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Sprawl: The swamp that creates killers?

THE EVENTS of the past few weeks in the D.C.-Richmond corridor were tragic. Yet, however despicable, what the sniper did was not unusual. Besides having the most murders, rapes, and assaults per capita of any developed nation, the United States is also home to 76 percent of all serial killers. Such predators have become commonplace in this country.

For over 40 years, America has been increasingly terrorized by these types of killers. You may remember some of them: Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, the Boston Strangler, the Green River Killer, the Trailside Killer, and the Stocking Strangler. According to FBI serial killer expert John Douglas, who has spent over 20 years combating such offenders, at any given time there are as many as 100 serial killers at large in America. These sociopaths slaughter between 500 and 1,000 innocent people every year, leaving the rest of us cowering in fear. Their impact is disproportionate to the number of people killed, simply because we all know that we could be the next victim.

Between 1906 and 1959, there was an average of 1.7 new cases of serial killers every year--basically the same as what the rest of the world experiences today. Then, quite abruptly, the figure for new serial killers grew to 5 per year in the 1960s. By 1980, the number of new serial killers per year had risen to 15; and by 1990, there were 36 new serial killers identified per year, an average of three a month.

Because of this dramatic increase, the FBI has estimated that serial murders could claim an average of 11 lives a day in the United States in the 21st century. And serial killers are just the tip of the iceberg. In 1990, there were 23,440 homicides in this country. In contrast, Germany had 3,000, Canada 1,561, and England only 669. In the same year there were 102,560 rapes in the United States. In Germany, there were only 5,112; in England, 3,391; and just 687 in Italy. Even if the European totals are increased proportionally based on population, the levels of violence in the United States are still dramatically higher.

Yes, violence in America has declined by 5 percent since 1990. However, that is not much of a drop when our rates of violence are as alarmingly high as they are.

What is making this happen? Why are we plagued with serial killers such as the sniper, while other developed nations--countries that have similar economic, political, and legal systems--have but a fraction of our levels of violence?

These countries have everything we do in the way of consumer opportunities, industrial development, entertainment options, and technological advancements. However, their societies have not fallen apart as ours has. These countries are safe because they do not have one thing that is a uniquely American phenomenon: suburban sprawl.

How sprawl produces killers

Other developed nations have maintained the integrity of their urban landscape. They have managed their growth. We have not, and we are paying the price for our negligence.

The correlation between sprawl and the dramatic increase in violence and serial killers is so close, it is difficult to imagine why it has not been studied before. Suburban sprawl started in 1945. By the late 1950s, when the first generation of children raised in sprawl reached adulthood, our rates of violence started to increase exponentially. Before sprawl, our society was safe. After sprawl, our society fell apart.

Communities are what once held our nation together. The daily human contact and interpersonal connection in communities remain the most necessary components for keeping a society healthy and safe. But for over 50 years now, America's fragmented physical landscape has denied us the places where communities could develop. In sprawl there are no small towns, no main streets, no village greens. Without such places connecting people to one another and holding our country together, America has metamorphosed into a breeding ground for sociopaths.

Contrary to popular opinion, violence in America is not limited to inner cities. This reality was made tragically apparent by recent school shootings in suburban Colorado, Arkansas, Georgia, Oregon, Mississippi, Kentucky, and California. Without genuine communities to subdue dark fantasies, many more Americans are becoming serial killers. And they hunt where they were raised and where they still live: amid sprawl.

A serial killer is not born homicidal, nor does he become a monster overnight. These people are lucid, functioning members of society who look just like you or me. They are not clinically insane. Their criminal actions may be considered crazy, but in many cases they show no other signs of their psychopathology.

However, FBI agent Douglas asserts that serial killers do have one identifiable characteristic: They all come from "dysfunctional backgrounds."

Two key factors contribute to the potential for family dysfunction: unwed mothers and divorce. In sprawl, where people are isolated from one another, an undue pressure is placed on the family unit. As a result of this, since sprawl's emergence in 1945, divorce rates have skyrocketed, so that now half of all marriages end in divorce. Births to unwed mothers have also increased, from under 5 percent to 31 percent between 1940 and 1993. Sprawl, by unraveling the physical landscape and with it all of society, has created a fertile ground for families to break down, for dysfunction to surface, and for serial killers to emerge.

