Serial killers have been the basis for scary stories and movie plots that have haunted dreams for years. But just who are these people and what does it mean to be a serial killer? They are murderers who kill 3 or more people over a significant amount of time and often take breaks between victims. Serial killers are motivated by several factors: visionary (believing that a god or demon is telling them what to do), mission-oriented (believing that they are curing or changing society), hedonistic (absolute pleasure from killing), and power-control (ability to exert control over victim). Convicting a serial killer is difficult for police forces because it is difficult to link multiple murders to one person particularly if they occur over multiple jurisdictions or without any normal possible motivating factors. Below is a look at some of the most prolific serial killers in history.
Deadliest Serial Killers
Harold Shipman tops this list with 215 proven victims between 1975 and 1998. A medical doctor from the UK, Shipman was originally suspected of foul play when a colleague expressed concern at the high death rate of his patients, but there was insufficient evidence to prove anything. The majority of his victims were older women, killed by diamorphine injections. He was finally caught after forging the will of his final victim and leaving her estate in his name. Two theories suggest that he forged the will because he either wanted to be caught or wanted to retire early outside of the UK. At the time of his trial, he was found guilty of killing 15 patients and later linked to 200 more. It is believed that he stole expensive jewelry from his victims.
Number 2 on the list is Luis Garavito, from Colombia, who killed 138 confirmed people. Garavito pursued poor street boys between 6 and 16 years old by offering them small gifts to earn their trust. He would then take them for a walk until they tired whereby he would torture, rape, and finally cut their throats. He disposed of the bodies by dismembering them. He was arrested in April 1999 after a passerby heard a boy crying for help. Community members called the police and organized a search party. He was caught the same day. In court, he confessed to raping, torturing, and killing 147 young boys. He himself was a victim of sexual abuse as a child. The judge sentenced him to over 1,000 years in prison. However, Colombia only allows 50 years max, and because he helped police find bodies, the sentence was reduced to 22 years eligible for early release with good behavior.
Pedro López is next on the list for killing 110 people across Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru throughout the 1970’s. He grew up in Colombia and had a difficult childhood filled with abuse and sexual assault. Turning to a life of crime, he spent his first stint in jail in the late 60’s for stealing cars. His release initiated the murders. His victims were poor, young girls who he would lure to isolated areas to rape and murder. In Peru, he was caught by the Ayacucho community when he tried to kidnap a young girl and was almost submitted to the tribal law when a missionary convinced the community to call the police. The police deported him to Colombia. By the late 70’s, he was in Ecuador where he was once again caught trying to kidnap a girl from a market. He was arrested and unwilling to cooperate. An investigator went undercover as a fellow inmate and eventually got his confessions which led to discovering 57 bodies. López claimed to have killed 200 others in Colombia and Peru. On July 31, 1981, he was sentenced to 16 years in prison (Ecuador’s maximum sentence at the time) and was released after 14 years for good behavior. He was deported to Colombia where authorities were waiting to try him for another murder. During the trial, he was found insane and sentenced to a psychiatric facility in 1995. Three years later he was declared sane and released. He has since disappeared though there are suspicions that he is connected to a 2002 murder. These facts are reported in a documentary based on his life.
Other serial killers with high murder rates include: Daniel Camargo in Colombia and Ecuador (72), Pedro Rodrigues Filho in Brazil (71), Kampatimar Shankariya in India (70), Yang Xinhai in China (67), Abul Djabar in Afghanistan (65), Andrei Chikatilo in USSR (53), and Anatoly Onoprienko in USSR and Ukraine (52).
Catching Serial Killers
The majority of serial killers are caught when somebody close to them contacts the police. Police then begin an investigation which may lead to a confession or other similar, unsolved murders or missing person cases. Other times, serial killers are arrested for a different crime and during the investigation linked to murders. Sometimes, the intended victim manages to escape and contacts the police.