“I want my fun” – Joanna Dennehey, 2014

Psychopath. The word has seamlessly passed into everyday speech and common usage. On any given day I will hear someone describe their friend, their boss, ex-partner, or just somebody that they know as a ‘psychopath’, with almost total faith that they actually understand what they are describing.

Yet, when I have had the opportunity to delve a little deeper into why they are using this label it soon becomes clear that, while they may be describing someone who has behaved badly towards them, they are not describing a person who has displayed the life-long pattern of ingrained beliefs and behaviours that actually characterises psychopathy.

A psychopath isn’t just someone who is unpleasant, or occasionally cold and unfeeling, but instead routinely behaves like this day in, day out. It’s who they are; it’s how they survive.

I’ve deliberately used some popular characterisations in the account I have just offered – ‘cold’, ‘unfeeling’ and ‘unpleasant’. Yet some psychopaths that I know can also be charming and warm; they can make you feel like the centre of their universe, largely because they need to get close to you so that they can then use you. It’s this chameleon-like ability to be almost someone else that makes it difficult for the unwary to identify the true psychopath – until it’s too late.

So, if you want to move beyond the popular use of the label ‘psychopath’, think of it as a personality disorder defined by a cluster of traits centred on three different factors, rather than just your boss who’s refused to give you a pay rise.

First, is their inter-personal style, which allows the psychopath to be glib, grandiose, dishonest and manipulative; they are always arrogant and deceitful in their day-to-day dealings. Second, as far as their behaviour is concerned, psychopaths will be sensation seeking, impulsive, reckless to the point of stupidity – seemingly having no thought for their own safety. Finally, psychopaths will have defective emotional responses so that they lack remorse for their manipulative, reckless behaviours and find it impossible to truly understand why it is that you might actually find their behaviour wrong. In short, they just don’t get it; they operate in a totally different moral universe.

Here we need to consider that old chestnut, much loved by Criminologists and Psychologists alike – is the psychopath “born or made?” Put another way, is psychopathy a consequence of “nature or nurture?” The simple answer for me, and one which I routinely offer to my students, is that it is neither one nor the other, but rather a messy combination of both; a messy combination that is unique to that individual and which makes sense within that individual’s life.

So where are you most likely to encounter a psychopath? You can of course find psychopaths in the boardrooms of our banks and multi-national corporations, making decisions about other people’s careers, or about the communities in which their businesses operate. Frankly, they exist in any organisation that has a hierarchy which requires, or indeed rewards ruthless behaviour to get to the top. After all, it is much easier to make 150 people redundant on Christmas Eve if you don’t actually care about what happens to them.

In this sense psychopaths can be “functioning”, even if their performance is based on what are essentially dysfunctional styles, feelings and behaviour. However, more often than not, these dysfunctions can have disastrous consequences and so it’s no surprise that if you really want to find a concentration of psychopaths you go to prison. After all, recklessness and sensation seeking go hand-in-glove with crime.

Academics in different Western cultures have suggested that about 1 per cent of the general population will be psychopaths by the standard checklist developed by the Canadian psychologist Robert Hare and that most will be men. Yet, in the prison population, estimates of psychopathy vary from 7.5 per cent to 35 per cent. In a British context, and by the most conservative estimate, that means that there are around 7,000 psychopaths in our prisons – more than enough to fill ten average size jails.

I know a great deal about this population having worked all my life with serious, violent and sexual offenders – many of whom were psychopaths. In fact, I would go as far as to say that every serial killer that I have ever met, or had to manage, was a psychopath and most of the murderers, rapists and armed robbers that I have had to deal with too. Some were functioning, others less so, but they all shared the same ingrained patterns of behaviour that I have described above and which saw them relentlessly attempt to manipulate their world to suit their own very specific need for control, power and domination.

Thankfully, most (but not all) of these psychopaths are still behind bars, but I’ve got to know a great deal more about how psychopaths behave when they are still in the community, whilst filming Channel 5’s new series David Wilson’s Killer Psychopaths.

Over the last twelve months, I’ve been on a journey to investigate the lives of seven psychopaths and at least twenty five of their victims. This journey has taken me from affluent Chelsea – where Patrick McKay, who liked to style himself as “Franklin Bollvolt the First”, may have killed up to eleven people between 1973 and 1975, to the more down-at-heel streets of Peterborough, Ipswich and Hereford. It was in Hereford that Joanna Dennehey’s killing spree would come to an end, arrested there with her accomplice Gary Stretch. Thinking of themselves as some latter day Bonnie and Clyde, only with the gender roles reversed, Dennehey convinced Stretch that, having killed three men in Peterborough, they should find more men to kill in Hereford. As she explained, “I want my fun” – a chilling insight into how far the psychopath’s recklessness and need for excitement will go.

I’ve travelled to the beautiful valleys and coastline of North Wales and to the gay bars in Stanley Street in Liverpool. These might seem like a world apart, but the bridge that connects them is Peter Moore – the “Man in Black”. Moore, like McKay was fascinated with Nazism and, like Dennehey, also interested in sado-masochism. Dressed in black leather, Moore killed four men and attacked scores more, whilst all the time presenting himself as a respectable businessman who owned a chain of cinemas, and which were regularly featured in the local media. In reality the distances between his cinemas merely gave Moore a legitimate excuse to travel the back-roads of the countryside, where he would keep an eager watch out for yet more victims.

