done the same in the states, for sure), with those photos of her sticking her tongue out and holding that knife, undoubtedly selling lots of newspapers and garnering what must be tens of thousands of unique web visitors during that process.

Dennehy and her partners are scumbag criminals (the world is full of them), but certainly not notorious serial murderers.

Most serial killers go unnoticed. They prowl the streets of our suburbs and inner cities, not stalking or in search of their next victim, taking photos of themselves with knives, or, as Raven suggests, drawing attention to themselves. No. Instead, they stealthily go about their business of murder. They blend into society. They sit next to you at the movies. The brush shoulders with you in the supermarket.

My research tells me conclusively that there is at least one active—perhaps two or more—serial killers in every major city across the country. Law enforcement I have spoken to about this categorically agree. The FBI claims the number of active serial killers in the U.S. is somewhere between 35 and 50. Yet I would argue that data is unsubstantiated and crudely conservative. Contrary to popular belief, the FBI is not the best source for this information—those investigators on the front lines, good cops all over the country actively involved in murder investigations, would be the best primary source.

Now, when I say this, people turn their heads. “What? Are you kidding me? Two or more serial killers in my town? Should I surround my house with a steel fence and buy an assault weapon?

Lest we not be frightened into relocating to an unnamed island somewhere near the equator. We’re not talking about your average Hollywood-type killer here; the ones we glamorize and popularize. Bundy. Green River. Gacey. And lately, Miranda Barbour (you see how that story took off after she made an admission—without any of it being verified, mind you!). Those would be the exception, not the rule.

The likeliest serial killers are, in fact, the most unlikely—gangbangers and organized crime hit men. And they want nothing to do with you.

Not such a sexy story, huh.

Murder is murder. It doesn’t need to come with a shocking headline or scandalous photograph, clown suit or astrological chart to figure out. Of paramount importance to me is that when people are murdered, victims’ families suffer, no matter what type of murderer we’re talking about. The family member of a murder victim in emotional distress does not care about creepy letters sent into cops or nicknames the press has given a killer. They want justice and—what they’ll likely never find—closure.

Look, everyone loves a juicy serial killer story to brighten up their news-viewing day or trip to the theatre, but the real world of studying and hunting serial murderers is about focusing on the unknown with a willingness to think outside top-ten boxes.

“Dark Minds” will premiere with a new season on Investigation Discovery on April 2.  Serial killer expert M. William Phelps is the national bestselling author/investigative journalist of over 25 nonfiction books, six of which focus on serial murderers. His next book, OBSESSED, will be published in March 2014.

Connect with Phelps: @MWilliamPhelps