A killer and their trophies
Updated: Jun 14, 2020
Criminal Behaviours explores why criminals keep trophies of their crimes.
Many types of criminals will keep "trophies" or "Souvenirs" as a memento of their crime.
In most cases these same items will be used against them later as evidence and direct links to their involvement of the crimes. In many instances directly helping the court to get the conviction of guilty.
But why do criminals do this? It seems like a strange thing to do especially in cases where the person has made extra efforts in other areas not to get caught, such as clearing evidence from the crime scene that may link them to it, or disposing of other evidence such as the weapon used or clothing worn during the crime itself.
Well the answer to this has many reasons behind it, and the types of trophies kept will vary from criminal to criminal.
The motivations for trophy keeping of crimes scenes are not far removed from your everyday person who likes to collect things.
Humans as a species are known to collect items we put value onto. This value can vary from sentimental or sexual value to monetary value. To understand why criminals might do this we first need to look at why people collect things in general.
Many adults will collect things that remind them of their childhood for example or will have a passion or hobby for something that requires them to accumulate a collection over time such as a coin or card collection.
They may collect as a sense of belonging to be part of a group where they can share their common interest with others, while improving their knowledge and gaining or trading items to complete collections. Making it more of a social interaction between friends.
A person may have no real use for such items to get them through daily life, however having these items will give them a sense of well-being.
This could be different for each person depending on what the motivation is behind their collecting behaviour.
Some people will collect things with the end goal of making money, antique collectors for instance often buy items at low prices knowing their true worth then they will sell them on to other collectors looking for specific items who will pay higher prices.
Satisfaction is one motivator, for example having full control of the outcome, it could mean they reach goals or set personal targets giving the feeling of personal achievement when a set or collection is complete.
Gratification is another in the regard they can gain pleasure from the collection. Pride can also factor in, this can been seen when a person puts effort in displaying their collection by mounting it or framing it for example.
It could be a form of comfort as something they use to improve their mood or reminisce of a time/event that was important to them.
More often than not collecting and trophy keeping is a selfish act, its something a person does for themselves and for their own personal wants or what they might perceive as a need.
In some cases it can be a behaviour that will take over a persons life, we see this with hoarders these are people who cannot stop collecting things. Hoarders drastically differ to your average collector, due to their behaviour often being obsessive and based on compulsions meaning they will accumulate masses of things with no real connection to anything sentimental, or any real structure or order. The collecting is often chaotic and random.
Dr Ruth Formanek explains the main types of motivators for collecting habits, this gives a good example of how the reasons can differ from person to person
"(i) extension of the self (e.g., acquiring knowledge, or in controlling one’s collection); (ii) social (finding, relating to, and sharing with, like-minded others); (iii) preserving history and creating a sense of continuity; (iv) financial investment; and (v), an addiction or compulsion." - Dr. R, Formanek. (1991)
Now that you have a brief understanding of why people like to collect and what drives them to collect it is easier to see how and why criminals can become collectors themselves.
Their successful crimes are achievements, in the eyes of a criminal they are worth remembering and what better way to remember than to keep a piece of it for yourself that you can look back on and relive the moment.
The items are valuable to the criminal in some way, as discussed above it could be to relive the moment, it could be for pride to display, it could be for gratification or even comfort.
This article will focus on those criminals who carry out serial murder (in this instance a person with 2 or more murder victims from separate crimes, premeditated and spanning over a period of time, with a cooling off period between each victim).
This does not include spree killers (Multiple victims killed at one particular time and location in a frenzied, unpremeditated and random attack)
Unlike the everyday law abiding citizen a criminals collection can often become quite morbid as it grows, containing items gained through another persons pain; loss or suffering. The types of items collected can drastically vary from criminal to criminal.
A study carried out for the FBI into the behaviour of serial killers looking at 480 cases of serial murderers showed that the types of things removed from the crime scene varied. But that personal items such as clothing and jewellery were taken in the greatest frequency in comparison to items such as money.
• Clothing or shoes (48 .5%) • Jewellery (31 .7%) • Wallet or purse (23 .6%) • Money (20 .5%) - Morton, R. et al. (n.d.)
Items could include things such as underwear (common in lust based crimes) shoes, skirts, blouses etc
Jewellery is another item some serial killers will take and even gift them to friends or loved ones knowing that they came from their crimes. They seemingly get a kick or some form of excitement from knowing a person is unaware where their gift came from.
Others may even wear the jewellery themselves when Erika Elaine Sifrit was arrested for burglary she was wearing the ring one of her victims on a necklace, she also had the victims drivers licenses in her purse something that was later used in court to connect her to the murders of Joshua Ford and Martha Crutchley and attempted murder of Melissa Seling.
Many serial killers keep forms of ID such as library cards or train/bus passes, things you might find in a persons wallet or pocket. This is a permanent reminder of the events leading up to that persons death, its a personal connection to them for the Killer and in many ways is symbolic of the perceived relationship they have with their victims. As is any trophy killer might take.
Although this study only included 4 categories it did not measure cases where the killer took body parts as trophies, as this is not a common occurrence. Although this is something it is commonly thought serial killers do due to the media sensualisation of cases where it has happened, its not as common as people think it is.
Missing body parts where a trophy is taken are noted to be apparent at crime scenes of serial murder with drives based on lust, power or control (Holmes & Holmes (1998). The part of the body taken will also vary a great deal and is often down to personal preference of the killer.
