Small things can give big breaks in finding serial killers

W By Paul Richter and Aaron Zitner

wASHINGTON – Juan V. Corona was careful enough in crime that he killed and buried 25 farm workers in rural Sutter County, Calif., without leaving a single witness or weapon that could provide direct evidence against him.

Yet as his four-month killing spree continued in early 1971, Corona seemed to become more casual. As he buried one of his later victims, he dropped a signed bank deposit slip into the shallow grave, providing police a key piece of the circumstantial evidence that led to his conviction.

Serial murderers have often been undone by a sloppiness that increases as their crimes continue. Experts believe the same pattern may become the undoing of the sniper who has killed nine people in the Washington, D.C., area since Oct. 2.

Though crafty in many ways, the sniper has put himself at risk, experts say, by apparently using the same weapon and vehicles over and over. In his most recent attack, on Monday night, he ventured close enough to a crowded mall in Fairfax County, Va., that some shoppers could have seen him, although police are downplaying the accuracy of witness accounts.

As time passes, “it looks like he’s getting a lot sloppier,” said Michael Rustigan, a criminologist at San Francisco State University.

Washington’s serial killer is all but unique in the annals of crime, because he apparently picks his victims at random, enabling him to frighten a metropolitan area in a way that few killers could. But he is a serial killer all the same, meeting the FBI definition: three or more victims with a “cooling-off period” of unspecified time between the murders.

There have been a large number of murderers who have killed a number of victims at one shooting, such as George Hennard, who killed 22 people and wounded 23 in his armed attack on a Killeen, Texas, cafeteria in 1991.

And there have been many others who killed over an extended period, such as “Son of Sam” slayer David Berkowitz and Ted Bundy. Such serial killers usually pick one category – such as women or minorities – as their victims.

But experts say it is highly unusual for a killer to attack strangers picked at random in a concentrated period, as the sniper has in the last two weeks.

The concentrated timing adds to the terror, they say. The fact that he is picking strangers makes it tougher for police to track.

According to the experts, serial killers who are cautious when they commit their first crime often become bold to the point of reckless when it starts to look as if they can outwit the cops.

Another vulnerability is their frequent desire to take credit, with friends or the public at large, for what they’ve done.

And serial murderers have often been nabbed because they sloppily commit minor crimes – even just speeding or parking violations – that allow police to track them down.

Killers slip up “because they get greedy, and feel they can do it over and over again and because they get this feeling they can outsmart police,” said Tod Burke, a former police officer and now a professor of criminology at Radford University in Virginia.

Corona, who was a farm contractor, had worked out his approach with care. He tended to choose as victims itinerant farm workers and drifters who were nondescript and without a lot of personal connections, and thus were less likely to be missed or remembered.

“He was fairly careful,” said Roger Pierucci, a lawyer in the Lake Tahoe area who was one of prosecutors in the case.

Corona slipped up by allowing the deposit slip to fall from his shirt pocket as he buried a victim in the dark. “It was apparently just a simple oversight,” Pierucci said.

On another occasion, Corona also dropped receipts from meat-market purchases into a grave.

Bundy got a reputation as one of the wiliest serial killers ever during a cross-country murder spree between 1973 and 1978 that led to the death of at least 30 female victims. In state after state, Bundy was able to elude detection.

Yet Bundy wasn’t smart enough to avoid picking a fistfight with a policeman who pulled him over on a routine traffic stop in Florida in 1978. He was convicted of three murders in Florida, and executed in 1989.

Berkowitz killed six and wounded seven in a spree that terrorized New York City in 1976 and 1977. He prowled through New York’s darkened streets, shooting women parked in cars.

Yet Berkowitz made the avoidable mistake of parking illegally. When a witness said she had seen a dark figure carrying a traffic ticket, police began the search that led them to the murderer.

Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston, said multiple killers have often been tripped up by auto violations because cars are a tool they need – and one that is closely regulated by the government.

“We license vehicles. We specify the rules about driving. And these killers are people who don’t follow rules,” he said.

Another prolific killer caught this way was Joel David Rifkin, who killed 17 prostitutes in New York between 1991 and 1993. He told police he picked up the women in Manhattan, had sex with them, strangled them and dumped their bodies.

But Rifkin was stopped one night for driving without a license plate. Police found one of the victims in the back of his pickup truck.

A traffic stop also led to the arrest of Randy Kraft, a computer programmer believed to have killed as many as 45 young men in Southern California, Oregon and Michigan.

Kraft picked up hitchhikers between 18 and 25 years old. He often tortured them before strangling them with their own belts. But Kraft’s spree ended in 1983, when police pulled him over and found a dead Marine in his front seat.

Another killer who terrorized the nation’s capital was the so-called “shotgun stalker” James E. Swann Jr., who was arrested after an off-duty policeman saw his car run several red lights.

Over a period of two months in early 1993, Swann killed four people and wounded five during attacks in which he drove down the street and blasted pedestrians at short range with a shotgun.

One case that had some similarities to the current spree was that of an Ohio hunter who killed five persons between 1989 and 1992.

Thomas Dillon roamed the countryside and picked off two hunters, two fisherman and a jogger. His mistake: discussing with a friend how one could get away with random murders.

The friend brought him to the attention of police, who matched a slug from his rifle with one from a victim. Dillon is now serving a life term.

Perhaps because of the added complexity of stranger-on-stranger attacks, New York City police were never able to solve a series of sniping attacks around Penn Station over 10 months in 1983 that left one person dead and seven wounded.

The sniper used a .25-caliber automatic pistol and fired it from locations around the station from which he could sneak away unseen. The New York police formed a large task force to look into the case but never learned anything of the identity of that sniper.