Having both a personal and professional interest in crime fiction and true crime can lead to some really off the wall conversations. Last week I talked about The Road To Jonestown, a book I’ve been talking about to literally anyone who will listen. If there wasn’t a line behind me when I went grocery shopping a couple days ago, I probably would have told the cashier some of the thoughts I’ve been having about Jim Jones and the members of The People’s Temple. Having a lot of smart, if sometimes pedantic friends that share the same interests also leads to conversations like “Was Cary Stayner actually a serial killer?” Or “Does a murder become a mass murder at three or four victims?”
I know it’s dark and maybe even a little gross, but it comes with the territory. This morning, after debating the differences between a spree killing and a serial killer, I decided to spend some time digging for answers.
There are none.
I thought I had at least found a definitive answer on Cary Stayner, a murderer from my hometown. He is routinely referred to as a serial killer but I never accepted that label. Stayner killed four people, but there were only two incidents, and two crime scenes. Psychology Today says, that makes him a serial killer in this article. But Psychology Today says it doesn’t, in this one.
All articles about mass murder agree, Stayner didn’t commit one of those - they all refer to the FBI’s definition of four or more victims at the same time and place. He killed three people the first time, and one person the second.
He definitely isn’t a spree killer, a label the FBI has decided doesn’t serve a clear purpose. The FBI believes the difference between a spree killer and a serial killer isn’t enough to change how they solve crimes - though most criminologists agree that the motivations are usually extremely different. In writing about a spree killing or a serial killer, it definitely seems different. Even more so in true crime where an effort is usually made to look at the how and why a perpetrator commits their crimes.
What’s particularly interesting is, one might say someone “went on a killing spree” but that killer may not have committed a spree killing. In 1979 when an escaped Ted Bundy broke into a sorority murdered two women and assaulted three others, it sounded like a spree of some kind. It definitely wasn’t the planned, well organized kidnapping and murder he’d repeated so many times. It was a frenzy of violence. But it wasn’t a spree. Not exactly. Referring back to the two Psychology Today articles, a spree killing has to take place at multiple locations.
I could get lost picking at these definitions and wondering at how these things can be so vaguely defined. It seems odd that crimes so serious could have such nebulous definitions - but the real question is - would knowing for certain whether Stayner was “technically” a serial killer alleviate the pain of his crimes? The FBI doesn’t see the point, from the perspective of law enforcement, of separating spree killers from serial killers, so what point does it serve among true crime fanatics or people at home watching the news? Lastly, is pedantry and debate a ruse meant to make people obsessing over the most horrible things humanity has to offer feel detached, and therefore safe?
I know the answer to at least one of those questions.