Communities make difference

Without strong communities in place to connect children from dysfunctional families to supportive adult role models--which, as Douglas asserts, would help dissuade them from predatory behavior--some of those who are predisposed toward violence will act on their frustration and rage. Alienated in sprawl, with only their fantasies for company, desperate to make some kind of connection to another person, these types of individuals act out by molesting, killing, or raping. They become predators just to connect with another human being, or to lash out at the society that made them.

Douglas' years of study of serial criminal behavior have led him to believe that if there is any hope of keeping people from becoming serial offenders, significant adult role models are needed during the formative years. But with over half of all marriages ending in divorce and with few genuine communities in place because of sprawl, where are children going to find the role models they need to become healthy adults?

"It takes a tremendous amount of work to socialize a small human being," says Shawn Johnston, a forensic psychologist in Sacramento and expert on adult and juvenile criminals. "To cultivate a sense of empathy for other human beings, to cultivate a sense of personal responsibility, is terribly hard." That effort is made infinitely more difficult amid sprawl.

Before sprawl existed, children could depend on the whole community to be there for support and guidance in the absence of a parental figure. According to Richard Curwin and Allen Mendler, authors of the book "As Tough As Necessary," "In past years, a child from a dysfunctional family had a good chance of being mentored by a caring adult from his or her community." Such opportunities are rare in sprawl.

Sound communities would diffuse the negative energies of their disturbed members and dissuade them from acting on their distorted fantasies. By being involved in others' lives on a regular basis, these individuals would also realize that each life has value, that other human beings are not just objects to satisfy their warped needs and desires.

Suburban sprawl has created an alienating environment, which in turn has spawned this crisis of serial killers in America. Certainly there are other factors at play in the breakdown of our society, but sprawl is quite literally the foundation upon which our country has been built since 1945. If our society is crumbling, we need to question the stability of its foundation.

Sprawl's connection to violence and serial predators may seem tenuous to some, but the statistics clearly suggest a link. Cause and effect would be difficult to prove in a court of law or to replicate in a double-blind scientific study. However, common sense indicates that the connection is there, and that sprawl plays a role in what ails our society. Until we face that reality, we will continue to be hunted by sociopaths such as the sniper. We ignore sprawl's impact at our peril.

Date published: 10/27/2002


Peterson defense: Real suspects IDd
Sources say that likely killers are involved in Satanic activity

May 23 Investigators hired by Scott Petersons lawyers have identified four (or) possibly five people who they believe actually killed his pregnant wife, Laci, and have developed a novel strategy to catch them dispatching repo men to find the car on which they have stopped making payments, defense sources tell NBC News.

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The suspects were seen in the Modesto, Calif., neighborhood where the Petersons lived on Dec. 24, the morning she disappeared, defense sources say.

       THE SOURCES, WHO spoke with MSNBCs Dan Abrams on condition of anonymity, said they obtained the names of the suspects, who they say have been involved in Satanic activity, from a mystery witness.
       The purported suspects were seen in the Modesto, Calif., neighborhood where the Petersons
       lived, on Dec. 24, the morning she disappeared, the sources said. One of the male suspects is believed to have a 666 tattoo a symbol for the devil, they said.
       In addition to having their investigators search for the suspects, the defense purchased the car on which some of the individuals had stopped making payments and then put out an alert for repo men hired property-recovery specialists to seek the vehicle.

       Scott Petersons defense team has been pursuing a theory that Laci Peterson died as a result of a satanic ritual, possibly at the hands of what they have described as a known Modesto cult.
Laci Peterson
Image: Peterson        Abrams reported that the defense is preparing an attack on the police investigation not unlike the one mounted in the defense of O.J. Simpson, acquitted in October 1995 in the death of his wife and a male friend. The Peterson defense will say that, from Day One, the authorities only looked at Scott Peterson as a possible suspect, and that some evidence against him may have been tainted.
       They also plan to attack the credibility of Amber Frey, a Fresno woman who had an affair with Scott Peterson prior to his wifes disappearance. Frey, who is expected to be called as a witness at Scott Petersons trial, cooperated with police as they attempted to strengthen their case, going so far as to secretly record conversations with her lover, the sources charged.
       They used her as their agent. They gave her a script, one source said.
       Meanwhile, law enforcement teams continued to search the waters of the San Francisco Bay, near the spot where the bodies of Laci Peterson and her unborn son were found last month.

