The 40th Anniversary of ‘The Year of Fear’

by Diane Dimond on March 31, 2014

They Command Our Fascination

There is no subject that brings in more reader reaction than when I write about serial killers. The answer to why we are so fascinated by these multiple murderers is mercurial depending on who you ask.

Dr. Scott Bonn, a professor of criminology at Drew University says, “Serial Killers seem to be for adults what monster movies are for children. It’s exciting -– it’s arousing,” to learn about their exploits.

Dr. Casey Jordan, a criminologist, behavioral analyst, and attorney in private practice says we are captivated by stories about serial killers because, “We wonder to what extent they are just like us.”

I would take it one step further and say we are riveted to details about serial killers because we wonder if we might ever reach a point where we could do what they do.

I read as much about the topic as I can and during recent research about serial killers I discovered an intriguing set of facts dating back four decades. You might say this is the 40th anniversary of the “Year of Fear.”

In the ‘70s the U.S. experienced a frightening uptick in the number of active serial killers. In that decade, according to the serial killer information center at Radford University, there were 450 individual serial killers at work. Over the previous decade the number stood at 156.

Howard Teten, the ‘Father of Profiling’

What caused the spike? Were there that many more vicious and deranged predators roaming the country or did law enforcement become better able to identify those who killed over and over again?

Two years earlier the FBI allowed a visionary special agent named Howard Teten to establish what would ultimately become the Behavioral Sciences Unit. Teten devised a groundbreaking analytic approach, now known as psychological criminal profiling, to try to identify unknown killers. His agents dedicated themselves to studying high-volume kill areas around the country and meticulously logged similarities between the cases.

They analyzed the lifestyle, physical attributes and location of victims, the way the killers committed the murders and exactly how they left their victims. Patterns emerged. There was a swath of the county where pretty brunette co-eds were repeatedly reported missing. Some hospitals experienced an extraordinary number of unexplained deaths. Bodies were found with similar and unique wound patterns. Victims had been left in similar provocative positions. All similarities were put together like pieces of a big ugly puzzle. Agents began to know the “how” and “where” of multiple murders but not the “who.” Not yet.

Although the exact date is unknown, this is the time the FBI began to use the term “serial killer” as opposed to the less precise “murder without motive” designation they used back then.

My research also led to a startling revelation I never knew about. 1974 was the year in which some of America’s most notorious and prolific murderers began their reigns of bloody terror.

Serial Killer Ted Bundy

Ted Bundy committed his first murder in January 1974.

Dennis Radar (BTK-Bind-Torture-Kill) first murdered in January 1974.

John Wayne Gacy killed the second of his 34 victims in January 1974.

Coral Eugene Watts murdered the first of an estimated 90 victims in 1974.

Paul John Knowles went on a killing spree, murdering 18 people in 1974.

What was  it about 1974?

FBI Special Agent Jim Clemente

Retired FBI special agent Jim Clemente worked in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (the modern day name of Agent Teten’s original BSU) for 22 years. He told me, “At the time the BAU had no idea how devastating a year 1974 would turn out to be. Some of the most brilliant and prolific serial killers would launch their destructive careers at that time. But it would be decades before they were all brought to justice.”

Knowles, aka ‘The Casanova Killer”

As FBI agents were building their multiple puzzles the elusive Bundy would murder upwards of 36 people over the next four years. Dennis Rader killed until 1991. Gacy wouldn’t be caught until late 1978. Watts continue his bloody spree for more than eight years. Thankfully, the handsome Knowles was on a rapid path of destruction. His murder binge ended after five months when a police officer shot him dead.

Surely, there were news reports about some of these murders and missing people left behind in the frenzy of serial killing. But in 1974 the nation’s attention was scattered. Vietnam was still on-going. There was a frantic worldwide nuclear arms race underway. Watergate was toppling the administration of President Richard Nixon. Even though the daughter of multi-millionaire Randolph Hearst was kidnapped this year most Americans didn’t notice that the nation’s crime rate was on the rise.

Kidnapped in 1974

But the FBI knew the murderous score and worried about creating public panic kept the information quiet. Also in 1974, the agents were well aware of a murderous maniac operating in San Francisco who signed taunting, cryptic letters to police with the moniker “Zodiac” and someone else was systematically picking up military men home on leave in Southern California and dumping their dismembered bodies along major highways.

The FBI Led the Way in Profiling Serial Killers

The takeaway from this look back at history is that since that peak of serial killing madness in the ‘70s and ‘80s – (there were 603 serial killers identified in the 80’s) the numbers have decreased every single decade since. In the 90’s there were 498 serial killers, in the 2000’s there were 275. So far in this decade, there are just 67 active serial killers registered at the reliable Radford University site. It’s a testament to the perseverance of the FBI and to all law enforcement that studied and implemented Special Agent Teten’s revolutionary criminal profiling protocol.

Serial killers may still hold a place of fascination for many of us but here’s hoping their number continues to dwindle.



Diane Dimond March 31, 2014 at 10:37 am

ABQ Journal Reader Stephen A. Vaughn writes:

“Thanks for the article today.

I’d suggest this:

• The purpose of culture, civilization, humanity at some societal organizational level, exists for the protection of its membership, the weak equal to the strong, the vulnerable equal to the invulnerable.

• To the degree that culture can protect its membership, the society flourishes. To the degree that it fails to, it declines, and is often oppressive.

• Psychopathy, or sociopathy, is considered nowadays to constitute a functional neurological defect in conscience and empathy. Whether or not a person has volitional control over their actions is a point aside from my argument here. The point is, psychopaths and sociopaths appear at a moderately low prevalence in all societies, about 1% to 5% throughout history.

