Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Serial Killer Myths Exposed

No serial killers living in my community

Bobby Joe Leonard
Bobby Joe Leonard

Let me introduce you to Bobby Joe Leonard, a serial killer now serving a life sentence in Virginia. Never heard of him? Hmmm, could be there are no books written about him. Most likely he isn't all that interesting; for that matter, some would say he isn't even a serial killer because he was only sentenced for kidnapping, rape, and attempted homicide. If you read the few newspaper stories about him, you will only hear about this one crime and it wasn't even a murder. The accepted definition of a serial killer is a person who kills at least three times with a cooling off period in between his murders. So, Bobby is not really a serial killer, I guess. Like heck he isn't! He is a major suspect in the murder of a woman killed in her Virginia apartment the previous year and had this later victim not survived his assault on her, he would have well been on his way to victim number three.

Ballou High School victim, Charmeka
Ballou High School victim, Charmeka

Bobby Joe Leonard's victim, a 13-year-old girl I will call Janie, probably hadn't heard about any serial killer in her city. While it was true that just some time back two schoolgirls were found strangled near Ballou High School in Washington, D.C., the police never said a serial killer had anything to do with that and that woman who was murdered in her apartment in Virginia was supposed to have been killed by her boyfriend. The police even stated that the community had nothing to fear; there was no predator on the loose. Then there were some other homicides over the past few years, but she couldn't even remember the stories. Well, she did know about Chandra Levy because her disappearance had been on the news almost every night, but she didn't recall what happened to Joyce Chiang, Christine Mirzayan, Nia Owens, Margaret Perkins, Valerie Lalmansingh, Julie Fergusen, Dana Chisholm and whoever else there was. She guessed those murders were solved.

Chandra Levy, Joyce Chiang, Christine Mirzayan, Nia Owens, Margaret Perkins
Chandra Levy, Joyce Chiang, Christine Mirzayan, Nia Owens, Margaret Perkins

Police are reluctant to label a murder as a possible serial homicide. Telling the community a serial killer is out there stirs up a lot of unpleasant attention. The bad publicity kills tourism, and citizens start asking police what they are doing about catching this creep terrorizing their neighborhood. Besides, if one follows the "gotta have killed three" requirement, unless there are at least those three and there is DNA matching the murders or the bodies are all dumped in the same place, the police aren't going to say there is a serial killer involved.

There is also the problem of determining the motive of the murderer. Suppose a girl is found strangled in the bushes but she is fully clothed: was it a drug deal gone bad or an angry boyfriend? Or is this really a serial killer who didn't rape the victim? Or how about a body found in a field one year after she disappeared? There may be little evidence to determine what actually occurred in the crime. We also have to deal with people who have just gone missing. They may be buried in a forest, at the bottom of a lake, or under that new cement slab the man at the end of the block just laid down.

Without solid connections between homicides, we may have the reverse problem of believing three local murders are the work of one serial killer when they may actually be the work of three! We may just not know that there are yet other homicides connected to each one of the serial killers.

Many of the less prolific killers' stories go unheard because they simply don't make good books. Most well-known serial killers have victims numbering in the dozens, have sent taunting letters to the police or have done bizarre things to the bodies. The average serial killer will be ignored because he isn't "cool" enough or he simply didn't get convicted of enough murders to be considered a serial killer. Of course, it is also possible you will never hear about them because they never got caught.

Janie needs a place to stay because her boyfriend just ended up in jail and she has no place to go. She calls one of her co-workers, Bobby Joe Leonard, and asks if she can stay at his place. She isn't too worried about staying there because he lives with his girlfriend and kids. It never even occurs to her that he could be a dangerous predator. Serial killers aren't people you know; they are strangers who live alone or with their mothers, aren't they?

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