Berkowitz. Bundy. Dahmer. Gacy. Rader. Kemper. Ridgway.
Those names are part of the dark American legend that is serial killer lore. Despite our seemingly insatiable appetite for these stories, from true crime to homicide dramas, the killers themselves seem to be a dying breed.
The 70s through the early 90s could be considered the “golden age” of serial killers in America. Ironically enough, that’s when the Golden State Killer was active in California. John Joseph DeAngelo was finally caught, thanks to advancements in DNA testing and the tireless work of journalist Michelle McNamara. Now in his mid-70s, the former cop uses a wheelchair to attend court hearings.
DeAngelo is one of the last serial murderers from that heyday to be captured. Unless the Zodiac Killer turns up tomorrow, we’re unlikely to see a trial like this one again. And we’re unlikely to see another killer with a victim list even a fraction as long.
The question is, why?
According to the Radford database, maintained by Florida Gulf State University, there were 193 active serial killers in the United States during 1989. That was the peak of the phenomenon; since then, the number has swiftly declined.
As of 2018, the estimate of active killers is just over 40. Obviously, in a perfect world that number would be zero. Advances in forensic technology, along with the more cautious and ever-connected society of the modern age, make it more difficult for killers to operate undetected. Experts agree that the killers are being caught earlier and have a harder time isolating victims.
Another factor is longer sentences for murder, as well as reduced opportunities for parole. While many serial killers claimed more victims after an initial stint in prison a few decades ago, that’s much more unlikely to be the case now. But perhaps the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
According to Rene Chun, writing for The Atlantic, the percentage of solved cases has also fallen in America. In 2017, the homicide clearance (meaning solved) rate was just under 62%–down from 91% in the 60s. “Some experts believe that serial killers are responsible for a significant number of these unsolved murders,” Chun states.
The experts interviewed claim that killers have gotten more sophisticated over time. In addition, law enforcement has devoted fewer resources to connecting the dots between their crimes. They claim that anywhere from 2100 to 4000 unidentified serial killers might be at large right now.
So perhaps the killers never really went away. They just got better at hiding.