Could a serial killer have operated undetected in the Upstate for more than a decade?
With the arrest of Todd Christopher Kohlhepp on murder charges stemming from the deaths of four people at Superbike Motorsports 13 years ago and the discovery of three bodies on his Spartanburg County property, some wonder how a killer could elude capture for years.
The answer, experts say, is that it is not uncommon for serial killers to go undetected, in part because they blend so well into their communities and sometimes take pauses from their crimes that can last months or years.
In fact, these “cooling off” periods used to be part of the definition of serial killers to distinguish them from mass murderers, which the FBI defines as the murder of at least four people in a single incident. Serial killers are those who kill at least two people in separate incidents, according to the agency.
One of the bodies discovered on Kohlhepp’s 95-acre property near Woodruff was that of Charles Carver, missing since late August. Authorities have not identified the other two bodies or said when they might have been killed.
Experts told The Greenville News that it is highly unusual for a serial killer to begin with a mass murder.
“This is one of a kind, extremely rare,” said Dr. Eric Hickey, who has studied serial killers for 35 years and assisted law enforcement and the FBI.
Enzo Yaksic, who runs Northeastern University’s Murder Accountability Project and has built a database on serial killers for use by law enforcement, described that pattern as “incredibly uncommon.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen that in any other case before,” he said.
Experts said many serial killers appear so normal they don’t raise suspicions and sometimes cultivate that appearance in what amounts to be dual lives.
“These offenders remain undetected for large expanses of time due to a mixture of diligence on their part, a carefully constructed façade, the types of victims that they select and lucky breaks,” said Yaksic, who served as a technical consultant for the upcoming A&E show, “The Killing Season.”
Dr. Helen Morrison, an expert on serial killers who said she has interviewed 115 of them, told The News that serial killers often go undetected because of their apparent normalcy.
“In fact, most people are shocked when they find the person who is finally arrested because they will say he is a very nice person, he didn’t cause any trouble,” she said. “They are able to be chameleons. They can manage to live a life undetected.”
That also was the finding of a five-day symposium on serial killers hosted by the FBI in 2005 attended by 135 experts, including Hickey. The resulting written summary of the conference is offered by the FBI as a reference guide on serial killers.
“The majority of serial killers are not reclusive social misfits who live alone. They are not monsters and may not appear strange. Many serial killers hide in plain sight within their communities,” the FBI wrote in its summary of the discussions.
“Serial murderers often have families and homes, are gainfully employed, and appear to be normal members of the community,” according to the FBI. “Because many serial murderers can blend in so effortlessly, they are oftentimes overlooked by law enforcement and the public.”
As evidence, the agency pointed to several serial killers who eluded authorities for years:
Robert Yates killed 17 prostitutes in the Spokane, Washington, area during the 1990s, according to the FBI. He was married with five children, lived in a middle class neighborhood and was a decorated U.S. Army National Guard helicopter pilot, the agency said. During the time period of the murders, Yates routinely patronized prostitutes, and several of his victims knew each other. Yates buried one of his victims in his yard beneath his bedroom window. Yates was eventually arrested and pled guilty to 13 of the murders, the FBI said.
The “Green River Killer,” Gary Ridgeway, confessed to killing 48 women over a 20-year time period in the Seattle, Washington area, according to the FBI. He had been married three times and was still married at the time of his arrest, the agency said. He was employed as a truck painter for 32 years. He attended church regularly, read the Bible at home and at work, and talked about religion with co-workers. Ridgeway also frequently picked up prostitutes and had sex with them throughout the time period in which he was killing, the FBI said.
The “BTK Killer,” Dennis Rader, killed 10 victims in and around Wichita, Kansas, according to the FBI. He sent 16 written communications to the news media over a 30-year period, taunting the police and the public, the FBI said. He was married with two children, was a Boy Scout leader, served honorably in the U.S. Air Force, was employed as a local government official, and was president of his church.
Morrison said serial killers appear so “vanilla” that they do not stick out to law enforcement.
“Every time I go into one of these people, I find myself saying, ‘Oh, he couldn’t possibly be a serial murderer,’” she said. “They seem utterly normal.”
But if you talk to them for several hours, she said, that mask disappears.
