Is it nature that brings a serial killer into the world, or nurture? That’s one of the core questions of criminology, and the focus Making a Monster. This new true crime series sees a group of the world’s leading thinkers in the field consider a number of notorious cases, seeking to unravel the hidden motivations and warped psychological impulses that led to the killers’ depraved crimes.
The series features many of history’s most well-known killers, including Rose West and John Wayne Gacy. But even the most hardened true crime buff may not have heard of Michael Ross, the highly intelligent boy from Connecticut who grew up to rape and murder a succession of teenagers and women in the early 1980s. While he may not have achieved the dubious “celebrity” status of other serial killers, Michael Ross is a fascinating subject because of the apparent remorse he showed afterwards, and his utter determination to see himself put to death for the crimes he seemed to regret so much.
Probing his past, some classic red flags can be seen. His mother was known for her volatile, violent temperament, particularly picking on Michael and doling out beatings in the isolated environment of the family chicken farm. Her personality problems became so extreme that she was eventually institutionalised. Forensic psychologist Dr Julian Boon believes this may have been a formative moment in the young Michael’s mental development, saying “the loss of such a dominant person in his life would have lead to deep feelings of abandonment, and may have resulted in a deep resentment towards women.”
There have also been suggestions by those who knew the family that the boy was molested by an uncle, who later committed suicide. Despite the ugly elements of his upbringing, Michael Ross was a brilliant student at school, his IQ of 122 coming in handy as he balanced his studies with the sometimes gritty aspects of farm work (he was sometimes tasked with killing diseased chickens with his bare hands, which is perhaps not insignificant in the context of his later crimes).
Many serial killers lead awkward, marginalised existences from the outset, but Michael Ross seemed destined for success, landing a place in Cornell University, one of the most prestigious institutions in the United States. He joined a fraternity and dated women. Yet it was here, in this refined Ivy League environment, that he committed his first murder – raping and strangling a student named Dzung Ngoc Tu in 1981.
He claimed that these drugs had killed 'the monster within'
Ross was beset by endless fantasies of violence, sex and murder. Over the years that followed, Ross gave into these cravings again and again, killing eight females in total – including, in a particularly horrific incident, two 14-year-old friends. Incredibly, he was arrested a few times for attacking women, including an off-duty female police officer, yet nobody seemed to fathom just how dangerous he was.
When police eventually snared him after linking his vehicle to a crime scene, he quickly confessed, showing none of the stubborn and arrogant defiance many other serial killers do. Author Martha Elliott, who spent a decade getting to know Michael Ross while he was on death row, reported that he seemed “consumed with guilt”, describing how the “sensitive, articulate Cornell graduate was also a devout Roman Catholic who would profusely express his remorse for his crimes to anyone who would listen.”
What could explain such a moral and empathetic awareness in someone we might expect to have the cold detachment of a psychopath? Ross himself believed he had been cured of his cravings by years of prison medication that suppressed his levels of testosterone. He claimed that these drugs had killed “the monster within”. If so, this would point to nature being the abiding malign force in his life, rather than nurture. Martha Elliot believes it’s a blend of the two, describing it as a “tragic alchemy of his genetics, brain structure and body chemistry” mingled with the traumas of his childhood on the chicken farm.
Ross claimed it was remorse, and his desire to bring closure to the families of his victims, that led him to drop the appeals against his death sentence. He was certainly sincere about his wish to die – so much so that his own sister tried to block his wishes by claiming he was mentally unfit to decide his own fate. There were even fears that his “suicidal” desire not to appeal the sentence would cause a rash of similar suicidal thoughts among his fellow inmates.
Since he was deliberately waiving his right to appeal, Ross was considered a “volunteer” for his own execution, and had the right to halt proceedings at any point while he was strapped down to receive the lethal injection. After his death, his lawyer said, “This was not an act of suicide. He sought to do what he thought was right.”
With Michael Ross, the old nature vs nurture riddle is compounded by the question of just how capable serial killers really are of regret and remorse. Whether Michael Ross was motivated out of fatalistic cynicism, simply wanted to die rather than serve more time on death row, or genuinely felt sorry for what he’d done to eight women and girls, is something criminologists may ponder as they try to understand the workings of the serial killer mind.