For better or worse, there's a reason that serial killers often become easily recognizable figures and part of our cultural consciousness, and that has a lot to do with media coverage. Of course, there's a huge readership (myself included) that has a morbid interest in this topic, but sometimes it's the headlines that fuel these deranged individuals' superiority complex. I mean, would Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs have been as creepy if he didn't love to flaunt his crimes.
On the other hand, sometimes press coverage can be exactly what leads to a killer's capture or mistake. Whatever the outcome, there are certain serial killers who took over papers and ensured that people were talking about them. Here are 7 of the most heinous killers as told through the headlines that made them especially noticed.
1. Joel Rifkin
Known as "Joel the Ripper," Joel Rifkin started his murder spree in 1989. In his Long Island home, he killed a woman and dismembered her body with a creepy specificity. After extracting her teeth and fingertips, he put her head in a paint can and sent different limbs to different parts of the Mid-Atlantic. From there, he killed at least nine more women, but it's presumed that he killed 17 in total. When he was finally arrested (originally for not having license plates), there was the corpse of his final victim in his trunk.
With the help of constant news coverage, the case became so well-known, there was even episode of Seinfeld that features Elaine dating a guy with the name "Joel Rifkin."
2. Jeffrey Dahmer
One of the most notorious American serial killers commanded the attention of the media, who dubbed him the Milwaukee Cannibal, and Jeffrey Dahmer continues to be referenced regularly. He started killing as early as 1978 when he was only 18 years old, but the subsequent murders that he became known for didn't occur until 1987. By that time, he had made a habit out of luring men to a hotel room where he would drug them and sexually abuse their unconscious bodies because he didn't like when his sexual partners moved. This led to murder, necrophilia, sexual assault of a child, and eventually cannibalism among other sadistic practices.
Following his arrest, the media swarmed during the trial phase and coverage was all over the place. When Dahmer was killed in prison, his mother gave a furious public statement, directed at the press:
Now is everybody happy? Now that he's bludgeoned to death, is that good enough for everyone?
3. Charles Manson
In the late '60s, the Manson Family thrived on their pop culture reputation, quickly becoming the most visible manifestation of evil in America. After convincing a following that he was some sort of savior, Charles Manson was able to convince them to do his bidding, which eventually resulted in multiple horrific murders.
Due to the well-publicized murder of actress Sharon Tate, the unbelievable nature of the crimes, and numerous disruptions in the court room, the trial and Manson himself became cultural events. Charles Manson remains a figure that draws interest, considering a new TV show called Aquarius will be devoted to hunting him down.
4. Aileen Wuornos
Wuornos murdered a total of seven men by the time she was arrested, and she claimed that all of these homicides were committed in self-defense while she was working as a prostitute. Before she was even arrested, there was a media campaign to track her down (when she abandoned the car of one of her victims and witnesses saw her flee).
At the time of her trial, crime journalists flocked to Wuornos because of her unconventional method for a female serial killer. While most kill in sprees, Wuornos killed in sequence, with time in between. Her flamboyantly defiant nature in the courtroom attracted even more press coverage.
5. Gary Ridgway
Presumed to have killed over 90 people, Gary Leon Ridgway was convicted of killing 49 women by the time he was caught and tried. The press gave him the nickname the "Green River Killer" after his first five victims were discovered, and they didn't let up with their stories until he was finally convicted.
It was reported that Ridgeway would strangle women before dumping their bodies in under-frequented areas, sometimes returning to have sex with the corpses. Due to the huge number of victims, some of whom are still unknown, the media heavily publicized his case. The press also played an essential role in his capture since they consistently reported on the killings and strung a thread connecting them.
6. Dennis Rader
As the headline above boldly declares, Dennis Rader became known as the BTK Killer, which stands for "Bind, Torture, Kill." Rader was an elusive killer, and a cocky one at that, so of course there were constant headlines devoted to him. He was well-known for sending anonymous letters to the police and news outlets that enumerated the details of his crimes.
Eventually, that tendency to provoke is what led to his arrest, as they were able to use metadata in his Word documents to discover his first name, among other necessary details. In this case, the press once again helped put away a prolific killer since his need to be noticed by the public ended up taking him down.
7. David Berkowitz
Like Rader, David Berkowitz frequently sent letters to the cops, openly taunting them for their lack of evidence on his six murders. Once he was finally arrested, "The Son of Sam" had already achieved worldwide fame as a terror of New York. The constant coverage made him something of a celebrity, and it was clear that Berkowitz was enjoying all of the attention.
His case became so enmeshed with problems of publicity, the New York State legislature drafted and passed statutes known as "Son of Sam laws" that were created to prohibit criminals from making money off of their notoriety. Though those laws have been challenged, they have remained intact to this day and even inspired other states to impose similar legislation.