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Born Killers: Childhood Secrets of the World's Deadliest Serial Killers

Born Killers: Childhood Secrets of the World's Deadliest Serial Killers

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by Christopher Berry-Dee, Steven Morris

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It's an age-old question: is it nature or nurture? Can there really be a 'demon seed' that causes serial killers to act the way they do? Or is it an unfortunate combination of influences and events during their formative years that has turned them into such monsters? But no matter how many people they have killed, no matter how many lives they have ruined and whatever


It's an age-old question: is it nature or nurture? Can there really be a 'demon seed' that causes serial killers to act the way they do? Or is it an unfortunate combination of influences and events during their formative years that has turned them into such monsters? But no matter how many people they have killed, no matter how many lives they have ruined and whatever the nature of their sickening crimes, serial killers are still human. Analysing the early years of the lives of men like Jeffrey Dahmer, who abused and killed 17 young men, offers a fascinating insight into the effects of a dysfunctional or abusive childhood. Criminologists Christopher Berry-Dee and Steven Morris have spoken and corresponded with killers all over the world in a quest to discover what made them the way they are. For the first time, the inner workings of the minds of the most destructive individuals on the planet are revealed in shocking detail. Born Killers shows, through a sophisticated system of psychological profiling, how the potential serial killer develops. Read it and you too may be able to spot the signs...

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Born Killers

Childhood Secrets of the World's Deadliest Serial Killers

By Christopher Berry-Dee, Steven Morris

John Blake Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Christopher Berry-Dee and Steven Morris
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85782-650-0



BORN TO KILL, bred to kill, taught to kill or trained to kill? These are questions that need to be asked and answered if we are to understand a serial killer's career.

Although it may sound like a strange word to choose, 'career' is correct. And it's as much of a career as any other. Some people choose it, while others say it was something they were born to do – just as much as with any other career, only here the context is so strange that it is difficult to think of serial killing as a life choice. But stop and think for a moment and substitute the words 'serial killer' for any other type of career. Do we question whether other people were 'born' to their careers or chose them in later life?

Do we ask whether a bus driver was pre-determined to do his job? The consequences of growing up to become a bus driver are simply not interesting enough to a wide sector of society to give the question much thought. But the same applies to more high-profile jobs. Few questioned if the late Pope John Paul II was 'born' to his papal calling, or how Dr Christiaan Barnard arrived at his career choice as a pioneering heart transplant surgeon. It is arguable that the minds of such high-flying 'good' people are as worthy of study as those of serial killers. However, the one thing the story of a 'good' person lacks over that of a 'bad' person is the grim fascination we associate with the deeds of the latter. We do not need to know why a 'good' person is good. We are simply happy that they are. But we do, at some basic level, need to know why 'bad' people are bad. By understanding the dark side of human nature we feel we can protect ourselves from it in some way.

This is what we aim to do in this book. Take the British serial killer Fred West, on the face of it a jobbing builder from Gloucester. He was undoubtedly one of the most sick, twisted and perverted serial murderers that ever lived. In terms of a pack of cards the authors award him the 'Ace of Spades'. We claim that not only was he born to kill, he was bred and learned to kill, as well. He was a very particular type of serial killer, as evil as they come.

Next, look at Myra Hindley, one of the most reviled women in British history. We argue, in what may be an unpalatable truth to some, that had she not met her partner-in-crime, Ian Brady, it is doubtful she would ever had killed anyone. The fact that they both worked at the same engineering firm was the unhappy accident that set off a tragic train of events. Hindley, we believe, learned to kill. She was not, as the phrase has it, a 'natural-born killer'.

Then there is the case of Dr Harold Shipman. A general practitioner in the Manchester area, 'Dr Death' was trained to save lives and ended up turning his medical education on its head. He is suspected of approximately two hundred and fifty murders, making him perhaps the world's most prolific serial killer. Many authorities suggest that he may in fact be responsible for up to one thousand deaths. Whatever the actual figure, he eclipses the toll of any other serial killer caught to date and he is as different a type of serial killer from Fred West as he is from Myra Hindley.

John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo, aka 'The Washington Snipers', offer another contrast, similar in some ways to Brady and Hindley yet different in many others. John had been trained to kill as a US soldier and, in turn, took it upon himself to train seventeen-year-old Lee Malvo as a sniper. Together they shot over twenty-five people, killing at least fifteen.

Jeffrey Dahmer, 'The Milwaukee Cannibal', was outwardly an ordinary worker at the Ambrosia Chocolate Factory in Milwaukee. Yet he enticed his victims to his home, where they were drugged, strangled and then dissected. His actions suggest that his motives were more to do with a fascination for mutilation than loneliness or any of the other reasons usually assigned to the acts of a serial killer.

