What have we learned from the minds of thrill killers? Not much.

CNN rang the other day. Asked me to New York to sit for an interview about THE YOSEMITE MURDERS, my 2000 study of the strange, grisly thrill killing of three women tourists and a National Park naturalist in 1999. 

Headline News, CNN’s little sister, agreed to foot the bill so I packed up my bride and we flew to Gotham for a four-hour grilling that will anchor an hourlong documentary on serial killer Cary Stayner next June. As our reward, wife and I enjoyed a touristy holiday beginning with dinner at Sardi’s. Saw Ed Harris in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD at the Schubert Theater. Ran into Garrison Keillor while visiting my old friend Larry Josephson at his at his Upper Westside radio studio. 

The legendary creator of “A Prairie Home Companion” retained his mordant sense of humor despite the ignominy he’s suffered at the antiseptic hands of our overzealous #METOO cancel culture. He still does his daily “Writer’s Almanac” on the web, though most politically correct NPR stations won’t touch it.

But I digress.

In accurate if cliched fashion, New York remains a great place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there. Still, ‘twas a nifty getaway … or would have been if my interview hadn’t rekindled nightmarish memories of Cary Stayner.

I’d frankly forgotten many of the details of his awful killing spree twenty years ago. Like Ted Bundy, the boyishly handsome Stayner could have attracted many a lass with a bashful glance but both he and Ted had these urges, you see. Mental maggots scrambled their febrile minds almost as soon as they left the womb. Forensic shrinks and their ilk have spent decades trying to get to the whys and wherefores of the Ted Bundys and Cary Stayners. Thus far, the researchers remain clueless. 

Were these monsters bounced on their noggins as infants? Did they ingest lead paint or morning glory seeds or get into Uncle Charlie’s peyote stash? Did puberty deal them a hormonal death wish while the rest of us were simply getting our periods or learning how to handle a hard on?

We simply don’t know. For every Bundy/Stayner, there are a hundred other disturbed, anxious, bipolar schizoaffective paranoid narcissistic whack jobs who never get around to murder. In fact, these neurotic/psychotics are far more likely to take out any killing urges on themselves. To those among us who try to understand how such creeps come to be, the question nags, vexes, demands an answer. Thus far, there is none. 

In half-assed preparation for my CNN grilling, I tried to catch up on Cary. He’s still on Death Row in San Quentin where he’s neighbors with another of my favorite serial killers. Randy Kraft, Southern California’s Scorecard Killer, just turned 75. That’s roughly one year for each of his victims: tortured, raped, mutilated and dumped at the side of the road during a 13-year spree in the 1970s and 80s. Like Ted and Cary, Randy got his jollies from murder. Why?

In Randy’s case, he got away with it for a decade because he led three lives. Computer techie during the day, he lived monogamously with a clueless younger companion, saving his secret avocation as the Marquis de Sade during business trips and on weekends. He was especially partial to men in uniform, trolling military bases for enlisted personnel looking for a lift to L.A. He was hauled in more than once for questioning, but the cops never nailed him. Purely by accident, a pair of CHP officers pulled him over weaving his Toyota on the 405 late one evening in the spring of 1983. The Marine in the seat next to him had his pants and underwear down to his knees and fresh ligature marks around his neck. An hour later, he was pronounced DOA at a nearby hospital. 

Cary Stayner probably could have chalked up a similar body count if he hadn’t gotten sloppy. After kidnapping a Eureka woman, her daughter and an Argentine exchange student  from their Yosemite motel room in February of 1999, Cary raped the girl and slit the throats of all three women, dumping their bodies in the underbrush north of Yosemite National Park. Despite being questioned repeatedly by the FBI over the next four months, Cary successfully played a taunting cat-and-mouse game with authorities until he just couldn’t help himself and had to kill again. This time he stalked a pretty young environmentalist who lived with her boyfriend in a cabin just outside of Yosemite. While the boyfriend was away, Cary dropped by one evening and tried repeating his rape routine, only to find that the young woman was not nearly as docile as the three Yosemite tourists he’d murdered the previous winter. 

