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Criminal Profiling 101: Spree Killer


Criminal profiling, which is considered a scientific method, is still a relatively new field. There are multiple definitions and boundaries for the term; however, the goal of each current criminal profiling method is similar, and that is to develop a description of the perpetrator based on the examination of the given evidence. In some ways, it is still considered a technique that combines art and science, although there has been an effort in recent years to bring more science into it. This series of articles will describe some of the most used criminal profiling methods, their scientific base, and the different approaches from which they stem. The series begins with an introduction to criminal profiling, its brief history and development, its current state, and the used methods.

The Criminal Profiling 101 series is divided into six chapters:

Criminal Profiling 101: Spree Killer

In the past, the terms "multiple homicides" or "multicide" were used to refer to any incident that involved numerous murders (Safarik & Ramsland, 2019). Over time, however, it became apparent that a broader, more specific definition incorporating a typological distinction was necessary. This typological distinction of multiple homicides is now widely accepted as spree murder, serial murder, and mass murder. The three types of multicide are represented by symptoms on a continuum rather than by categorization, whereby they can be classified depending on a variety of factors. The considerable significance of the typological division of multiple homicides lies, among other things, in the fact that a criminal event can, by definition, be assigned to one of these three types. This allows law enforcement to act more quickly and efficiently in accordance with the knowledge and understanding of the category, thereby potentially preventing further fatal incidents. This is particularly important in the case of serial and spree murders. Serial murders were the subject of the previous article in this 101 series, and mass murders, conversely, will be the subject of the next and final article in this series. The following article focuses primarily on defining and classifying spree murders, as well as exploring actual cases to make the distinction between these types of crimes more comprehensible.

board with collected evidence
Figure 1: An image depicting the evaluation of multicide (Canterbury Christ Church University, n.d.).

Multiple murder is a general term that morphs into more specific types when the circumstances of individual cases are specified (Abe, 2019). As previously outlined, these types of multicide are known as serial murder, mass murder, and spree murder. It is important to define these crimes to ensure that the distinctions between them are clearly understood. Serial murder is the unlawful killing of at least two persons by the same individual(s) in separate incidents (Dake, 2020). In serial murder, an important consideration is the time interval, also known as the cooling-off period, which can vary by hours, days, months, or years. A mass murder is a targeted act that occurs in one base location even if the killer shifts around to loosely related locations, such as rooms in a single building (Dake, 2020). In mass murder, at least four or more persons are killed in a defined short time period. Spree murder is the murder of at least three people by an individual or individuals, where each of the killings takes place in a different location within a short time interval, which is significantly longer than in a mass killing but without the cooling-off period as in the case of serial murder. Spree, serial, and mass murders, as mentioned earlier, are not divided categorically, but rather are defined as symptoms on a continuum and can be classified by the degree of abuse, neglect, and availability of normal human interactions in the perpetrator's childhood. (Abe, 2019). For a better understanding of the differences between the origin of these three types of multiple homicides, definitions will be given according to the conditions that shaped the perpetrators of these crimes, their motivations, and the availability of human interactions in their childhood.

The representation of multicide is depicted on a spectrum, with a serial killer at one end, a mass murderer at the other, and a spree killer in the middle, which in some cases may overlap with either end of this spectrum (Abe, 2019). In terms of how background influences a person's propensity for these crimes, there are frequent abusive upbringing practices present, especially in the form of physical, psychological, or sexual abuse, particularly in the childhood of serial killers (Abe, 2019). The upbringing of serial killers also tends to include elements that distort the child's self-identification into a desire to harm others. These elements include denial of existence by saying, for example, "I didn't want to birth you" or denial of masculinity by statements such as "All women are dirty." Mass murderers, on the other hand, are on the opposite side of the spectrum from serial killers. They arise primarily as a result of neglect, mind control, manipulation, and overprotection, which can result in an individual's inability to create an identity through which they are able to establish positive social relationships. Taking the above variables into account, the spree killer is in the middle of the spectrum, and, therefore, between a serial and mass murderer. A spree killer who had access to human interactions in childhood has essentially the same emotions as a 'normal' person but still manages to kill multiple people in a relatively short amount of time, without a cooling-off period.

drawings of various persons
Figure 2: Depictions of self-identification, which if distorted in childhood can manifest itself negatively in adulthood (Deep space sparkle, n.d.).

