Why Were There So Many Serial Killers Between 1970 and 2000 — and Where Did They Go?
When Gil Carrillo joined the homicide division at the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department in the early Eighties, his future partner Frank Salerno was already something of a celebrity. He had recently collared the so-called Hillside Strangler, a.k.a. cousins Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono Jr., a serial killer duo who terrorized the L.A. area in the late Seventies, raping, torturing, and killing 10 women.
“When I met Frank; he was going through the trial for the Hillside Strangler,” Carrillo tells Rolling Stone. “I asked him about it and he said, ‘Well, that’s a once-in-a-career case.’ Then, two weeks later, we’re head-long into this.” “This” being the hunt for a serial killer the media had dubbed the Night Stalker — a home invader, rapist, and murderer who whipped Los Angeles and San Francisco into a terror that lasted from June 1984 to August 1985, when Carrillo and Salerno apprehended Richard Ramirez.
The veteran cops appear in the new Netflix documentary Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer, directed by Tiller Russell. A grisly, gripping four-episode look into just how Ramirez was captured, the series highlights the popular corner of true-crime dedicated to serial killers, a much-investigated U.S. phenomenon that seems to be relegated to a period between the Seventies and early 2000s. Over those 30 years, Americans who previously left their doors unlocked and hitchhiked with abandon were suddenly caught in the sites of predators like Ramirez and the “Cannibal Killer” Jeffrey Dahmer, who did much of their hunting during the Eighties; and Keith Hunter Jesperson, a.k.a. the Happy Face Killer, a trucker who murdered at least eight women in the early Nineties. But by the early 2000s, the spate of serial killer stories seemed to peter out.
Why were there so many serial killers during this brief period? And where did they go?
Criminal justice expert Peter Vronksy, whose new book American Serial Killers: The Epidemic Years looks to answer just that question, says that more than 80 percent of known American serial killers operated between 1970 and 1999. “It’s an era that was coined as the ‘golden age of serial murder‘ by Harold Schechter, who was a crime historian,” Vronsky tells Rolling Stone. The reason behind this is manyfold — encompassing everything from sociological changes, to biology, to technology, to linguistics.
Over the course of his work, which began in 1979, Vronsky has deduced that serial killers generally develop the personality and compulsion befitting a killer when they’re young — by the time they’re 14, they’re basically fully formed; they generally start killing in their late twenties. As such, he looked back at what was happening in the world when murderers like John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ted Bundy were growing up, and discovered a link: They were all born during wartime. “In cases like, for example, the BTK killer [Dennis Rader], Richard Cottingham [the Torso Killer], their fathers were returning war veterans with PTSD, which [was not a diagnosable illness until] the Eighties,” he says. In short: These children who were already predisposed to violence were raised in potentially violent, likely broken homes.
Now-retired Detective Paul Holes spent decades working the Golden State Killer case, hunting a serial killer who was suspected of committing at least 12 murders, 50 rapes, and 100 burglaries in California between 1974 and 1986. Ex-cop Joseph DeAngelo was arrested for those crimes in 2018 and was handed down 11 consecutive life sentences in 2020 for 13 counts of first-degree murder and 13-kidnapping-related charges. Having spent years profiling killers, Holes says that people often mistakenly point to military vets as prime suspects for serial killers.
“It’s an over-simplification,” he tells Rolling Stone. “When I was working Golden State Killer, I was looking at a lot of men from that time period and their backgrounds. Most men had some affiliation with military because of the war, and they were drafted. So, there’s this tendency to go, ‘Aha! You caught the serial killer and so that must be what created the serial killer.’ “
DeAngelo was in the Navy; he never saw combat. Yet his father was in the Air Force and, according to family members, DeAngelo witnessed his sister being raped by two soldiers when the family was stationed in Germany. “Certainly, to a normal boy, that would be traumatic,” Holes says. “Now, would that cause that boy to become a sexual predator by itself? I doubt it. But thinking about another predator that I know, Phil Hughes, by that age he was already having violent sexual fantasies against girls and women.” Hughes killed at least three women in California in the Seventies. “I could see somebody like Phil — when he sees this violence being inflicted on his sister — he is not being traumatized. He’s being stimulated by it. And I’m wondering if DeAngelo was also stimulated,” Holes says.
Neuroscientist James Fallon — a self-diagnosed psychopath and author of The Psychopath Inside: A Neuroscientist’s Personal Journey into the Dark Side of the Brain — agrees with Vronsky and Holes when it comes to serial killers being the children of war. He’s more interested, however, in figuring out why these particular people became killers when the majority of wartime babies went on to live relatively peaceful lives. In his studies, Fallon has found that people with psychopathy, sociopathy, and other serious personality disorders are basically coded for aggression and violence, low emotional empathy, low anxiety, low reactivity, etc. Those disorders can remain relatively mild if someone had a good upbringing — as Fallon says, he’s never even been to jail — but if you bring a dad with PTSD, a dominating mother, or abuse into the picture, all bets are off.
“We all know people who are abused early in life who don’t turn out this way, but they may not have the genes that make them susceptible in the first place,” Fallon says. “So, it’s not just the early environment by itself. And it’s not just the gene. It’s the interaction of these two that predisposes you to these radical, aggressive, antisocial behaviors. All the people I’ve ever studied, every murderer and every dictator, every one of them was either abandoned or abused between birth and three years old — except Pol Pot. He said he had a great upbringing.” It should be noted that Fallon has never been able to physically examine a serial killer’s brain — either via a brain scan or other methods — as they have refused his requests.