       In addition to looking for evidence, the searchers are seeking a piece of $9,000 sonar equipment that was lost during the hunt for clues earlier this week, a source close to the search told Abrams.

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       The decomposed remains of Laci Peterson and her unborn child were found several miles north of where Scott Peterson said he went fishing on Christmas Eve the day he says he last saw his wife. Shortly after the bodies were found, he was arrested and charged with two counts of murder. He has pleaded innocent and is jailed without bail.
       A coroner completed autopsies on the bodies, but no cause of death has been announced.
       A hearing has been set for May 27 on the medias request to unseal various documents relating to the investigation.
       The court has so far prevented the release of any of the eight search warrants filed in the case or the arrest warrant issued after investigators identified the remains of Laci Peterson and her unborn son, Conner.
       In legal briefs filed in court May 8, police said the affidavits they had filed outlined evidence in the case and identified witnesses. They said revealing that information could hurt their investigation as they follow up on 9,000 tips in the case.
'Circumstantial' the Scarlet C?

       Scott Petersons attorney, Mark Geragos, also has sought to prevent the release of the sealed records, saying they could make public what he called voodoo-like evidence that might unfairly prejudice the case against his client.

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       Geragos said he hasnt seen the records but suggested they could include references to psychics and voice stress analyzers, all of which are totally inadmissible. If any of these things make their way into applications for search warrants and arrest warrants, he said, it would be prejudicial to Peterson.
       Geragos has said the defense team would not be satisfied with an acquittal.
       Weve set the bar extremely high, and thats to prove that Scott is not only factually innocent, but to figure out exactly who it is [that] did this horrible thing to Scotts wife and to Scotts son.

 fact file 
Peterson disappearance timeline
1 / 4
Dec. 24, 2002
Laci Denise Peterson, a substitute teacher, vanishes Christmas Eve in Modesto, Calif. She is nearly eight months pregnant, due to give birth to a baby boy in February.
     Her husband, Scott Peterson, is questioned about her disappearance but never named a suspect, telling police he saw his wife the morning she disappeared as she left their house to walk the dog. He says he went fishing that day at the Berkeley Marina on San Francisco Bay.
Dec. 31, 2002
Nearly 1,400 attend a New Year's Eve vigil for Laci Peterson.
Jan. 22, 2003
Scott Peterson's mother, Jackie Peterson, tells MSNBC's Dan Abrams that she disagrees with implications that her son was uncooperative with police in the investigation.
Jan. 24, 2003
Modesto police produce a 28-year-old Fresno woman, Amber Frey, with whom they say Scott Peterson had an affair. Frey makes a formal statement, saying Scott Peterson led her to believe he was single and apologizing to Laci Peterson's family. Police say Frey is eliminated as a suspect.
Feb. 4, 2003
Scott Peterson trades in his wife's SUV for a new vehicle.

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       NBC News legal affairs correspondent Dan Abrams, MSNBC.coms Mike Brunker and Michael E. Ross, The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Man walking on sand dunes

Criminal profiler offers aid in probe of 2-year-old slaying

A memorial was set up for Kristin Laurite at the duCret School of Art in Plainfield last year.

Published in the Home News Tribune 8/26/02

A renowned criminal profiler who was a consultant on "The Silence of the Lambs" is helping investigate the unsolved murder of Kristin Laurite, a 25-year-old Scotch Plains woman who was killed on a cross-country trip in Arkansas.

John Douglas, 57, who was with the FBI for 25 years and created a criminal profiling unit within the agency, has been working with the Arkansas State Police to try to find the killer who raped and stabbed Laurite 10 times in the neck, then left her naked body about 300 yards from a secluded highway rest stop.

Yesterday was the two-year anniversary of Laurite's death, but her family and friends have not given up hope that the elusive killer will be found.

