Are Some Gang Members Serial Killers?

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.

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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?

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