Thursday, April 19, 2018
Public safety

Experts have some theories on who’s carrying out Seminole Heights killings

The words serial killer tend to conjure an image of a middle-aged white man, likely a loner. He stabs or chokes or strangles, murdering up close for the thrill, straight out of central casting.

But the Hollywood profile does not fit the killings in Seminole Heights.

Three people have died in shootings in the neighborhood during the past two weeks, all seemingly at random — two young black men and one white woman in her 30s. Investigators say the slayings are connected.

"If we are talking about one killer, then we are talking about a serial killer in Tampa," said criminologist Jack Levin. "However, he does differ from the typical serial killer in a very important way: He used a firearm."

The murderer is probably young, 20s maybe, experts say, perhaps a member of a racial or ethnic minority. The killings may arise from anger, not sexual desire.

And whoever committed them likely lives close by, possibly even in Seminole Heights.

• • •

First, the caveats: Profiling is "an art, not a science," according to Levin, and police often turn to profiles only as a last resort.

"Criminologists are like meteorologists," he said. "We can’t predict serial murder just like the weatherman can’t predict the weather."

But Enzo Yaksic, who runs the Serial Homicide Expertise and Information Sharing Collaborative, tries anyway. He is not a professional criminologist but an expert with a database of thousands of murderers that he uses to develop profiles of serial killers. He doesn’t try to get inside their minds; he tries to bring science to the art.

He shared his profile of the Seminole Heights killer with the Tampa Bay Times.

Previous Coverage: Seminole Heights murder victim was only in neighborhood by chance

The murderer seems to ambush victims, coming on them suddenly with a gun. Most serial killers are men, so this one probably is, too.

He may be traveling by foot or bicycle, moving quietly. The mode of transportation suggests a younger person, 21 to 35.

The killer probably has a "deep and personal relationship with the area," Yaksic wrote. He consulted with Bryanna Fox, a former FBI agent and professor at the University of South Florida, to better understand Seminole Heights before sharing the profile. Because the diverse neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, he thinks class tensions could fit into the motive.

"The disparity between the offender’s perceived lower status may be driving his motivations to victimize those from other statuses," Yaksic wrote. Since at least two of the killings happened later in the day or at night, the "timing could indicate that the offender is employed during the daylight hours in some menial capacity based on his potential age range."

Though predicting race is difficult, Yaksic wrote that in such a diverse area, the killer is likely from a minority group. He doubts the murderer is mentally ill but probably enjoys outsmarting law enforcement officers.

In an interview, Yaksic said the Seminole Heights killer seems to match a pattern he has seen in recent years — younger, spree-like serial murderers who are more motivated by anger than sexual desire. It’s possible the killings could even be gang activity or an initiation ritual.

"The newer version of the offender is the run-and-guns," Yaksic said. "They don’t take any kind of gratification from spending time with the body."

Previous Coverage: "Someone is terrorizing’’ Seminole Heights after third slaying in 11 days

Yaksic, who also runs the Atypical Homicide Research Group at Northeastern University, sent a copy of the profile he developed to Tampa police. On Friday, he said he had not heard back, though he didn’t expect to. The FBI is assisting local authorities in the case.

"Profiles are kind of a supplement. It’s not supposed to be trumping their efforts, it’s more like a supplement to their activities," Yaksic said. Tampa police seem to be doing everything right, he said. "It’s usually gumshoe police work that is going to land these guys — and it usually does."

• • •

Everyone can watch profiling with TV shows like Criminal Minds and Mindhunter, but it remains a tricky, evolving process. Yaksic said many might refrain from sharing their profiles, for fear of being wrong, but he trusts his data. And there will always be outliers.

In 2008, the FBI generated a new report on serial murder, defining it as "the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events." The bureau dispelled myths, reporting that not all killers are white, loners or motivated by sex.

Levin, co-director of Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict at Northeastern University, knows Yaksic and agreed with many key takeaways from the profile.

"Those serial killers who do use guns tend to be younger, and they may be in their 20s," he said.

"When you see diversity — racial and ethnic diversity in the victims — the killer is almost always from a minority group."

Levin also concurred that the killer is quite possibly from Seminole Heights.

Fox, of USF, said the murderer seems to target "victims of opportunity" without much planning, suggesting he lives nearby.

"An organized offender is more likely to travel, a disorganized offender is more likely to commit crimes in an area that they’re familiar with," she said.

The killings bring to mind a case outside Baton Rouge, La., where a murderer this year shot men outside their homes, some doing yard work, said Michelle Jeanis, an assistant professor in criminal justice at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Ryan Sharpe, 36, has been arrested, but authorities have not shared his motive.

"They’re both opportunistic. They seem to be cycling pretty quickly in their homicides," said Jeanis, who holds a doctorate from USF. "And actually the statistics show us that serial killers are using guns more often in the past decade than they have in the past."

• • •

Asked if Seminole Heights has a serial killer, interim Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said Friday: "We can call it what we want, ... if that brings attention to it, that’s fine."

But aside from a grainy surveillance video of a person walking, little evidence has been released.

Without some first-hand witness information, Fox said, "this is a really, really tough case."

Levin said a he doubts the killing spree is over but he hopes the murderer will soon trip up.

"Most of these serial killers make a mistake. You know what it is? They’ve gotten away with murder, they’re not a suspect, they start to feel invincible, invulnerable."

Then they get caught.

Senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Zack Sampson at [email protected] Follow @ZackSampson

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