It’s a well-worn movie trope: The elusive serial killer, attacking a seemingly random series of victims, leaves behind a pattern of clues that taunts detectives with insight to their true identity. It could be the particular way a body is posed, the manner in which the victim was killed, or the souvenir—like a piece of jewelry or clothing—that’s claimed from the victim, which leads police down an investigative path. While this type of sick scavenger hunt makes for a great narrative technique, the vast majority of serial murderers leave their victims bodies as is, said Dr. Louis Schlesinger, professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
However, in a small portion of serial sexual murders, the killer is only satisfied if he degrades the body in some way, often in a ritualistic manner, said Schlesinger. In these cases, victims are often murdered in an intimate, up-close and personal way, such as through strangulation.
“It begins 15, 20 years earlier in the offender’s mind,” said Schlesinger. “In his fantasies. And past of his fantasy life is to not only kill the person but degrade the person in some way. This is what’s arousing to these individuals.”
Schlesinger also co-authored “Ritual and Signature in Serial Sexual Homicide,” an article published in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, which empirically examines ritual and signature in the sexual homicide of 38 offenders and 162 victims. In these cases, “ritual” is defined as degradation to the victim’s body that’s unnecessary to carry out the actual murder, for example certain forms of torture, insertion of foreign objects into the victim’s body, or posing the body in a particular way.
Signature is explained as a type of ritual, but one that diverges from the criminal’s previous track record. Eating food at a victim’s home, removing their eyes or neatly stacking their clothes in a pile next to the body are all real-life examples of behavior by a sexual murderer. To remind themselves of their heinous acts and facilitate their ability to revisit the crime, the killer may also take some type of souvenir.
“It’s a way to relive the crime in their fantasies. It’s a fantasy stimulant,” said Schlesinger.
While some criminals focus on items of little value, from a body part to a chunk of hair or underwear, a “more intelligent or less disturbed” offender will focus on an item of value, like a piece of jewelry, he said.
“The dearth of scientific studies of serial sexual homicide is striking in comparison with the enormous interest this topic has received in film, print, and television media,” according to Schlesinger’s article. “In fact, the curiosity of the lay public has been so intense that many notorious serial sexual murderers, such as Jack the Ripper, the Boston Strangler, Ted Bundy, and the BTK Strangler, have become household names.”
These “household names” are just a few of the ritualistic killers throughout U.S. history. Here’s a round-up of some of the most chilling souvenirs and methods of murder by the country’s most abominable serial killers.
A HEINOUS HUNT
Although convicted of four murders, Robert Hansen confessed to killing 17 women and raping nearly twice as many in a span of 10 years. The Alaska serial killer was active in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and known for targeting prostitutes and exotic dancers in Anchorage who he would kidnap and brutally rape. Often, he would then fly the women to a remote location where we would then release them - naked - into the Alaskan wilderness, only to hunt them down and shoot them with a rifle. He buried many of the bodies in that same area, and often took jewelry from his victims as souvenirs. Hansen became known as the “Butcher Baker” because he owned a bakery in a downtown Anchorage mini-mall during the time of his murders.
LUST FOR LINGERIE
Killing 17 women over the course of four years, Joel Rifkin is one of New York’s most notorious serial killers. He was arrested in 1993 during a routine traffic stop, in which cops discovered the corpse of his latest victim in the back of his car. Rifkin developed a pattern of targeting prostitutes who he’d often strangle, dismember, and then dispose of their bodies in rivers, creeks or remote woods. When police searched Rifkin’s home after his arrest, they discovered he kept a variety of souvenirs from his victims, including drivers’ licenses, jewelry, and most notably, a collection of bras and underwear.
POEMS AND PUZZLES
Dennis Rader - known as BTK (for his M.O. of binding, torturing and killing his victims) - murdered 10 people in the Wichita, Kansas area over the course of more than 15 years. The church council president and husband of more than 30 years, lived a double life as a calculated murderer, strangling women, often leaving them naked or partially clothed, but with no signs of actual sexual assault. In addition to keeping souvenirs from his series of grotesque murders, including victims’ underwear and a collection of newspaper clippings about his crimes, Rader sent clue-filled messages, poems and puzzles to the media through his reign. He even suggested nicknames for himself, spelled out “D. Rader” and provided his house address in a word puzzle, and left a package in a Wichita park that included the license of one his victims accompanied by a doll, who had limbs bound and its head covered with a plastic bag.
With a long history of psychological problems dating back to his teen years, convicted serial killer Jerome Brudos - known as the “Lust Killer” or the “Shoe Fetish Slayer” - spent a lifetime obsessed with women’s apparel. He began stealing women’s underwear and shoes at a young age, and by 1969, he had murdered four women - bludgeoning and strangling them, before mutilating their bodies and having sex with their corpses. When he was done, he’d often take a body part as well as their shoes, as souvenirs. It’s also been reported that even once incarcerated, Brudos obsession with feet continued, and he kept mounds of shoe catalogues in his cell for his personal enjoyment. He died in prison from liver cancer in 2006.
PHOTOGRAPHS AND BODY PARTS
[Photo, Getty Images: A police officer searches through Ed Gein's cluttered kitchen, where a human skull and other body parts were found]
Many of the most infamous serial sexual murderers in history have snapped photos of their victims or claimed a body part or organ as a souvenir of the crime. “Lonely Hearts Killer” Harvey Glatman, who posed as a photographer and then bound, raped, and murdered at least three women, kept polaroid pictures of his victims; and Jeffrey Dahmer, who also took pictures of those he killed (in various stages of dismemberment), went one step further and kept the heads and various internal organs of his victims at home in his kitchen. Ed Gein, a serial killer widely lauded as one of the most horrific in history, murdered people throughout the ‘50s and used to walk around his house in the skin of his victims, in addition to building housewares and furniture out of their remains.