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.''
"Everyone thought he was a master of disguise and a genius,'' he said of Ridgeway. "Nothing could be further from the truth. He painted trucks. His IQ was something like 83. These guys are not smart at all. As a matter of fact, most of them are idiots.''
But there is an element of racism involved in the stereotyping of serial killers, said Paul Ciolino, a longtime Chicago-area private investigator who works as a homicide consultant and most recently helped out on the Dennis Lynn Rader case near Wichita, Kan. (Rader, a white man who was known as the BTK killer — short for "bind, torture and kill'' — killed 10 people over a 17-year stretch of time ending in 1991.)
"People still think serial killers as a bunch of white guys who have the bodies stacked up in the basement and strewn all over the countryside, not black guys,'' Ciolino said. "They think African Americans are off killing each other. I don't mean to be brutal here, and it's gonna come off harsh because I'm a white guy, but the media don't [see] blacks as being smart enough to be serial killers.''
Actually, serial killers of all hues get away with their crimes for so long because there is no connection between the offender and victim, Schlesinger explained. In most homicides, people kill those with whom they are closely connected, such as a spouse or friend. In serial sexual homicide cases killers often target strangers, and they are usually prostitutes and drug abusers, he said. Prostitutes and drug abusers are easy targets because they have high-risk jobs and they are less likely to be missed by anyone.
In Franklin's case, the former police mechanic bewildered detectives for more than two decades as they tried to solve the deaths of 10 people, mostly young black women and one man with whom he little to no connection, according to news reports. He was arrested last week after police used DNA swabs from his son to nail him, police said. In some news reports, neighbors described the alleged serial killer as a model citizen. He fixed flats for neighbors and always was willing to lend a helping hand. It's typical behavior for serial killers, blending into the community so their misdeeds will go undetected.
It's sad, but there certainly have been a number of black serial killers. Go here for 6 snapshots of some of the nation's most prolific.
Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.