Hitmen perform a service that is unimaginable to most people, with some carrying out dozens of hits over their careers. One infamous mob killer, Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski, may have boasted as many as 250 victims.
Still, killers for hire differ from serial killers, most of whom take lives to satisfy some inner urge. Hitmen are in it for the money, and emotions are not involved, according to criminologist Scott Bonn, who notes that serial killers typically experience an emotional “cooling off period” between their murders.
Professionals, however, are different.
“Hitmen do not experience [or] require a cooling-off period between their murders, because of the unemotional and pragmatic nature of their killings,” Bonn said.
So, what gets a person into the headspace of a contract killer — a place where life is valued using nothing more than figures and dollar signs?
Before diving into the new season of the Oxygen series “Murder For Hire,” airing Saturdays at 6/5c, take a peek into the psychology of a hitman.
People Become Targets
A hitman or contract killer will most likely have the ability to depersonalize their victim — to think of them merely as a target, or a number, rather than a human being, according to a number of psychologists and criminologists
A team of criminologists at Birmingham City University in 2015 pored over 27 confirmed cases of contract killings in the United Kingdom, and made several observations about the psychology of perpetrators, according to Science Daily.
The infamous English hitman Jimmy Moody, who was active from the 1960s to the 1980s, was a prime example of a successful contract killer, because he was able to depersonalize his victims and treat his work as just that, Professors David Wilson and Mohammed Rahman wrote.
“Moody reframed his victims as targets, seeing getting the job done as a normal business activity,” Rahman said. “These sorts of killers are akin to ‘criminal undertakers’, who have given themselves ‘special liberty’ to get things done in the name of business.”
Although certainly less experienced than Moody, Santre Sanchez Gayle, 15, of North London, completed a successful hit in 2010 by shooting Gulistan Subasi in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun just as she was opening her front gate, according to The Guardian.
Gayle killed Subasi for just £200, and got a minimum sentence of 20 years for the contract killing, according to Rahman and Wilson. They called the murder a “classic example of detachment,” because Gayle didn’t risk seeing his target as a human, shooting her the moment he saw her.
Orville Wright, 26, on the other hand, lost his nerve when it came time to complete his £5,000 hit and stab Theresa Pitkin, a mother of three, in 1996, according to The Independent. By actually speaking with his target, he humanized her, and couldn’t bring himself to do it, Rahman and Wilson said.
“When contract killers aren’t as successful in switching off their emotions, their jobs tend not to go to plan,” Rahman said.
The Importance Of Experience
Birmingham City University criminologists identified four main types of hitmen: the novice, the dilettante, the journeyman and the master.
Gayle would be an example of the novice, Rahman and Wilson wrote, while Wright would be what they called a dilettante. These hitmen were described as likely the oldest of the four types and likely dabbling in the dark practice, rather than starting a profession — they may be trying to solve a discrete financial problem and “may not take to contract killing with much enthusiasm or skill,” the criminologists said.
A journeyman is more experienced than the novice or dilettante, and probably have organized crime connections, according to Rahman and Wilson, but are also likely to have their careers cut short by police because these connections make them easier to identify. The journeyman is a “reliable, but not especially exceptional hitman,” they said.
Master hitmen are the least likely to be caught — and thus, little research is available on their craft. The team of criminologists said that these contract killers probably have military or para-military experience, and as many as 100 kills under their belt. Also, unlike journeymen, they likely travel from afar to complete their hits, ensuring no local underworld connections put them in police crosshairs.
This Fall, Oxygen will take a shocking look at actual “Murder For Hire” cases, with jealous relatives and devious spouses caught on tape trying to hire a contract killer to eliminate the people closest to them. The show explores in rare, never-before-seen footage, how a seemingly good relationship can go wrong, and the emotions surrounding the reveal, when an intended victim discovers a hit has been taken out on their life.
Tune in Saturdays at 6/5c on Oxygen.
Crime Time is your destination for true crime stories from around the world, breaking crime news, and information about Oxygen's original true crime shows and documentaries. Sign up for our Crime Time Newsletter and subscribe to our true crime podcast Martinis & Murder for all the best true crime content.