“Every murderer is probably somebody’s old friend.” – Agatha Christie

I read these words, a quote he used, in a novel by Peter Swanson called “Her Every Fear” this past week, and it stuck in my head. I woke up thinking about it, and thus this is what you are reading.

When you stop to think about it, every murderer is not just somebody’s old friend. He/she is also someone’s son, daughter, father, mother, brother or sister. Next door neighbor or friend.

You don’t know what goes on in the mind of the man down the street, who seems so nice and brings you tomatoes from his garden and leaves them on your front door step.

Or the man who typically can be found sitting on the bench in the park reading his newspaper and drinking coffee when you jog past him most mornings.

He smiles and you smile back. But you have no idea what he’s thinking. Or what he’s capable of.


Earlier in my life, during and after college, I freelanced for newspapers. And there were times that I wrote about murder.

Remember those? Newspapers? They were black and white and “read” all over, as the old childhood joke goes.

There was a middle-aged woman who was convicted of killing her husband, an oilman, who she claimed beat her black and blue. I interviewed her in prison.

There was the serial killer in prison in Wyoming that I wrote to for a year, trying to pry information out of him.

There was the woman in prison giving birth to a baby girl who was instantly whisked away because the woman would remain behind bars.

Then there were the stories concerning killers I never communicated with, but came at the story from the opposite side. The victim’s side.

I wrote an article about a young girl who was killed randomly by a man just driving around trying to find a victim to torture and kill. Twelve years old and full of promise, kidnapped in plain sight after a junior high football game.

Then there were the two teenage kids who had a baby girl, and accidentally (I hope) killed her. They called her “Charlie.” Poor child barely had a chance to start with, and even that was snatched from her.

These are all just people. And they are killers. Some involved premeditation. Some just happened due to circumstances of opportunity.

Like a lone woman at the car wash vacuuming her car at night, who can’t hear someone walking up behind her.

The man kneeling down to tie his shoe laces underneath a copse of trees in the park.

The person whose car broke down on the highway and has no phone.

They are victims of opportunity.

Curving country road

These people were not born to be killers.

“One of the oldest questions in criminology – and for that matter, philosophy, law, theology – is whether criminals are born or made. Are serial killers a product of nature (genetics) or nurture (environmental factors)?” – Peter Vronsky, author of “Sons Of Cain: A History Of Serial Killers From The Stone Age To The Present.”

Red hibiscus

He goes on to explain:

“The number one trait of a psychopath is a lack of empathy. Others are a tendency to lie, a need for thrills – psychopaths become bored very quickly – and narcissism. But the lack of empathy is the biggest thing.

“One common explanation is that psychopaths experience some kind of trauma in early childhood – perhaps as early as their infant state – and as a consequence suppress their emotional response.

“They never learn the appropriate responses to trauma, and never develop other emotions, which is why they find it difficult to empathize with others.

“They grow up not knowing how to “feel”, and learn instead how to manifest what they think are emotions or the correct appearances of emotion. They know the “mask” they should wear.

“In the case of serial killers, that’s why there are individuals who can raise a family, be what most people would consider a good spouse and parent, and at the same time have secret second lives where they go out and kill strangers. They can compartmentalize.”

Pentas and butterfly

There is the “organized killer” and the “disorganized killer.”

The organized killer scrupulously plans his crime. The disorganized killer kills randomly. Someone just happens to be in his/her path in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation says that a serial killer must fit the following criteria…

“The person in question must have murdered a minimum of three individuals (not simultaneously), there must be a period of time in between the murders (to prove that multiple victims were not killed during a single fit of rage), and the circumstances of each murder should indicate that the killer felt a sense of dominance over the people they have killed.

“The victims must also be vulnerable to the killer in some way, a characteristic which indicates that the killer has sought to achieve a feeling of superiority.”


It is baffling to most of us, those of us with empathy, that these people, these souls that are soulless, can kill without guilt.

It is hard for us to understand that there are people who have no conscience and thus no remorse. Because somehow, it just isn’t built into them.

It is just hard for most of us to believe.

But they are among us.

Every single one of them are somewhere in society at this very moment. They are someone’s neighbor, friend or relative. And you may think you know them, but you don’t.