Experts say there is no single profile that fits all serial killers, though there are common traits. Myths abound, they say, such as the popular misconception of a serial killer who is a highly intelligent white male motivated by sex.
While many are white males, Hickey said, about half the serial killers in this country are African-American.
Morrison said that the majority are males, but many lack advanced education and many have no criminal record as an adult, though they may have had brushes with the law as juveniles. They often sport a middle-class lifestyle, she said, and have few close friends but are not recluses and are expert manipulators.
“They can talk their way out of or into anything,” she said.
Kohlhepp, a white male who sold real estate, lived a middle class lifestyle and had no criminal record as an adult.
Hickey said some are women, who he said can go undetected for longer periods of time because they often use poisons to kill. He said they typically have keen social skills used in their hunting, and are adept at charming, lying and manipulating.
“Most serial killers are or have been married, frequently have arrest records and are often forthcoming upon capture, either out of pride or relief that their campaign can end,” Yaksic said.
According to the FBI, there is no single thing that motivates serial killers, and they are not driven solely by sex. Though Hickey believes about half of all serial killers are sexual predators.
Yaksic said many of the behaviors at the root of serial killers emerge when they are young, though they sometimes go undetected.
Kohlhepp’s mother talked of his behavior problems throughout his childhood, including outbursts of rage, according to court records. He was convicted at 16 of kidnapping in connection with the rape of a 14-year-old neighbor in Arizona.
“His parents understood Todd to have a great deal of anger, but the full breath of what he is capable of cannot be known until much later in life when his behavior is not consistently monitored by others,” Yaksic said.
Experts say one common trait of serial killers is lack of remorse. Morrison says they feel little empathy for others, including their victims.
“They would never, ever experience sadness or anything related to that,” she said.
Hickey described it this way: serial killers “know the words to the song but they don’t feel the music.”
The FBI says it is a myth that serial killers are geniuses who out-smart law enforcement or that they suffer from mental illness.
“As a group, serial killers suffer from a variety of personality disorders, including psychopathy, anti-social personality, and others,” the FBI wrote of the experts’ opinions. “Most, however, are not adjudicated as insane under the law.”
Kohlhepp was diagnosed as an adolescent with some anti-social personality traits but no mental illness, records show. Probation officers said that as a teenager Kohlhepp showed little remorse or empathy for the 14-year-old he was accused of raping.
Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist who has evaluated serial killers, told The Stirwebsite that serial killers during childhood sometimes show a lack of pleasure at what most children find fun and enjoy some acts that harm others.
A neighbor of Kohlhepp’s told a probation officer that when Kohlhepp was a teen he locked her son in a dog kennel cage and rolled him over until the boy screamed, at which point she said Kohlhepp laughed, according to court records.
Kohlhepp’s mother described to probation officers how he destroyed other children’s projects, killed goldfish and shot a dog, according to court records of his 1987 conviction. Mayer said hurting animals is another early-life trait of serial killers.
Morrison and Yaksic said not all serial killers immediately kill their victims. Morrison said some are kept alive for weeks or months before being killed.
Another myth, experts say, is that serial killers want to get caught.
“While most serial killers plan their offenses more thoroughly than other criminals, the learning curve is still very steep,” the FBI wrote. “They must select, target, approach, control and dispose of their victims. The logistics involved in committing a murder and disposing of the body can become very complex, especially when there are multiple sites involved.”
Their early success makes them feel empowered, experts say, which can sometimes make them feel like they can’t get caught, and mistakes follow.
Morrison said the killers generally do not plan. They may have the tools of their trade in their vehicle but they often don’t meticulously plan their crimes, she said, which are more the result of an urge than a thoughtful process.
“One of the serial murders told me once, ‘I’m going to go get me one,’” she said, describing the process of killing like running to the store for a drink.
They get caught, she said, by sloppiness. They are better than the average criminal at avoiding detection until “they make a stupid mistake and then they’re caught.”
“They may do something so ridiculously silly that you wonder what in the world were they thinking,” she said. “They don’t think.”
Experts, the FBI say, agree that serial killers at some point become so convinced they are invincible that they make mistakes.
“As the series continues, the killers may begin to take shortcuts when committing their crimes,” the FBI wrote. “This often causes the killers to take more chances, leading to identification by law enforcement. It is not that serial killers want to get caught; they feel that they can’t get caught.”