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Was a serial killer in our midst?
Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer thinks so.
Upon announcing an arrest in the homicides of four people connected to Creighton University's pathology department, the police chief said Monday he saw in the suspect “the elements of a serial killer.”
While authorities continue their investigation of Dr. Anthony J. Garcia of Terre Haute, Ind. — including whether he could be tied to additional killings — he now stands accused of four counts of first-degree murder in the Omaha deaths.
But are the crimes — as horrible as they may be — truly serial killings? Does the killer in the Creighton slayings belong to the same rogue's gallery as Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer?
The World-Herald contacted a former FBI criminal profiler along with an author and two criminologists to ask what they thought. They essentially agreed with the chief's assessment, saying the crimes fit the technical definition of serial murder.
The FBI has defined serial murder as the killing of two or more victims by the same offender in separate events. So, by that definition alone, the Creighton slayings would constitute serial murder if all four victims were indeed killed by the same assailant.
“There is something deeply pathological at work with this guy, assuming he did it,” said Gregg McCrary, a former FBI criminal profiler who now works as a consultant in the Washington, D.C., area.
Garcia's lawyers have said their client denies the charges and have called it “patently absurd” to label Garcia a serial killer.
Fueled by popular cinema, news media coverage and the public's fascination with the topic, stereotypes about serial killers abound.
But in 2005, the FBI brought together 135 investigators, mental health professionals, criminologists and other academics to separate fact from myth and provide law enforcement agencies with better tools to stop serial killers.
Members of the working group agreed that serial killers do not have to fit the popular stereotype of being psychopaths, sexual deviants or mentally insane. They are not all male loners or criminal geniuses who revel in toying with police. Serial killers often stalk and target strangers, but they sometimes know their victims.
They can be motivated by anger, sex, power, financial gain or to further the goals of a criminal enterprise.
Just as important, a double-digit body count isn't a defining factor, the experts said.
The definition that set the minimum number at two victims was developed by members of the FBI's working group.
The key phrase in the definition is “separate events.” Time between slayings — the experts call it a “cooling-off period” — is what distinguishes serial killers from mass murderers. The cooling-off period can be days, weeks or even years.
In the Creighton killings, the gap was five years.
Garcia joined the residency program at Creighton's Department of Pathology in 2000. A year later, faculty members Drs. William Hunter and Roger Brumback expelled him for erratic behavior and unprofessional treatment of a fellow resident.
Omaha authorities have charged Garcia with the March 13, 2008, killings of Thomas Hunter, 11, the doctor's son, and Shirlee Sherman, 57, the family's house cleaner. Both were stabbed at the Hunters' home in the Dundee neighborhood.
Garcia also faces murder charges in the slayings of Brumback and his wife, Mary, who were found slain in their west Omaha home on May 14. Both of those victims were stabbed, but Roger Brumback also was shot.
The narrative that has emerged from court filings, police affidavits and other documents points to a former pathology resident driven to carry out revenge against two faculty members who had dismissed him from Creighton.
That narrative tends to contrast with the standard image of the serial killer as a dispassionate predator who carefully selects a stranger out of the crowd. Such serial killers would avoid prominent citizens because their deaths or disappearances would attract greater attention. They also avoid targets they know because stranger homicide is more difficult to solve.
For all the attention they receive in the news and entertainment media, serial killers are a rare breed. Serial murders are estimated to account for less than 1 percent of all homicides in a given year, according to the FBI.
The vast majority of homicides are crimes of passion in which the perpetrator and victim know each other. In that sense, the theory behind the Creighton homicides would put them more in the category of retribution slayings, said Jukka Savolainen, associate professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
The two crime scenes also carried the killer's signature: All four victims were stabbed multiple times in the right sides of their necks. While not all serial killers leave behind such grisly calling cards, the method of homicide often carries significance, said Eric Hickey, dean of the California School of Forensic Studies at Aliant International University.
“This guy was really angry and enraged,” Hickey said. “Not too many killers who choose knives target the neck. That makes him unique.”
Both Hickey and McCrary, the former profiler, noted something else about the crimes that demonstrated how the killer's anger crossed into something more sadistic. By stabbing an 11-year-old boy, the killer apparently sought to inflict even greater psychological damage on his intended target, the boy's father.
The twisted mind of a killer feels justified in taking away what's most precious to the person who the killer feels wronged him.
“We call it proxy murder,” Hickey said.
Read more on the Garcia case and the Creighton University slayings:
» Interactive timeline: Creighton murders
» Documents shed light on Garcia's dismissal at Creighton
» Doctor will be returned to Nebraska to face four murder charges
» Kleine: Prosecutors weighing whether to seek death penalty in Garcia case
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