How Can We ID the Wannabe Serial Killer?

How Can We ID the Wannabe Serial Killer?

In Germany, “Sarah M” stabbed a man in the neck as she enacted her plan to become a serial killer. Just 19, she was obsessed with Ted Bundy, Jack the Ripper, and Richard Ramirez. She thought the uncaught Ripper had been a woman—her role model. Sarah arranged a date and asked a friend to “wish me luck.”

Various newspapers have carried the account of this girl who’d vowed to kill one lover every day, starting in May 2021. She’d purchased a camping knife and researched the best place to stab someone and how long it takes to die. Then she devised the bait: her dating profile. “Domina Cherry” hooked a guy right away. After he picked her up, she stabbed him in the neck. He resisted but didn’t survive the blood loss.

Sarah was arrested. At her trial, she showed no remorse. Just like Ramirez, the Night Stalker, she responded to her sentence by flashing a pentagram she’d inked onto her palm.

I get many requests to spell out how we can see these deadly aspirations forming in young people before they act.

Some sources reported that Sarah M had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (a common diagnosis for psychopathic females). Myers et al. looked at the prevalence of personality disorders in the clinical reports for 22 sexually homicidal juveniles (only males, as there are no studies for females aroused by murder) and found “conduct disorder, personality disorders, sexual sadism, and psychopathic traits were prevalent.”

Although juvenile sexual homicide is rare (1 percent of murder by minors), the combination of these conditions makes them highly dangerous. Less than 10 percent had been sexually abused, and the most prevalent personality disorders were schizotypal, schizoid, sadistic, paranoid, and borderline. The Hare PCL-R diagnostic instrument for youth produced a mean psychopathy score of 23.3, with recidivating youths scoring closer to 30—near the cut-off for adult psychopathy. The researchers concluded that the combined presence of psychopathic features, sexual sadism, and schizotypy is a red flag for motivation to commit and repeat sexual violence.

This seems obvious, but there’s more.

Pisano et al. add the presence of callous-unemotional (CU) traits. Behaviors that show degrees of empathy and conscience are present in kids as young as 2 or 3. “Higher CU behaviors in children are related to lower guilt and empathy, more proactive aggression, and, prospectively, to CU traits in late childhood.” Because parents, pediatricians, and caretakers can spot the signs, they say, there’s potential for timely intervention.

Harry Leigh created a “murder manual” that contained a list of 30 specific targets. He’d been considering a violent spree since he was 13. He’d purchased plastic sheeting and a collection of knives. He named himself the Red Ribbon Killer of Hastings because he intended to leave red ribbons near his kills.

He’d commenced with sexual assaults, listing each of his young victims as a candidate for a future murder. He was caught at age 19 before he could kill and pled guilty to multiple counts, including rape, inciting girls to engage in sexual activity, and making indecent images of children. Psychiatric assessments showed that Leigh had psychopathic traits, including low empathy and narcissism.

But personality traits are just part of the story. In Leigh’s collection were photos of him as the Red Ribbon Killer, studies of other serial killers, prepared taunts to police for not catching him, a map of his targeted hunting ground, and expressions of hatred against certain individuals. Wannabe serial killers are often collectors. It helps to fuel their fantasies and confirms their aspirations.

Psychologist Paul Frick states that the presence of CU traits designates a subgroup of youth with early conduct problems who show a severe, aggressive, and stable pattern of antisocial behavior. Their emotional and cognitive features are distinct from other antisocial youth but show similarity to psychopathic adults. Behavioral indicators include little sense of guilt, low empathy, defiance, and deceitfulness.

These traits buffer kids from pangs of conscience or concern for others as they build their collection and choose their violent role models. Selecting their monikers, MO and targets firm up their identification as a future serial killer.

In 2014 in England, a 15-year-old boy obsessed with the Yorkshire Ripper stabbed a disabled man 102 times in the face, head, and hands. Three months later, he attacked a woman, stabbing her in the eyes. He dumped the knife in a river and tossed his bloodstained clothes. When arrested as he prepared for another strike, the boy told police that voices had commanded him to “make a sacrifice.” He said he’d studied five different serial killers to see how they’d worked. The Yorkshire Ripper had described a voice that commanded him to kill.

Although the research on adolescent offenders focuses on traits and disorders, it’s clear that an obsession with specific killers is also a factor. Possibly their coldness and desire to harm find a home in certain crime stories that excite them. When this obsession occurs during the period when adolescents are forming their sense of identity, it can shape the thoughts of those with low empathy toward violence. Media coverage of killers provides role models and ideas for weapons and MO, but immersion in the details of a killer’s crimes can erode moral boundaries. Once Harry Leigh adopted a moniker, prepared a murder kit, and took selfies of himself as a killer, he was well along this road. So was Sarah.

Many think it’s the Macdonald triad—fire-setting, animal cruelty, and bedwetting—that signals a future serial killer, but that’s an outdated and faulty model. Today’s research on kids at risk for future predatory violence focuses on disturbing developmental patterns. Detached or deficient affect, the desire to inflict harm, a lack of guilt, and a strong identification with serial killers—especially specific offenders—are the primary behaviors of concern. Timely intervention is possible.







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