Serial Errors: Reality & Myth in the Investigation of Serial Murders

Posted: January 22, 2013 in Uncategorized

This post appeared originally in The Rap Sheet

Monday, January 21, 2013

Serial Errors: Reality and Myth in the Investigation of Serial Murders

(Editor’s note: This essay comes to The Rap Sheet from D.L. Johnstone, author of the best-selling 2012 crime thriller Chalk Valley, as well as the e-book Furies, released last month. Johnstone lives in the Toronto, Ontario, area with his wife, their four kids, and their half-dog/half-Sasquatch, Charlie.)

“He wondered for the hundred and first time if he had arrested the Chalk Valley killer, caught him dead to rights, and was losing him to the system.” — from Chalk Valley

Novels about serial-murder investigations have been a staple subgenre of the thriller oeuvre for decades. Centuries, I suppose, if you include tales of Bluebeard and his ilk. In the traditional story arc, the heroic detective must sort through the clues to find the devious, unknown mastermind, solving whatever intricate puzzle the killer has set for him, against the backdrop of a ticking clock. It essentially ends when the killer is unmasked. Personally, I love these types of thrillers. I even wrote one (Furies). But that’s not how actual serial-murder investigations take place. Not even close. They’re a lot more complicated, they take far longer, they’re more political, more bureaucratic, and they are far more painful to those connected to the investigations.

When I was planning Chalk Valley, I decided I wanted to tell a different story than the usual serial-murder tale. I wanted to write one that explored the human drama of these investigations. There’s no mystery who the killer is in Chalk Valley. His name is revealed in the first sentence of the book, and by the end of the first chapter, it’s clear what Phil Lindsay is all about. It saves countless paper cuts from readers skipping to the end of the book for the Big Reveal. Chalk Valley is a cat-and-mouse portrayal of how a small-town cop forces his way through the system, bureaucracy, politics, and even the lead task force to stop Lindsay. And all the while the cop fears additional victims will be taken because he’s not doing more. That makes for a very different kind of thriller.

First myth: the murderers. Serial killers are not criminal masterminds. They’re deviant sociopaths who know how to work the system. They like to dominate others, degrade them, fill them with dread. The Three D’s. The successful ones who manage to evade capture for weeks, months, or even years are clearly bright enough, able to fool their victims and their families and friends, staying on the loose all the while. But they’re not Hannibal Lecters. Nor are they the wild-eyed nutbars you see pictures of in post offices. Those guys are pretty easy to spot–they’re the usual suspects. Serial killers are often just out there in the community. They may have families, 9-to-5 jobs, mortgages, car payments. And maybe a secret room in their man-cave. Frankly, that’s a far scarier proposition to most of us, thinking that such a killer could be living right next door.

Personal revelation moment: Scarborough, Ontario’s Paul Bernardo started out as the mysterious “Scarborough Rapist,” haunting the neighborhood in eastern Toronto where I grew up, terrorizing the citizens for a couple of years before he graduated to become a serial murderer with his creepy little wife, Karla Homolka, 100 miles down the road. People like them get off on not only their murders, but also on the impact those killings have on society. It gives them the opportunity to feel powerful, and to relive the crime over and over again with every news story. But Bernardo was no mastermind, he was just some vile deviant. He also went to my high school. I knew his sister. Hell, his family lived half a mile from where I did.

Second myth: the detectives. OK, this gets a little complicated. If the murders all take place in one big city, the investigation, while still dreadfully difficult and painful, is made somewhat simpler. The victim is taken from and murdered in a single jurisdiction, so the politics are relatively minimal. But that’s where serial killers can be fairly clever. They take advantage of the natural inefficiencies of two or more police agencies having to work together by snatching victims from one or more jurisdictions, killing them elsewhere, and then disposing of their bodies in yet another location. So the police not only have to figure out who the victim is, but who is in charge of the investigation. And if it’s members of a small police agency who are in the lead, they may not have the expertise to do things properly. It can take weeks, even months for cops to get their acts together. The associated politics can be quite brutal–bureaucracy amongst the police is as bad as any other government agency, with the added wrinkle that there are human lives at stake.

In Chalk Valley, which is set in the western Canadian province of British Columbia, the protagonist is a cop, Sergeant Dave Kreaver. He thinks he knows who the killer is. Unfortunately, Kreaver works outside the jurisdiction of the lead investigators and runs into major roadblocks when he tries to get his suspect considered. Similarly, in the Bernardo/Homolka serial murders, a street cop received a tip from a woman who said she’d been raped by Bernardo at a party. The cop followed up and found that Bernardo drove the same kind of car the killer had been seen driving. He had the right (wrong) kind of personality, arrogant and smug. He even matched the physical description investigators had of the killer. The cop worked up his tip–which was promptly ignored by the case’s Green Ribbon Task Force. The tip was then buried deep until an inquest pulled it out years later in the Campbell Inquiry’s exploration of the debacle.

