September 28, 2010 Release For More Information Contact: Stephen Lee

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Why Serial Killers Go Undetected

The public remains deeply fascinated by serial killers, which accounts for the success of the Dexter TV series and such movies as Psycho and Silence of the Lambs. But surprisingly, most police know very little about serial killers.

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How Evidence Was Destroyed

Amazingly, evidence that was seized from Larry Hall's vans was returned to his family by the FBI after his conviction. It included articles of women's clothing that could identify victims with today's DNA technology, but most of it was destroyed by Hall's father.

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From In With The Devil by James Keene with Hillel Levin (St. Martin's Press, September 2010)

Next to mobsters, if any type of criminal has won celebrity status in America’s popular culture, it would be the serial killer. Psycho and Silence of the Lambs are respectively the twenty-third and twenty-fourth most searched films in the Internet Movie Data Base, and since the silent era, more than one thousand movies have been devoted to the subject. A serial killer has been featured in hundreds of television shows, dozens of documentaries and even has the starring role in Dexter an Emmy-award series on the Showtime cable network. In the words of criminologist Steven Egger, who has studied the phenomenon, serial murder has become “a growth industry.”

Despite all the fascination with serial killers and the extensive coverage of their crimes and trials, Egger writes, “Law enforcement agencies today are simply not adept at identifying or apprehending the murderer who kills strangers and moves from jurisdiction to jurisdiction...” As opposed to fictional villains like Hannibal Lecter, Egger argues, the men who actually commit multiple homicides are not all that proficient at killing ― the cops are just not very good at catching them.

The failings of local police aside, the general public is still confident that a higher authority in law enforcement – namely the FBI – will protect them against serial killers. Thanks to TV crime shows and movies like Silence of the Lambs, this faith is buttressed by the belief that the bureau has access to comprehensive databases of information and that oracular special agents − known as Profilers − can sift through this data to predict the identity of potential predators with uncanny precision.

But in truth, there is no real clearinghouse for information about unsolved homicides or missing persons ― with the FBI or any other federal agency. Although crime writers often refer to the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP), it is limited to the information voluntarily submitted by local police departments. HOLMES, the United Kingdom counterpart system, has proven much more effective because all levels of British law enforcement are forced to participate and provide uniform data. HOLMES also includes missing person reports, which can be essential in identifying a serial murder spree when the bodies of only a few victims have been found. In the U.S., the friends and relatives of the missing must file notices with a hodgepodge of authorities to get their loved ones on lists that can vary by state, county, city and, in the case of Pennsylvania, even by State Police Troop.

As for the vaunted FBI profiles, these, too, have come under fire. In a New Yorker article titled, “Dangerous Minds,” Malcolm Gladwell quotes forensic scientists who have analyzed FBI profiles after the perpetrators had been caught and found them to be either wrong or too vague to be of any real use to investigators. According to criminologist Egger, any proactive role played by the FBI − in either the detection or prevention of serial murder − is a “myth” that is “carefully manipulated [by the FBI] through the media…” Instead, he writes, “The identification of a serial murderer frequently occurs through happenstance or a fluke,” as a result of “routine police work in response to a seemingly unrelated criminal event.”