The recent spate of killings in Arizona have brought up an interesting subject that very few know about. Most news agencies reported the six murders as a serial killing and have made the assumption that the killings, having all been linked, must be a pattern – or series – of murders. However, these killings do not fit the profile of what is broadly described as serial killings nor do that come under the umbrella of mass murders, even though the victims were killed in a very short period of time. The murders actually fit under the little known species of spree killings.
So what are the differences between these three terms?
In very broad strokes, serial killings are a series of murders that occur, usually two or more, where there is a distinct gap – or cooling off period – between murders, though some may be clumped together, like the frenzied attack by Ted Bundy during the Chi Omega murders, mostly there are days and weeks, sometimes years between murders where a killer is often sated by the fantasies left by the previous murders and it allows him to remain in control and select the next victim when the time is again right. The most typical type of serial killer is the sexual sadist, however the term serial killer also covers such murder series as poisoners, thrill killers, angels of death and child killers – a topic for another day.
A mass murderer on the other hand often uses a gun and explodes in a haze of rage and revenge, they often kill victims indiscriminately, murdering as many as they can before they themselves are cornered. Mass murders, like the University of Texas shooter, Charles Whitman often ends with the killer turning the gun on himself, though there are many examples where the killer was captured. These cases are often seeded in hatred, they are affected by something or someone who they believed have done them wrong.
This leaves killers like the Arizona murderer in a middle type of multiple murderer that is between mass murderers and serial killers and are defined as spree killers. Spree killers do not go on a shooting spree in one location like a mass murderer, but neither do they have a cooling down period of the serial killer. Spree killers often have an agenda like a mass murderer and as we have seen in the Phoenix killings, the killer was out to murder those that he believed had wronged him and had caused him pain. He even created a video channel to attest to that pain, however, unlike what we have seen in many recent mass murders, his rage was not explosive. He did not go from scene to scene to cause carnage, instead, like a serial killer, chose the right time to pounce on his various targeted victims.
Spree killers often kill over a short period of time, often with a gun, like the Washington Sniper case that lasted for 3 weeks in October 2002. However, whilst the Snipers shot indiscriminately, the Arizona spree killer had already selected his victims, and it was more of a waiting game, and it is that control that sets him apart from the mass murderers. The spree killings in Arizona was a manifestation of a decade of hate and pain that culminated in a final standoff where the suspect took his own life following the deaths of 6 people over a five day period.