“We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow.” – Ted Bundy

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  1. This post was enlightening for me. My maternal great-grandfather killed someone in an argument over a property line. It was in the early 1900s in eastern Kentucky. Ultimately, he ended up running away, assuming a new identity. He got married and started a life in a different county, without having gotten a divorce from his first wife, and thus abandoning her and their three children (the oldest being my grandfather). He ran a grocery store and had a nice life. Meanwhile, his first wife and children were starving. He was eventually rooted out many years later, and my grandfather and his brother went to see him. He promised to leave them something in his will, but didn’t. When I heard about this story when I was young, it seemed more like folklore or a tall tale than like real life. I didn’t have the ability to grasp how many people were affected by his actions. My grandfather was known as a gruff, angry man who drank too much for the first decade or so of his marriage, and he and my grandmother had big arguments with both hitting the other. My mom definitely was affected negatively by that violence, and her emotional state definitely affected me and my siblings. My grandfather certainly was to blame for his actions. But, he too had an awful childhood, being abandoned by his father, and having to then take over as the man of the family to support his mom and siblings. They were very poor. My grandfather jumped on trains like a hobo and rode to other states looking for work. Over time, I had come to think of my great-grandfather as a self-centered man, but, reading this post makes me see how he probably was a psychopath. He certainly had no concern, no empathy, for his family, for the man he killed, and that man’s family. He certainly lied by creating a new identity! He sounds like the kind of person you read about in the news where the neighbors say, “He was such a nice man! We never would have guessed that in the past he killed someone.” So, I thank you for sharing this post as it gives me a lot to think about regarding how my family was affected by a man who killed someone.

    1. It’s like ripples in the water. It just keeps spreading and spreading. Many people end up being affected. It filters down.

  2. This post I find disturbing. I’ve thought before that these killers have mothers and family but for the most part I choose not to think about them. I’ll sleep tonight but I prefer hearing about your ideas on decorating and antiquing. I know I’m older but I’ve seen enough in 32 years of teaching that was disturbing. I never read about these people now who enjoy taking others lives.

    1. And today you will see craft supply organizing. But I always hope to help one person. And per the comment above, I think I gave them the right information.

  3. About 10 years ago I read a great nonfiction book – I love good nonfiction – about how a person becomes a killer. The author said you need three things: child abuse, mental illness, and brain damage. The brain damage could result from the child abuse one has experienced, or drug abuse. The mental illness could also result from the same. He showed a few cases of men who had the first two characteristics but were functional until they had a car wreck, or some other severe knock to the head, and how they would then become violent. To see this theory in action, one only has to peak into sports journalism to read about the personality changes of football players after years of getting knocked on the head.

    And speaking of brains, I wish I could remember the name of that book!!!!

    1. Sounds like a good book. Scientists theorize that there may be something wrong in the brain before birth also, then things that happen later send them down the wrong path.

  4. The photos of the barn and of the moth or butterfly are two of my favorites already, and I’ve seen a lot of your photos! The old barn, like most old barns, manages to depict abandonment and steadfastness at the same time. The blur of the moth or butterfly — it’s hard to tell which it is due to its movement — shows the way things are always changing, nothing stays the same for long. Thanks for these images.

    I never was interested in reading about murders, solved or unsolved, until about five years ago when I found a copy of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote at a used book store. I decided I should quit avoiding it because of its gory content and find out what it was all about. It was such a disturbing, fascinating, and sad book. A lot of background and a lot of quotes were provided about the killers, and yes, they were someone’s sons, albeit very pitiful, flawed ones who had sad lives. But, what they did to that poor family was nuts.

    Here is are some links to some unsolved murders in my state of Kentucky:


    (My husband was a little boy in Lexington when that murder occurred and he remembers hearing his parents talk about it.)


    (This is a lovely town that has had more than its share of mysterious murders.)

    This next set of unsolved murders took place two years ago in a county next to where my mom and a lot of other relatives live, in southern Ohio:



    (I was talking to my mom about the Rhoden murders just a couple of weeks ago, when the rumor mill started up again about some possible arrests about to be made. But, then nothing happened. )

  5. I never had much interest in reading about murders, unsolved or otherwise, until about five years ago, when I picked up the book In Cold Blood by Truman Capote at a secondhand book store and decided to read it. It was a disturbing and fascinating story, in part because Capote did give a lot of details about the the backgrounds of the two men who committed the Clutter murders. They were indeed someone’s very flawed sons.

    Here are links to some unsolved murders in my state of Kentucky:



    This next one is about the unsolved murders of eight family members that happened two years ago, in a county in southern Ohio that borders the county where my mom lives. She and I actually were just talking about these murders the other day. She told me that rumors were bubbling about a lot of police cars seen in front of a house in her county, and it was thought to be related to the Rhoden murders. But, no arrests were made, and the rumors died back down to a simmer.


