Modus operandi, signatures, and staging have been used by serial killers since the beginning. Crime profilers will use these to help determine who the unsub of the crime is and to get to know their style of killings. These also play a part in figuring out if the unsub is an organized or disorganized killer.
The first thing that needs to be understood is the modus operandi, or method of operation, is defined as the offender’s actions while committing the crime (Douglas and Munn 1992). The modus operandi is a learned behavior and can always evolve in order to accommodate the circumstances in which the crime is being committed (Bonn 2015). This includes everything from luring, capturing, and killing their victim. A method that worked with one victim, may not work with the next, so the offender must take what they learned from that crime and make any changes that are necessary.
A few examples of some serial killer’s method of operation are Charles Cullen, John Gacy, and H.H. Holmes. Charles Cullen was a nurse who murdered/attempted to murder around 29-45 people by poisoning them with prescription drugs when the victims did not need them (Murder Pedia). John Gacy, who was a clown performer, would seek out his victims and promise them construction work. Once he had them lured, he would take them hostage, sexually assault them, and strangle most of them with a rope. He was able to kill about 33 young men using this method of operation (Biography 2014). H.H Holmes had what he called his murder castle which he would lead his victims mostly women to and suffocate with lethal gases. Once they were poisoned, he would take them to his basement in order to use them for experiments and then dispose of the bodies (Maranzani 2017). Every killer has their own specific method of operation and knowing what it is can help lead investigators to discover who the killer is.
Next to be discussed is signatures. Most serial killers will leave behind some sort of signature. A signature is an offender’s personal mark left on a victim or crime scene that is individual to them (Bonn 2015). Signatures can also be actions that the offender does consistently after each crime committed, for example, sending letters to the police to taunt them. They will leave these after committing their crime to show a part of their personality. These signatures are usually based on their fantasies and unlike their MO, their signature always remains constant. A signature is left behind to give the offender satisfaction with their crime, however, if the offender is interrupted, distracted, gets an unexpected response from the victim, they may not leave a signature. If the offender always leaves a signature but for one the reasons stated is unable to, this can cause them unsatisfied with their crime because since their violent crimes stem from their fantasies, their signature can be the most important part to them. Although this is very disturbing, the more victims found with a particular signature, the easier it is to find the killer. While investigators of course want to find the killer as soon as possible to put an end to their crimes, but they will usually need to gather evidence from multiple victims to accomplish this (Douglas 1992).
To show some examples of signatures, Charles Albright, Keith Hunter Jesperson, and Dennis Rader will be discussed. Charles Bright, called The Eyeball Killer, was a serial killer in the 1990’s. He murdered 3 women by shooting them and his signature was surgically removing their eyeballs (Murder Pedia). Although he never said why he would remove their eyes, it is thought to have stemmed from learning taxidermy at a young age. He was taught how to use tools, including the use of the scalpel that is needed to used to cut away the animal’s eyes from its sockets (Hollandsworth 1993). Keith Hunter Jesperson referred to as the, Happy Face Killer was a serial killer in the 1990’s and had around eight confirmed victims. His signature was drawing smiley faces on his letters to the media. It all started with his first victim, Taunja Bennett. Even though he was the one who killed her, someone else came forward and falsely confessed to murdering her.
This upset Jesperson greatly because he was not receiving the attention he had hoped he would get. In order to obtain his sought-after attention, he wrote an anonymous confession on a bathroom wall along with the signing of a smiley face. However, his confession and drawing elicited no response, so he started sending handwritten letters to police departments and the media which detailed his murders. Every letter that he sent was signed with a smiley face (Murder Pedia). Dennis Rader was a serial killer from 1974-1991 and had a total of ten victims (Murder Pedia). After Dennis would commit his crimes, he would consistently send letters to the police that entailed in great detail how he killed them and would give hints as to where he hid the bodies. These letters were meant to taunt the police and would always be signed with the initials BTK, meaning bind, torture, kill, which describes his MO and the reason why he named himself the BTK killer (Douglas 1992). The initials on the letters were also arranged in sexually explicit way, the B being the woman’s breasts, the T the torso, and the K being legs spread apart (Ramsland 2013).
Another important element when looking at a crime is examining if the serial killer staged the scene and/or posed the victim in a particular way. Staging is the deliberate alteration of the crime scene before the arrival of the scene (Douglas and Munn 1992). Staging is considered to be a part of the killer’s MO if the purpose of the changes to the crime scene are meant to mislead or confuse the investigators of the crime. Posing is considered to be part of the killer’s signature if the alterations are meant to satisfy their fantasy needs (Bonn 2015). Staging and posing is not something that occurs commonly, but it does occasionally happen.
Elizabeth Short, known as Black Dalhia is a good example of staging and posing. Black Dahlia was an aspiring actress in the 1940’s. She was 22 years of age when she was murdered in an extremely brutal fashion. Her murder became very attractive to the media due to the graphic nature of the crime scene. Black Dahlia’s body was found in an empty lot in Los Angeles. Her body had been stripped of any clothing, nude, cut in half, and posed with her arms above her head, elbows bent at a right angle, and legs spread apart. Along with these gruesome details, her body had been drained of blood and scrubbed clean (Biography 2014).
The MO, signature, and staging/posing are all important aspects that define a serial killer. Knowing these details can also help figure out if a killer is organized or disorganized. Organized killer’s crimes are usually planned and premeditated in order to leave no evidence of the crime. They are a lot harder to find due to the fact that they cover up tracks very well and are well educated on how police investigate crimes (Bonn 2015).
These types of killers are more likely be more sociable, have average intelligence, and tend to take trophies with them from the crime scene along with any weapon used to commit the crime (Douglas 1992). Disorganized killers will kill when an opportunity is presented, even at random, which can lead to them leaving behind blood, fingerprints, etc. at the scene. These killers tend to have below average intelligence, not super sociable, and will often leave their victims in open view rather than attempting to cover up their mess (Douglas 1992). Disorganized killers are more likely to be young in age, mentally ill, live by themselves, and isolate themselves from other people (Bonn 2015). Of course, disorganized and organized killers are not one size fits all, as it is possible for an offender to display a mixture of both types.
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