Delving into the disturbed mind of a serial killer
This is just one insight from Dr Micki Pistorius, a forensic psychologist who was the first profiler of SAPS and founded the Investigative Psychology Unit.
“Not only do they inject themselves into the investigation, but they watch at the crime scene. So, I always advise the crime scene photographers, please take pictures of the people watching and if you see somebody’s face popping up regularly”
In her years working with SAPS, Pistorius was involved in more than 30 serial killer cases, including those of Moses Sithole who committed the “ABC murders”, Norman Afzal Simons, the so-called “Station Strangler”, and Sipho Thwala the “Phoenix Strangler”. She also trained more than 100 detectives to investigate serial criminals before she retired in 2000, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Pistorius learnt to read crime scenes for the clues that identified the killer.
“If you know what you’re looking for, you can find them,” she said, speaking this week at an event hosted by The Fruitcake Society, which organises interesting expert lectures on various topics.
Pistorius did a psychology doctorate on serial killers and developed her own theory which links Freud’s psychosexual development to fixations that serial killers exhibit in their crime scenes.
Depending on which stage of early childhood development the serial killer experienced trauma in, this fixation would be displayed in symbolism in the crimes they went on to commit.
“The symbolism is really important on a crime scene,” she said. “It’s just like you can learn about an artist from his painting.”
For example, between the ages of 2 to 4, children go through what Freud called the Anal Phase, where they are potty trained and their development is all about power and control. A serial killer with this fixation will exhibit a similar penchant for power and control, which can translate as sadistic urges and an obsession with neatness.
“With the Station Strangler, the moment I saw how neat his crime scenes were, I knew there was a fixation with the Anal Phase,” Pistorius said.
At the Oedipus or Phallic Phase, between 4 and 6 years, a boy is often closest to his mother and hates his father. For serial killers, this fixation translates into castration anxiety and psychological impotence. These killers will not rape victims with their own penis, but rather insert other phallic objects into their victims and masturbate elsewhere on the crime scene.
“They also commit necrophilia because dead people can’t reject you,” Pistorius said.
In the period between 6 to 12 years old, most children go to school and learn how to share, how to have empathy for others, how to abide by social codes and have morals and ethics. During this Latency Phase, normal children have strong bonds with their parents and stop having the earlier sexual fantasies - but not serial killers.
“The serial killer does not identify with a father figure, he does not develop a conscience, he does not repress the fantasies and he doesn’t develop empathy,” Pistorius said.
“Many of them told me that they would sit in school and fantasize about killing people sexually, at the age of 8 or 9.”
If you know what signs to look for, she believes it is possible to recognise a possible future serial killer, but sadly most killers’ parents aren’t attentive enough to be making these observations.
“Parents of serial killers don’t care. They are neglected children. Not all of them are abused, but they are all neglected. But the next line of defence would be the teachers, so if the teachers know what to look out for, then perhaps we can catch them early and stop them.”
The window of opportunity to intervene and correct the psychological damage of these children is small, though.
“I think if you find them before 12 or 13, you can fix them,” Pistorius said. “Before puberty, because they’re young enough, you can influence them. But after that, once they start practicing and having rehearsals, I think it’s too late.”
After years of delving into the minds of serial killers, interviewing them and being an expert witness in court, Pistorius says she has no empathy for the killers and believes they should never be released from prison or given a second chance.
“It is my job as a psychologist to explain their behaviour,” she said.
“I’m not there to condone it or excuse it. I explain it.”
You can read about Pistorius’ experiences and insights into serial killers in her autobiography, Catch Me A Killer, which is due to be developed into a television series later this year.