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Doug  Wyllie

Doug Wyllie

Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

Richard Valdemar

Richard Valdemar

Sgt. Richard Valdemar retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department after spending most of his 33 years on the job combating gangs.

Are Some Gang Members Serial Killers?

Are some gang members psychologically disturbed murderers in disguise?

January 17, 2013  |  by Richard Valdemar - Also by this author

Photo via kevindean/Flickr.
Photo via kevindean/Flickr.

Ever since Cain slew his brother Abel, mankind has wondered what motivates a man to murder another. Besides the common motivations of greed, envy, lust, and revenge, more sinister and evil thoughts lurk in the minds of some murderers. There is really no good reason for murder, but in my experience with criminal gangs, many seem to make some kind of understandable sense.

However, even in the murderous world of gangs, the most wicked killings are perpetrated by individuals who seem motivated by some other dark, twisted presence within their troubled souls.

Some might think that any individual who willingly joins an outlaw criminal gang and who is willing to kill and sacrifice almost anything in the furtherance of this conspiratorial alliance must be just a little crazy anyway. Adding to this "la vida loca" (the crazy life) is the illegal use of drugs and alcohol that often plays a part in poisoning the minds of gang members. The Latino gangs refer to their homeboys as "vato locos" (crazy dudes) and with the very name Insane Latin Disciples the gang's members self-identify  as "insane." Many gangs brag about their madness.

I have known some murderous gang thugs who have, since their childhood, participated in numerous gang assaults and murders. By the time they reach middle age they have become quite accustomed to death and the titillating feeling of taking a person’s life. Some who have graduated to the prison gang ranks have dozens of murders under their belts. And prison confinement does little to stop their murder sprees.

But are they serial killers?

Among the many gang murderers I have investigated and interviewed, I have noticed that there are often found among their numbers a few individuals who (unlike the majority) are not just killing for the common reasons mentioned above. In investigating gang murderers in particular gangs, I began to notice the same individuals were involved in some way in almost every killing. It seems to me that joining a criminal gang was an act of convenience for these individuals, in which they could safely act out their perverse desires and bloodlust, justifying their actions as aggressive gang activity.   

I suspect that the "normal" gang members know who these especially murderous individuals are, and they tend to give them suitable monikers like "maton" (killer), psycho, trigger, vampire, sniper, maddog, and "diablo" (devil). In my experience, unless these gang killers were needed for a specific purpose, most gang homeboys warned each other about them and generally avoided close associations with them.

They were thought of as dangerous even to their own gang homeboys. The gang would often circulate rumors of these individuals suspected of killing collateral victims, women and girls, and sometimes members of their own gang. Sometimes especially brutal stabbings, sexual acts, and even arson fires were linked to these individuals. 

Professional profilers and experts in the field of deviant criminal behavior tell us that there are about 200 serial killers active in the streets of the United States on any given day. Serial killers are not the same as mass murderers, nor are they spree killers like those who caried out the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre or the Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting last year.

Coining of the term serial killer and the concept surrounding it is commonly attributed to former FBI Special Agent Robert Ressler in the 1970s. A serial killer is traditionally defined as an individual who has killed three or more people over a period of more than a month, with down time between the murders, and whose motivation for killing is usually based on psychological gratification.

According to the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit, serial killers tend to come from troubled homes where they were emotionally, physically, and/or sexually abused by a family member. They were often bullied or ignored by fellow students in grammar school. A disproportionate number are said to exhibit one, two, or all three of the classic predictors of psychopathy known as the Macdonald triad: fire setting, childhood torturing of animals, and bedwetting after 12 years of age. This theory and the research on which it was based are now disputed, but I think there might be something to it.

Some of the particularly murderous gang suspects I knew had one or more of these predictors. Unlike separate mass murders or murder sprees, the killings these gang members were involved in occurred in series with intervals separating the individual events. These unusual suspects seemed to take great pleasure in talking about these murders. They expressed no regrets or concern for their crimes. They did not act like other gang murderers.  

Historically there have been a few criminal gangs that appear to have been made up of gang serial killers. The Charles Manson "family," the Freight Train Riders of America, and the Happy Face murderers of Minnesota and Wisconsin (allegedly with more than 40 victims) may fall in this gray area. However, I'm not claiming that all gangs are made up of serial killers. What I mean is that among the gang members some individuals may be true serial killers camouflaged by the murderous gang lifestyle.

