Victim Target Networks as Solvability Factors in Serial Murder

By Godwin, Maurice | Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Victim Target Networks as Solvability Factors in Serial Murder


Godwin, Maurice, Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal


The situational context in which the serial killer targets his victims is critical to understanding the hunting patterns of a predator. However, police and researchers eschew victim target networks (VTN). Rather, their attention is overwhelmingly concerned with the offender's characteristics. As an alternative to traditional police investigations, this paper suggests that by directing attention to victim target networks, inferences about the decision-making process underlying the selection of crime locations, victims, and locating offenders' home bases can be made. The paper presents a decision- making model that the serial predator uses to scope out potential victim target networks and shows how proactive policing in victim target areas can deter the killer. The study also posits that by directing investigative attention to victim social networks, police can first identify a set of prospective victims targeted by a serial killer. The study closes with suggestions about the applicability of law enforcement use of victims ' targeting networks and how victim social networks can be used to link serial murder victims.

It has been established that there is a relationship between solving homicides and having information about a number of important locations. A recent study on the factors that contributed to solving serial murder investigations found that time and distance proved significant, suggesting that the more information on "the location of the original contact between the victim and the killer, where the assault occurred, the murder site, and the body recovery site the more likely a murder case will be solved" (Keppel & Weis, 1994, p.386). Yet despite the importance of their locations, and the great cost of extended police investigations, the detailed consideration of offense locations and why they may be important are rarely researched. A few anecdotal illustrations are recorded by retired Agents from the FBI Behavioral Science Unit in their memoirs (Ressler & Shachtman, 1992; Douglas & Olshaker, 1996). They acknowledge that determining where victims are targeted and dumped is an important factor in solving serial murders, but these have not been related to empirical studies testing hypotheses about the distances serial killers travel to carry out various crime related activities. Consequently, an understanding of the processes that shape serial killers' spatial behavior has not been developed.

There is one notable exception, the work of Rossmo (1993,1995,1996). Calling his approach criminal geographical targeting (CGT), Rossmo has combined concepts from environmental criminology with a mathematical model, based on a distance decay function, derived from the locations in which killers leave their victims' bodies, to indicate the area in which a serial killer may be living. The reasons for the proposed decay are not exactly clear but are usually presented in relation to the least-effort principle. This postulates that when multiple destinations of equal desirability are available, all else being equal, the closest one will be chosen (Zipf, 1950). Another principle that is incorporated into Rossmo's geographical profiling technique, that has been put forward as a basis for determining crime locations, is that there will be a tendency for offenders to avoid committing crimes close to where they live, often referred to as a `buffer zone' (Brantingham & Brantingham, 1981, 1984). The proposed reason for this is to avoid leaving incriminating evidence near to where they live. However, the evidence for this is sparse. Davies and Dale (1995) for example find no evidence for it in their limited study of single rapists. Although Rossmo has not published any studies demonstrating the nature of the validity of his distance decay algorithms nor how they compare with other approaches he has provided illustrations of the utility of his technique.

A variety of distance related processes have been propounded in the literature on the importance of crime locations in serial murder. …

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