Steve Wright also needed transport to be able to kill his five victims in Ipswich and his neighbours in London Road remember him taking particular pride in washing his car. What could be more ordinary? It’s surely a banal ritual that must be common to most men in middle England, only in Wright’s case he was cleaning his car to destroy any forensic evidence that had been left behind. Wright’s story is recent and so is probably the most well known of those that I tell. However, I have strange connection to this story, which is why I wanted to return to the sad “deposition” sites of his victims, which remain informally memorialised in and around Ipswich. I am convinced that Wright listened to my reporting of the unfolding drama in Ipswich in 2006 and that, as a consequence of my televised analysis of his case, he changed the way that he murdered.

Since Wright’s case I have become much more conscious of my need to self-censor, as I now realise that some people might consume what I say for their own, deadly and specific ends. Of course, Wright’s arrogant interest in how the media reported his case is echoed by Moore and Dennehey and, in particular by Dennis Rader, who described himself as “BTK” or, “bind, torture, kill”.

I have always been fascinated by the chameleon Rader. This church-going, Scout leading, family man, who called his penis “Sparky”, murdered ten people in Wichita, Kansas between 1974 and 1991, but wasn’t actually arrested until 2005. Little about him fits the “typical” pattern of a serial killer.

Most serial killers, for example, start to kill almost by accident, rather than by design; they start small and then gradually get a taste for murder. Not Rader.

His first victims were an entire family – the Oteros, whom he obliterated in January 1974. Geographically stable serial killers are usually caught quite quickly but, despite the fact that Rader killed entirely within Wichita and its environs, he escaped justice for over 30 years. He also took long breaks between his murders so that, for example, there was almost eight years between his murder of Nancy Fox in December 1977 and Marine Hedge – his next victim – in April 1985. Rader regularly communicated with the police and the local newspaper called The Wichita Eagle and it was he himself who coined the name “BTK”. He was actually only caught because, hating the fact that others might be about to take “credit” for his crimes, he started up his perverse communication with the police and the newspaper once again. It was a mistake, as the police were soon able to identify the location of the computer that Rader was using to write to them from.

Filming in Wichita, I could see that Rader was almost the “perfect” psychopath. He was reckless in how he went about his murders – despite seemingly planning them with care; manipulative of his immediate family and of his community; arrogant in his demand for attention; and grandiose in his belief that he would not be caught and that he had somehow befriended the police officer assigned to catch him. And, because his trial was televised, you can still see Rader in all his arrogant pomp on YouTube.

Yet, according to his son, Rader was also a “perfect father”. Indeed, that was the face that Rader liked to present to the community – to the Scouts in his troop and to the congregation of the church that he attended. Psychopaths, like Rader, often hide in plain sight and, as I have often explained, if they had horns on their heads and long, pointed tails, psychopaths would be much easier to spot and therefore to avoid.

Of course, some psychopaths are identified as having problems in their childhoods; in other words they do stand out as unusual. McKay, for example, who was regularly bullied by his violent, alcoholic father, was well known to psychiatrists from an early age and, even as a young boy, displayed the traits that were once known as “the Macdonald triad”. He wet the bed, started fires and was cruel to animals, and it was behaviours such as these that led one psychiatrist to label the young McKay as a psychopath.

Most of the psychopaths that I study in the series operated by themselves, although I have already drawn attention to Dennehey and her accomplice Gary Stretch. However, John Duffy and David Mulcahy – the “Railway Rapists” – also worked as a pair. They too, like McKay had problems in their childhoods and, like Moore and Wright, used their knowledge of getting around their local environment – in their case the railway network of north London – to carry out a series of rapes and three murders in the mid-1980s. Telling their story also allowed me to interview on camera Professor David Canter who, not only helped the police to catch the pair, and who describes how he first became involved in the police investigation, but also as a result developed what is known as “investigative psychology” as a robust, scientific tool that remains extremely useful to the police today when trying to make sense of a linked series of crimes.

Of course, the saddest feature of telling the stories of these psychopaths is to describe the chaos that so often surrounds them in their immediate families and, in particular, what happened to their victims. It is frankly depressing visiting the desolate, deposition sites of these killers, where the bodies of young women (and occasionally young men) have been left to rot and decompose. It is this, after all, which is the tragic product – the end result – of this dysfunctional psychopathy. So I try, whenever it is possible, to have surviving family members bring their murdered son or daughter, father or mother back to life, if only to remember what had been their hopes and dreams; what they had enjoyed; and how, until they fell for the charm of a psychopath, they had lived their lives. They are at the heart of the series, for it is these victims whom we should remember and not the psychopath, desperate for his 15 minutes of infamy.

So please think of these victims when you watch the series and, above all, remember that psychopathy is so much more than an occasional, ill chosen remark, or off-hand behaviour. For, all too often, psychopathy can be deadly.

Professor David Wilson

Click here to find out more about studying Criminology at Birmingham City University. For details on our Criminology Applicant Visit Day featuring Professor David Wilson, visit the School of Social Sciences website here.

Killer Psychopaths starts on Tuesday 10 February at 9pm on Channel 5.

The following two tabs change content below.
David Wilson

David Wilson

Programme Director MA CJPP/ Criminology
David Wilson

Latest posts by David Wilson (see all)