Of Course There Are Black Serial Killers

The case of the "Grim Sleeper" inspires a second look at the popular perception that serial killing is the province of clever white men.

Lonnie Franklin Jr (Getty Images)
Lonnie Franklin Jr (Getty Images)

When 57-year-old Lonnie Franklin Jr. was charged with 10 murders in the grisly Los Angeles “Grim Sleeper” case last week, it begged the question — at least in my mind — about other black serial killers, because there’s a popular, media-driven perception that such crimes are usually committed by clever white men.

So I set out on a fact-finding mission. I wanted to debunk the myth that black people aren’t serial killers. Yeah, yeah, yeah, there’s Wayne Williams and Anthony Sowell, but I wanted to understand why they’re seen as outliers. And I wasn’t interested in spree killers like DC Sniper John Allen Muhammad (those who kill two or more people without a cooling off period, according to the FBI’s 2008 Serial Murder report).

In search of more information, I called the FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va., to see if I could find statistics on the number of black serial killers compared with whites. But Special Agent Ann Todd, a spokeswoman, kindly explained that the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime does not maintain statistics for serial killers. Nor is there a national repository that maintains and tracks the number or race of serial killers in the U.S.

“From the FBI’s perspective, there has never been a generic profile of a serial killer and no set of characteristics that someone can  ‘look out for,’ ” she said. “Further, serial killers span all racial groups. There are white, African-American, Hispanic and Asian serial killers. The racial diversification of serial killers generally mirrors that of the overall U.S. population.”


And then I found Louis B. Schlesinger, Ph.D., a professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. He and several other scholars recently completed the study “Ritual and Signature in Serial Sexual Homicide,” done in conjunction with the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, which appeared in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. The article studied signature clues that serial killers leave behind at murder scenes.

“That is a total, total myth that there are no black serial killers,” said Dr. Schlesinger, who has been studying serial killers and extraordinary crimes since the 1970s. “There have been black serial killers for many, many years, but they haven’t been publicized. The media simply chooses not to focus on them.”

It’s also not true that serial killers are of above-average intelligence, he said.

“Their intelligence copies the normal distribution of the general population,” he said. “Some serial killers are very smart, which is very, very, very rare. Most are of average intelligence. Most are within the low-average range. What happens is the media attributes high intelligence to these guys when they haven’t been quickly apprehended.”