Based on the spree killer's background, they can be divided into two distinct types. One type generally comes from a family environment that is neglected but human interactions were available to them. The other type comes from a highly abusive family environment in which human interactions were also available to them. Each of these types is associated with either a serial killer or mass murder family environment by either abuse or neglect, respectively. This is why the spree killer is depicted on a continuum between serial and mass murder. The first type of spree killer tries to stop their murderous rampage, but their pathological obsession with material, abnormal acts, or desires that they try to fill their emotional void with simply will not let them (Abe, 2019). The second type of spree killer becomes addicted to the excitement after committing the first murder and continues killing until external factors stop them. Serial and mass murderers whose personalities are distorted as a result of neglect and abuse fostered by a lack of human interaction are able to justify their destructive actions. In contrast, the personality of a spree killer is not as disturbed, resulting in strong expressions of emotion and regret over their actions, which sometimes leads to suicide. An important factor present in the childhood of spree killers and conversely absent in serial and mass killers is the aforementioned availability of human interactions which counteracts the accumulation of stressors and frustrations. This availability is precisely the reason why bed-wetting, arson, or animal cruelty may not be experienced in the childhood of a spree killer as it is for instance in the case of a serial killer (Abe, 2019).

Since these three types of multiple homicides appear on a continuum, it may be that the spree killer will exhibit strong traits of either a serial killer or a mass murderer (Abe, 2019). A striking illustration of the phenomenon where a spree killing intermingled with elements of a serial killing is a case from 1980 (Safarik & Ramsland, 2019). On September 22, the perpetrator killed four Black men within 36 hours, all of whom died from a bullet to the left side of their head. The perpetrator began by murdering a 14-year-old boy who was sitting in a car in Buffalo, New York. The next day, he killed two other men. One man was eating and the other was walking down the street near his home at the time of the murders. Neither of these men were engaged in any risky activity. Later that day, a fourth man was shot and killed in the neighboring city of Niagara Falls. Police found a discarded .22 caliber bullet shell casing at the scenes of each crime that linked all four murders based on which they named the attacker the .22-Caliber Killer. The task force searching for the .22-Caliber Killer developed more than 2,000 possible suspects, but three months passed without police successfully identifying the perpetrator. It was not until December 22 that another killing spree began in Manhattan when a man attacked one Hispanic man and four Black men with a knife. Of the five victims, only one survived (Safarik & Ramsland, 2019).

Image of two heads with different patterns
Figure 3: An illustration demonstrating the strong traits that are exhibited in a spree killer (Serial killer shop, 2020).

There was a twist in this series of killings, however, as the assailant also injured himself with the knife. He was consequently hospitalized for his injuries where he confessed to a psychiatric nurse that he had killed several Black men in Buffalo. The perpetrator was a 25-year-old soldier who claimed he was following "orders" like any good soldier would do. The police later found evidence that linked him to both sets of murders. The accused assailant was examined and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and thus was found to be incompetent to stand trial. Later, he was considered competent, and in 1981 he was sentenced to 58 years imprisonment on various charges (Safarik & Ramsland, 2019). An interesting fact in this case is that the defendant had tried to get himself admitted to a psychiatric center two weeks before the first shooting. Unfortunately, the defendant was not admitted to the center because he was not considered an imminent danger to himself and others. The elements of this case illustrate the intermingling of serial and spree killings. Some have referred to this killer as a serial killer and others as a spree killer. However, both are correct in this case. This example demonstrates the difficulty of a clear classification of a murderer because the practices and motives of this killer fall into both types, whilst certain elements of his behavior fall into neither (Safarik & Ramsland, 2019).

Mark Safarik and Katherine Ramsland (2019), authors of the book Spree Killers: Practical Classifications for Law Enforcement and Criminology, have compiled statistics based on 359 cases of spree murder involving 419 perpetrators from 43 different countries, ranging from ages 14 to 73 (Safarik & Ramsland, 2019). The purpose of the statistics was to produce data usable to law enforcement that could create some kind of preventative measures against spree killing. The statistics were made by categorizing spree murders according to their type, most common motives, and circumstances under which crimes occurred. As a result of this data compilation, it was observed that the most common motivation for a spree killer is anger/revenge at 30.6%. Further, the spree killing was broken down into three subtypes according to most frequent motivation: targeted, random-opportunistic, and targeted and random-opportunistic (Safarik & Ramsland, 2019). Targeted means that the spree killer is clear about who the victims will be. Random-opportunistic as the name implies is a spree killer who selects victims randomly. These victims are people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Targeted and random-opportunistic is a combination where the spree killer starts killing people known to them and continues on the murder spree by killing random people. Incorporating this further categorization, the category with the highest percentage (61%), thus the most useful to law enforcement, was the one expressing the anger/revenge motive in combination with a targeted subcategory of a spree killer (Safarik & Ramsland, 2019). The targeted and random-opportunistic subtype of a spree killer with anger/revenge motivation included was present in 30% of the cases, and the final random-opportunistic subtype accounted for 9%. Thus, from this study, the anger/revenge-motivated category with the spree killer-targeted subtype emerged as the most frequent category.

