In the 1990s, the FBI put out an estimate that there were 250 active serial killers in the US. In 2019, they estimate 25-50 active serial killers. I disagree with this estimate. I also disagreed with the average in the 1990s. I have reasons with evidence for disagreeing and the entire D&R series is built on the idea. It is my belief these numbers are incredibly low and grossly underestimates the number of active serial killers in the US and the world.
If you read true crime or research serial killers you’ll hear the terms MO (modus operandi) and “signature” often. The MO of a killer is their habits when they kill. Their signature is something they do to confirm it is theirs. Profilers say MO is always present, but signatures are hit or miss. For an example of a signature think of the Boston Strangler and the bows tied with his victims stockings.
The MO is a little vaguer than a signature, it includes things like how they kill (strangle, stab, shoot, drown, beat to death, etc), the way they get victims (kidnap, pretend to be a John for a prostitute, breaking into the house of their victim [Think Golden State and Richard Ramirez]), and even where they attack, kill, and do they dump the bodies after death.
To track a serial killer, MO has to always be the same unless you have physical evidence. Unfortunately, despite our opinion in the 1980s and 1990s that MO never changes, we have found a lot of serial killers do change their MO. It is a choice, not a compulsion. Serial Killers Sam Little and the Golden State Killer are the best examples of this. Part of the reason both where hard to catch is because we weren’t even sure who they had killed. GSK had 4 or 5 names before Michelle McNamara gave him the name GSK. Sometimes GSK only raped his victims which is how he earned the name The East Area Rapist, sometimes he only broke in and rifled through houses like with the Visalia Ransacker crimes. Sam Little didn’t just travel the country taking victims, he varied who and how he killed. And since our ideas on how serial killers operate is fairly rigid, we didn’t connect them all until he was arrested for murder and his DNA started popping up on cold cases and then he began his confessions.
Furthermore, victimology isn’t as rigid as we once believed. BTK’s first kill was a family then he began attacking single mothers and single women. There is a huge difference between attacking a father, mother, and two kids in their own home and attacking a single mother with two kids or a single woman whose brother is visiting. This change in victimology can be seen in GSK, Cary Stayner, Zodiac, Sam Little, and the Long Island Serial Killer as well. Cary Stayner’s first victims were a woman and her two teenage daughters, then he attacked a female who was alone. LISK and Little both crossed gender lines, age lines, and ethnicity lines, something we used to think didn’t happen. Now, LISK’s murder of a man may have been because he was a transgender man who could and did often pass as a woman. However, LISK put an infant in his dump site, so he definitely crossed ages and the man was Asian. While the majority of his victims are caucasian, he claim credit for Asian, African-American, and caucasian victims. As can Sam Little and Gary Ridgway.
Then there was the cluster in LA in the 1990s. That really bothers me. In the mid-1990s they arrested 2 men for killing African-American women in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, it would take a decade or so before they would capture Lonnie Franklin, Jr. – the Grim Sleeper who was also active in LA in the 1990s and even a little longer before they captured Sam Little and discovered he was also killing African-American women in LA overlapping both The Grim Sleeper and the other 2 serial killers who had been captured.
Finally, psychopathology in the US is on the rise. It has always been slightly higher than other Western European countries, plus Canada and Australia. Now, not all psychopaths are serial killers, it is only a very small subset. But if the number of psychopaths in general is rising then the number of that very small subset must also be rising.
The point being I don’t believe Sam Little, LISK, BTK, are exceptions to the rules. Profilers and psychologists have repeatedly said the desire to kill is a choice not a compulsion in serial killers, thereby not giving them an out via mental defect. But if that’s true than as I’ve already stated MO, signature, and victimology must also be choices not compulsions and therefore the ability to vary them greatly must exist.
When a killer is willing to change up all those things, it is nearly impossible to track them. Add in the ability to be mobile like Dr. No was in the late 1990s and well, you have a recipe for disaster. Therefore, the number of active serial killers in the US is hard to fathom. 25-50 seems impossibly low though for 2019. Especially since violent crime is on the decline in the US as are “crimes of passion” meaning the number of victims that know their killers might also be decreasing.
Now, one has to factor in another issue… the rise of the Mass Murderer in the US. Mass murder has always been a thing in the US. The first school shootings happened in the 1800s. Semi-automatic and automatic guns have increased the effectiveness of school shootings, it hasn’t created the phenomenon. I say it must be factored in because mass murderers are much like serial killers. I actually consider them two sides of the same coin. All mass murderers are either sociopaths or psychopaths (just like serial killers) and some of those mass murderers didn’t become serial killers simply because mass murderers tend to die at the end (either self inflicted or by the response to it). I recently listened to a book on the Columbine shooters and I firmly believe if they hadn’t committed mass murder both would have become serial killers… possibly partners a la The Hillside Strangler and Lake and Ng.
Interestingly, last year I read a book called The Faithful Executioner (turning into Aislinn Cain apparently). It was a good book about one of the Official executioners of Germany in the late Middle Ages. He recorded the sentence of every one he executed and I was surprised by the number of “multiple murderers” in Germany in the late Middle Ages, proving serial killers and mass murderers have always existed.
Anyway, knowing that MO, signature, and even victology are not set in stone as we once believed, I find it hard to believe we are aware of every serial killer in the US or even suspect them. As Cary Stayner and BTK proved, serial killers can be rather banal. Furthermore, even the great John Douglas completely failed to nail the profile of BTK. If the profile was used to eliminate suspects and Dennis Rader had been a suspect in the BTK murders, it would have eliminated him. Douglas profiled BTK as coming from a broken home with a domineering mother who was terribly religious, unmarried, incapable of holding a job that wasn’t menial and required him to work with the public, and that “people would just generally find him off.” Rader did not come from a broken home, he was not raised by a domineering religious zealot of a mother, and he was not “generally off”. He was well respected, loved, married, and perfectly capable of holding a job that was not menial and dealt with the public.
Knowing all this, I believe we have no clue how many serial killers are active in the US. Or anywhere else in the world for that matter. And I believe the number is much higher than the estimated (Cary Stayner and Israel Keyes weren’t even suspected of murder until they were caught, let alone multiple murders that would land them on the serial killers of the US list). That is the entire concept behind D&R. I think the number is probably closer to 1,000. I say this because I would say nearly every major city in the US has at least one serial killer and some have clusters like LA did in the 1990s and that this can muddy the waters on who is killing who, providing camouflage for all of the killers.