Spree Killers


The morning I sat down to write this post, I went searching the internet for a couple of spree killers, because Starkweather is the only one I can ever think of off the top of my head. As I searched, I noticed just how many people actually rely on Wikipedia for their factual information. Wikipedia has a page for rampage killers, but it’s incredibly inaccurate. It uses different criteria for defining spree killers and mass murderers. I say this because the very first spree killer listed is the Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock. But unless there’s something I don’t know, Paddock is a mass murderer, not a spree killer.

A spree killer is not the same as a mass murderer, although they seem the same on the surface. The difference is spree killers move locations and as a result their murders happen over a length of time. Their kills get lumped into a “single event” but are in reality, different instances of murder. Spree killers don’t fantasize about their crimes like serial killers or mass murderers. Because sprees aren’t planned like serial murders or mass murders, they just happen. If Paddock had shot the mail person, then a neighbor who saw him a couple of houses down, then some random person in the Walmart parking lot on the way to the concert where he opened fire; killing 58 and wounding 422 other people, he’d be a spree killer. Instead, Paddock drove to the concert, somehow got in with an arsenal, and opened fire in a single location (a concert venue), at a single time (during the concert).

I looked at a few more names on the Wikipedia page; mass murderer, mass murderer, mass murderer… Now, I know spree killers are the rarest of the stranger murderers, but I know Starkweather isn’t the only one to ever exist in the US.

The second and third person on the list both hijacked and crashed airplanes. One was an act of revenge because the airline fired him, not a spree killer. The first, well, I couldn’t find the motive for why he hijacked a plane, shot both pilots and let it crash killing everyone on board, including himself. Their names are Francisco Paula Gonzales (1964), who killed 43 and David Burke (1987) who killed 42.

Next was David Kelly, who in 2017, walked into a church in Texas and opened fire. He killed 26 (including a pregnant woman and her unborn baby) and wounded 20 others. But again, it wasn’t a spree killing. It was a mass murder, plain and simple. This is important to me, because spree killers enjoy a different type of notoriety than mass murderers. People treat spree killers like Robin Hood and mass murderers are definitely not Robin Hood (hell, even Robin Hood wasn’t like Robin Hood). My only consolation is every killer I’ve mentioned so far, is dead.

Let me explain that: Americans will cheer for really bad guys, if they can pretend they are doing it for good reasons. This is the reason, Jesse James, who was a monster, is still talked about in approving tones. Police chasing down Starkweather during his crime spree, arrived in a town and found the folks had made signs and put them outside their houses cheering Starkweather on. Starkweather, like James, was a psychopath, who deserved to be in prison and neither James nor Starkweather were freaking Robin Hood by any stretch of the imagination. Spree killers are the closest we have to modern day outlaws. They remind us of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Jesse James. However, this is a romanticized idea of them, normally, they are monsters. Having said that, it is part of the reason we need to get the classification of them correct. No one looks at a mass murderer as a hero (unless you need therapy). But they do look at spree killers that way for some reason.

Because none of these people, including Jesse James are heros to be romanticized and heralded as heroes, I feel very strongly that they shouldn’t be given a gentler classification prone to evoke the wrong emotions. They should be called out for being the monsters they are.

Then I read the definition Wikipedia gave for a spree killer. Uh, what?!? The FBI uses spree killer and rampage killer interchangeably. The definition, I’ve given for a rampage killer, is the definition as used by the FBI. The Wikipedia criteria for their list of spree (rampage) killers (and Wikipedia also uses the terms interchangeably) is much different than the FBI version. According to Wikipedia their list of spree killers requires the following:

  1. Rampage killings with 6 or more dead
  2. Rampage killings with at least 4 people killed and least ten victims overall (dead plus injured)
  3. Rampage killings with at least 2 people killed and least 12 victims overall (dead plus injured)
  4. An incidence of rampage killing shall not be included in this list if it does not include at least two people killed.
  5. In all cases the perpetrator is not counted among those killed or injured.

To continue, the Wiki list put criteria in place that would in fact, remove nearly any “real” spree killers and instead create a list of mass murderers, not spree killers: “Cases where the primary motive for the murders was to facilitate or cover up another felony, like robbery, are also excluded.” Much to my surprise, Starkweather and his girlfriend were both listed. This surprises me, because the Starkweather spree killings began when the girlfriends’ parents forbid her to see him anymore. As they ran away, the committed a series of thefts and robberies to get money to continue their running away and often, they killed their victims to prevent them from reporting the crime to police.

However, when I was researching, I found a blog post by a true crime blogger that listed Paddock and Kelly as spree killers, probably because of the Wikipedia page. I found probably three dozen blog posts and “informative pages” on spree killers that seemed to take the list from Wikipedia. The DC Sniper was listed and they weren’t spree killers or mass murderers, the FBI classifies Lee Malvo and John Muhammed as a serial killer team. This is a big red flag, as serial killings include “cooling down” periods. Now this can be ten to twelve hours or it can be three months, but it is still a cooling down period. Mass murderers and spree killings do not have cooling down periods, once it starts, it doesn’t stop until they do.

I think most of us can agree that Wikipedia is a good idea, but the reality of it is quite different. It is not a good reference tool. But worse for me, is the reiteration of these falsehoods. I study true crime, because knowledge is power and there are things you can do to prevent being a victim (or at least make yourself a less ideal victim). But to do that, you need to have accurate information. There is nothing you can do to avoid being the victim of a mass murderer, spree killer, or terrorist. Furthermore, if you understand crime, you can help even if you do become a victim… You will be better prepared for a situation in which your life is in danger, if you understand it before it happens. Furthermore, there is a psychology behind all killers, even stranger killers, that can help you understand the world around you. Which is removed when the information out there is wrong. But that’s tomorrow’s post.

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