For instance Charles Albright aka The Dallas Ripper would removed his victims eyes, upon arrest it was found he had an obsession with eyes. Images with the eyes cut out were found in his home along with dolls that had their eyes removed.
Ted Bundy would keep his victims heads as memento to reminisce, he would take them home and put them on display, even going as far as brushing their hair and putting make up on them. When asked why he did this he replied "When you work hard to do something right, you don’t want to forget it.”
Then in a stark contrast Vlad Țepeș aka Vlad the Impaler one of the most prolific serial killers historically would skin or decapitate his victims and display their body parts for all to see in public squares as a form of bragging to show how powerful he was and he should be feared.
All of these serial killers kept different trophies for different reasons, which is why it can be difficult to measure such crimes or see patterns within the behaviour due to the variations in personal preferences and reasoning. Really it is dependant on the individual and what they make a connection with.
In the case that a body has been dismembered to hide the identity of the victim or to make it easier to hide and dispose of the body is not trophy taking, due to the offenders purpose only being to evade capture rather than as a personal keepsake.
The FBI study also did not include cases where the offender took pictures or video of their crimes to keep either. However there are cases of this happening with serial killers such as Harvey Glatman who took multiple photos of his victims before, during and after his crimes which he then kept.
Paul Bernardo and Karla Holmolka would film all of their murders documenting them in great detail, Paul and Karla would then watch the videos to relive the moment and would even show them to victims so that they would see what was going to happen to them. Using the videos as a tool to control the girls they kidnapped.
Some serial killers won't take trophies from the crime scene but they will keep items after the fact that remind them of their achievement, this could be in the form of a newspaper clipping for example detailing their crime. This demonstrates that trophies are not always items directly taken from the victim or the crime scene. They are still related to the crime and are still kept as a memento.
From all of this we have learned that trophy taking is a personal preference and so is the type of trophy that is taken. Trophies will have different purposes for each person, some may use it to relive the moment, others may keep them as a form of bragging rights or self gratification, others may take it to feel closer to their victim, but overall trophies only benefit the person collecting them and act as a reminder to events passed.
Below is a Gallery featuring various items that were removed from crime scenes and kept as trophies by the killers. This will give you a clearer understanding of the types of things that have been taken in the past.
*Warning graphic content*
Beyond trophy taking & what new information is teaching us
So what can be learned from these types of studies? These types of data collection and record keeping can help to dispel myths about serial killers or preconceived ideas about their patterns of behaviour. As well as highlighting new information that may not of been in consideration beforehand.
In past cases presumptions about behaviour have slowed investigations down significantly, because the police will be looking for a specific offender type that would typically fit the crime.
In some cases these profiled offender categories were very helpful in understanding the patterns of behaviour of specific people enabling the police to capture them quickly. However those results are much harder to apply across the board to those from all walks of life.
They can also cause stereotypes to form like the idea of serial killers being emotionally uncontrollable, outwardly angry, unsociable and dangerous people for example, something that has now been disproved.
Due to this investigations have been led astray, examples of this are cases like Paul Bernardo and Gary Ridgeway, they did not outwardly fit the profiles of what was believed to be the standard profile of sexually driven serial killers. They both seemed like stable people, with little to no previous convictions with the police, they had seemingly normal home lives and were engaging and cooperative when questioned by police. Something we now know to be quite common of those who choose to carry out multiple murders.
Much of these offender types were based on studies into humans and crime, studies that lacked the ability to be replicated or methods of data collection were not consistent making it difficult to analyse and compare cases that went beyond the basic evidence of the crime scene into areas such as motive, or emotional drive.
Over the years many ideas of what was believed to be predictable factors in crimes such as serial killing have been discarded as new studies are highlighting the discrepancies or limitations of past studies. For example the idea that all serial killers come from an abusive background/childhood has now been proven to be false, although an abusive childhood can increase the risks of a person becoming violent later in life it is not a sole predictor of the likelihood they will go on to become killers.
It was also believed that women were not capable of committing heinous crimes such as kidnap, sexual assault or torture alone and that their roles in duo killing (couple killers) were done under duress or out of fear for their male counterpart, something we now understand to be false. Although the ways in which women who are serial killers choose to kill can differ to that of a man, they are still just as capable as a man of committing the crimes alone and without the coercion of another person.
The continuation of studies into offender behaviour is vital to aid in the progression of effective investigation and convictions of crimes. Even understanding simple things such as why a person may want to take a trophy can really help in identifying perpetrators of crime early on in the investigations and help to get rid of bias or misunderstandings behind motives that could potentially slow the capture and conviction of a dangerous person.
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Black, S. et al. (2017). Criminal Dismemberment: Forensic and Investigative Analysis. CRC Press. ISBN -1315355795, 9781315355795
Formanek, R. (1991). Why they collect: Collectors reveal their motivations.Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6),275-286.
Holmes, R.M. & Holmes, S.T. (1998) Serial Murder (second edition). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage
Morton, R. Tillman, J. Gaines, S. (n.d.) US Department of Justice. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Pathways For Investigation. National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, Critical Incident Response Group, FBI.
Swogger, M. T., & Kosson, D. S. (2007). Identifying subtypes of criminal psychopaths: A replication and extension.Criminal justice and behavior,34(8), 953–970. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854807300758
US Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Crime Data Explorer. Expanded Homicide Offense Characteristics in the United States. - https://crime-data-explorer.fr.cloud.gov/explorer/national/united-states/shr