Finally, there is Ivan Milat, the 'Australian Backpack Killer', an itinerate drifter who lived off his wits, robbing banks to pay his way. With seven confirmed kills, and possibly as many as twenty-eight, Milat was the stereotypical sado-sexual serial killer. One of a breed that does not simply emerge overnight, Milat's development followed a career path that led from petty crime, through to sexual assault, rape, serial rape and then to murder.

But can we suggest that any of the names from this hall of infamy were born to kill? Maybe yes, maybe no. With the exception of Myra Hindley and the Washington Snipers we can say, with more than a degree of certainty, that there was within each of them a latent predisposition to commit multiple murders.

It is a long-established fact that the structure and quality of family interaction is an important part of a child's development, especially in the way the child itself perceives family members. According to the FBI: 'For children growing up, the quality of their attachments to parents and to other members of the family is most important as to how these children, as adults, relate to and value other members of society. Essentially, these early life attachments (sometimes called bonding) translate into a map of how a child will perceive situations outside the family.'

For some time we have known that human development results from the dynamic interplay of nature and nurture. From birth, we grow and learn because our biology is programmed to do so and because our social and physical environment provides stimulation.

During the first three or four years of life – the formative years – children experience the world in a more complete way than children of any other age. Their brains take in the external world through its system of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. This means that infant social, emotional, cognitive, physical and language development are stimulated during multisensory experiences. Infants and toddlers need the opportunity to participate in a world filled with stimulating sights, sounds and people.

Unfortunately, early development does not always proceed in a way that encourages child curiosity, creativity and self-confidence. For some children, early experiences are neither supportive nor predictable. The synapses that develop in the brain may be created in response to chronic stress, or other types of abuse and neglect. When children are vulnerable to these risks, problematic early experiences can lead to poor outcomes. For example, some children are born with the tendency to be irritable, impulsive and insensitive to emotions in others. When these child characteristics combine with adult care-giving that is withdrawn and neglectful, childrens' brains can wire up in ways that may result in unsympathetic child behaviour. When these child characteristics combine with adult care-giving that is angry and abusive, childrens' brains can wire in ways that result in violent and overly aggressive child behaviour. If the home environment teaches children to expect danger instead of security, then poor outcomes may occur, as this book will show. In these cases, how do nature and nurture contribute to early brain development?

More recent research tells us that early exposure to violence and other forms of unpredictable stress, as experienced by many of the killers featured in this book, can cause the brain to operate on a fast track. Such over activity of the connections between the brain's axons and dendrites, combined with child vulnerability, can increase the risk of later problems with self-control. Some adults who are violent and overly aggressive experienced erratic and unresponsive care in early life.

Adult depression can also interfere with infant brain activity. When parents suffer from untreated depression they may fail to respond sensitively to infant cries or smiles. Adult emotional unavailability is linked with poor infant emotional expression. Infants with depressed caregivers do not receive the type of cognitive and emotional stimulation that encourages positive early brain development, because they learn to 'mirror' the mood swings and negative anxieties expressed by the parents.


In today's more enlightened times, social scientists increasingly appreciate the extent of the interactions that take place between nature and nurture. They have discovered that the presence of genes does not, by itself, ensure that a particular trait will be manifested because genes require the proper environments for innate tendencies to be fully expressed. These 'proper environments' consist not only of natural surroundings but also of individuals' social and symbolic milieus.

Simply put, there may well be a faulty gene inbred amongst millions of us; but for the better part of the time it remains latent, ring-fenced by a happy childhood based on a solid family upbringing.

Recently, it has been revealed by British scientists in a study of 3,687 pairs of seven-year-old twins that there are strong genetic roots for poor behaviour in children who also showed signs of psychopathic traits, such as lack of remorse or understanding for the feelings of others. This research, carried out at King's College London, also points to environmental factors, such as social and family background, as the chief cause of antisocial activity among a larger group of badly behaved children. Dr Essi Viding, of the college's Institute of Psychiatry, who led the study, said it suggested that much teenage antisocial behaviour has its origins earlier in life and that efforts to prevent it need to begin at a young age. Writing in The Times in May 2005, Science Correspondent Mark Henderson put things more succinctly when he wrote: 'Some yobs are born; others are made.'

Even when children have a genetic predisposition to such problems, they are likely to respond to environmental triggers that could be reduced by early intervention. Research led by Temi Moffitt, one of the King's College team members, has established that boys with a particular version of a gene called MAOA are more likely to grow into antisocial adults, but only if they are also maltreated as children.

In his findings published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in May 2005, Dr Viding investigated children classed by their teachers as among the most antisocial and disruptive 10 per cent, and split them into two groups. One of the groups showed psychopathic or 'callous-unemotional' traits, such as a lack of empathy and guilt, while the other group did not.