Joie Armstrong fought back, scratching and screaming and running away from Cary at top speed. Cary caught up, eventually overpowering her long enough to slice her head from her body. He left the corpse in a gory mess next to a creek, but desecrated a nearby spring by tossing her head into the water. Unlike Randy Kraft who maintains to this very day that he is innocent in the killing of 67 (or more) young men, Stayner confessed as soon as he was busted. Tracked down to a Sacramento nudist colony, he showed zero remorse, but total recall when he recounted his crimes to the FBI. Like Bundy, he took more than a little pride in his ability to elude and misdirect the cops.

What all three of these assholes – Kraft, Stayner and Bundy -- have in common is an unhealthy obsession with their genitals, a compulsion to dominate and control, and a well-honed capacity to lie convincingly through their teeth without breaking a sweat. They each qualify as sociopaths, incapable of empathy or compassion and forever condemned to view their fellow human beings in much the same way piranha regard goldfish. 

Criminologists, shrinks and sociologists have been aware of such cretins for decades. THE MASK OF SANITY, Hervey Cleckley’s groundbreaking study of sociopaths,  was first published in 1941. A psychiatrist and Rhodes Scholar, Cleckley pioneered a Psychopathy Checklist (PCL) that was later refined and patented in 1970 by Canadian psychiatrist Robert Hare. Through interview and inventory, the Hare PCL purports to detect sociopaths. If they score between 30 and 40 on the Hare Scale, there’s a very good chance they’re a disaster area. Among other maniacs, Bundy and female serial killer Aileen Wuornos scored in the high 30s.

And yet, despite the best efforts of these and other scientists, thrill killers continued to multiply and march among us, undetected. The term “serial killer” first came into vogue while Randy was perfecting his (I must apologize for this) craft during the 1970s. The FBI’s earliest profilers began serious scrutiny the following decade with agent John Douglas famously collecting case studies to try to understand what made them tick. As quasi-documented in the current Netflix series MINDHUNTERS, nearly 40 years of compiling data for the Behavioral Analysis Unit has yielded precious little in the way of predicting or apprehending predators like Randy, Cary and Ted (Oh my!). We know Nature and Nurture got screwed up with each of them on the way to adulthood, but we don’t know precisely how or why or when. 

The keepers of the stats tell us that one in every 25 Americans is a sociopath. Of that number, up to 50 are out there stalking and killing at any given moment, eluding capture at least long enough to repeat their crimes. It is cold comfort to their victims or survivors that the FBI hasn’t let up in their pursuit. The plain fact of the matter is that at least up until the advent of DNA as a tracking tool, sociopaths were almost always caught by accident and not through the efforts of law enforcement. 

Even with the advent of DNA testing, a clever sociopath like Cary Stayner could send an august institution like the FBI chasing its tail while Cary went about tracking his latest victim with utter impunity. When a platoon of Special Agents began closing in on him, Cary simply wrote a letter to FBI headquarters telling them where to find one of his victim’s bodies. He then asked a random stranger to lick the envelope shut. He had dry mouth, he explained. All out of saliva. 

Cary knew full well that CSIs would analyze the spit for the killer’s DNA. They might be diabolical, but sociopaths are rarely stupid. The only thing more thrilling to a Stayner, Bundy or Kraft than making smug cops look like dumb asses is homicide itself.

Which brings me back to my martini postmortem following my CNN interview. As I say, I’d forgotten just how horribly clever Cary Stayner was until my interviewer reminded me. Cary smirked when he told the cops he came up with the DNA misdirection from watching TV. Many if not most sociopaths take their cues from the tube. 

If you read about a killer harvesting victims in a peculiarly clever way or finding a cunning method of hiding his crimes or especially making his pursuers look like Inspector Clouseau on ketamine, it’s probably because he or she watches a lot of LAW AND ORDER SVU. It’s called opposition research. The Golden State Killer outwitted the cops for 40 years because he was a cop. He knew how to outfox because he trained himself in the art and science of outfoxing foxes. Thanks to the televised popularity of police procedurals, the 50 or so serial killers that the FBI tells us are currently out there tracking their latest victims even as I type these words, are getting wiser and wiser to the ways of crime detection every day.

These were the worrisome thoughts that passed through my frontal  lobes as I was deadening them with alcohol at Sardi’s. As the narrator always used to intone at the beginning of each episode of the 1960s crime drama THE NAKED CITY, there are 8 million stories in New York City. 

This has been just one of them.    


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