Special Report

The States With the Most Serial Murder


From the infamous targeting of prostitutes by Jack the Ripper in London during the 1880s to the Beltway sniper attacks in the Washington metro area in 2002, serial killing is not a recent phenomenon nor is it isolated to any single geography. In the United States — the country with by far the most documented cases of serial killing — there have been approximately 2,625 serial killers, who have together killed many more victims.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), serial killers tend to operate in defined geographical areas. Based on the Serial Killer Database, produced through a partnership of Radford University and the Florida Gulf Coast University, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the states with the highest numbers of documented victims of serial killers since 1900, adjusted for population. While the 51 total serial killings in Alaska is not an especially high number compared with the rest of the country, adjusted for historical population levels, the state leads the nation with the most serial killings.

The public’s interest in serial killers far exceeds the actual incidence of serial killing. Serial killers — such as the famously nicknamed Zodiac Killer, Green River Killer, Angel of Death, or Boston Strangler — have garnered a remarkable level of public attention.

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Yet, according to the FBI, serial killings are relatively uncommon occurrences, accounting for less than 1% of all murders in a given year. According to Dr. Michael Aamodt, professor emeritus of psychology at Radford University, there is also disagreement among experts on what constitutes a serial killing. “If you talk to 50 people who do research in this area you’re gonna get 50 different answers about what is and what isn’t a serial killer,” he said.

He added, however, that a serial killing must at the very least include at least two murders committed on separate occasions, often days apart.

Contrary to popular notions, often spurred by the media and Hollywood blockbusters, serial killers do not necessarily fit any particular stereotype. When people think of a serial killer, they may think of a sociopathic evil genius — typically white and typically male. Killers, both fictional and real, such as Hannibal Lecter as portrayed in “Silence of the Lambs” and mathematician serial killer Ted Kaczynski, commonly known as the Unabomber, fit the preconceived profile.

In fact, fewer than half of serial killers since 1900 have been both male and white. Intelligence also varies greatly among serial killers. Based on a sample of 252 serial killers, intelligence quotients (IQs) ranged from as low as 54 to as high as 186. The IQ of a typical serial killer is 86, slightly below average.

Motives also vary among serial killers. While most are portrayed to have gratification from the act of killing itself, nearly one-third of all serial killer victims in the United States since 1900 were murdered for financial gain. The motive in an additional 7.8% of serial murders was identified as anger.

While motives range from one killer to another, data reveals certain patterns in victims across the United States. About 858 people murdered by serial killers were prostitutes. Another 325 serial killings were related to hitchhiking. According to Aamodt, prostitutes and hitchhikers are particularly vulnerable because they are putting themselves in situations with strangers. The most common circumstance surrounding serial murders in the U.S., however is a home invasion. Roughly 1,500 Americans have been killed by a serial killer during a home invasion since 1900.

To identify the 10 states with the most serial killings, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the highest numbers of serial killer victims, adjusted for population, from the Serial Killer Database, produced through a partnership of Radford University and the Florida Gulf Coast University. The database has compiled documented victims of serial killers since 1900 through September of 2014. Characteristics of the victims, including sex, age, and race, as well characteristics of the killers, including motive and decade of activity, also came from the database. To adjust for historical population levels, we calculated the rate of serial murders per 1 million residents for each decade from 1900 through 2010 using the state’s (or territory’s) population at the end of each decade. To calculate the rate of serial killings over the whole period, we averaged each decade’s rate in every state, weighted by population. State populations by decade came from the long-form (or decennial) Census. National populations prior to 1960 did not include Alaska or Hawaii. However, both states were included in national aggregates of serial killings. Thus, for the purposes of calculating a population-adjusted rate of serial killings prior to 1960, the populations of Hawaii and Alaska to the officially reported national populations. We also considered violent crime rates, which came from the FBI’s 2014 Uniform Crime Report.

These are the 10 states with the most serial murder.

10. Oklahoma
> Adjusted number of serial killings per 1 million:
> Total no. of serial killings: 174
> Worst decade for serial killings: 1980’s

Since the turn of the 20th century, there have been 174 serial murders in Oklahoma. Compared with the state’s population, serial killings occur more frequently in Oklahoma than in all but nine other states. There were 48 documented serial killings in Oklahoma in the 1980s — the most active decade compared to other decades. This was the case in many other states as well. In 1995, Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing. While this may be one of the worst home-grown terrorist attacks the country has experienced, McVeigh’s crime does not count as serial killing. Serial killing is separate consecutive murders, while mass murders are many killings in one incident.

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9. Utah
> Adjusted number of serial killings per 1 million:
> Total no. of serial killings: 78
> Worst decade for serial killings: 1980’s

Serial killers in Utah murdered 18 victims in the 1970s and 31 victims in the 1980s. Arthur Gary Bishop — also known as Roger Downs — was a child molester serial killer operating around that time, between 1979 and 1983. He was accused of killing five children by beating or drowning them to death and was eventually executed by lethal injection in 1988. Some of the other serial murders recorded in Utah were committed by notorious rapist and murderer Ted Bundy, who lived in the state from 1974 until he was caught in 1975. Bundy killed at least 36 women in multiple states, although some estimate he killed many more.

