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How a serial killer used social media to attract his victims – and why we should all take note

Olga Samostrova/Shutterstock

How a serial killer used social media to attract his victims – and why we should all take note

Olga Samostrova/Shutterstock

Stephen Port, a 41-year-old chef living in east London, has been given a whole-of-life prison sentence after being found guilty of the murder of four young men who he lured to his flat before drugging and raping them before they died. As he sentenced Port, the judge spoke of the “significant amount of planning” that went into Port’s crimes and the “loss of dignity” the victims had suffered that had “greatly increased the distress of their loving families”.

So far, so sadly familiar. The planning, the humiliation of victims, the distress of their family and friends. But the world of the serial killer is changing with technology and, arguably, it is becoming easier for them to attract their unwitting prey.

Portrait of a killer

On February 15, 1992, Jeffrey Dahmer, a young man from Wisconsin was sentenced to 15 terms of life imprisonment for the murder of the young men he had raped, killed, dismembered and then cannibalised over a 14-year period. When the police had entered his flat the previous year, they found grisly testament to the gruesome deeds that had been committed: seven human skulls, two human hearts, a pair of hands and various other body parts in various stages of decomposition, including vats of decaying torsos and preserved private parts.

Jeffrey Dahmer, from his school yearbook.

Dahmer, had over the course of his killing career, been responsible for the brutal murder and mutilation of 17 innocent and unknowing victims; victims he had for the most part seduced back to his flat after meeting them in bathhouses and on the street. He was able to charm them into going with him to his flat where he would ply them with drink and sedatives before raping them and then slowly killing them.

This is a serial killer profile that we’ve come to know well via various movies and books: the man who slips neatly into the fabric of society, all the while cruising the streets for victims. But we need to realise – arguably with a sense of urgency – that this type of killer is somewhat passé.

Yes, the well-known academic papers and typologies that exist in the literature still hold some weight; but unlike our old serial killer counterparts who had to physically walk or drive to locations to source their victims, we are now seeing something very different. Enter the modern serial killer, the spider who gets to literally spin a web via the web, to entice his victims to come directly to him.

This isn’t a new phenomenon per se, after all as a society we are now wise to the actions of some sex offenders who use social media and other online hangouts as a means to lure the vulnerable to them. Children and adolescents have been seen as the main target in this scenario – and not enough attention has been paid to adults engaging in activities which also make them vulnerable as potential victims. Without us really noticing, some of those with a motive to kill have sat back, carefully watched and assimilated this information, thus using the same tools they have at their disposal to commit crime.

Stephen Port being questioned by police. Metropolitan Police PA Wire/PA Images

Port was able to select his victims online without ever having to leave his flat, using the dating site Grindr like some kind of macabre catalogue. Once he’d picked his victim of choice (in Port’s case, it was small boyish-looking men known as “twinks”) he could arrange to meet them and lure them back to his flat.

Window shopping

We know from the literature that serial killers often cruise for a specific “type” of victim, whether that be women with long dark hair – as per the “Co-ed Butcher”, Edmund Kemper, who killed six women in California in the mid-1970s – or, as in the case of Jeffery Dahmer, young black males. Now instead of physically having to interact and make themselves known to their victims prior to attack, all it takes is the scrolling of an online hub, to then be able to source and groom not just one potential victim, but likely multiple victims at the same time, giving them time to plan their attack.

‘Co-ed Killer’ Edmund Kemper. Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office

Clearly we must be able to move with the times as quickly as offenders are moving. To be able to study and accumulate information about what is happening and – most importantly – be able to to safeguard those that may be vulnerable to becoming victims of these horrendous crimes.

Most interactions on social media and sites such as Grindr are perfectly safe. At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that to some degree we all make ourselves vulnerable by what we show of ourselves online. As a word of caution, consider before you post something about yourself online, before you send that picture or message to someone you’ve never met, before you go to someone’s flat, whether you really know who you are communicating with? Also, does anyone else know you’re there?

If the answer is no, then I would think twice before entering someone else’s lair.