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What makes a serial killer tick?

By DR. ALEN J. SALERIAN

WASHINGTON, Oct. 24 (UPI) -- Ever since Oct. 2 when a phantom sniper began to terrorize the suburban Washington area, the signature trait of serial killers has become a central point of discussion. When you think about it, to murder to feel better -- the signature trait - -is really a severe handicap.

There are other intriguing questions about a serial killer: Why and how a human being suddenly becomes a death machine?

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A serial killer is a damaged soul.

I believe the factors that turn someone into a serial killer are more than evil, more than bad genes, or horrible childhoods and definitely more revealing about the complexity of abnormal human behavior. For some, the cause is psychosis or demonic voices, for others, overpowering compulsions with deep psychological roots, and for some killing is foreplay to sex.

Even the term "serial killer" raises interesting questions. A serial killer is a descriptive term and not a scientific one. In essence, a serial killer is not a medical diagnosis and simply refers to someone who for emotional reasons murders people.

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A few basic facts about serial killers are helpful. Often they are white men between the ages of 20 and 50 and of average intelligence. Most of them have abused pets or other animals as children or young adults.

It would be wrong to view all serial killers as the same. Although there are as many types of serial killers as there are cancers, three major types have been recognized: Serial killers, delusional serial killers, and sexual predator serial killers.

The "simple serial killer," for instance is one type. Thomas Dillon, a married and working man without any apparent evidence of mental illness, terrorized southern Ohio for several years in the early 90's, and in some peculiar ways reminds me of the Washington phantom sniper.

Dillon was a textbook example of a lone serial killer that was driven to hunt hunters. Dillon was highly impulsive. On the way to work, he would later confess, suddenly an intense desire to kill would overpower him. He would race to nearby mountains, wait for his prey, and quickly return to work after his kill. He would never think of his victim or what triggered his hunting trip.

A tip from a friend led police to Dillon's arrest and life imprisonment.

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Another type is a delusional killer. Son of Sam, Sam Berkowitz, who in the 1970's created a national sensation with his serial killings, was a delusional killer whose diseased mind was taken over by delusions of grandiosity and hallucinations. His possessed soul was a slave to his psychotic illness -- which he did not know he had -- triggered his sexual murders. Like Dillon, Son of Sam was eventually caught and convicted for his serial killings.

Another type is the "sexual predator killers." By age seven, Jeffery Lionel Dahmer was already torturing and drowning dogs and cats. As a teenager he perfected his animal torture techniques and experimented with novel methods. His favorite: acid cocktails to skin living animals.

Jeffrey Dahmer was never insane. He never heard voices, nor lost touch with reality, yet seemed intensely driven to immobilize and control his victims. One by one, they were all tricked into being handcuffed for sexual foreplay. Then came the slow acid drip melting his victims' skull and flesh. Jeffrey Dahmer's acid rain converted healthy young men to incoherent zombies. Sex, agonizing death and occasional cannibalism followed.

For Jeffrey Dahmer, total domination over his victims was his wicked mission and as if the anguish and tragic losses of lives were just collateral damage. Ironically in prison, Dahmer was bludgeoned to death by a psychotic killer on Nov. 28, 1994.

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So why does a serial killer do what he does?

However diverse the underlying conditions and whether the serial killings come from psychotic delusions, overpowering compulsions or predatory sexual behavior, a serial killer does not have any option but to kill in order to feel good or to seek relief from his overpowering demons. That is why our history is filled with hundreds of mental cripples, who sucked blood, ate human flesh, raped, tortured or simply slaughtered.

Can a serial killer be helped? Many people, I suspect, feel a bullet or a windowless cell may be the most poetic and just treatment for a serial killer. Yet, truth is, science matters. Today, the central question is this: Can individuals as hideous and deranged as Son of Sam, Thomas Dillon, or Jeffrey Dahmer be helped?

Not surprisingly, the answer is a complex one. There is a narrow therapeutic window to help a Jeffrey Dahmer or Thomas Dillon. For instance, a young Jeffrey Dahmer caught skinning dogs may respond to highly specialized treatment (medication and intensive counseling) directed at his underlying brain disease and may have a chance at not becoming a cannibal. Most serial killers are not born killers. Dahmers and Dillons are bad genes transformed to killers through life and certainly becoming more destructive with each kill.

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Frequently malignant tumors do not respond to the most potent treatments once malignant cells invade multiple and distant sites, so as a serial killer who becomes incurable after crossing a certain line.

I say this with the confidence of a psychiatrist who over a quarter of a century has evaluated and worked with infant killers, serial rapists, ordinary psychotics, psychotic killers and people of power whose actions killed many people, endangered the lives of millions, destroyed families, and led to their own self-destruction.

Amazingly, with early and aggressive intervention, some of them improved. An infant killer managed to raise two beautiful children without harming them. A serial rapist became a husband and responsible citizen. A man of power who had caused profound destruction reported almost miraculous disappearance of destructive demonic urges soon after his treatment in prison. Yet, once again there are plenty of times we are just too late and it is impossible to cure a serial killer or any malignant growth.

Soon after the phantom serial killer became the common enemy of Washington, I sensed trouble, but it was only after he shot a 12-year-old I knew that he would soon test the limits of wickedness.

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Do I think we will catch him?

I predict he will be dead soon or behind bars. I say this with the confidence of a psychiatrist who has worked with other diseased minds who entered a near end phase of reckless behavior signaling their blind denial of possible capture. In the final analysis, the most daunting challenge of modern science and society is prevention, early detection and diagnosis of medical conditions that convert humans to predators.

(Alen J. Salerian, M.D., is the Medical Director of the Washington Psychiatric Center and former psychiatric consultant to the FBI. He is the author of the upcoming book, "What is the Color of Your Brain?") HEADER:(Editor's Note: Dr. Alen J. Salerian prepared this essay on serial killers for United Press International before authorities arrested two men on weapons and material witness charges Wednesday, but his insights will be valuable as the case goes forward.)

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