8. Texas
> Adjusted number of serial killings per 1 million:
> Total no. of serial killings: 793
> Worst decade for serial killings: 1990’s

Nearly 800 murders in Texas have been connected with serial killers since 1900, the highest count of any state after only California. The high number of serial killings in Texas, as in California, is likely due in large part to Texas’ relatively large population. A number of serial killers operating in Texas over the years were executed by the state — Texas is one of 19 states where the death penalty is legal, but it is by far the most likely to use it. One of the most recent Texan accused of serial killing, Tommy Lynn Sells, was put to death less than two years ago. Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, and known as the Railroad Killer, murdered at least 15 people in Kentucky, Texas, and Illinois before he surrendered in 1999. According to the FBI, travelling to other states and countries is actually unusual among serial killers carrying out their crimes.

7. Louisiana
> Adjusted number of serial killings per 1 million:
> Total no. of serial killings: 276
> Worst decade for serial killings: 2000’s

While nationwide the 1980s were the worst years for serial killings, in Louisiana it was last decade — there were more serial murders between 2000 and 2010 than in any other decade since the beginning of the 20th century. Derrick Todd Lee, a notorious serial killer in the state, was active in the early part of that decade. Also known as the Baton Rouge Serial Killer, Lee is currently awaiting execution for several murders across Louisiana.

Serial murderers in Louisiana have shot and strangled at least 149 victims since 1900, the two most common killing methods. Many victims met their killer at a bar. Between 1990 and 2010, 25 Louisiana residents were murdered by a serial killer they met at a bar.

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6. Oregon
> Adjusted number of serial killings per 1 million:
> Total no. of serial killings: 162
> Worst decade for serial killings: 1980’s

Dayton Leroy Rogers, known as the Molalla Forest Killer, is currently on death row for the stabbing murders of seven Oregon women in the late 1980s. After adjusting for population, Oregon has the sixth greatest frequency of serial murders in the country. Across the nation, serial killers have used a firearm to kill a significantly larger number of victims than any other method. In Oregon, however, serial killers have strangled victims to death more than any other killing method. Since 1900, serial killers have strangled to death 52 Oregon residents.

Despite the relative prevalence of serial killings, violent crime more generally is relatively rare in Oregon. About 232 violent crimes are reported per 100,000 state residents annually, lower than all but 10 other states.

5. Washington
> Adjusted number of serial killings per 1 million:
> Total no. of serial killings: 277
> Worst decade for serial killings: 1980’s

Contrary to popular belief, serial killers do not always appear to be sociopathic monsters with debilitating mental illnesses. In fact, many crimes documented over the past century were committed by individuals leading seemingly normal lives. Robert Yates, for example, who targeted prostitutes, was a decorated U.S. Army National Guard helicopter pilot, father of five, and active community member. He was accused of committing at least 13 murders in the Washington area during the 1990s. Gary Ridgway, who came to be known as the Green River Killer, worked as a truck painter, attended church, and is reported to have read the Bible regularly. He eventually confessed to committing 48 murders, mostly of women, over a 20-year period in the Seattle area.

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4. California
> Adjusted number of serial killings per 1 million:
> Total no. of serial killings: 1507
> Worst decade for serial killings: 1980’s

Serial killing activity in the United States peaked during the 1980s. Of the 2,670 total serial murders that decade, roughly one-fifth took place in California. However, it was two decades earlier, during the late 1960s, that one of the nation’s most notorious serial killers was active in the state. The Zodiac Killer was likely responsible for at least five murders in northern California during 1968 and 1969. In written correspondence with the police and the media, the unidentified Zodiac Killer claimed to have killed as many as 37 people. To this day, the Zodiac Killer’s identity remains a mystery.

Serial killers claim the lives of their victims in different ways, from poisoning to suffocation. In California, shootings and strangulations are the two most common methods of serial murder. Since 1900, 552 Californians died from gunshot wounds inflicted by serial killers, and 334 Californians were strangled to death at the hands of a serial killer.

3. Florida
> Adjusted number of serial killings per 1 million:
> Total no. of serial killings: 778
> Worst decade for serial killings: 1980’s

Florida trails just two other states in terms of total serial killer victims, with 778 documented victims since 1900. As was the case across the nation, serial killers were most active during the 1980s. Florida recorded 247 murders by serial killers during that 10 year period. While serial killings are far more uncommon than homicides and violent crimes in general, Florida, like a few other top states for historical serial killings, is not especially safe. There were 541 violent crimes and 5.8 murders per 100,000 Floridians last year, each among the 10 highest rates compared with other states.

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2. Nevada
> Adjusted number of serial killings per 1 million:
> Total no. of serial killings: 98
> Worst decade for serial killings: 1980’s

Over the first half of the 20th century, only two people were killed by serial killers in Nevada. Starting with a single victim in the 1950s and peaking at 33 victims in the 1980s, the total number of victims spiked to 80 in the second half of the century. The increased regularity of serial killings coincided with Las Vegas’s boom as a gambling destination. In the 30 years between 1970 and 2000, eight of the victims of serial killers were prostitutes.

The serial murder rate is relatively high in Nevada, and the occurrence of violent crime in general is relatively common as well in the state. With roughly 636 incidents of violent crime per 100,000 residents, Nevada has the second highest violent crime rate in the country.

1. Alaska
> Adjusted number of serial killings per 1 million:
> Total no. of serial killings: 51
> Worst decade for serial killings: 1980’s

No state in the country has a higher rate of serial murders than Alaska. As was the case in most other states, serial killers in Alaska claimed more victims in the 1980s than in any other decade. Robert Hansen, perhaps the most prolific serial killer in the state’s history, was sentenced to 461 years of prison in 1984 after confessing to the particularly gruesome murders 17 women. More than half of the 51 serial murders that occurred in Alaska took place between 1980 and 1990. Not only does Alaska have a higher incidence of serial killings than any other state, it also has the highest violent crime rate in the country.

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