More than 200 people took a chilling look inside the minds of serial killers at this year’s DeSales University Forensic Forum. Katherine Ramsland, Martha Elliott, and Anthony Meoli shared their experiences and expertise during Interviews with Serial Killers on Wednesday, October 12.
Ramsland, professor of psychology and director of the Master of Arts in Criminal Justice Program, kicked off the discussion by focusing on BTK killer Dennis Rader. Ramsland spent five years working closely with Rader on her new book, Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer.
“He was a predator, he was a stalker, he's the ultimate boogeyman waiting there in your house,” she said. Rader killed 10 people, including two children, between 1974 and 1991 in the Wichita, Kansas area. He wasn’t arrested until 2005 and, according to Ramsland, would have gotten away with his crimes had he not started playing a cat-and-mouse game with police and the media.
Ramsland told the audience the goal of her book was not to give Rader a platform, but to benefit criminology, psychology, law enforcement, and the victims. “My book was about mining into not just what he said but how he said certain things and the blind spots in his life,” she said.
Martha Elliott, an award-winning journalist and author of The Man in the Monster, gave the audience a different perspective, describing her 10-year relationship with serial killer Michael Ross. “I am the least likely person in the world to have written about a serial killer,” she began. “I cannot watch a scary movie; I do not like violence. I just had no interest in serial killers whatsoever.”
That all changed with Ross, who raped and murdered eight young women in the early 1980s. Elliott worked for a newspaper in Connecticut when his death sentences were overturned. But, Ross still wanted to die, claiming he wanted to spare his victims’ families any more pain. “I, in effect, invited this serial killer into my life,” Elliott said. “I was so afraid of him in the beginning. He was everything I feared: walking down a road, being randomly selected. There was nothing you could do to protect yourself from him.”
Yet, she felt sorry for him and the two ended up talking once or twice a week for the next 10 years. She described it as a type of community service. “He was this lonely man about to face death. It didn't take much of my time or effort to talk to him.”
According to Elliott, Ross was obsessed with trying to understand how he had become a serial killer. So she set out to help him. “My book is about both finding out about his life and also intertwining that with the conversations that we had,” she said. When Ross was executed in 2005, Elliott was there with him.
Anthony Meoli, co-author of Diary of the D.C. Sniper, focused on early predictors of violence. Meoli has talked with more than 140 serial killers and murderers. His interest began in 1992, when one of his best friends was brutally murdered. It then became his life’s mission to try to figure out why people do what they do.
In his experience, Meoli found four factors that resonated with inmates. They had all experienced abuse, neglect, abandonment, and self-hatred/anger. “These children are often rejected and never feel a loving or meaningful relationship,” he said. “When they face life's obstacles, they tend to fail at them. This becomes a consistent part of their lives where they cannot overcome life's simple obstacles.”
Meoli spent years developing relationships with killers, including D.C. sniper Lee Boyd Malvo. He played chilling audiotapes from Malvo, Charles Manson, and Phillip Carl Jablonski. In one of those tapes, Jablonski shared in graphic detail how he killed five people, including two of his wives, and mutilated two of his other victims. He went on to tell Meoli he had no remorse and sleeps like a baby at night.
Meoli stressed that the early predictors of violence do not explain every single serial killer. But they do help to explain who they are. “Violence is largely learned through repetition,” he said. “It's what we see.” He urged the audience to do its part to make sure children are protected. “We all have a responsibility in that. The warning signs are there.”
After sharing their stories, Ramsland, Elliott, and Meoli took questions from the audience. They reinforced the idea that there is no formula or genetic makeup for how a person becomes a serial killer or mass murderer. “There is not any kind of physical pattern or blueprint,” Ramsland said. Added Meoli, “I don't believe in the born evil theory.”
The DeSales Forensic Forum, which is sponsored by the DeSales Criminal Justice Program, has been an ongoing community educational resource since 2001. It’s offered twice a year. A spring forum is in place and will feature an undercover agent.
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