In the callous-unemotional group, antisocial behaviour was about 81 per cent heritable – meaning that four-fifths of the differences between them and the general population appear to be explained by genetic factors. Genetic influence on antisocial behaviour in the other, larger group was much lower – heritability was about 30 per cent, with the remaining variability explained by environmental factors.

The research carried out in London has also been supported by the findings of an international team of researchers that followed a group of 1,037 children born in 1972 in Dunedin, New Zealand. Their study focused on the MAOA gene that produces an enzyme that is important in breaking down neurotransmitters linked with mood, aggression and pleasure. This particular gene comes in a strong and a weak variant. The study found that 85 per cent of the male children who had the weak variant of the MAOA gene and who were abused while growing up exhibited criminal or antisocial behaviour. This was a rate nine times greater than was found among similarly-situated males with the strong version of the gene.

An excellent example of a serial killer who had this weak variant of MAOA influence is Michael Ross. Executed in Connecticut on 13 May 2005, Michael became a sado-sexual psychopath who raped and murdered eight women, including two schoolgirls. I affirm that Michael was most certainly wrongly 'wired-up' in the hypothalamic region of the limbic system, the most primitive and important part of the brain. The hypothalamus serves the body tissues by attempting to maintain its metabolic equilibrium and providing a mechanism for the immediate discharge of tensions. It appears to act like an on/off sensor, on the one hand seeking or maintaining the experience of pleasure and, on the other, escaping or avoiding the experience of pain or unpleasantness.

If, for example, the hypothalamus experiences pleasure, be it from satisfying a craving for chocolate, drugs or sex – even the need for sadistic sexual murder – it will switch on 'reward' feelings so that the person continues engaging in the activity. If it begins to feel displeasure, it will turn off the reward switch. But, if the switch jams halfway, so to speak, the limbic urge goes unmet, and the individual will experience depression, anger or even homicidal rage.

This was most certainly the case with Mr Ross, who I suggest was born to kill, bred to kill and learned to kill.


The New York serial killer Arthur Shawcross, dubbed by the media 'The Monster of the Rivers', suffers from what he calls 'a rare genetic disorder'. I interviewed him twice at the Sullivan Correctional Facility, in September 1994.

This claim made by Shawcross – which is substantiated by many of America's leading authorities in the field who subscribe to the theory that XYY abnormalities may be the cause of violent and homicidal behaviour – confirms that he is certainly suffering from an extremely rare biochemical imbalance linked to a rare XYY genetic disorder. It is contended that this genetic mix could be at least part of the reason why he commited such antisocial acts of violence.

Looking back to his formative years there was well-documented evidence, even then, to show that Shawcross was displaying signs of antisocial behaviour during this period of his life. We know he was bullied before the worm finally turned and he became a bully and sadist himself. The roots of his evil had already been planted by this time. Indeed, this genetic disorder was within him from conception and might account for him being the only rotten apple in a basket of otherwise good fruit in regard to the rest of his family.

When I questioned the prison medical officer on this issue the doctor declined to confirm that Shawcross had any such problem. But a Dr Kraus, who spent months evaluating Shawcross, found solid evidence that Arthur does indeed have an XYY disorder. When I approached several of the world's leading authorities, seeking clarification on the XYY phenomenon linked to antisocial behaviour, not surprisingly I received no clear answer.

With our present state of knowledge, it seems that chromosomal abnormality can only have a bearing on a minute fraction of the criminal population, and it is also necessary to consider the millions of people throughout the world who have an XYY abnormality and who exhibit no antisocial tendencies whatsoever. Consequently, while an XYY disorder might partly account for Shawcross's behaviour it cannot provide the total picture.

There are a hundred million brain cells in the average person, and the presence of one extra chromosome in each cell equates to the presence of an additional one hundred billion chromosomes in the XYY male not normally present in the normal XY male.

World-respected geneticist Dr Arthur Robinson once screened 40,000 newborns for XYY, and he has claimed that about 2000 XYY males are born in the US each year. His research shows that two-thirds are thin, tall and awkward, with an IQ range of 80–140. Dr Robinson says: 'these people are excitable, easily distracted, hyperactive, and intolerant of frustration. Fifty per cent are learning disabled (compared to 2–8 per cent in the general population) and most suffer delays in speech development.' Many of these personality characteristics uncannily match Shawcross's profile.


Excerpted from Born Killers by Christopher Berry-Dee, Steven Morris. Copyright © 2009 Christopher Berry-Dee and Steven Morris. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Christopher Berry-Dee is also the author of Monsters of Death Row, How to Make a Serial Killer, Serial Killers: Up Close and Personal, and Talking With Serial Killers.

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Born Killers 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very interesting First one like these I've read that gives good detail of childhood which has always interested me about serial killers. I recommend.