Looking back at Ramirez, all factors hold. As Vronsky points out, Ramirez grew up in a violent household and had a Vietnam vet cousin who, suffering from PTSD, told him stories about sexually assaulting and decapitating Vietnamese women. That same cousin killed his wife in front of Ramirez. “Ramirez himself described transitioning into a ‘different world’ after witnessing that,” Vronsky says. He also pointed out that Ramirez suffered a frontal lobe injury as a two-year-old when attempting to climb a chest of drawers. “We now know that frontal lobe injuries, like the ones that NFL players sustain, are linked to serious behavioral disturbances, including what we call ‘injury-induced psychopathy,’ ” he says. “Childhood frontal lobe injuries are often reported in serial killer biographies.” As Fallon says: “That cat never stood a chance.”
Why did this so-called Golden Age of Serial Killers end when it did?
First off, there were societal changes. As Holes points out, the Seventies saw a lot of killers preying on hitchhikers with no compunction about getting into a car with a stranger. “What ends up happening is, as a result of these crimes, women stop hitchhiking,” he says. “So now that victim pool is no longer there.” Murderers like the Golden State Killer and the Night Stalker — who broke into homes — were then deterred by the rise in home security systems. That’s why in the Nineties — when the children of Vietnam vets had grown up — serial killers mainly targeted sex workers.
“In my jurisdiction, I saw the serial cases focused on sex workers starting in 1990,” Holes says. “The predators shifted to sex workers out on the street — a ready pool of victims that would voluntarily get into the cars and generally wouldn’t be [looked for] if they disappeared.” Those cases are often not as well known as the murders committed by Bundy and the like.
As sex workers got savvier — and that victim pool began to shrink as well — serial killers shifted online. Case in point, the Craiglist Killer — a.k.a. Philip Haynes Markoff — who was suspected, although not convicted, of three robberies and one murder. He was indicted for the murder of a masseuse he met on Craigslist in 2009 but killed himself in 2010 before he could go to trial. “It’s this cat and mouse game between law enforcement and the killers because they are going to go to where they can more easily access victims,” Holes says. “Technology, which is preventing them from certain types of crimes, is now allowing them to pursue other types of crimes. You’re not going to see a Golden State Killer type of series where you have [several] cases because the technology is going to catch these guys sooner. I absolutely am convinced of that.”
Fallon says that linguistics also play a factor in why serial killers seem relegated to a specific time period; FBI agent Robert Ressler is often credited with coining the term in the Seventies. “If you talk to people who are in the police or in the FBI and even parts of criminology and forensics, they look at it in a taxonomic way by definitions,” he says. “And these definitions are not, for anybody in psychiatry, psychology, very useful. They’re very artificial and it’s for keeping FBI statistics. I don’t find that useful at all.”
For example, Fallon says there are far more female serial killers than we may be aware of. Though killers like Aileen Wuornos present a rare example, women often go under the radar because they’re more often psychopaths who use sociopaths to do their dirty work — much like Charles Manson used his followers to execute his crimes — than killers themselves. “So, there’s an artificially low number of female serial killers,” he says. “But if you count in the ones that are just manipulating people to do their dirty work, then that number goes up to what it is for men.” As proof, Fallon points to a 2019 study in which researchers studied 55 male serial killers and 55 female serial killers who committed their murders between 1856 and 2009 in the U.S. The study found that men often act as “hunters” — seeking out and killing strangers — while women are “gatherers,” killing those around them for gain. An example is Amy E. Duggan, a nursing home proprietor who married and killed five older men and convinced nine elderly women to put her in their wills before poisoning them in the early 1900s.
Additionally, according to Vronsky, although we’re often inundated with images of white serial killers and white victims, only 51 percent of serial killers from 1970 to 2000 were white. “The primary reason we don’t hear about African American serial killers more, especially from the Seventies to the Nineties, is that the issue of who their victims were,” he says. “Although not always, murders, in general, tend to occur within the racial group of the murder.” As such, black serial killers often targeted non-white victims, who didn’t get the same coverage in the news media due to the inherent racism of the time. Just look at the Atlanta Child Murders, a series of crimes at the end of the Seventies in which nearly 30 largely black children and adults were killed. Wayne Williams was arrested and convicted for two of the adult murders in 1982 but still maintains his innocence when it comes to the rest. The case languished for decades until 2019 when Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms ordered it reopened so that DNA could be tested using the most recent technology.
“In my last book, Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present, I argue that we have always had serial killers,” Vronsky adds. “But we just do not have a record of them because there was no formal law enforcement agencies in the form of ‘police’ as we know it, nor a printing press that distributed news or accounts of serial murder in the way there was by Jack the Ripper’s time in 1888.” He goes on to describe how during the Great Witch Hunt in Western Europe between the 15th century and the 18th century, serial killers were put on trial as werewolves. They were not furry beasts driven mad by the moon, but humans with a taste for stalking, assaulting and killing their prey.
“Once the witch-hunts ended, we have approximately a 150-year period where there are no serial killers reported or werewolves, as the ecclesiastical enforcement system no longer existed,” Vronsky adds. “Serial killers were probably lynched by the local community, as there existed no ‘criminal police’ or criminal prosecutorial bureaucracy.” The serial killer then reemerges in the late 1880s after the organization of formal police services and judicial systems. Hence, the rise of killers like Jack the Ripper. The police were there to hunt him, and the media was there to follow his exploits.
The same could be said for the Seventies through the Nineties, when the media waited with bated breath for what a killer like the Night Stalker would do next. For cops like Gil Carrillo — who will go down in history as catching one of the most notorious serial killers of all time — however, it was business as usual. “All you do is work each crime scene and work each case on its own merits and link the evidence. It’s no different from working a simple, routine mundane murder,” Carrillo says. “I didn’t care about Richard, didn’t care about what happened to him. He asked Frank and myself, were going to show up [to his execution] and Frank indicated right away, without hesitation, he’d be there. And he asked me, and I said, ‘I really don’t care. I’ve seen enough death.’ “
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