By doggedly combing through state and federal computer files and aggressively filing state Freedom of Information Act requests with local police departments, Scripps Howard News Service reporter Thomas Hargrove created a database of 185,000 unsolved murders committed since 1980. Crime experts say it is the most complete accounting of homicide victims ever assembled in the United States.
A search of that database turned up alarming clusters of unsolved killings of women across the nation that strongly suggest the work of serial killers. The SHNS study focused on communities where police failed to solve at least three-quarters of murders of women of similar age killed by similar methods. The reason for singling out women in the study is that they represent 70 percent of all known serial murder victims.
The search turned up 161 clusters in which 1,247 murdered women met the criteria.
The results prompted authorities in Indiana and Ohio to launch new investigations into suspected serial killings and Nevada police to acknowledge that they are hunting a likely serial killer who targeted up to seven women, most of them prostitutes, and scattered their dismembered remains across three states. Phoenix police reviewed 11 murders flagged by the study but found no evidence of serial murder. The city, however, is building its own database of 1,900 unsolved murders committed since 1990 to search for possible serial involvement.
The U.S. Justice department estimates that less than 1 percent of all murders are the work of serial killers, but the SHNS database suggests the real number is higher. And the database as currently configured cannot track highly mobile killers or ones who prey on a variety of victims.
Perhaps as frightening as the murders themselves are the gaping holes Hargrove found in the statistical reporting net. Local police reported about 510,000 of the 565,000 murders committed from 1980 to 2008 to the FBI's Supplementary Homicide Report. The reporting is completely voluntary and local police departments can and do ignore it. The state of Illinois does not participate, although the city of Chicago does. California has made reporting mandatory for local police departments and other states should do likewise.
The FBI and law enforcement agencies generally have their hands full, but it should not be left to reporters like Hargrove to build, with easily available technology, an effective homicide database. Moreover, these databases should be built and scrutinized by experienced professionals to detect victim patterns and gaps in law enforcement.
Finally, police should put aside their reticence to tell the public when they suspect a serial killer is at work. The Justice Department recommends public warnings be issued, especially when specific groups like prostitutes and children are targeted.