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Killer could be getting smarter: Profilers say he may have refined his technique, going from leaving bodies to hiding them

The Vancouver Sun
Fri 23 Nov 2001

Lori Culbert, Lindsay Kines and Kim Bolan
Crime; Column; Special Report

The investigative team has spent months looking into the cases of missing women. This news series is their special report

- - -

For years, the stories on Vancouver's missing women have focused on the absence of real evidence in the case.

The mantra of the investigation has long been: "No bodies, no evidence."

But although that's true of the 45 missing women -- most of whom were involved in drugs and the sex trade on the Downtown Eastside -- there have been numerous cases over the past two decades in which police have found the bodies of murdered prostitutes, many of whom also worked prostitute strolls in the Downtown Eastside.

"So if they hadn't been found, they'd be missing," says Kim Rossmo, a geographic profiler and former Vancouver police officer.

Rossmo and others say it's entirely possible a killer responsible for some of those murders could have refined his technique over the years and now prefers to leave little or no evidence.

Using newspaper files and police records, The Vancouver Sun determined that, since 1980, there have been at least 65 confirmed homicides of women who either worked in B.C.'s sex trade or were vulnerable to predators because they used drugs, worked as exotic dancers, lived on the street, or hitched rides.

These are cases where bodies were found and there was clear evidence of foul play.

The majority of those murders occurred in the Lower Mainland or on Vancouver Island in the late 1980s or early 1990s, tailing off by 1996 -- about the time the numbers of missing women began to increase.

And most of the homicides -- 40 by The Sun's tally -- remain unsolved.

Retired RCMP inspector Ron MacKay, Canada's first criminal profiler, was part of a team of police officers from Canada and the United States that met in Vancouver in 1991 to review 25 unsolved homicides of women -- most of whom were involved in the sex trade.

MacKay says police determined the vast majority of the murders were distinct, each one the work of a different killer. But there were also a couple of groups of two, three, or four murders that appeared to have been done by serial killers.

Looking back, MacKay says it's quite possible one of those killers could still be operating, but is now hiding the bodies.

"I'm thinking of one particular series that, yeah, that particular offender may have gone from leaving bodies to not leaving bodies," MacKay said. "And as far as I know, the profile is still on file, and the four murders are unsolved."

The killer in that case was considered "organized" in police parlance -- intelligent, cautious, wary, and able to learn from his mistakes, slowly perfecting his grisly trade as he went along.

"He learns from somebody finding that body that he's got to do a better job," MacKay said.

"So he does a better job of hiding the body, and this time, it isn't found. And from that he learns, 'Ah! I better keep doing a really good job of hiding the body."

There are number of ways to dispose of a corpse, but profilers say serial killers are no different than anyone else. They're lazy.

"They tend to go back to the same place they've been to before," MacKay said. "You're not going to bury a body in some place you've never been to. There's a reason why you put it there."

California criminologist Eric Hickey, who has studied serial killers and their victims, said bodies usually get found, however; so if one person is responsible for a large number of the disappearances he is clearly "pretty bright," meticulous and patient.

"I think once you find one body, you're going to find a graveyard," Hickey said. "It's just a matter of finding out where he's taking them."

But even if that's the case, MacKay cautioned it's "highly unlikely" that one or two serial offenders is responsible for all the disappearances.

The majority of the 25 homicide files he examined in 1991 were distinctly different from one another, he said. So if that's what police conclude when they have bodies, it's a leap to suspect one person is responsible for all the missing women cases, MacKay said.

There are any number of other possible explanations for missing women cases, including drug overdoses, where someone disposes of the body, he said. "Or how many of those missing people have turned up somewhere else two years later? There have been a few instances of that I believe."

The sad fact is there also are a lot of men who kill women, but aren't necessarily serial killers.

The Sun has compiled a list of more than 20 men convicted of killing one prostitute each since 1980.

MacKay acknowledges, however, that some of those men are likely responsible for other killings.

"How many of these guys ... may have committed four or five, but they've only been convicted of one? I can think of at least two right off the top of my head in the Vancouver area."

And MacKay said it's "quite feasible" there could be more than one organized serial killer operating on the Lower Mainland.

"The possibility of two organized offenders operating in an area as densely populated as the Lower Mainland? I would say the probabilities are quite good -- particularly when you spread that over -- what? -- nine or 10 years or more."

Rossmo, who is familiar with the missing women case, said the odds favour one serial killer being responsible for a significant number of the missing women, as opposed to 45 killers all acting alone, each one hiding the body.

Serial killers are rare, and those that hide bodies are rarer still, so it's more likely there's one organized predator instead of two or three or four, he said.

"If you're assuming every individual one was a separate murder and, in other words, no serial killer, then why aren't you finding the bodies?"

Rossmo also points out that if the rise in missing women is the result of 30 or more separate killers, why did they all decide to strike at the same time in the late 1990s, all of them hiding the evidence of their crimes?

MacKay said serial killers prey on women in the sex trade for two reasons: They're available and vulnerable. They willingly get into strangers' cars and drive with them to dark, secluded areas. "'Can I access this victim without putting myself at risk?' That's all the offender asks himself if you've got a serial killer."

MacKay said catching such a killer requires a lot of hard work and a little luck. "But you don't get lucky unless you're out there trying."

Investigators will have to figure out a way to filter the mass of information on the case. "It's virtually impossible to follow all leads," he said. "You just don't have the person power to do that."

MacKay also favours a strategy that would plumb the street for information on the women, their customers and their associates. "Just learn more and more about what's really going on on the street."

And police agencies will have to commit significant resources for a lengthy period of time, and limit staff turnover in order to maintain continuity and a "collective memory," he said.

"You're not going to solve this thing in a week," he said. "I think we've already satisfied ourselves of that."

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Updated: August 21, 2016