Serial Murder: Difficulties within an Investigation

by Tabetha Cooper

Serial murder is a phenomenon that poses many problems for investigators.  With the multitude of factors that go into a serial murder, catching a serial killer can be difficult.  Serial investigations are more successful when there are plenty of resources, such as financial support and manpower.  
English: Logo for Serial Killer Task Force
English: Logo for Serial Killer Task Force (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Unfortunately these things are not always available.  In this essay the factors that make serial murder so difficult to investigators are going to be discussed, as well as suggestions to aid in overcoming these challenges.  A person must remember that these suggestions are not always applicable in every situation; however, their employment will undoubtedly make the investigation run more smoothly.
Major issues involving the investigation of serial murders are include leadership, task force organization, manpower, communication, data management, analytical tools, medical examiners, and training.  Linking homicides together is probably the biggest difficulty investigators face, especially when the murders are committed in different jurisdictions (www.fbi.gov).  This problem is known as linkage blindness.  Linkage blindness occurs because of an agency’s inability to access information from other agencies and because of the lack of communication and cooperation between jurisdictions (Summerfield, 2006).  According to Kouri (2009), serial murders involving multiple jurisdictions are often easier to detect when the victims are low-risk, meaning they generally do not involve themselves in activities in which you would expect to see someone murdered.  But when an investigator is dealing with high risk victims the lack of communication and the differences in record management systems can keep them from linking a series of murders together.  A key to linking murders to a single offender is identifying cases where the forensic or behavioral evidence suggests the same offender (www.fbi.gov).
Steve Wright (serial killer)
Steve Wright (serial killer) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Leadership is another major problem in serial murder cases.  With all the pressures coming from outside sources such as victims’ families, political figures, and the media, administration wants to have these cases cleared up quickly.  This may make them step in and try to take over the investigation.  Both investigators and supervisors play major parts in solving a serial murder but it is vital that they cooperate with each other instead of stepping on each other toes.  The investigation into serial murder should be handled by the most experienced investigators; this is not a job for administrators (www.fbi.gov).
The organization of a task force can help or hinder a serial investigation.  Without a good task force, information may not get to the right places and jobs may not be delegated properly.   The first step of creating an effective task force is getting all the agencies involved in the investigation to cooperate with each other.  The next thing is that the agency needs to be properly designated to head the investigation.  Choosing the agency for the lead depends on several things such as the availability of manpower, access to resources, and which agency has the most experienced investigators. 
English: Mug shot of serial killer Gerard John...
English: Mug shot of serial killer Gerard John Schaefer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 However, all other agencies need to be equally involved in the task force.  Once the lead agency has been chosen, a lead investigator and co-investigator must be elected.  Upon this selection, the two will then oversee all aspects of the investigation, particularly those involving the crime scene, itself.  A task force also requires ample personnel.  Finally, the last thing a task force should be equipped with is a liaison.  They need to deal with the victims’ families as well as deal with communications with the forensic laboratories, medical examiners, and the prosecutor’s office.  Every law enforcement agency should have a planned task force model equipped with an information management system; this should be put into action as soon as the task force has been organized.  It is vital for investigators and administrators to have a tightly knit relationship and to stay unified if the task force is to operate successfully (www.fbi.gov).
Manpower is an issue for any law enforcement agency during any case, but it is particularly crucial during serial murder investigations.  Agencies may not have enough manpower to spare, leaving heavy case loads for the officers and investigators available.  This problem can go the opposite direction as well.  With the large demand to catch the unidentified subject, or un-sub, in serial cases, agencies may try to utilize every person within their organization.  This inclination can lead to the 
The “Blood Countess of Transylvania,” as Eliza...
The “Blood Countess of Transylvania,” as Elizabeth Báthory (1560–1614) was known. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
overlapping of duties which can have devastating results for the investigation.  The lead investigator knows if more manpower is necessary.  When an investigator asks management for more manpower, administrators need to make sure they are able to supply the correct number of officers required (www.fbi.gov).
In today’s world it is hard to fathom that communication would be a problem, but in law enforcement, it seems to be.  This is largely due to the differing information systems between agencies.  For the most part, this problem would be alleviated if every agency utilized the FBI’s ViCAP system and updated its information frequently for both solved and unsolved cases; this would aid in the linking together of cases.  Also in serial cases, when multiple jurisdictions are involved, no one wants to allow another agency solve “their” case.  It is vital that communications links are clearly established
