Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Serial killer Edmund “Ed” Kemper, the inspiration behind character Buffalo Bill in the film “Silence of the Lambs” (along with a few other killers), was just 15 when he killed his grandparents in 1964. Allegedly he committed the horrific acts to “see what it felt like.” After spending fewer than five years in confinement and treatment, he was released to his mother and his juvenile criminal record was expunged.
Only a few years later Kemper would go on to kill six female students and have sex with their corpses. He became known as the “Co-Ed Killer.”
Kemper culminated his 11-month murder spree in 1973, bludgeoning his mother to death with a claw hammer, later having sex with her decapitated head and then using it as a dart board. (He then called his mother’s friend and when she came over, strangled her.)
In the years to come, while incarcerated in the California Medical Facility where he still lives, Kemper, who reportedly has an I.Q. of 131, proved instrumental in helping FBI agents understand the mentality of serial killers. His case in not unique, though: Renowned FBI profiler John E. Douglas considered serial killers, in general, as an untapped reservoir of knowledge and insight. But are they?
A&E Real Crime spoke with Bryanna Fox, Ph.D, former FBI agent and researcher at the bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit, and current assistant professor of criminology at the University of South Florida, about whether convicted serial killers are the key to catching active serial killers.
How did Ed Kemper help the police and FBI catch active serial killers? What exactly was his contribution?
Ed Kemper was part of a bigger project the FBI had been conducting at the time. In the 1970s, the FBI came up with the idea that by visiting prisons and talking to these horrific serial killers, they could learn more about their motives. Kemper was one of those serial killers. He had a very high I.Q., he was very articulate, the ideal person you would want to interview.
He was able to provide a lot of insights as to why these offenders commit these crimes. FBI agents were able to identify some common characteristics and backgrounds among serial killers we normally would not have known about. (For instance, they tortured animals as children.)
Are there other serial killers who helped the FBI in the same way?
Yes. In the 1980s the FBI started talking to Ted Bundy. After a series of murders they thought a serial killer had committed, they tried to get Bundy’s insights.
Why would Bundy and Kemper want to help the FBI?
Serial killers like reliving the experience. It also helps them pass the time as they are in jail and don’t have lots of hope. For them, it is not necessarily about helping the police; they are not rehabilitated, they don’t have [any] good will.
In a lot of cases, offenders who score high on psychopathy—which is distinguished by feelings of narcissism, low impulse and grandiosity—feel important and powerful talking to the police.
Was Kemper rehabilitated when he helped the police?
No. Rehabilitated means you are not going to commit the crimes you have done in the past. Kemper knew what he did was wrong, but he also was aware that if he were released into society, he would commit those crimes once again.
His mother belittled him when he was a kid, she abused him, she locked him in the basement and now the FBI comes to talk to him and asks for his insights. That must have made him feel special. He was more feeding off of that, feeling powerful and having some control over his own destiny.
Serial killers don’t suddenly become good people. I once asked Mary Ellen O’Toole, a famous FBI profiler, why these people commit crimes. She told me a psychopath thinks about their victims the way we think about a tissue; we blow our nose and throw the tissue away. We never think about it again. That’s how these offenders think about their victims.
Knowing that, how do FBI agents build rapport with people like Kemper?
In part, it’s the motivation. They want to understand why these people committed the crimes. Even if you know what they have done, it’s important to be able to dissociate from that and to build rapport—they stress that in the FBI academy—and to focus on the information [they provide] because, ultimately, that will be part of the bigger solution to help other victims.
Do you agree with John E. Douglas, who feels serial killers are an untapped reservoir of knowledge and insight?
I would prefer to say ‘an underutilized resource for knowledge and insight.’ The first reason I say this is because I think they have partially been ‘tapped.’
In the 40-plus years since the FBI interviewed Kemper and others, we have done a lot more research on serial killers.
The second reason is these offenders are spread out—serial killing is extremely rare, so you will only have a few offenders in prison in the same state. Getting money to interview enough offenders from across the nation to generate a large enough sample size to make any meaningful conclusions is very costly. Unfortunately, this, and other logistics, make using interviews to collect data on serial killers a very challenging research area.