Serial killers have been known to take breaks or stop killing altogether, challenging the notion that their urge to kill is constant. The case of Joseph James DeAngelo, also known as the Golden State Killer, exemplifies this phenomenon. DeAngelo committed at least 13 murders, 51 rapes, and 120 burglaries between 1974 and 1986, but then abruptly stopped. He was not arrested until 30 years later and does not appear to have killed anyone during that timeframe.
A 2007 FBI report sheds light on the reasons why serial killers may cease their killing sprees. Changes in life circumstances, such as increased participation in family activities or engaging in other diversions, can make murdering more difficult or less appealing to the killer. Mark Safarik, a former member of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, explains that simple changes like switching jobs or becoming involved in a relationship can disrupt a killer’s ability to prey on potential victims.
Substitution can also play a role in a serial killer’s decision to stop killing. For instance, Jeffrey Gorton, who raped and murdered a college professor in 1986, did not kill again until 1991. During this period, he engaged in cross-dressing, masturbatory activities, and consensual sex with his wife, which served as substitutes for his murderous impulses. Additionally, fear of getting caught can lead some killers, like Jeffrey Dahmer, to take breaks from killing.
Research has shown that most serial murderers reach a certain age and stop killing. A study co-authored by Safarik in 2017 found that older sexual homicide offenders tend to slow down once they reach age 50. The physical and hormonal changes that come with aging, coupled with a diminished drive, make it less likely for older killers to engage in heinous acts. It is rare for these offenders to continue their crimes beyond the age of 55.
The ability of serial killers to control their actions and choose when to stop or take a break from killing challenges the notion that their choices are unconscious or beyond their control. While most serial killers exhibit psychopathic traits and lack empathy, they are aware of the difference between right and wrong. Safarik emphasizes that they consciously choose to ignore societal norms and commit these heinous acts.