Is there a serial killer loose in the state?
State and local authorities hesitate to use that sinister phrase, but say there is plenty of evidence to warrant posing the question.
Authorities will sit down Tuesday and share information about the slayings of six women in the Hartford area and five or six other unsolved homicides in the state dating to 1987.
It's too early to say whether a serial killer is responsible for some or all of the cases, said Henry Lee, director of the state's forensic lab. But authorities plan to look closely at how the women were killed and any links among the cases.
"We are going to reassess everything case by case," Lee said.
If investigators found even three of the killings were committed by the same person, that alone would meet the FBI definition of a serial killer: someone who kills three or more times with "a cooling-off period" between each "event."
And the concern is warranted by just looking at unsolved slayings in Connecticut, said James Alan Fox, dean of the criminal justice college at Northeastern University in Boston.
Fox, who is a consultant on the Gainesville, Fla., serial killings, said a review of unsolved killings of women in Connecticut during the past 15 years is cause enough for alarm.
Fox has studied serial killers for 12 years, conducting one of the first statistical studies of the grisly phenomenon and serving as a co-author for a book, "Mass Murder: America's Growing Menace," on mass murderers and serial murderers.
At The Courant's request, Fox examined a computer database composed of police reports on about 2,000 Connecticut homicides from 1976 through 1989, of which about 25 percent -- the national average -- were initially reported unsolved.
During that 14-year period, Fox found unsolved cases of about 32 minority women, ages 10 to 30, who were strangled, stabbed or beaten to death in the state. Those occurred at a rate of slightly more than two a year.
Since January 1990, the rate has doubled. A database put together by The Courant from newspaper stories and medical examiner records showed at least six similar unsolved slayings from January 1990 to June 1991. 1990.
The overall number of cases since 1976 is too few to prove a pattern of serial killings. After all, the addition of a few killings can give the appearance of a huge increase in the rate.
But Fox said apparent similarities in the backgrounds of some of the women -- particularly indications of prostitution or the trading of sex for drugs -- suggest that a serial killer may be active.
"The numbers alone give rise to the strong suspicion that a serial killer is at work," he said. "When you get a string like that you have to take a look."
Fox said, in general, police are hesitant to say they have a serial killer because of what the phrase implies.
"It means you have a killing machine out there. That's what it does," Fox said. "And it will keep killing until it is caught or it dies. And often the killings will become more brutal and more frequent."
Investigators, who will meet Tuesday, will include state police, Hartford police, South Windsor police, Lee from the forensic lab, the state medical examiner's office, the Hartford state's attorney's office, and local agents from the FBI.
Those authorities will face many of the same problems many have encountered throughout the nation. Initially, investigators may not recognize evidence of a serial killer because he often begins by preying on prostitutes. Prostitutes are easy marks because they willingly get into a car with strangers.
Prostitutes also lead dangerous lives, so that their disappearance often does not seem unusual at first. Because of that, police warn against seeing patterns of killings too quickly.
"You've got to realize that a significant number of prostitutes are killed," said Lt. James Hiltz, a top state police investigator. "Unfortunately, after being killed they are dumped in rural areas. It's a hazard of the profession."
In addition, police say prostitutes' families are often estranged.
"They're outcasts. People have given up on them. Nobody really cares," Hiltz said.
In the cases involving Hartford women, only one of the victims had been arrested for prostitution, but authorities said there are indications three others traded sex for money or drugs. And two Waterbury women killed in 1988 and 1989, whose bodies were dumped in Harwinton, were prostitutes.
Not all the cases being looked at by investigators involve prostitutes. But Fox said serial killers often widen their search for victims.
In some cases, the killers give rides to hitchhiking students or meet their victims in bars. Jeffrey L. Dahmer, the Milwaukee man who has confessed to killing 17 people, picked up some of his victims at gay bars.
In the Hillside murders in Los Angeles, which took place between October 1977 and February 1978, the killers started with prostitutes, murdering them and dumping their bodies on hillsides. Then they moved on to school girls. Altogether, they raped, tortured, sodomized and killed 10 women.
Serial killers also can delay the initial identification of their cases by using different methods of killing. While they generally avoid guns, serial killers may strangle one victim, stab another and beat a third.
"They like contact," Fox said. Experts say it is a myth that a serial killer kills in only one way, thus leaving a "signature."
Candice Skrapec, a psychologist who teaches criminology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said a serial killer tends to kill in the same way, but may eventually use different methods.
Skrapec said the fact that some victims are strangled and others stabbed does not preclude the possibility a serial killer is at work.
"They like to experiment," Fox said.
An investigator, Skrapec said, who has studied serial killings for several years can look not only for a pattern -- but also departures from the pattern.
"They don't always do the same stuff," agreed Connecticut State Medical Examiner Wayne Carver. "That which is similar is only a small part of the whole."
Also complicating investigations is the mobility of serial killers; they may move around a particular county or region, or from state to state. "They like to drive around a lot," Fox said. As a result, it may take months or years for different police departments to realize they have same the killer.
"They like to drive around a lot," Fox said.