  6. To me, what is strange is how it seems like every town or region has a murder or two that are just so weird and eerie compared to most others. Don’t get me wrong, all murders are awful, but a lot of them have just a few basic details — someone robs a store and shoots the cashier, for instance. It’s terrible, but kind of black and white. But then there are the unsolved, bizarre murders that keep popping up in the news for years as the anniversary of the crime rolls around. Here are some from my state of Kentucky that you might find interesting:



    Next is a link is to a story about the unsolved the murders of eight family members in rural southern Ohio, in the county next to where my mom and other relatives live. These murders could be related to the drug trade, but nothing much has been determined for sure, two years later. I was just talking to my mom about these murders a couple of weeks ago, when she told me there had been a buzz in the area about possible new information, but nothing actually developed.


    I’ve read some of your previous posts about murders you covered. I, too, was a reporter back in my younger days, and had to cover the police beat for the first few months of my first job out of college. I didn’t like that assignment, because I was way too inexperienced and I knew the police officers gave me the run-around and I didn’t know how to deal with it. A few years later, a police officer and former police officer were linked to a drug ring and a young woman went missing and was never found. Looking back, I have a strong hunch I talked to at least one of those men during my police beat days but can’t say for sure. Their crimes are described in the book The Bluegrass Conspiracy: An Inside Story of Power, Greed, Drugs and Murder, by Sally Denton.

  7. Empathy is such an important component in our make up. When it’s missing , those individuals are somehow less human. Have you ever read Small Sacrifices? I’ve been a fan of author Ann Rule for many years – the stories she has covered are fascinating and horrifying. Ted Bundy – Diane Downs – Have you read Small Sacrifices about the Diane Downs case? I cannot fathom how a mother could ever be so heinous with her own children – but there ‘s the explanation, a fundamental lack of something very important – empathy…and that other word, just as damning – narcissism.

    Brenda you’ve traveled some interesting paths! Fascinating work, but I’m sure it has it’s own price. You’re a gifted writer.

    1. Yes, I’ve read these books. So interesting that Ann Rule worked with Ted Bundy and had no idea of his nasty proclivities.

  8. This chilling post is most interesting as I know a person who lacks empathy and has his whole life. His actions and opinions are so directly opposite of mine. While I’ve recognized this, I never made a direct connection with what you just wrote. Thank you for this information.

  9. Brenda, I too wonder what makes a person into a serial killer. It has always been a fascinating subject for me and my favorite genre is mysteries and I’m into the British/Irish authors right now who are not as gruesome as our own American authors. I enjoyed your article and it does give one something to think about.
    How is Charlie today and how is recovery on your left eye?

    Carol and Molly

    1. My recovery on my left eye is going well. I know this type of topic creeps some people out. I’m just a curious person and I like to dig into things and research them.

  10. This is an interesting post, Brenda, but I’m a little bit creeped out by it. I know there is a registered sex offender in my neighborhood, but I don’t know if there is a serial killer. Just like you mentioned–they are so normal-seeming that we can’t know who they are. I can get pretty paranoid sometimes so I don’t often think about this subject. Personally, I do believe that in most cases killers are not killers from birth. There has been something that traumatized them so completely that they have to ability to empathize with others. Of course, as we are more able to decipher the genetic code of an individual maybe we’ll discover that there are born killers. Then we could have this information soon after the child is born and —-what? Rehab them in some way? “Eliminate” them? Lock them up? Now, I’m starting to weird myself out! Reminds me of Orwell’s 1984.

    I am reading an interesting book about a death-row inmate who it’s been believed has killed two people and has been sentenced to die. It’s quite an interesting picture of our treatment of persons who are in prison for life or are sentenced to die. The Book is titled “Change of Heart” by Jode Picoult.
    You may have already read it. If not, I’m guessing you would like it. It’s not a new book, but I tend to read kind of “old” books as I didn’t have time to read them when they were originally published as I was raising kids!

    P.S. I really enjoyed your beautiful photos today.

    Hope you and Charlie are doing well. Take care.

      1. Change of Heart was the first of Jodi Picoult books that I read, it is, like all of her books, very well written about a subject that isn’t often written about. You’ll enjoy it!

  11. Hmmm……not your usual type of post (unless I have missed some) and a little disturbing to me…..I’ll wait for a more “upbeat” one.

    1. I write about whatever I’m thinking about that morning, and this is what this one happened to be. I have written similar ones in the past. I know it is not everyone’s cup of tea.

      1. Well, tomorrow I’m showing how I stored my craft supplies in vintage storage the past few days. I just find a lot of topics interesting.

  12. Quite a heavy topic, but admittedly one that has a fascination for me. I have watched many documentaries and other programs on the topic, and I keep thinking I will eventually understand serial killers…but I know I cannot.
    Very interesting to hear of your previous writing experience Brenda. I imagine your articles were very well done.

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