Stephen Nessen, Reporter, WNYC News
Stephen Nessen reports for the WNYC Newsroom and can often be heard live on Morning Edition.
Police continued to scour a barrier island near Oak Beach, Long Island, just 45 miles east of New York City this week following the grisly discovery of eight bodies — four of whom were prostitutes. Details of the slayings are sparse, but experts painted a vivid picture of the mind likely behind the slayings based on the past behavior of cold-blooded killers.
Dr. Louis Schlesinger, a professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said this case had the hallmarks of sexually motivated crime.
"When someone is killing this way, the power and control is sexually stimulating," Schlesinger said.
Four bodies were discovered on the barrier island in December when police were searching for a missing New Jersey escort, Shannan Gilbert. Her body was not among those found, but all others had advertised sexual services on Craigslist. A fifth body was found last week and three more on Monday.
Serial killers are often romanticized in Hollywood as suave, intelligent types, but that is often not the case, Schlesinger said.
"Most are blue collar guys who are unemployed," he said. "When they’re apprehended they're disappointingly below average in every aspect."
Most serial killers tend to be "normal"-seeming guys, according to Harold Schechter, a professor of Literature at Queens College who has written extensively about serial killers, both non-fiction and fiction.
"Perpetrators are often guys leading pretty conventional normal lives, with wives and children and normal jobs," Schechter said.
Murders of prostitutes date back to Victorian times when perps were called "harlot killers," he added.
Bruce Barket, former Nassau County assistant district attorney and criminal defense attorney, said there is another common thread among serial killers.
"One thing you can say about serial killers: they don’t stop because they convert," he said. "They don’t find Jesus and stop. They stop because they’re caught or they die."
But Barket said it is more difficult to get away with such crimes in the digital age: "[Notorious killer Joel] Rifikin met them by driving on street and picking them up, completely anonymous. ... These women met people online through Craigslist, dating services. Invariably they're going to meet the individual who murdered them through cell phones, text messages, emails."
He added, "If they have one phone number on their Blackberrys in common they'll have their killer," he said.
Schlesinger said murder is the least common crime and serial sexual murder accounts for .01 percent of all murders. He said the best bet to find the Long Island killer is to find a surviving victim of the killer's attacks — "which there almost always is," he said.
The investigation is ongoing.