In recent years, “True Crime” media has seen a resurgence in interest thanks in no small part to the success of podcasts like “Serial” and shows like Netflix’s “Mind Hunter.” While there has always been a market for tales about the grizzly acts of murderers and the law enforcement effort to catch them, it’s safe to say America has shifted its posture toward the very concept of serial killers as of late. Where the phrase could once elicit fear, it now tends to spark little more than interest. Our modern fears have changed along with our culture, and today, Americans are far more worried about being the victim of a mass shooting or terror attack than falling prey to a man-eater like Jeffrey Dahmer… But just because we like to think of serial killers as a thing of the past doesn’t mean they actually are.
We may tend to discount the topic as a crime-ridden facet of the 70s and 80s, but serial killers are invariably a product of their time, and modern killers would have adjusted their practices to suit the modern era. A killer that grew up on a steady supply of episodes of “CSI” and “The Forensic Files” would logically go about killing in a different way than a 1970s killer might, and importantly, jurors in any ensuing trial will also be affected by their own TV and movie based preconceived notions regarding evidence. In law enforcement communities, they tend to call this the “CSI Effect” — where criminals take great care to limit the evidence they leave behind and jurors increasingly demand irrefutable scientific evidence in order to convict, both as a result of watching crime-based television programs.
While there remains a lively debate about the CSI Effect, it’s important to point it out as a part of the larger discussion regarding serial killers, because despite our commonly held belief that America has left its serial killing past behind (perhaps in favor of spree killers instead), crime statistics suggest that it’s not only possible that serial killers are continuing to operate in the United States, it seems likely that some could be doing an excellent job of getting away with it too.
Although we like to think that it would be next to impossible to get away with murder in this era of cameras in every pocket and high-tech crime solving methods, the truth is, nearly 40% of all murders in the United States go unsolved. And rape, which is often a precursor to murder in a serial killer’s development, has an even more upsetting solvency rate at just about 34.5%. That means more than 65% of reported rapes don’t result in an arrest and conviction. So, while America pats itself on the back for getting past its serial killer history, the truth is more likely that any serial killers operating today have simply gotten much better at avoiding arrest.
It does seem likely that there are fewer serial killers amassing large body counts today than we may have seen in the past, thanks in large part to technological advances and changes in American culture. It’s no longer considered normal to leave your children unattended for long periods of time or to hitchhike cross country — both of which were far more commonplace in the era we tend to think of as the “golden age” for serial killing. While it’s still possible for a disorganized killer that acts on impulse to get away with his crimes in today’s world, it would likely be much harder. An organized killer, on the other hand, with cold rational thinking and a passion for his pursuits, would likely be smart enough to utilize variety in his methods (making it more difficult to link crimes to one another), and a great deal of care when it comes to leaving evidence behind. Modern as the world may be, rural communities and low income urban communities alike suffer from a lack of experience and resources when it comes to solving such crimes, and as a result, an opportunity for modern serial killers to thrive exists, even if not as pronounced an opportunity as there once was.
Of course, that’s not to suggest that all of those unsolved murders were committed by serial killers — quite the opposite. The vast majority of these murders were likely committed by someone with ties to the victim, and often, law enforcement may even have a suspect — they just lack the evidence required to secure a conviction. But the remainder still leaves a lot of room for active serial killers to operate. How many? Well, according to Thomas Hargrove, the founder of the Murder Accountability Project, only about 2% of all murders are committed by a traditionally defined “serial killer.” According to his math, that leaves room for somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,100 undiscovered serial killers in America today.
Honestly, if you think that’s a shocking number you won’t like the projections offered up by former police detective and author Dr. Michael Arntfield, because after researching and authoring a dozen books on the subject, he’s come to the conclusion that the number of serial killers in America is more likely between 3,000 and 4,000.
Of course, theories don’t mean much without evidence to back them up, but in recent years there have been a number of serial killers caught and convicted that, it seems, managed to operate for some time while not just avoiding capture, but often, without the police being aware that there was a serial killer on the loose at all. Samuel Little, for instance, has been linked to over 60 homicides and has claimed a total of more than 90… He’d killed people across 14 states and four decades before finally being convicted in 2014. By the reckoning of many experts, assuming Samuel Little is some kind of remarkable exception would be dangerously naive, especially considering Little wouldn’t have even been a suspect in many of these murders had he not chosen to voluntarily confess to them.
Again, the assertion here is not that America is riddled with serial killers, but rather that America has fooled itself into thinking that its longstanding problem with serial killers is a thing of the past. With so many murders going unsolved, and so many more missing persons cases failing to make the jump to homicide investigation due to a lack of evidence, a small percentage of organized serial killers are likely putting together kill counts that rival or outright surpass the boogeymen depicted in crime dramas like “Mind Hunter.”
And the longer we convince ourselves otherwise, the longer they’ll likely continue to thrive.