The cases to be reviewed Tuesday include killings in which the bodies of young women were found in Stamford, Harwinton, Rocky Hill, South Windsor, Hebron and Hartford.
On a grander scale, serial killers are capable of moving around the country. Ted Bundy, who was executed in Florida for his murders there, also was a suspect in killings in Washington, Utah and Colorado.
One hundred and sixty-nine serial killers have slain 935 people, attempted to kill another 125, and are suspected of killing 834 more, according to the FBI statistics.
But the FBI said no single profile fits the serial killers they have identified through a computer search of newspaper stories from 1977 through November 1989.
And Kelley Cibulas, a spokeswoman at the FBI's Quantico Academy in Virginia, said possible profiles of serial killers are changing as the FBI learns more. Agents at Quantico also will be available to assist Connecticut authorities.
In the work done by Fox and his colleague, Jack Levin, during the early 1980s, some other generalities emerged.
Serial killers are seldom incoherent lunatics, as the public sometimes thinks, Fox said. Instead, they are often quite clever. Their psychological need to control is often evident in the lifestyles of the killers, who casually exploit others and express no remorse for their acts. Yet, they often seem extraordinarily ordinary.
"Most of them have a job, have a family, have friends, and go to church on Sunday," Fox said. "They kill part time as a hobby."
Surprisingly, Fox said about 30 percent of serial killers work in teams. The Hillside Strangler of Los Angeles actually was two stranglers, cousins who began sexually assaulting and killing young women for the fun of it.
Skrapec said the killer might focus on a particular type of victim because they remind him or her of someone, his mother, for example. Or, if the victims are prostitutes, the killer might be acting on the belief that prostitutes are destroying the fabric of our society.
"Either the person is someone who knew the offender or someone who symbolizes somebody he hated," Skrapec said.
Recognizing the presence of a serial killer is only the first step in catching him.
Serial killers are difficult to apprehend because of the way they commit their crimes and why they do it.
They typically kill strangers or casual acquaintances and dump the bodies away from the crime scene. That means there is usually little or no history of personal connection between the killer and his victim. And there are fewer clues available at the dump site.
"If it's a dumped body -- a secondary scene -- who do you talk to?" said Lt. Frederick D. Lewis of the Hartford Police Department.
Hiltz said that when the murderer kills his victim in a home or car, a lot of evidence is left behind.
"When you remove a person from that crime scene, you leave all the traumatic physical evidence behind," Hiltz said.
And where is the motive?
Paul Walsh, district attorney in Bristol County, Mass., said a serial killer is not motivated by the usual reasons that make one person want to kill another -- such as jealousy or infidelity.
The district attorney's office spent years investigating the killings in the late 1980s of nine women in the New Bedford area. The women all had connections to drug use and prostitution in the Weld Square area. Most were strangled to death and abandoned along the major highways that ring New Bedford.
"With a serial killer you don't have a motive -- a motive that's logical, that would lead to an individual," Walsh said. "There may be a psychological problem, but you would have no way of knowing that."
A man was charged in one of those killings, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence. And the killings just stopped.
"Did the individual die? Is he in jail somewhere? Has he moved to some other area and continued the activity?" Walsh asked.
Lewis said that in 70 percent to 80 percent of the homicide cases investigated by the Hartford Police Department, the motive is clear. Often the killing started with a fight over drugs or a domestic dispute.
"A very small percentage of the cases are real whodunits," Lewis said. "The majority of the cases are pretty clear in a city this size. We may not get the bizarre kinds of things that happen in a larger city -- New York for example."
Skrapec said that learning more about the victims -- what physical or other characteristics they share -- can provide clues about the killer's motives. She also said the way the killer kills is meaningful.
Signs of torture or domination of the victim could signal the killer is very caught up in his ego. If the bodies are left in places where they will be easily found, it might mean the killer wants attention.
On Tuesday, authorities will try to decide whether to create a task force. In times of budget deficits, it could be difficult to find the money to back an effort that does not guarantee results.
A $15 million investigation of 49 or more slayings by the Green River Killer in Washington was discontinued after several years without a conviction.
In Connecticut, investigators created a task force to seek the killer responsible for the stranglings of two Waterbury prostitutes in 1988 and 1989. The task force disbanded without a conviction.
But an investigative task force helps focus attention on a series of killings and ensures the sharing of information. And the Waterbury victims will be included in the cases reviewed.
South Windsor Det. Steven Freddo, who will meet with other investigators Tuesday, said he believes a task force that would focus the attention of top investigators, the FBI and forensic experts on the killings is the best way to solve the crimes.
"I'm optimistic we could develop new leads and bring these cases to conclusion," Freddo said.
And all the police work can pay off.
Connecticut's most recent serial killer, Michael Ross, fell victim to a methodical investigation. Ross, who killed six young white women in eastern Connecticut in the early 1980s, confessed after a witness gave a police a vague description of a car. The police then confronted Ross after tracing him through a lengthy search of car registrations.
"I don't want to find a serial murder," said Hartford State's Attorney John M. Bailey.
"But if we have the resources and the expertise, and we can solve these crimes without finding a serial murder, I think it would be a great success."Copyright © 2015, CT Now