Dr. Lawrence Farwell conducts a Brain Fingerpr...
Dr. Lawrence Farwell conducts a Brain Fingerprinting test on serial killer JB Grinder. The result showed the record in Grinder's brain matched the murder of Julie Helton. Grinder was convicted and is serving a life sentence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 and that everyone works together.  This can be accomplished by means of daily debriefings, where the lead investigators talk to other members of the task force to see what they have learned and fill them in on new duties that are expected of them.  These should consist of face to face communications, so that nothing is lost during the translation of information (www.fbi.gov).
Communication problems lead us to data management issues.  The lack of data being properly stored in an electronic database poses a problem with linking serial cases together.  It also presents a problem during the actual investigation once the cases have been linked.  Important leads can be lost and never followed up on.  Once a lead has been submitted, it should be put into a system
Lucas and Ottis Toole. Ramsland, Katherine.
Lucas and Ottis Toole. Ramsland, Katherine. "Henry Lee Lucas, prolific serial killer or prolific liar?". Crime Library . . Retrieved 2008-12-17 . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
 to be viewed by investigators, who will then complete a report regarding their findings.  Time should be provided during working hours to ensure this gets done.  Another way to ensure that this is completed is to have a standard method by which investigators may complete the reports.  All reports need to be given to all agencies involved in a serial investigation to be sure that everyone has all the information available (www.fbi.gov).
Analytical tools are severely underused in serial investigations, especially in the early stages.  Analysts are pertinent to the organization of information in an investigation (www.officeresource.com).  The earlier they become involved in an investigation the better.  Analyst can help collect information on the cases involved.  Gaining information such geographic locations, times and dates, etc. can be very useful in the investigation.  The task force should also include a team of investigators whose primarily focus is reviewing the information that has been collected by the analysts (www.fbi.gov).
Medical Examiners, often referred to as ME’s, are another group of people that are vital to an investigation but can complicate it when dealing with multiple jurisdictions.    Each state has certain requirements and procedures that a ME must follow and this can vary from state to state.  For the quick linking of cases it is critical that the procedures to collect, record, and retrieve information a
English: This car was owned (and heavily used)...
English: This car was owned (and heavily used) by infamous American serial killer, Ted Bundy. He removed the passenger seat to better hide his victims before disposing of them. Today in Chinatown, Washington, DC, US. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
re nearly the same; which is rarely the case.  Once a serial case has been identified, ME’s need to share all information on autopsies performed with each other.  Each jurisdiction should select one ME that takes care of all autopsies that appear to be linked to the offender.  When there are multiple jurisdictions it may be wise for all ME’s involved in the case to work together when doing the autopsies (www.fbi.gov).
Resources and funding are often a problem with any investigation.  Several agencies across the nation do not have adequate funding to support the manpower they need on a day to day basis, let alone have the computer equipment that makes an agency run smoothly.  Setting up a task force to deal with a serial case can be extremely expensive.  To aid with this problem, agencies should have a plan in place in the event that a large case comes into to their jurisdiction.  When creating this plan, the FBI suggests that things such as “buildings, office space, computers, phones, vehicles, and food” should be examined.  All of these things, in addition to manpower, are needed to run an efficient investigation (www.fbi.gov).
Training is a concern with all law enforcement agencies, not withstanding major cases such as serial investigations.  It is essential that all homicide investigators, crime analysts, and medical examiners have been adequately trained.  Experience is important in any investigation, especially so when dealing with a serial murder case (www.fbi.gov).  One thing that to remember, though, is that without the proper training, investigators will not remain with an agency long enough to gain experience.
Serial investigations often have many complications.  Not all of these problems have easy solutions that can be implemented quickly.  Serial murderers are hard to catch because of the anonymity they bestow upon themselves, and only through teamwork, perseverance, and hard work can these monsters be caught.  Sadly, funding is not always available to supply the resources needed in these cases.  But as the media keeps making these cases more and more popular, it is to be hoped that the need for financial assistance will become more understood, as well.


Kouri, J. (2009). Serial Killers and Politicians Share Traits. Retrieved from                                http://www.examiner.com/law-enforcement-in-national/serial-killers-and-politicians-share-    traits
Summerfield M. (2006). Why Serial Killers Remain at Large. Retrieved from                http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/35188/seven_obstacles_to_serial_murder_investiga                tions.html?cat=17

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