James Alan Fox
October 23, 2014
The discovery last weekend of the bodies of seven women, mostly prostitutes, in Indiana did not result from an intensive manhunt for a serial killer, the kind of sleuthing often featured in television crime dramas. Rather, it was the arrest of Darren Deon Vann, 43, in connection with the disappearance of one woman, 19-year-old Afrika Hardy that had the registered sex offender spilling his guts about crimes of which the authorities had had little knowledge.
This is a familiar story to those who pay close attention to such crimes in real life. Serial murders of prostitutes — streetwalkers, escorts, and outcall sex workers — have occurred in virtually every state of the nation, with many of the cases unsolved and frustratingly cold.
According to criminologist Kenna Quinet of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, as many as one-third of repeat killers have included prostitutes among their prey. Moreover, the body count may be severely understated from what Quinet has termed the "missing missing": missing persons never reported as missing.
The high prevalence of prostitute slayings is partially a result of their easy accessibility. A sexual sadist can hunt the streets of the city or browse the online ads of Backpage, as Vann reportedly did, looking selectively for the one who might best satisfy his violent fantasies. And for money or drugs, the unfortunate prostitute will willingly participate in making those fantasies a reality until it becomes too late to escape.
The assailant, by seeing prostitutes as "sex machines" who are programmed to please in life or in death, feels little hesitancy or remorse. Dehumanizing his victims in this way, he is killing someone he views as beneath humanity. For example, Robert Hansen, who murdered more than a dozen prostitutes in Alaska self-servingly rationalized that he was ridding the world of filth and that society would be better off without them.
Most important, however, is that the killer who stalks prostitutes can count on a slow response from law enforcement and minimal attention from the general public. Were he to abduct some middle-class co-ed, the response would be intense and immediate, as it was following the recent disappearance of University Virginia student Hannah Graham.
When a reputed prostitute is reported missing, the police don't necessarily consider it foul play, at least not until human remains are discovered buried in some remote dump site or discarded like human trash in an abandoned building. Even then, it often becomes a challenge just to identify the victim, much less the perpetrator.
"I picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed," explained Gary Ridgeway who killed dozens of Seattle-area prostitutes over a period of two decades. "I knew they would not be reported missing. I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught."
If there is one characteristic that distinguishes the most prolific predators who remain at large for years while hunting humans for sport from other criminals is their degree of cunning. They are careful in selecting victims who will not bring the heat and disposing them in hard to find places.
When these serial predators are finally apprehended, it is often by a stroke of luck for the authorities. It is not that someone like Vann would have an unconscious desire for capture, as is often assumed, but that a sense of invincibility grows with each passing day. Overconfidence can lead a killer to make to a misstep, as Vann says he did when leaving traces of his latest murder.
That sense of grandeur often transforms into bravado once in custody. Rather than insist on innocence, even in the face of incriminating evidence, braggarts like Vann willingly confess, wanting everyone to know just how formidable they are. Plus, by recounting the details of their hideous crimes, they can reminisce about the high points of their otherwise obscure existence.
Unfortunately, there is not much that we can do to dissuade sex workers from placing themselves in harm's way. Even when it is widely reported that a serial killer is at large, many prostitutes put profit over protection, falsely believing that they can spot the bad guy.
What we can do, however, is to take the plight of these victims not quite so casually, indeed to be outraged and insist on a concerted police response regardless of the victim's lot in society.
"They're not nobodies," pleaded Lori Townsend, mother of Vann's final victim. "They're somebody's daughter, somebody's mother, somebody's sister."
James Alan Fox, the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University, is co-author of Extreme Killing and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.