By Vivian Attwood

Friday, a crowd of people - some seeking answers to the sense-less murder of their loved ones, others driven by curiosity - will gather at the Umzinto magistrate's court to catch their first glimpse of the man dubbed "the Umzinto Cane Fields Killer".

He is suspected of murdering at least 10 women, whose decomposing bodies have been found in the sugar cane fields surrounding the town in the past two months.

The phenomenon of the serial killer both enthrals and appals the wider public. It is a winning formula for novelists and film-makers, and a riveting topic of discussion when, as now, the courts gear up to try an alleged multiple murderer.

Until the mid 1990s it appeared that the United States led the world in its incidence of serial murder, with Russia a close second.

With the establishment of the Investigative Psychology Unit, a specialised unit within the SAPS, in 1994, the picture changed disturbingly.

It soon became apparent that South Africa was producing serial killers at a rate that equalled and possibly even superseded that of the US and Russia.

The IPU was a trailblazer from the outset. Established by investigative psychologist Micki Pistorius, who became a media icon for her work in profiling notorious serial killers like Moses Sithole (East Rand) and Sipho Twala (Phoenix), the unit had an exceptionally high success rate.

Pistorius was the first profiler in the country. Her ground-breaking work prompted legendary FBI profiler Robert Ressler to acknowledge that she was one of the finest practitioners in her field worldwide.

However, her methods raised eyebrows in some quarters, and may have contributed to the common public perception that serial killer profiling involves more "mumbo jumbo" than it does the scientific compilation and analysis of data.

While researching her doctoral thesis, Pistorius drew strong links between Freud's theories on psychosexual development and serial killers.

This led to her involvement in the field of profiling. Freud identified a series of phases children undergo in order to become well-balanced individuals. Interruption of any of these stages, he held, would lead to emotional impairment and adult dysfunction.

"The serial killer will fixate on one of those stages," explained Pistorius.

"The fixation is then the germ of the fantasy which he eventually acts out on the crime scene."

Pistorius's methodology included spending time at the scene of a murder, even if the body had been removed. She believed that a residual energy field remained where violence had taken place.

"I want to retrace the steps of the killer, and it is a place where I can get into his mind. These are the places where they act out their most secret fantasies and I believe the atmosphere is still laden with emotion, waiting for me to tap into it," she said.

Giving a glimpse into the tortured psyche of a serial killer, Pistorius once commented: "Control and power go hand in hand and there is no greater power than power over life and death. The moment one has another's life literally in one's hands, one is ultimately powerful, almost godlike."

The psychologist was involved in more than 30 murder cases and trained more than 170 detectives in investigative psychology.

However, her close emotional connection to the world inhabited by serial killers caused her to develop post traumatic stress disorder. She resigned in May 2000 and joined a private investigation company.

On the advice of her psychologist, Pistorius began to write down her memories. The result was the book, Catch me a Killer. This was followed by further volumes, including Strangers on the Street - serial homicide in South Africa, and Profiling Serial Killers and other crimes in South Africa.

After Pistorius's departure, Senior Supt (Dr) Gerrard Labuschagne was appointed head of the Investigative Psychology Unit of the SAPS. He has instituted far-reaching changes in the way the unit operates.

The IPU recently engaged in collaborative research with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice from the City University of New York, on the topic of serial murders in South Africa. To date this is the largest-scale research project on serial murders in the world.

Labuschagne has a workload few would envy. Since joining the unit in October 2001, he has been involved in 24 serial murder investigations.

He acts in an advisory capacity in the investigation of psychologically-motivated crimes, offers behavioural analysis (offender profiling), investigative guidance and risk assessment, interviews witnesses and suspects, analyses crime scenes, and gives courtroom testimony.

He has a PhD in psychology, a masters in criminology and a masters in clinical psychology. Regarded as a world authority on serial killers, he works closely with colleagues in Britain, the US and other countries.

He is involved in providing ongoing training in psychologically-motivated crimes to members of the SAPS and law enforcement agencies in Africa and abroad.

He also conducts ongoing research on serial murder, muthi murder, serial rape, child sexual murder and geographic profiling in South Africa.

All this in a unit with only two other staff members. "Since I joined the unit we've lobbied for extra manpower, but currently, the team comprises myself, Captain Elmarie Myburgh and Superintendent Jan de Lange.

Myburgh has a background in psychology and criminology, and De Lange has an investigative background," he said, conceding that it was not the gruesome nature of much of their work, but its volume that created stress for the team members.

In 2005, the IPU opened 110 investigation enquiry files. One file can contain 10 or more victims of a serial murderer. In 2006, the number of victims in the files was 372. According to Labuschagne, since the unit's creation the number of files has increased by about 20 percent a year.

"Normally we'd work on two to three serials a year. This year we'd already had five by September," he said.

"I try to cope by approaching victims' remains with a clinical eye; seeing them not just as dead bodies, but as part of a process that will hopefully lead to an arrest and help the families achieve closure."

Labuschagne stressed that most members of the public misunderstand what profiling is. "It's not the most useful thing we do in an investigation, and often we don't use it as the first step in serial killer cases," he said.

"It is useless to draw up a profile without evidence.

We start by drawing up overlapping lists of information and then prioritise certain characteristics to come up with a list of possible suspects. At that point, data we have compiled on previous serial murderers can be useful in highlighting individuals on that list for closer scrutiny."

Contrary to Pistorius's emotive approach to investigating serial murders, today the IPU investigators place a strong emphasis on science and research.

"We're not just making educated guesses," Labuschagne said.

"We compile profiles backed by data gleaned from convicted South Africans. Initially we focused on American methodology, but now we view things from the South African perspective, because our situation is unique in terms of socio-economic and cultural factors. Our high unemployment rate, for instance, makes it easy for killers to lure victims with promises of work. That would not go down in the US or Europe."

Are serial killers simply deranged aberrations? Labuschagne doesn't believe so.

"They are to be pitied. They don't understand why they do it, and nor do we," he said.

Labuschagne reinforced, though, what other behavioural researchers believe - that serial killers don't, and can't, stop.

"There may be pauses in their behaviour, but in most cases the pace of the killings increases. This is only halted by death or imprisonment," he said.

Is there any way to eradicate the scourge of killers who prey on vulnerable women in our country? "When you were a child, you were taught not to go with strangers. Given the methods used by most serial killers in our country, that's the easiest way to avoid becoming a murder statistic," he advised.