Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Hurt people hurt people. It’s a cliché that’s been used to describe the perpetrators of various crimes. Men who commit sexual assault are more likely to have been sexually abused as children. Serial killers, meanwhile, suffer far greater rates of physical, sexual and psychological abuse as children than the general population. But what about murder? Are serial killers more likely to grow up around murder and violent death? Do they learn by seeing the situation firsthand?
Jasmine Tehrani, a forensic psychologist at the University of Southern California who also serves as a senior psychologist for the California Board of Parole, says she regularly notices early exposure to homicide among the most violent offenders.
“I’ve seen many cases where inmates reported having witnessed not just violence, but someone having been murdered in front of them,” Tehrani says. “It’s a traumatic experience to say the least, and that is one of many different traumas they may have been exposed to at an early age.”
A&E True Crime looks at some of the most noteworthy cases of serial killers who were exposed to murder before they committed the deed themselves.
Dubbed the “Night Stalker” by the media, Richard Ramirez indiscriminately invaded homes throughout San Francisco and Greater Los Angeles between 1984 and 1985. Once inside, he raped and murdered his victims in gruesome fashion: severing heads, gouging out eyes.
A horror through and through, Ramirez was caught in part because his surviving victims referenced his decaying teeth, giving investigators an important lead. Adding to his mythology as evil incarnate, Ramirez pledged allegiance to Satan at trial.
But long before his crimes, Ramirez had witnessed horror firsthand. His cousin, Miguel “Mike” Ramirez, was a huge influence on him. A soldier in the Vietnam War, Miguel bragged to a prepubescent Richard about the women he raped and killed during his tour of duty. Then, when Richard was 13, Miguel shot and killed his wife in Richard’s presence.
[Watch The Night Stalker: Richard Ramirez on A&E Crime Central.]
Investigative journalist Clifford Linedecker, whose book Night Stalker: The Shocking True Story of Richard Ramirez, the Serial Killer Whose Murder Terrorized Los Angeles delves into the killer and his psyche, thinks it’s erroneous to draw causality between the crimes of Miguel Ramirez and his serial killing cousin, Richard.
“They were a hardworking family. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they did the best with what they had,” Linedecker says of the Ramirezes, noting that Richard Ramirez was one of five siblings, and that the others were all law-abiding. “Richard was just destined to be a bad guy.”
Robert Lee Yates
Other serial killers have murders in their family that predate their births.
Robert Lee Yates admitted murdering 13 women who worked as sex workers during a run of killings between 1996 and 1998. But long before Yates had committed those crimes, his grandmother, Novella Yates, had also committee murder. In 1945, she killed her husband with a pickaxe.
The grandmother’s murder had happened seven years before Yates was born. Had the murderous tendency been genetic? Yates was curious about that question himself. He submitted to an in-depth FBI examination (including DNA analysis) in part because he was curious to know what had led him to kill.
Tehrani, who has researched the potential genetic predisposition to criminality, says research into the question of genetically inheritable homicidal tendancies is difficult, because “you can’t disentangle” a killer’s genetics from his upbringing.
Still, Tehrani says, “There are biological material—transmitted across generations—that we know increase the risk of violence,” noting that elevated testosterone levels, low serotonin or dopamine levels, and a low resting heart rate are inheritable qualities that correlate with homicidal behavior. But she’s quick to add that those qualities are “not deterministic by any means.”
Still other killers’ modus operandi seem to tie directly to their family history.
Between 1978 and 1990, Soviet schoolteacher Andrei Chikatilo confessed to raping and murdering at least 56 people—the majority of them children—making him one of the most prolific serial killers in world history.
Growing up, Chikatilo was told he’d had an older brother who had been murdered and cannibalized by starving neighbors in the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s. Tehrani wonders if hearing horrifying stories like these as a child can influence later behavior.
“Put yourself in the shoes of a young child who may not be developmentally ready to hear that kind of information,” she says. “It can plant a seed in the mind of an impressionable youth.”
That certainly seemed to be the case with Chikatilo. He cannibalized many of his victims, and in some cases began butchering them before they were dead.
Tehrani says it’s impossible to ignore what may have happened to Chikatilo’s brother when assessing the serial killer’s maladaptive behavior. But it’s also rare for murderers to come from a family of victims. They’re much more likely to come from a family of perpetrators, she says.
“We, as humans, tend to identify with our parents. Assuming they’re decent role models.”