Stupid Stuff that Stopped a Serial Killer

When someone says serial killers have high IQs, I recall these sorry stories.

The myth that serial killers are smarter than the average person is based on a study that used unscientific methods with a small, unrepresentative sample. In fact, serial killers range from Ivy League caliber to downright moronic. Self-defeating habits or failure to plan wisely have brought many down. It's not all about IQ. Even smart ones can be idiots at just the wrong time.

Quite a few have been caught while committing mundane crimes, like a traffic violation or a car theft. Ted Bundy driving erratically in a stolen car comes to mind. So does Randy Kraft, who had a dead body in his passenger seat when the highway patrol stopped him for suspected drunk driving. Joel Rifkin was also “transporting,” but sans license plate. You’d think if you had a corpse with you, you’d at least try to be inconspicuous.

Israel Keyes studied Ted Bundy’s errors so he could avoid them. He rented cars, used cash, and killed complete strangers far from where he lived. It was when he became complacent enough to use his computer to look up news reports, picked a victim close to home, and fell into a habit while renting a car that he got caught. (Ironically, trying not to be like Bundy made him just as sloppy.)

A parking ticket caught David Berkowitz, and Henry Lee Lucas was arrested on an illegal weapons charge before he confessed to hundreds of murders (but recanted most). Although Jack Owen Spillman shaved his body hair and used surgical gowns for murder, his careless moves during a burglary undid all his work. Alexander Bychkov, also arrested for theft, was soon linked to the dismemberment murders of nine homeless people. While admitting the deeds, he said he’d eaten the hearts of two.

Some killers who believe they won’t get caught keep items from victims, have a victim’s photo, or keep a descriptive journal. Sometimes they even return to a scene. Helicopter surveillance caught Arthur Shawcross having lunch over his latest victim.

Some of them keep not just tokens but the actual victims. Human remains on private property pointed to Larry Bright, John Robinson, and Herb Baumeister. When Dennis Nilsen moved from an apartment with a garden to an upper-floor flat, he had no place to burn or bury his victims, so he flushed decomposed chunks down the toilet. The clogged plumbing led to his place, where he still had some parts. Keeping the dead close also did in John Wayne Gacy, Reginald Christie, and Jeffrey Dahmer.

Then there are serial killers who overlooked a “minor” detail. Maury Travis took a map from a website before sending it to reporters, and computer logs yielded his address, while background noise on a recorded phone call eventually nailed team killers Judith and Alvin Neelly. Albert Fish used traceable stationary to write a letter to his victim’s mother. Dennis Rader, having eluded capture for thirty years, launched a cat-and-mouse game with police. He trusted them when they assured him they couldn’t trace a computer disc. They could. Henri Landru killed wealthy women for their money and incinerated the remains, but his frugality left a telling pattern: When he purchased tickets for their “visit” to his “estate,” he got round-trip for himself but one-way for each of them.article continues after advertisement

There’s also just plain stupid. Peter Goebbels dropped his ID at a crime scene – a dead giveaway, while Neville Heath signed the hotel register for a room in which he’d left a victim bludgeoned, bitten, and murdered. Danny Rolling said his name on a recording found in a bag at a campsite near three recent crime scenes. Dr. Harold Shipman forged a patient’s will in his favor, causing a surviving relative – a lawyer – to take a good hard look. More obvious was the blood on Earle Leonard Nelson’s hair when he went to a barber in a town where a murder had just occurred.

Bobby Joe Long thought a rape victim “liked” him, so he released her. She didn’t. Peter Kurten took a woman to his house, raped her, and let her go. She remembered his address. Over drinks in a restaurant near the hospital, nurse Waltraud Wagner and her accomplices joked openly about killing patients and a doctor overheard them.

Some killers, full of themselves, bragged to the wrong person. Melvin Rees told a friend that he thought murder was morally permissible if committed by a superior person. The friend passed this sentiment along to police. Charles Schmid and Richard Biegenwald took friends to see corpses. Their friends weren't ready for this kind of loyalty.

Mistakes were also made with actual accomplices. Danny Ranes discovered this when his teenage buddy took police to the bodies of their victims. Catherine Wood, the former “Murder Game” partner of Gwendolyn Graham, reported their terrible deeds against the elderly. Abused wife and team killer Karla Homolka cut a deal in exchange for the arrest of her sadistic partner, as did Carol Bundy. When Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley tried to enlist a partner by killing someone in front of him, he turned them in. Candyman Dean Corll’s accomplice, Elmer Wayne Henley, turned the tables, killing him.article continues after advertisement

Killers who succeed for a while are not necessarily bright. They have a predatory advantage and often are lucky. But stupid mistakes have certainly caught quite a few.


Ramsland, K. (2006). Inside the Minds of Serial Killers. Westport, CT: Praeger.

About the Author

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., is a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University and the author of 60 books.

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