• The natural history of psychopaths, the minority of whom go on to become killers, is that they “burn out” in their criminality in their 40’s. The 70’s were the boomer generation for psychopaths. Now, they are older – no more decent, but less violent.

[More happily or optimistically, normal humans have a very strong innate dislike for killing other humans. The deep secret in wars in the past is that a majority of humans CANNOT kill a visible enemy human, no matter the circumstances. Psychological attempts to manipulate the minds of soldiers, and increase the percentage of soldiers who could kill freely, was tried in Vietnam, and simply made those who did kill, forever cursed with traumatic stress disorder. That, too, was part of 1974] (ref: On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society
Book by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman – I recommend it.)

• After the Vietnam War, I remember the US as a society in decline, trusting nothing. Nixon quit. The robust “ideals” of the Founders were seen as shattered, ancient myths. The Bicentennial was treated with general contempt and derision, as I recall. It was considered a bitter joke.
• Reagan’s time later was a restoration of the image of the US, with considerable energy applied to reinventing patriotism.

So, like many of the other cultural collapses in the history of the US (there have been several), there was disillusionment and fragmentation, alienation and the loss of community, with a population bubble that put the psychopaths in their 20’s. Many of these elements have cleared. However, in my opinion, we still do not have a society that is effective in the protection of its weak and vulnerable from predation. It is unfortunate that we cannot consider this lack of progress in our society. We are statistically safer, but do not have social protection, the way that is seen in Japanese or some European cultures, that socially isolate and contain the sociopaths.

If you’ve never read Democracy in America, by de Tocqueville, I really recommend it as one of the must-read texts for Americans. De Tocqueville was shocked by the decline in vision and American revolutionary War culture, the original and admired American culture, into what he saw as a sodden mish-mash of lesser men. This, in the 1840’s. We go to Hell in a handbasket regularly. His account of one of the trips is very enlightening.

Thanks for your writing, Diane, and peace!
Stephen A. Vaughn MD PhD”

Diane Dimond March 31, 2014 at 1:32 pm

Facebook Friend Shirley Pacheco writes:

” I truly wish you were on the air every day talking about this kind of stuff. You can tell an interesting story …. Your voice is perfect to keep us listening .”

Diane Dimond March 31, 2014 at 11:22 pm

Facebook Friend Ronald Jeffries Tallman writes:

“They’ve perhaps dwindled because we have better communication devices, more awareness and education; less opportunity for them. I guess people more need to stay in groups when out and about and no one can be trusted. Yes, certainly how may they be like us in some ways or blend in, to which they often do. Hopefully not the other way around. Forensics have helped, even trace and linking the physical characteristics amongst relatives. They went to BTK’s daughter first for a semi proof positive. Often these people do themselves in as eventually they do slip up in a minute way. Technique and science is catching up with them and some of that should be confidential and left off the TV screens.”

Diane Dimond April 2, 2014 at 7:40 pm

Huffington Post Reader Christine (KiraBear) writes:

“I don’t think the fascination has much to do with the idea of being like the serial killer, it has more to do with the victims. There is a perception that you can protect yourself from other types of killers. Our society tells us, rightly or wrongly, that you can take self defense classes, avoid high risk areas, or even carry yourself in a way that will minimize the likelihood of becoming a victim of violent crime. Serial killers defeat those defenses. If you are unlucky enough to become the target they will circumvent all of those defenses to meet their goal. It doesn’t matter if you are a big, tough, rugged football playing 22 year old guy (the stereotype of the ultimate strong person) in the security and privacy of your own home, if they want you they will get you.”

Diane Dimond April 7, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Linked In Connection Mike Martin writes:

“If you have time for a longish read, please check out:

With Malice Aforethought
For three decades, a highly regarded Berkeley professor has stood accused of America’s most notorious serial murders. Why won’t he fight back?


“An intellectual version of The Most Dangerous Game—Richard Connell’s famous tale of man as predator and prey—the odyssey of Gareth Penn, the Mensa polymath, and Michael O’Hare, the ascendant academic, is one of the most confounding, disturbing, and bizarre in the annals of contemporary crime.”

Diane Dimond April 9, 2014 at 7:15 pm

Huffington Post Reader Dennis V. (RedneckDem) writes:

“My fascination with the genre is less about what they did, but how they were taken down!”

Diane Dimond April 9, 2014 at 7:16 pm

Huffington Post Reader Debby Eary writes:

“Exactly. How do they hide? How can they be caught?

Some of these guys have killed over 100 people without a “weapon”.”

Diane Dimond April 9, 2014 at 7:17 pm

Huffington Post Reader Craig Schultz writes:

“I’m surprised that John Douglas wasn’t mentioned although all the members of the BSU, BAU and the Investigations and Operations Support Section (IOSS) are ‘rock stars’ in their own right in the area of applied behavioral sciences.

Teten though, a mountain looking down on giants.

I had an opportunity to meet John years ago when attending one of the classes they held for police and investigative service members throughout the world although most attending were from the US. His is an amazing story!”

Diane Dimond April 9, 2014 at 7:20 pm

Oh, Mr. Schultz, I wish I had enough space to have written reams about John Douglas, Hazelwood, Clemente and all the other brilliant agents who have worked at the BAU.
You’re right! They are all rock starts.
To address your specific question, however, I did reach out to Mr. Douglas for comment. He keeps a pretty low profile these days, is difficult to contact and I couldn’t reach him by deadline time.
I have quoted him in past columns. ~ DD

Diane Dimond April 9, 2014 at 7:21 pm

Huffington Post Reader Stewart writes:

“1979 is probably the worst year. Bittaker and Norris’s case gave me nightmares.”

Diane Dimond April 9, 2014 at 7:22 pm

In 2019 maybe I’ll write about that case’s 40th anniversary!
~ DD

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