On 11th November 2022, events akin to a real-life slasher film unfolded in the city of Moscow, Idaho. In the dead of night, a knife-wielding assailant broke into a house and stalked from room to room, murdering four university students as they slept.
What makes the case especially striking, beyond its inexplicable savagery, is the fact that the alleged perpetrator is an expert in criminology. Bryan Kohberger, who remains in custody pending a probable trial, studied both psychology and criminal justice at university and was doing a Ph.D. in criminal justice at the time of the murders. A former professor has since described Kohberger as one of the best students she’s ever had.
Even more disturbing is the suggestion that he may have been in touch with Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer, whose crimes included the massacre of four family members in their own home. Kerri Rawson, Rader’s daughter, has noted that Kohberger studied under Professor Katherine Ramsland, who spent years interviewing BTK. ‘There is potentially a connection to my father but we’re going to have to wait and see,’ Rawson said. 'Knowing how personally connected Ramsland is to my father, I would not be surprised if at the very least Kohberger tried to write to him.’
If Kohberger is found guilty, he’ll be far from the first killer to have had an academic interest in crime, law and psychology. Here are some other notorious examples.
1. Dennis Rader
In the mid-to-late 70s, Dennis Rader studied for a degree in administration of justice, a course that covers the intricacies of the criminal justice system and is a popular choice for those hoping to get into law enforcement and public safety roles. By the time Rader graduated, he’d already spread terror throughout Wichita, Kansas as ‘BTK’, his self-declared moniker which stands for ‘Bind, Torture, Kill’.
Disproving the myth that serial killers always carry on killing until they’re caught, BTK ‘retired’ after his final murder in 1991. Perhaps utilising his university qualifications, he worked as a Kansas compliance officer, carrying a badge and gun, and dealing with animal control and other official duties.
The BTK case went cold, and if Rader’s craving for attention hadn’t led him to start sending letters to the police in the mid-2000s, chances are detectives would never have identified him.
2. Ted Bundy
Ted Bundy’s status as the most notorious American killer is due not just to the many murders he committed in the 1970s, but also his paradoxical public persona as a clean-cut, confident lawyer. Acting as his own defence attorney in court, Bundy is perhaps the quintessential example of how even the most monstrous of men can expertly camouflage themselves in civilised society.
While Bundy had never actually completed law school, making his courtroom antics something of a sham, he had previously obtained a psychology degree. Indeed, one of his psychology professors was so impressed that, in a letter of recommendation for law school, he wrote: ‘I regret Mr. Bundy's decision to pursue a career in law rather than to continue his professional training in psychology. Our loss is your gain.’
3. Timothy Krajcir
Originally caged in 1963 for rape and attempted murder, Timothy Krajcir was set free in the late 1970s – whereupon he became a serial killer. For several years he stalked, raped and killed female targets, all the while studying for a degree in administration of justice.
Detectives now believe this course equipped him with valuable insights into police work, allowing him to outsmart those on his tail. Indeed, his killings were carried out in such an efficient, calculated way that investigators at the time wondered if the culprit was a cop. It wasn’t until 2007 that DNA evidence finally led to Krajcir being handed multiple life sentences for his crimes.
4. Joseph DeAngelo
One of the most feared US predators of the 70s and 80s, Joseph DeAngelo embarked on different crime sprees in different parts of California. This earnt the then-unidentified culprit a plethora of ominous nicknames: the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, and the Golden State Killer. Breaking into his victims’ homes to commit his atrocities, DeAngelo was a spectral presence who proved impossible to pin down.
He may have had an advantage due to his education and background. Not only did DeAngelo have a degree in criminal justice, but he also served as a police officer in the 1970s. It was decades later, in 2018, that DNA evidence finally unmasked DeAngelo, by then in his mid-70s, as the infamous killer.
5. Stephen Griffiths
When serial killer Stephen Griffiths gave his name as the ‘Crossbow Cannibal’ in court, he knew exactly what he was doing. Jailed in 2010 for the murders of three women in Bradford, Griffiths had consciously followed in the footsteps of previous monsters like the Yorkshire Ripper, hoping to become as notorious in his own right. Such was his interest in true crime that he amassed hundreds of books on the subject and was even studying for a Ph.D. titled ‘Homicide in an Industrial City – Violence in Bradford 1847-1899'.
Arguably even more audacious than the killers he sought to emulate (he was captured on CCTV firing a crossbow into one victim), Griffiths was handed a whole life order, meaning he will never be released from prison.