Also a factor in these cases is the human cost to the investigators. They might put in 80-plus hours a week on the job, for months and months, with their supervisors, the media, the victims’ families, and even the general public questioning their every move. What kind of effect does that have on them and their families? Not a good one. On their health? Also, not recommended. But what choice do those investigators have? Plus they’re running up major overtime, which drains the city budget. If you don’t believe petty issues such as budgets affect major criminal probes, think again. Remember, police agencies are still at their core government bureaucracies–they just have badges and guns.

Third myth: the investigation itself. The cops in serial-killer cases aren’t just sorting through a few intriguing clues, like who killed Colonel Mustard with a nail-gun in the breakfast nook. They are inundated with leads. There may be tens of thousands of tips for them to sort through–a virtual mountain. And thousands of suspects to vet. They have to validate all of them–how could they not? How else would they know which ones are real or valuable? It’s like trying to find a specific needle in a stack of needles. And for any evidence they do want to pursue, the cops will likely need to get search warrants to make sure it holds up in court. They may need to check out DNA evidence. Unfortunately, that can take weeks, months, longer.

Are you getting the picture here?

And all of this needs to be balanced against the fear of tunnel vision. Consider the infamous case of Guy Paul Morin, a resident of Queensville, Ontario, who in 1984 was convicted of murdering his 9-year-old neighbor, Christine Jessop. The inquest found the lead detectives in that investigation had been so focused on Morin as the killer, they actually convinced Christine’s grieving family members to modify their statements as to when they had returned home on the afternoon the girl disappeared. This provided Morin with a sufficient time window within which he could have returned from work and abducted the girl. It led to Morin’s false conviction, overturned years later on DNA evidence after his life was destroyed. Christine’s real killer was never caught.

After I wrote Chalk Valley, I received questions from several readers who wanted to know if issues like this still take place. Haven’t we made huge strides in recent years? Haven’t we learned? Yes and no. Major Case Management, a state-of-the-art, turnkey process to help multiple police jurisdictions in Canada work together to solve serial crimes, rose from the ashes of the Bernardo inquest. I spent a lot of time with the MCM architects and ViCLAS (Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System) investigators when I researched this novel. The system still isn’t perfect, but everyone is trying to take the right steps. So that maybe, in time, these sort of obstacles will truly be a thing of the past.

Yet, let’s look at the 2010 case of disgraced Canadian Forces Colonel Russell Williams, who raped, tortured, and murdered two women over a two-month span, in addition to committing a chilling series of fetish break-ins around the rural Ontario neighborhood where he lived. While DNA testing was thankfully accelerated and led to his relatively prompt arrest, the Ontario government refuses to make public the dates Williams’ DNA samples were collected. Defending this action, the government has made the bizarre claim that revealing such information would be “an unjustified invasion of personal privacy.” An invasion of a convicted serial killer’s privacy, mind you. Bureaucracy reigns supreme–no one wants to look bad. Or expose themselves to negligence lawsuits, I imagine.

Have these improvements changed how investigators act as individuals? So many times, it comes down to one person doing the right thing. A cop meets someone she suspects might be a very bad person. She may not have the evidence, no one may want to listen to her, she may have a number of other responsibilities to attend to. What should she do? There’s a term in failure theory called the Organizational Bystander. It might be best defined using the following example: On January 28, 2010, a female police officer in Belleville, Ontario, noticed what turned out to be Russell Williams’ Pathfinder parked beside the home of 27-year-old Jessica Lloyd. It looked out of place. The officer, now suspicious, knocked on Lloyd’s door. No answer. Williams lurked in the shadows outside, waiting for the officer to leave. Which she did. Williams waited for Lloyd to return home, then abducted her, torturing her for several hours before murdering her. The officer made no note of the SUV’s license plate and did no computerized search. The OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) have no protocol requiring this, nor do they plan to implement one.

Organizational Bystanders are all too common. It’s so much easier to assume that either things aren’t really going all that wrong, or you can’t have an actual effect on the outcome of things. It’s so much easier just to stand by and watch, to not speak up, to let the adults do their thing. You don’t want to be admonished, treated as a troublemaker, a Chicken Little. It might affect your career advancement. It’s so much easier to take your chances, bite your tongue, and hope things don’t fail.

Those with the courage to take action when facing potential crises are all too rare. Or maybe not–when things go right, do we even notice? 

* * *

Author’s note: All the examples I’ve given here are Canadian. My apologies to Canadian crime investigators everywhere–many of them are among the best in the world. I chose these examples simply because I know them well and spent time with investigators whose job it is to study and learn from them. These same issues exist in all nations, across all police jurisdictions.

  1. Forbes says:

    An impressive essay. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks. You did a lot of research.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s