Sunday, May 3, 2009

Female Serial Killers: You've Come A Long Way?

Top: Stacy Castor - convicted of murdering her husband with antifreeze; suspected of murdering her first husband, and trying to murder her own daughter.
Middle: Shirely Winters - Arsonist & Serial Killer. Pleaded guilty to killing two of her young children, but is suspected of killing five other children.
Bottom: Aileen Wournos - convicted of killing seven men; executed in 20o2.
After my recent involvement in a so-called "black widow" murder case (Stacy Castor), I thought I would give a little update on what we know about female serial killers - a rare breed. The strict definition of serial killer is not quite set in stone, but most proposed definitions share the following elements in common: 1) there have been at least two victims (some definitions require three victims), 2) victims are killed in a non-continuous fashion (i.e., there is an emotional “cooling off” period between murders), and 3) the murders usually involve a sexual component.[i], [ii], [iii] So, technically, Ms. Castor could not be "officially" classified as a serial killer - but she is suspected of killing her first husband in a similar manner (poisoning), and of trying to kill her own daughter by poisoning as well. Here is a link to an interview I did with the show 20/20 on this case:
In another case I consulted on, a woman named Shirely Winters is suspected of killing no less than seven children, most by different forms of arson. This was particularly interesting to me due to the fact that Ms. Winters herself barely escaped death as a child, while her siblings were killed in an accidental gas/asphixiation type incident (she happened to be the only sibling who was spending the night away that evening). Ms. Winters was a resident of the central NY, who was convicted in 2008 of killing her five-month old son, Ronald Winters III, in 1980 and 23-month old Ryan Rivers in 2007. She has also been under investigation for the 1979 deaths of her two older children and the 1979 deaths of three children of a friend.

Female Serial Murderers

Perhaps the first documented female serial killer was a 1st century Roman woman named Locusta. She was a “professional poisoner” who lived in the time of Nero (54 A.D.), and was ultimately executed.[i]

Relatively little has been written about female serial murderers as compared to their male counterparts. In a review of published literature on female serial murder, the most common motive identified was material gain.[i] Sexual or sadistic motives are believed to be extremely rare in female serial murderers. Psychopathic traits and histories of childhood abuse have been consistently reported in these women.20 In a study of 105 female serial killers, the preferred method of killing was poisoning.[ii] An analysis of 86 female serial killers from the U.S. found that the victims tended to be spouses, children or the elderly.[iii] Sometimes referred to as “black widow” killers, these women tend to be geographically stable and live in the same area where their offenses occurred. Their victims are not strangers, and the methods they use are covert or “low profile.”21 On rare occasions, women may be involved with a male serial killer as a part of a serial killing “team.”[iv]

Perhaps one of the more high profile female serial killers in the U.S. was Aileen Wuornos, who was convicted of killing seven men in separate incidents. Wuornos had claimed that all of the men had raped her (or attempted to) while she was working as a prostitute. Thus, she did not fit the typical profile of a female serial killer. Her case received remarkable media and Hollywood attention. In a detailed case study analysis, it was theorized that Wuornos was biologically predisposed to psychopathy, and her abusive childhood resulted in serious attachment deficiencies.[v] Finally, her aggressive narcissism and antisocial lifestyle predisposed her to situations in which she was able to commit acts of predatory murder. Wuornos was executed by lethal injection in 2002 in Florida.

[i] Meloy J., Felthous A. Introduction to this issue: serial and mass murder. Behav Sci Law 2004 22: 289-90.
[ii] Myers W., Husted D., Safarik M., O’Toole M. The Motivation Behind Serial Sexual Homicide: Is It Sex, Power, and Control, or Anger? J Forensic Sci 2006 51(4): 900-907.
[iii] Douglas J., Burgess A.. W., Burgess A. G., Ressler R. Crime Classification Manual. Lexington Books: New York, NY, 1992.
[i] Newton M. The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. Facts on File: New York, 2000
[i] Frei A., Vollm B., Graf M., Volker D. Female serial killing: Review and case report. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health 2006 16: 167-176.
[ii] Wilson W., Hilton T. Modus operandi of female serial killers. Psychological Reports 1998 82: 495-498.
[iii] Kelleher M. Kelleher C. Murder Most Rare: The Female Serial Killer. Praeger: Westport, CT, 1998.
[iv] Holmes R., Holmes S. Serial Murder, 2nd Ed. Wadsworth: Belmond, CA, 1998.
[v] Arrigo B., Griffin A. Serial Murder and the Case of Aileen Wuornos: Attachment Theory, Psychopathy, and Predatory Aggression. Behavioral Sci and Law 2004 22: 375-393.