Sexually aroused female killers are rare, but they exist.
By: Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D
In 2013, Miranda Barbour, 19, urged her new husband, Elytte, to kill someone with her. Married for just three weeks, they used a Craigslist ad to lure Troy LaFerrara his death. At Miranda’s instruction, Elytte said, he hid under a blanket in the backseat of their SUV as Miranda drove to a mall to pick up their victim. Once LeFerrara was in the seat, Elytte used a cord to incapacitate him while Miranda stabbed him 20 times. Then they dumped his body, cleaned up the SUV and went to a strip club to celebrate Elytte’s birthday. He said that they had just wanted to murder someone together.
Most data about violent crime and criminal types have centered on males, because males have always been more aggressive, violent, and criminally versatile than females. They dominate the area of sexual crimes and thrill-killing. Collectively, criminologists agree that females rarely kill for erotic pleasure, and some experts have even claimed that there has never been a female lust murderer. However, such women do exist. Some were part of a team, like Karla Homolka, Catherine Birnie and Rosemary West (they were not “compliant accomplices”), and some have acted alone.
During the nineteenth century, Jeanne Weber strangled young boys during compulsive orgasmic rushes and was considered sexually insane. She strangled at least ten. Jane Toppan, a nurse, often climbed into bed to hold her poisoned victims as they died, because it gave her sexual pleasure. She said that if she had married and had children, she would have killed them all.
A pair of employees at a Michigan nursing home, Gwendolyn Graham and Catherine Wood, included murder in their sexual games. They looked for ways to make sex more intense, including sexual asphyxia, and one day they decided to start killing patients. They identified vulnerable nursing home residents whose initials would help them to spell out M-U-R-D-E-R and then began picking them off. Within three months, they had killed five. At times, the act of killing so excited them that they went to an unoccupied room for a “quickie.”
Sexual abuse expert Dr. Julia Hislop has studied female sex offenders (most are not killers). She found that many had been sexually traumatized as children, so that understanding the offender means recognizing the influence of an abuser/victim relationship. They often have no sense of appropriate boundaries, poor relationship skills, a distorted sense of normalcy, a lack of self-worth, and intense sexual preoccupations. “Specific emotions, situations, fantasies, justifications, thought processes, interactions with people and behaviors,” says Hislop, “may all increase the likelihood of offending.”
Some female killers are not just sexually aggressive but also sadistic. “The ultimate fantasy of a sexual sadist,” says former FBI profiler Gregg McCrary, “is to totally possess another person, both physically and psychologically.”
Among the most depraved was Rosemary West in Gloucester, England. A social worker spotted sexual items around West’s home where children were present, so she recommended that the youngest child be removed. A deeper check on this family turned up the fact that Rosemary had placed magazine ads for sexual encounters.
Then another item surfaced: twenty years earlier, Rosemary and her husband Fred had been arrested for a sexual assault. They had invited a young woman to move in to be a nanny. Fred made sexual overtures, so the nanny left. One day they lured her to their car, bound her, and took her home to subject her to hours of sexual abuse. Rosemary took the lead, stroking the girl, digitally penetrating her, and kissing her. Then Fred beat her with a belt. She got away and went straight to the police, but they persuaded her to forego a trial, so the Wests were only fined.
Still, the complaint was on the record, along with an earlier one against Fred.
During the most recent investigation, the Wests’ children had revealed that their older sister, Heather, had been gone seven years and that their parents often threatened them with being buried under the patio stones, “like Heather.” The detectives decided to have a look. They started to dig, but Fred redirected them, admitting he’d killed Heather and buried her. The digging continued until her remains were found—along with more bodies. Fred was arrested.
Investigators decided that Rosemary had been no innocent bystander. In fact, it seemed clear that she, not Fred, had murdered a victim named Charmaine because, at the time, Fred had been in prison. Although Fred had covered for Rosemary, it was clear that she was as sexually depraved as he was. (Her history prior to meeting him confirmed this.) Fred conceded that he had not told the whole story, but then committed suicide. Rosemary was charged with ten murders.
At her trial, survivors of the couple’s sadistic teamwork testified, including Fred’s daughter, Anne Marie. She had endured repeated sexual abuse from both parents. She added that when she was a child, Rosemary had helped various men to assault her. Rosemary had also joined Fred in sexually abusing babysitters and “boarders.” She’d turned tricks as well, and had a sadomasochistic relationship with a woman in the neighborhood.
We might feel squeamish about admitting that women can develop an erotic desire to harm and kill, but in some female offenders, the sex drive and potential for deviance is just as strong and developed as in males.
Hislop, J, (2001). Female sex offenders. Ravensdale, WA: Issues Press, p. 219.
Ramsland, K & McGrain, P. (2010). Inside the minds of sexual predators. CA:ABC-Clio.
About the Author
Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., is a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University and the author of 60 books.
The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds