My new book, Nobody’s Women: The Crimes and Victims of Anthony Sowell, the Cleveland Serial Killer, is about a black man, who kills in a pattern, making him, yes, a serial killer.
I realized after the book was written that there is some debate as to the prevalence of black serial killers; some contend the number is commensurate with the overall black population on the U.S., about 13 percent, while the popular belief seems to that whites are more likely to engage in serial killing.
This is often the stuff of geeky, headline-seeking shrinks and so-called crime experts. I don’t care much for statistical breakdowns, so I called Louis Schlesinger, professor of forensic psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who has studied mass killers since the 1970s.
“It’s a myth that that there are few black serial killers,” Schlesinger said. “People in the 80s started this, people who had no knowledge of it.”
Media drives the myth, he said, because an “evil genius” is much more scary and interesting than a regular person, black or white, killing off people seemingly at random and in a pattern.
“I heard from a book editor that black serial killers aren’t marketable,” Schlesinger said. “People want Hannibal Lecter.”
There are a number of studies on serial killers that include race that put black serial killers at a little over 25 percent of the total in the U.S., such as this one.
“You see this a lot, this thing about the ‘rare black serial killer,” said Mike Aamodt, a psychology professor at Radford University in Virginia who through his comprehensive research has made himself the go-to guy when it comes to serial killers. He operates the Serial Killer Information Center.
The black serial killer is not rare at all, he said, and in fact you often see them killing prostitutes in bad neighborhoods, like Sowell did.
“The crime rate is about the same for African-Americans as it is for serial killers, though” Aamodt explained. Again, the media perpetuates the false perception of the ‘rare’ black serial killer by not paying as much attention to crimes in lower income areas where people go missing and murdered frequently.
The FBI in 2005 changed its definition of serial killers, from three killings in different locations separated by a cooling-off period to two killings.
“Which meant that gang members are getting thrown in as serial killers,” Aamodt said, explaining in part the statistical leap for blacks and other minorities.
Sowell was a classic serial killer, committing his crimes intermittently and with a pattern. He was a remorseless murderer, and it still shakes me up to think real hard about it. The book is a straight-on tale of darkness. The Cleveland media did a great job of coverage, but the book ties it all together with original reporting and interviews. I often wonder what is redeeming about these books, and I realize that we learn so much from crime and from the procedure of detection and prosecution. We ignore stories like this, in an ignorance in bliss shelter, at great peril.