— With five dead bodies found in just 10 days, British police are describing the murders of prostitutes in the east of England as a crime in action.
The news late on Tuesday that two corpses had been discovered near Ipswich in Suffolk appears to confirm beyond doubt that police are looking for a serial killer.
The bodies of Gemma Adams, Tania Nicol and Anneli Alderton were found between 2 December and 10 December. The bodies found on Tuesday, naked and dumped in woodland, are assumed to be those of Annette Nicholls and Paula Clennell, both of whom went missing recently.
The spate of serial murders in such a short time period is extremely unusual and may be unprecedented, police say. Already, psychologists are assessing the crimes and offering insights into the mind of the perpetrator, who experts say is very likely to be a lone male.
Keith Ashcroft, a forensic psychologist and expert in sex crimes, based in Edinburgh, UK, speculates that the murderer is deliberately taunting police. He said that the person probably has some massive grudge against the police force, probably even in Suffolk and wants to make the police look inadequate.
Meanwhile, Joseph Diaz, a criminologist at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, US, says that the fact the bodies were dumped in water suggests that the killer is of above average intelligence, because he knows physical evidence will be washed away. Diaz writes in the Daily Telegraph that the killer probably has a dominant mother, and is not in a stable relationship with a woman possibly a virgin, he adds.
In the The Times, David Canter, director of the Centre for Investigative Psychology at the University of Liverpool, says: "His first murder was likely to be a carefully considered attempt to hide some other crime: killing the victim because she was a crucial witness."
But just how helpful are psychological profiles of killers? Psychologists can paint a picture of a typical serial killer based on profiles of the limited number of serial killers available, but this will not necessarily be accurate, or help police, says Glenn Wilson, an expert in deviant personalities at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, UK. It may even lead detectives down a blind alley, he warns.
For example, police may not even consider a female suspect or be alert for a female accomplice. Wilson also cites the infamous murder of model Rachel Nickell in Wimbledon, London, in 1992, where he says police adhered so closely to the psychological profile provided that they became blind to other possibilities and wasted valuable time prosecuting Colin Stagg. He was later acquitted of the murder, which has never been solved.
A psychological profile amounts to nothing more than a statistical probability and if police believe it is 100% accurate they run a very real risk of ignoring other evidence, Wilson says.
Much more useful, he says, is geographical profiling. This is where information about the locations in a crime scene is combined with a psychological analysis to provide forensic teams with clues. For example, in this instance, the bodies were all found close to the A14, a major road that runs from Felixstowe to the Midlands, skirting Ipswich. The killer probably knows the route well and may live somewhere along its path, Wilson says.
People often murder their victims in places they know well and are familiar with and then dump the bodies away from their living place. If you trace a path between the two places, you can often get directional information, he told New Scientist.
Other criminals have been identified using geographical profiling, Wilson says, including the so-called Barclays bomber. He made all his attacks at points near stations on a particular London Underground train line. The bomber was later revealed to be living along the same line.
However, Wilson stresses that psychological profiling can still be a useful tool when used carefully. Most serial killers have been young men between 25 and 40 with typically male occupations that imply a high level of testosterone, such as mechanic, road worker or builder.
Their careers often have no obvious direction, and so they have little prospect of developing a sense of self-esteem or importance in their work. They are often socially and sexually inept and carry a large amount of anger towards others, who they perceive as responsible for their situation, Wilson says.
In this particular case, Wilson says, the level of control shown by the killer suggests he is not psychotic. Rather, he is a psychopath who has incubated certain fantasies and is now translating them into action. The fact that the murdered women were all young between 19 and 29 years old and found naked suggests sexual excitement was involved.
Wilson says it is unlikely the killer wants to be found. It appears he is currently building himself up into a frenzy, perhaps before committing suicide or going to ground.
The publicity surrounding the murders is likely to make him more careful, Wilson says. The police will find more clues in his earlier murders than the later ones. For this reason, Wilson notes the unsolved murder of 19-year-old Vicky Hall in 1999. Hall, who was not a prostitute, was abducted near Felixstowe and her body was later dumped near water. Perhaps this was his first murder, Wilson suggests.