Drawing of a face
Figure 4: An illustration expressing anger, which is the most common motive for the spree killer (Simon Fellah, n.d.).

Attention was further devoted to the study of identifying this most frequent combination. The study revealed that the most common age range of the spree killer in this combination is 20-30 years of age, accounting for 68% of the cases (Safarik & Ramsland, 2019). A significant finding of this research that may have real positive implications for addressing the spree killer issue is the anger/revenge targeting subcategory where law enforcement has the best opportunity to link two or more homicides that happened in a relatively quick time frame to protect potential future targets. It is essential for law enforcement to be able to quickly collect and analyze available data in order to respond effectively to a spree killer and thereby prevent further fatal incidents. The other spree subtypes, in conjunction with that motive, reduce the chances of successfully protecting potential targets precisely because of their randomness and challenging anticipation. The good news, however, is that their occurrence is less frequent.

An example reflecting the category that was the most frequent in terms of percentage is the case of Ernest Ingenito (Safarik & Ramsland, 2019). In 1950, Ingenito went to meet his ex-wife Theresa at her house. He had a clear request, which was to see their children. Shortly after Ingenito's arrival, Theresa attempted to escape the house, but Ingenito shot and killed her. His mother-in-law, Pearl, was present in the house and fled across the street to her parents' house. Ingenito followed her and killed Pearl's mother, brother, and pregnant sister. He wounded a 9-year-old girl, also located in the house, and eventually found Pearl in a closet, where he shot her dead. Ingenito continued his rampage in pursuit of Theresa and within an hour he moved on to the next town where he wounded his ex-wife's aunt and uncle. This example illustrates a case where the motive for a murderous rampage was anger. The murderer killed the person he was angry with along with her immediate family. Right after this murderous attack, he moved to another town where he also continued attacking her extended family. A second attack could have been prevented as law enforcement could have informed those with ties to the killed people, but it is unclear whether in such a short period law enforcement became aware of the incident.

photography of a man
Figure 5: Close-up of the infamous killer Ernesto Ingenito (Wikipedia, 2012).

Spree killing is a phenomenon that occurs for a variety of reasons. It is characterized by an offender who has killed at least three or more people in a 30-day time interval (Holmes and Holmes, 2009). This type of killer is situated on a continuum between the serial killer and the mass murderer. Each of these types has its own characteristics and elements; however, being on the same spectrum, they share certain characteristics. For example, a spree killing, like mass murder, has the commonality of their victims generally being targeted. The difference, however, is the time span. Mass murder is difficult to prevent because it happens at once. Spree killing, which is conversely broken into multiple incidents, makes it easier to intervene to prevent the incident from continuing. A significant disadvantage of this phenomenon, as with the other two types, is that it is difficult to predict at least with respect to the first incident. On the other hand, the "advantage," as the results of the statistics presented in this article suggest, is that the motive for the killing is often known and the victims are more often targeted. This means that law enforcement can predict the next steps of the attacker and thus protect potential victims. This is not possible, for instance, in the case of serial killers, as their victims are usually unknown. Although there is a certain percentage of spree killers who kill randomly, the majority of them attack due to anger at a specific person or persons associated with them. Although prevention of the first incident in spree killer cases is nearly impossible, once a killing occurs, the chances of preventing further incidents are greater with early and effective intervention. Even though this interference may not always be successful, the fact that it may save people's lives in a non-negligible number of cases is enough to warrant further studies in this area.

Bibliographical References

Abe, K. A. (2019). Serial killers, mass murderers, and spree killers: Three factors decide the murder type on the same continuum. International Journal of Social Science and Humanities Research, 7(2), 137–141.

Dake, D. (2020, October 30). Spree vs. serial killers. Death Investigation Training Academy.

Holmes, R. M. H., & Holmes, S. T. H. (2009). Serial murder (third). SAGE.

Safarik, M., & Ramsland, K. (2019). Spree killers: Practical classifications for law enforcement and criminology. CRC Press.

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Greta Nachajova

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