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IN A SNIPER'S GRIP | COLUMN ONE

Serial Killer Slip-Ups

Murderers have often been undone by sloppiness as their crime sprees continue. Could that be the Beltway sniper's undoing?

October 17, 2002|Paul Richter and Aaron Zitner | Times Staff Writers

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 string of killings 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 helped lead 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 were able to provide details of his appearance and license plate.

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

Washington's 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 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 in one shooting rampage, 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 Washington-area sniper apparently has in the last two weeks.

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

"Someone who goes around killing absolute strangers is the hardest for law enforcement to find, because there are no easy connections between the victims and the perpetrator," said Colin Simpson, a prosecutor in Cook County, Ill., who had a role in the case of serial killer John Wayne Gacy.

According to the experts, serial killers who are cautious when they commit their first crime often become bold to the point of recklessness 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 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 the prosecutors in the case.

Corona slipped up by allowing the bank 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 streak between 1973 and 1978 that led to the deaths of at least 30 females.

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 people and wounded seven, terrorizing New York City in 1976 and 1977. He prowled 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.

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