Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

An Examination of Serial Murder in Australia

Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

An Examination of Serial Murder in Australia

Article excerpt

Building on earlier research undertaken at the Australian Institute of Criminology (Pinto & Wilson 1990), the current research explores the serial murder phenomenon in Australia using data collected as part of the Institute's National Homicide Monitoring Program (NHMP). Results show that between July 1989 and June 2006, there were 11 groupings of serial murders identified in the NHMP, committed by 13 known serial murder offenders, with a total of 52 known victims. This represents one percent of the total number of homicides in Australia over a 17 year period. The paper reports on the characteristics of offenders and victims, including the offenders' modus operandi. The analysis found that the profile of serial murder in Australia is similar to that found in international research. In at least two of the groups of serial murders the victims had been reported as missing to police. It is important to note that the paper reports on known homicides. The paper suggests that further research on the profile of long term missing persons and serial murder victims should be undertaken as well as exploring offenders who commit multiple murders on separate occasions, to identify what prevented them (apart from law enforcement intervention) from committing additional murders.

Toni Makkai


Despite public fascination with, and interest in, the serial murder phenomenon, little research on this topic has been undertaken in Australia. High profile cases such as the backpacker murders in New South Wales and Snowtown murders in South Australia serve to heighten the public's awareness, and perhaps overstate the threat, of serial murder in Australia. This contributes to a lack of understanding of serial murder, especially regarding the offender profile and the likelihood of victimisation. Building on earlier research by Pinto and Wilson (1 990), this study aims to examine the circumstances and characteristics of serial murders that have occurred in Australia since the inception of the NHMP in July 1 989.

Definition of serial murder

There is a lack of consensus among academics and practitioners in the definition of serial murder. Disagreement centres on the number of victims, the presence/absence of a sexual element, and the common characteristics of victims (Egger 1 998; 1 984; Holmes & DeBurger 1 998; Dietz, Hazelwood & Warren 1 990; Myers et al. 1 993; Cantor et al. 2000; Fox & Levin 2005). In order to include all types of serial killers, a broad definition of serial murder is used in the current research. In accordance with the crime classification manual developed by the FBI, serial murders are those that involve three or more separate events (Douglas et al. 1 992), and most importantly, are repetitive sequential homicides of any nature. Frequently, serial murders involve a similarity of subject or purpose (for example, the choice of victims, methods of killings, or the killer's motivation; Aki 2003: 6).

Review of the literature

Characteristics of serial killers

Serial murder has been described as deliberate, premeditated, and sexually predatory in nature, with a lack of interpersonal conflict and provocation (Kraemer, Lord & Heilbrun 2004: 338). The characteristics of serial killers - their behaviour, actions and motivation - are diverse, intricate and include crosscultural variations (Folino 2000: 740).

When a motive is ascribed to the killing in serial murder it is usually characterised as either sexual or psychological gratification (Egger 1 998). Sex is used by the serial killer to achieve power and control over their victim, as opposed to sex being an end in itself (Egger 1 998). In a study of 494 known serial killers across the United States, almost two-thirds were motivated by the thrill of power or sexual sadism (Fox & Levin 2005).

International research has found a number of common characteristics among serial killers and their murders:

* serial murder is predominantly committed by white/Caucasian males of moderate to high intelligence (Aki 2003; Kraemer, Lord & Heilbrun 2004; Fox & Levin 2005; Rule 1 986 cited in Holmes & DeBurger 1 998)

* serial killers are usually aged in their mid-twenties with a mean age of 30, and the typical age range between 25 and 40 years (Aki 2003: 1 7; Kraemer, Lord & Heilbrun 2004; Godwin 1999)

* serial killings are usually intra-racial (Hazelwood & Douglas 1980; Hickey 2006)

* serial killers are more likely to act alone (Kraemer, Lord & Heilbrun 2004) * serial killers most commonly use strangulation or beating as a means of killing (Kraemer, Lord & Heilbrun 2004)

* male serial killers are more likely to use strangulation, stabbing, ligature weapons, hands or feet (beating), cause injury to victim's head and genitalia (anus), bind victims and sexually assault victims (Kraemer, Lord & Heilbrun 2004: 336)

* female serial killers are relatively uncommon - an overseas study of 200 serial killers found 12 to 1 7 percent were women (Hickey & Holmes 1991)

* female serial killers were motivated by a need for financial security, revenge, enjoyment, and sexual stimulation (Hickey & Holmes1991 ; Riedel 1 998)

* female serial killers who act alone are more likely to use poison as a method of killing (Kelleher & Kelleher 1 998)

* serial killers usually premeditate their crimes, frequently fantasising and planning with detail, including the specific victim (Ressler, Burgess & Douglas 1988)

* serial killers are likely to use similar event locations (but different physical locations) for their crimes, move the body from one location to another and dispose of the body in remote locations (Kraemer, Lord & Heilbrun 2004). …

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