If you find yourself involved in a gang murder investigation, think about more than just one type of gang murderer. Besides the common murder motivations, open your mind up to uncommon serial killer possibilities. Unusual gang victims or violent methods may be clues to series of crimes. The perpetration of these sick, twisted acts may even motivate some gang members to cooperate with you. Nobody likes perverted serial killers. There are apparently various degrees of evil, some more offensive than others.

I think the FBI Profiling Unit is missing this opportunity, the investigation of this fascinating possibility. My guess is that this article will hit a familiar key with veteran gang investigators across the nation. The profile I describe of a gang murder suspect who seems more than the usual suspect may be close to one in a case you worked.

What do you think? Is there such a thing as a gang serial killer?

Comments (9)

Displaying 1 - 9 of 9

Anthony ttleynzella @ 1/21/2013 10:22 PM

Another outstanding article by Richard Valdemar. I've never read any one who has the same subtlety and nuance with regard to gangs. My partner Ruth Arvidson and I prosecuted many gang murders. But, in all the Mafia murders we prosecuted, Richard was our Eme expert. We never brought up the serial killer aspect. You know why? Because we knew we would not be allowed to present the evidence and, therefore, the jurors would never understand the concept. The fact that that is true is a great reason for having professional jurors--jurors who are paid to do nothing but be jurors. For many reasons, that will never happen.

Mac @ 1/22/2013 6:12 AM

Aggressive Sociopaths make up 2-3% of the population. Not only are the majority of the most violent gang killings are committed by a small minority, indeed, not all those who would technically qualify as sociopathic engage in anti-social activity. Many Law Enforcement officers go their entire careers without firing a single shot at anyone, yet a small minority of officers have engaged in multiple incidents. And while some just work assignments that are more dangerous, some seek out those assignments. In the military, likewise, we see that a small minority are capable of the kind of cold and efficient violence talked about, and they tend to flocks to units that afford them access to the lifestyle they enjoy.

Again, violent criminal life of all sorts, weather it be street gangs, outlaw motorcycle gangs, traditional organized crimes, drug trafficking cartels, etc.....are self selected by nature for vast overrepresentation by sociopaths, many of whom not only have no qualms about killing, but are also psychopathic in their joy of killing.

RICHARD @ 1/22/2013 5:22 PM


DaveSam5525G @ 1/22/2013 11:31 PM

This article is well done and brings forth needed areas to be aware of and look into. Matter of fact it's time to dust off from the book shelf a few books related to this area for it got the curiosity flowing...And like a forrest fire small flame can create a problem dealing with its growth. those who have walked the path before know what was on it during the journey-Rich and Anthony!

Rob @ 1/24/2013 6:31 AM

That would certainly explain why some have no demonstrated potential for rehabilitation.

Jimmy @ 1/31/2013 12:20 AM

At the other end of the spectrum some guys want out.

Cartel guys in Mexico always have to have a radio playing. Silence scares them because they think about their eternal soul.

Many of them feel trapped and do not know how to get out.

Al G @ 9/20/2013 7:39 AM

Potentially one of the worst and most 'grasping' articles I have ever read. It smacks of amateurishly seeking a level of acknowledgement and approval from the psychiatric community. In particular those involved in branches of law enforcement and/or behavioral analysis; a-la Dr. Frederick Chilton in Thomas Harris' novels. Not only is the tone entirely wrong, the whole subject matter seems misguided. In concentrating on the murderous exploits of gang-members, don't dig for potential self-justifying gold. You first need to look at their requirement for the support structure of their various brotherhoods as a driving enabler. Their appeal to the gratuities of the aforementioned as a driving force also contributes. Ingratiation to a perceived power, coupled with extreme peer-pressure is a major consideration in these scenarios. Ones which should not have been overlooked, as they seem to have been in this tabloid hash.

Please put your good name to more thorough material Sgt. Valdemar.

Somone @ 1/8/2015 12:59 AM

The same person who would become a serial killer in a small town where there are no gangs, in an inner-city would simply join a gang to act out violent impulses

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