Earlier this month, reports came out that Danueal Drayton, the Connecticut man suspected of murdering 29-year-old nurse Samantha Stewart may be a serial killer who uses popular dating apps like Tinder to find and lure victims.
We spoke with, Dr. Marina Sorochinski, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at the School of Social & Behavioral Sciences at Mercy College, about her research on profiling serial killers. While she could not speak specifically about Drayton’s case because it is an active investigation, we did discuss the role of technology in how serial killers target victim and how scientists can use similar data to catch offenders.
Sorochinski also weighed in on why there are more women than ever in the field of forensic psychology, dispelled some common misconceptions about serial killers and their victims, and what can be done for early detection and prevention of this type of violence.
Refinery29: How did you get into this field?
Sorochinski: While I was doing my Bachelor in psychology in Canada, I considered going into law school but then I took a class in forensic psychology and decided that was kind of a happy middle between my interests — I really wanted to do investigative psychology. I think it's really important that we, the researchers, help provide evidence-based tools to law enforcement so these investigative efforts, such as profiling and linkage analysis, are based on solid data, on solid research and empirical information that was acquired in the proper way.
Refinery29: And what is your particular focus within the field of forensic psychology?
Sorochinski: Most of my research focus on violent sex offenders and violent sexual homicide offenders. I particularly focus on linking serial killers. I look at what kind of behaviors remain consistent throughout the series and how we can use behaviors to link crimes [to] the same offender. A lot of times in the movies you see an offender leaving a calling card of some sort and everybody knows right away it's the same offender all the time. Real offenders rarely do that.
Most serial killers adapt to the situation. Sometimes they’re opportunistic, or change based on their experience. So we need to understand what is it that remains consistent across their crimes so that we can know that it's part of the same series rather than multiple crimes committed by different offenders.
Refinery29: We recently wrote about a possible serial killer who is using dating and ride share apps like Tinder and Uber to find his victims. Is that a trend you see or one we should be concerned about?
Sorochinski: There's definitely more of that going on but you have to understand offenders are people, right? They're just like everybody else and when they're looking for victims they find the most convenient ways to find them. Some offenders roam the streets, some offenders find victims around their workplace. A lot of offenders use tricks and false identity to approach a victim in face-to-face kind of meetings. Being online just makes it that much easier because it creates a false sense of security. [Victims feel that] they are going to meet a person who they already know — which in reality they don't. It's a modern way for the offenders to find victims.
But I don’t know — I met my husband online (laughs).
Refinery29: So when we hear about cases like the Craigslist Killer or most recently this case with Tinder — you’re not alarmed that this makes it easier for serial killers to find victims?
Sorochinski: People who have these kind of tendencies will find ways that are convenient for them to find victims. They develop with the modern age just like everybody else.
And always remember that [serial killers] are still in the minority. It's not like you go on a dating site and you will find all of those predators. Most people are normal people.
One of the major research projects that I'm working on now involves serial homicide where victims were sex workers. The majority of men who go to seek out services of sex workers are basically regular guys. But even though majority of sex workers’ clients are non-violent, violent offenders are likely to seek out victims in this occupation because it can be an easy target. It's a small group of really violent men that do offend.
Refinery29: In movies and popular culture we have an idea that serial killers are all searching for a woman who looks like their mom, or the woman who wronged them in high school. Is that kind of depiction or connection accurate in any way?
Sorochinski: For a small group of offenders, appearance might have an impact on the type of victim they choose. Those offenders actually usually have fewer offenses and they happen further apart because it takes them time to find a victim that’s just right — the one that they're looking for. But so many more offenders are indiscriminate in the sense that they will target whoever is in the wrong place at the wrong time. It could be that they're robbing a place and a woman happens to be there and so she’s assaulted and the offender sees it as a kind of "extra bonus."
The majority of serial killers tend to be people who are violent offenders who find opportunistic moments to do this — maybe when they’re not even planning on it.
But there are offenders who have a hunting process. They will sit in a particular place or wait the opportunity to come up. They wait for a victim that’s appropriate and suitable. There are others who use cunning to approach a woman in a bar, and check them out, and make them feel comfortable. Maybe he will offer to walk her home and then find a way to attack.
And you have to also remember that still most violent offenses happen between people who know each other.
We hear most in the media about the stranger offenders who grab people from the street or who find them on places like Tinder but in reality most offenders are friends, acquaintances, family members, and intimate partners. The “strangers” are actually a minority of the overall sex offender population. They're easier to focus on, I guess, for movies or Law & Order but in reality they're still a very small group.
Refinery29: And that’s true even among serial killers? We know that women are more likely to be killed by an intimate partner — is that a statistic that’s true even among the population of serial killers?
Sorochinski: A lot of serial offenders offend against acquaintances and dating partners.
Among serial offenders, about 60% of their victims are strangers. But that still leaves 40% of people who they know in one way or another. Even those who do offend against strangers — going back to the project about sex worker victims — there is this idea that those who kill or who target sex workers only focus on sex workers because that's their preferred group or that they have something against this particular group of women.
What we find is that almost half of serial offenders who target sex workers also target people they know: intimate partners, friends, acquaintances so they're not consistent in the type of victims they choose. They're a pervasively violent kind and they're the most difficult to catch. It can be difficult to find them and connect their crimes and to find that they're all part of the same series.
Refinery29: So when you look to link these crimes what are you looking for?
Sorochinski: We look for similarities in other patterns besides the victim type. How they are committing their crime or where the crimes happen, what types of disposal methods they use, what types of killing methods they use? Did they sexually assault the victims? What types of offenders are they — what kinds of backgrounds they have? Do they have a criminal background? Do they have mental or psychological issues that were in their background?
Refinery29: So the movie version is that serial killers are always going to be incredibly charming and probably sociopathic person but you're saying that's actually not the majority of what you see?
Sorochinski: Most offenders are actually pretty average to low intelligence. A lot of them do not meticulously plan. There is only a subgroup for whom the crime is a meticulously planned event for which they prepare and they have a whole toolkit of things they bring, and plans of how they're going to access the victim, how they're going to get out of the place, where they're going to dispose of the body and so on and so forth.
Refinery29: Have you faced any difficulties as a women working within forensic psychology and in a scientific field.
Sorochinski: (laughs) No, actually the field is generally, especially in recent decade or two, has shifted genders quite substantially. The majority of students that I have are actually girls, women.
My mentor is a woman. We still work together and collaborate a lot and we're friends.
Refinery29: Do you think there's a reason that women are attracted to this field?
Sorochinski: It's interesting. As a woman you almost already understand this field. A lot of women get into this field because they have, if not personal experience, at least some association with violence. The motivation is to make a difference in this area and to help create change, to reduce the number of victims, to make the offenders pay for what they're doing and be more effective in how we catch them. And once we catch them — can they be rehabilitated, treated? And once they've served their sentence, how do we determine whether offenders are still at a high risk to reoffend or no? There are a lot of questions to answer in this field and it's something that really matters to us.
Refinery29: In your role as a researcher do you see a way to stop this kind of behavior before it happens?
Sorochinski: It's part of what we're studying. I teach a course on Behavioral Analysis of Violent Crime and the first part of the class is all about risk factors.
Currently there's a lot of research going on into early prevention program with families where violence is something young kids see in the house and around them and think, "Oh, that's just part of the norm."
My work is more about investigation and helping investigators hopefully find offenders more quickly. But there definitely is also a major part of psychology that looks at how we can help prevent it. And a lot of it has to do with early socialization, especially teaching kids about relationships and relating to each other.