"The second year has maybe been worse. It finally sinks in about what happened," said Renee Freitag, Laurite's aunt and the family's spokeswoman, who lives in Indiana.

"The first year, you're kind of in shock. As time goes on, you're getting to think about it more, and you get frustrated because you want to find this guy and make sure he's arrested and make sure justice is served," she said.

Douglas, who inspired the Jack Crawford character in "The Silence of the Lambs," has interviewed many of this country's most notorious killers, including "Son of Sam" David Berkowitz, Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan.

He has been an FBI instructor at its academy in Quantico, Va., and written several books on criminal profiling, including The New York Times bestseller, "Mind Hunter."

On Friday, he was expected to meet with Arkansas investigators and other police agencies in Tulsa, Okla. -- where he was to give a lecture -- to discuss Laurite's case and a possible link to a similar one in another part of the country, Douglas said last week. He declined to provide further details about the other case. Investigators in Arkansas could not be reached for comment over the weekend.

"By next week, it's going to turn out to be pretty positive -- not identifying a suspect -- but we're going to be in a better position to know who we're dealing with," said Douglas, a New York native who lives in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

From the clues so far, Douglas said he believes Laurite's killer has a violent pattern of behavior, a history of rejection from women and acts as a bully toward others. He probably was looking for someone vulnerable when he spotted Laurite, who weighed about 100 pounds, at the rest stop with her two dogs, Douglas said.

Douglas is confident the killer knew the area because of the isolated pond bank where Laurite's body was found, he said.

The "kind of overkill" involved in her death becomes a fingerprint, while the actual DNA and other forensic evidence gathered from the crime scene make it a strong case, Douglas said.

"It takes a certain breed of cat for a stranger to do this to someone else," he added.

Since Laurite's death, Freitag, a stay-at-home mother of two, has kept busy calling and meeting with investigators, talking with criminal experts and sending notices and e-mails throughout the country about her niece's case.

She keeps Laurite's parents, Lynn McCue and Ed Laurite, informed of any progress and has succeeded in getting the case aired twice on the television show, "America's Most Wanted." A third airing is expected in the future, she said.

After reading some of Douglas' books, Freitag contacted the criminal expert, met with him and Arkansas State Police in Indiana last year to discuss the case and has been in contact with him ever since.

"We just can't thank him enough," Freitag said of Douglas, who is working on six unsolved cases, free of charge.

Laurite, a 1993 graduate of Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School, was killed after stopping at a rest stop during a lone cross-country trip in her 1971 Volkswagen. She was on her way to northern California where she planned to start a new life as a school teacher. Her body was found off Interstate 40 in Morrilton, Ark.

Arkansas State Police investigators continue to hunt down leads across the country, visiting states along the East Coast and West Coast for potential clues, said Special Agent Karl Byrd. They have eliminated between 50 to 100 potential suspects, but he admitted the long process can be arduous.

"This case is extremely solvable with the evidence . . . We have good evidence. We will have a good prosecutable case. It's just the process of solving it. That is frustrating," Byrd said.


Question: What attributes did you look for in potential profilers into the unit?
Answer: I always looked for imaginative, creative individuals. Risk-takers. People who were right-brained, good communicators, both verbally and on paper, people who had the self-confidence to go before a task force and speak with conviction, but who had the restraint not to oversell themselves. To be a good profiler, a person has to have a sense of humor and the ability to make fun of himself or herself. As soon as you lose the smile off your face you' re in real trouble.

When I go out and do presentations people are always surprised by how I am. Based on what they've read and how I'm portrayed, they expect me to be like Jack the Ripper, Jr. When I come out making fun of myself, making jokes, someone always tells me they can't believe it. But I know for a fact that if you take yourself too seriously, you'll cause harm to yourself, and you' ll ruin your personal relationships.

You'd think a lot of FBI agents would fit the bill, but it's a very rare combination of attributes. I've picked people who were way too academic, who didn't have enough investigative experience before they came into the unit, who hadn't had enough interaction with various crimes and criminals, or enough experience solving cases, identifying subjects, and testifying in court. All these things are really essential.
- An Ex-FBI Profiler

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