As a professional private investigator and a former Federal agent, it can be very hard for me to watch television. With rare exception, nearly every Hollywood depiction of private investigation and criminal investigation consistently gets it wrong. (I’ve written a few posts about the Hollywood vs. reality aspect of private investigation: here, here and here.)
I recently caught an episode of the TV show Hannibal. I enjoyed the quality of the show: the high level of production and excellent acting. The most surprising thing about the show is that it’s on TV in the first place because it’s extremely graphic and violent. Moreover, this show is on NBC, not an edgier cable network like FX, or a paid channel like HBO or Showtime.
With Hannibal, I found that while I could suspend disbelief when it came to the highly-orchestrated murder of the week committed by Hannibal Lecter, I rolled my eyes at the borderline incompetent interrogation and investigative work in the show.
At the end of the episode I watched, there was a scene in which the primary detective, Jack Crawford, is notified by his investigative team of a specific location where a serial killer may be. In the very next scene, Crawford (played by Laurence Fishburne), goes alone to the remote location to investigate, at night.
At this point, multiple alarms go off in my head. Forget doing surveillance on the place to find the killer, killers or any accomplices. Forget about assembling a strike team, or even the basic safety afforded by taking a partner along. Forget about any possible booby traps the killer might have set up. Going in at night might have the benefit of catching the suspect off-guard, but at the sake of available light that would afford more safety.
In Hollywood, I suppose reality is second to tension and atmosphere.
Now this is an obvious, silly example, and I don’t want to single out Hannibal. This sort of scene happens on nearly every investigative procedural show on television, as well as in most films.
The serial killer’s neighbor
Hannibal got me thinking about how the public perceives real-life serial killers. More specifically: The fact that people around them never seem to know anything is “off”.
When a serial killer is captured, the news coverage nearly always features an interview with the next door neighbor, who says variants of two basic sentiments:
- “I can’t believe he’d do such a thing – he was always so helpful, shoveled my walk in the winter, brought table scraps over for my dog, just generally seemed like such a nice guy”, or,
- “Well, he kind of kept to himself, but for sure I never expected this…”
Of course in the grand scheme of things, there aren’t many serial killers out there (as opposed to normal, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens). And it’s this basic and normal assumption – that all things are equal – that allows serial killers to hide in plain sight.
Hiding in plain sight
Jeffrey Dahmer got away with killing and cannibalizing seventeen young men before he was finally captured. Despite convictions for molestation and assault, and a good deal of odd behavior that was noticed by his neighbors, he managed to get away with his crimes for years.
Dennis Rader, otherwise known as the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) killer, seemed like a perfectly decent family man, married with two children. He even served in the Air Force during the 1960’s. He operated his own company selling camping gear for several years, before taking a job with a security company. In his off time, he killed at least ten people after torturing them extensively.
Then there was Ted Bundy, the serial killer, rapist, kidnapper, and necrophile who died in Florida’s electric chair after having confessed to 30 murders – although the actual number of his actual victims remains unknown.
How serial killers get caught
Much of the time, serial killers are caught by accident. Bundy was apprehended at a routine traffic stop after having escaped jail on more than one occasion. Dahmer was undone when his neighbors complained about foul odors coming from his apartment. If he’d had a different disposal method, he might still be at large.
Other than that, it’s a case of probability. A serial killer may be apprehended when he begins to escalate – the killer takes chances and makes mistakes that ultimately trip him up. With more crimes committed, the factors that result in capture are more and more likely to occur.
Most of the time, people see what they expect to see. You take it on faith that the guy across the street who waves to you when you get home is just a nice guy.
Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear and founder of Gavin de Becker and Associates, says that if you think something is off – that’s your intuition telling you to put your guard up, and your intuition can quite often be correct.
Intuition is a sense that has been honed by millions of years of evolution and many years of direct experience in your life. While intuition is often wrong in the details, I tend to think of it as more of an internal alarm that warns you when something just isn’t right. Most of the clients who come to my offices already feel (and often already know) that something just isn’t right, and they want proof to back it up. Proof is what we provide. As a private investigator, instincts and intuition form the seeds of the formation of theories, which then can be proved or disproved. In those cases where a decision must be made on the spot, after nearly 45 years as a professional investigator, I have found that my intuition is nearly always correct.
Taking the next steps
You can always investigate anyone in your life. You should always go directly to the police when it comes to important matters regarding your safety that of others. When it comes to peace of mind in personal matters, you can always get more information to personally protect yourself and your family from potential harm, especially if all you have to go on is intuition.
Criminal and civil background checks are relatively inexpensive and can help you make more informed decisions regarding the people in your life. Surveillance services are also available if you want to take it to the next level.
The fact is, there just aren’t that many serial killers out there. But if your gut is telling you something is not right, perhaps you should listen to it, and then do your homework.
Consultations are always free, and we’ll be pleased to talk with you and do what it takes to ease your mind.
This story was originally posted on April 23, 2014.