Organized and Disorganized Serial Killers

The FBI was responsible for both the term ‘serial killer’ and for the development of the theory of organized/disorganized typography relating to serial killers. This came under the field of criminal profiling made so famous today by TV shows such as Criminal Minds. The theory of Organized/Disorganized Typography in serial killers has had a mixed reaction over the years, mainly due to the fact that not all killers fit into a neat pigeonhole and ‘crossovers’ or ‘mixed’ killers do happen.

Define ‘serial killer’

The term was coined in the 1960’s but serial killers have been around a lot longer than that. Jack the Ripper terrorized London in the late 1800’s and has been called the world’s first serial killer on more than one occasion, although that is hardly the case as infamous serial killers such as Elizabeth Bathory (1560 – 1614) have been well documented. The serial killer is still very much with us but what takes someone from being a killer to a serial killer?

A serial killer is defined as someone who kills more than three people over a long period of time. The United States Bureau of Justice defines a serial killer as: – ‘ … the killing of several victims over three or more separate events’ The serial killer is separated from the ‘spree killer’ by the fact that the former have periods of inactivity between killings, sometimes running into years.

A ‘spree killer’ is defined by the Bureau of Justice as: – ‘…killings at two or more locations with no time break between murders.’ An example of a spree killer would be Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, notorious for the terrible events at Columbine in 1999.

Organized killers

An organized serial killer is likely to plan his actions well and to be careful not to leave evidence at the crime scene. Criteria for organized killers are:


Socially skilled

Sexually competent

Live with a partner

Likely to target strangers

Show antisocial and psychopathic personality traits

An example of the organized serial killer is John Wayne Gacy. Born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1942, Gacy killed thirty-three boys and young men between 1972 and his eventual arrest in 1978. Gacy became known as ‘The Clown Killer’ because of parties he held in his neighborhoods, where he would dress up as ‘Pogo the Clown’ to entertain the children. Gacy was married, held down a job, ran his own business and was well liked by his community, the organized killer traits already in evidence.

By 1975 Gacy was beginning to show signs of unpredictable anger and insomnia which alternated with happy moods. Gacy tried to get into politics but, despite making a good impression initially, rumors of his homosexual preferences and liking for young boys were beginning to circulate. From this point on Gacy’s end was in sight. The eventual discovery of 27 bodies buried beneath Gacy’s crawlspace at his home and later discoveries of more bodies in the nearby river shocked America to the core.

Despite his insanity plea at trial – how could a man who was not rational or in control of his actions during thirty-three murders have dug the graves before the actions? – Gacy was sentenced to death and died by lethal injection in March of 1994. A full account of his life and murders can be found here.

Disorganized killers

As may be expected, a disorganized serial killer is completely opposite to Gacy and others like him. Their attacks tend to be unplanned and they often leave evidence at the crime scene and show signs of being out of control during attacks. Criteria for disorganized killers are: –

Low intelligence Socially inept Sexually inept Usually live alone Show signs of severe mental illness Likely to have been physically/sexually abused as a child Likely to be in a confused/frightened state of mind

An example for a disorganized serial killer is Ottis Toole (947 – 1996). Toole is perhaps more famous for his involvement with another serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas. Toole was reportedly molested as a child, had a low IQ (75) which was possibly a product of his illiteracy and dyslexia, suffered epilepsy and was a known arsonist who was sexually aroused by fire. A homosexual (claiming to have known his preference from the age of ten), Toole was a drifter who claimed his first murder occurred when he was only fourteen. In 1974 he was a suspect in two murders of women in Nebraska and Colorado.

By 1976 Toole had met and begun a sexual relationship with Henry Lee Lucas and, although he recanted and confessed numerous times, Toole claimed to have accompanied Lucas on 108 murders. Their victims were apparently random, usually young women but happy to take whoever crossed their path. There were suggestions of cannibalism and necrophilia associated with the murders. Ottis Toole was eventually convicted, in 1982, of killing George Sonneburg by locking him in his house and setting fire to it. By 199i he had been convicted of 6 murders but the true extent of his crimes is not known. He was sentenced to multiple life terms and eventually died of liver failure in 1996

Mixed Killers

This is where the attempts to pigeonhole killers are shaken. There are serial killers who do not fit neatly into one category or the other and these are the ‘mixed’ killers. They display traits common to both organized and disorganized killers and can be far more difficult to track down because they do not follow a given pattern.

An example of a mixed killer is Richard Ramirez, known as The Nightstalker, who was active in Los Angeles between June 1984 and August 1985. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to death in 1989. Ramirez had a difficult childhood which included physical abuse and the onset of epilepsy. He was also present when his cousin shot and killed his wife in the kitchen of their home.

The cousin showed the impressionable 12 year old trophy photographs that he had taken in Vietnam during the war. These depicted torture and murder of women. It was shortly after this that Ramirez changed and began taking drugs and dropping out of school. He took to stealing to support his habit and eventually left his home in El Paso to go to San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Although Ramirez went out prepared to commit burglaries, carrying a knife or a gun, placing him on the organized side of the line, he left multiple forensic clues at the scene and didn’t seem to care if his Satanic symbols might prove to be a link to him as his interest in Satanism was well known amongst his friends.

His modus operandi of incapacitating and then killing the male occupant of a house before assaulting the female shows him capable of considering his safety but leaving victims alive after an attack seems disorganized and uncaring of witness identification. He also had no particular victim type which sets him on the disorganized list but he was careful to scout an area and a house before breaking in which indicates planning.

The bottom line is that serial killers do share certain characteristics and some follow a particular pattern that can appear identical to another but there are always wildcards, Ted Bundy, BTK, Jack the Ripper and the countless others across the years are all individuals and with individuality comes deviance from the norm. The Organized/Disorganized theory is useful but ultimately takes an investigated only so far.