Dr. Katherine Ramsland: Confessions of a Female Serial Killer

Confessions of a female serial killer


Confessions of a Female Serial Killer

With sudden dramatic confessors, it’s best to verify before you buy

by Katherine Ramsland

I wrote about Miranda Barbour last week, here, concerning the murder that she and her new husband, Elytte, had committed together last November. For kicks, they’d lured a man to his death with a Craigslist ad. I used their case to describe how two (or more) people can develop a sixth sense about each other for violence. They have a “mur-dar” radar.

Troy LeFerrara, 42, responded to the ad. They picked him up and Elytte used a cord to incapacitate him while Miranda repeatedly stabbed him. They dumped him, cleaned the van and went to a strip club to celebrate Elytte’s birthday. Their phone call to the victim led police to them, and they’ve been awaiting trial.

Over the past weekend, Miranda, 19, said that not only was she guilty of the LeFarrara murder but she’d been killing with a satanic group since she was 13. Supposedly, she’s “lost count after 22.” If let out, she would kill again. Needless to say, this confession has created a flurry of media reports about this “female serial killer.”

But let’s keep in mind that, at this time, Barbour has admitted guilt for one murder for which there is evidence. She’s not yet a confirmed serial killer. Given the brutality of it, we can accept that she’s killed before and perhaps her stories will be validated soon, as law enforcement works with whatever she gives them. However, until then, we should remember the lessons from past cases.

Robert Charles Browne made headlines in 2006 when he claimed he’d murdered forty-nine people, becoming America’s most prolific known serial killer. But when he beat by one the record set by “Green River Killer” Gary Ridgway, his confession triggered skepticism. Was he just grabbing for notoriety?

In 1995, Browne had pled guilty to the 1991 murder of thirteen-year-old Heather Dawn Church. Five years later, he sent cryptic notes to Texas prosecutors that suggested more victims: “The score is you 1, the other team, 48.”  (Now he sounds like the Zodiac.) He admitted he’d been killing since 1970, in nine different states. Yet he provided specific information in less than half of the cases, and often his leads failed to turn up a body.

It defies reason to confess to something you did not do, especially murder, but some ambitions override reason: notoriety, for example, gamesmanship, and even self-aggrandizing. 

H. H. Holmes went on trial in Philadelphia in 1896 for a fatal insurance fraud. He insisted he was innocent but for $10,000 proclaimed himself the world’s most notorious killer, claiming 100 victims before reducing that number to twenty-seven. “The newspaper wanted a sensation,” he whined, and before stepping into the post-conviction noose, he admitted to only two. The truth was probably much worse, but he left us without answers.

The most infamous confessor was Henry Lee Lucas, arrested in 1983. He estimated he’d killed 100 people, but after much attention he raised that number to over 350 in twenty-seven states. Dozens of lawmen came to Texas to close their open cases, providing Lucas with outings and meals, but suddenly he recanted. Then he insisted he’d been forced to recant, confusing everyone.

“I set out to break and corrupt any law enforcement officer I could get,” Lucas said. “I think I did a pretty good job.”  When he died in 2001, the full truth went with him.

Dr. Steven Egger, Professor of Criminology at the University of Houston–Clear Lake and author of The Killers among Us, had interviewed Lucas.

“It was difficult to tell when Lucas was lying,” Egger admits. “In some cases I might ask him to talk about an average killing and it seemed to me that what he said came from his imagination; he’d just thought it up. He was convicted of eleven homicides, so he was a serial killer, but he did blow a lot of what I call ‘smoke and mirrors’ and played a lot of games.”

Egger advocates verifying whatever serial killers say, one case at a time. “Most of them are psychopaths and they’re good at lying. I don’t place a lot of stock in my interviews with them.”

It’s hazardous to be gullible, especially for investigators hoping to close open cases. They might inadvertently reveal details, allowing offenders to play them for fools. As well, they could waste limited resources.

However, there are also hazards in dismissing these offenders, notably that they might stop providing details.

The bottom line is this: Even skilled investigators may not spot a clever liar with a selfish agenda. Sorting out truth takes time, patience, sleuthing, and the corroboration of facts. Above all, it requires the ability to avoid a rush to judgment that might trigger mistakes.

Whether Miranda Barbour is a unique new satanic female serial thrill-killer remains to be seen. She could easily set some records of her own, but it’s too soon to say.

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Dr. Katherine Ramsland has published 44 books and over 1,000 articles, and recently had a #1 bestseller on the Wall Street Journal’s nonfiction list. She teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania and offers trainings on psychological aspects of investigations. She writes a blog, “Shadow Boxing” for Psychology Today, speaks widely on serial killers and psychopaths, and is a frequent commentator on crime documentaries. She has appeared on 20/20, 48 Hours, Larry King Live, and numerous cable programs.