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Sunday, July 8, 2018

Debunking Myths About Serial Killers

Howell with his girlfriend one year before the the killing spree.

Since getting to know Connecticut's most prolific serial killer, William Devin Howell, and writing a book about him, I have been faced with the reality that there is no such thing as a "typical" serial killer. They come in all shapes and sizes, with backgrounds and personalities that are as unique as the day is long. Best selling author and forensic psychologist Katherine Ramsland addresses this disconcerting reality in her Psychology Today article, "Persistent Myths About Serial Killers." Ramsland was kind enough to write an endorsement for the back cover of my book, His Garden: Conversations with a Serial Killer. I am glad that she read the manuscript before I sent it off to the publisher, because she corrected me on one myth that I included in the book as though it were gospel truth. Specifically, serial killers are not defined as individuals who kill at least three times with at least a one month cooling off period in between incidents. In fact, the FBI defines serial killers as killing at least twice with a one month time period in between the crimes.

Here are some of the myths that Ramsland references in her article, as applied to the subject of my true crime book about William Devin Howell:

1. Serial killers are all dysfunctional loners. I write in my book that Howell had many friends and girlfriends over the years, and he maintained an active social life during his nine month killing spree. Former friends came out of the woodwork as I wrote the book, telling me that they were shocked to learn about his unspeakable deeds. Many described him as "the nicest guy in the world." Bill loved a good party. He once told me that he hated to be alone. Thus, his present-day isolation in a high max prison only enhances his despair. Ironically, he frequently admonishes me for being such a loner, and choosing to spend most of my free time reading and writing when I could be out having fun with friends. "Go tubing down the Farmington River," he says. "Get out of your house and go line dancing at The Cadillac Ranch."
Howell enjoyed the company of women- at times.
©2018 Anne K Howard All Rights Reserved

2. Serial killers are all white males
. While Howell is a white male, serial killers come from all ethnic origins. Take, for example, Stewart Weldon, the African-American who was recently arrested in Springfield, Massachusetts for holding his victims captive, torturing, and eventually killing all but one.

3. Serial killers cannot stop killing. Howell swears that he only has seven victims. Perhaps he has lied to me; who knows? But he claims that he just stopped killing in late October of 2003.

4. All serial killers are insane or evil geniuses. I believe that Howell was in a heightened state of disassociation when he carried out the repeated rapes and strangulations of his victims in the back of his infamous "Murder Mobile." He tells me that he felt like he was playing the part of a bad guy in a movie. Does that make him insane? Sick, yes. Evil, to be sure. But no, not insane. His acts were highly premeditated and after each death, he went on to live a normal day-to-day life; working, spending time with his girlfriend and her children, and hanging out with friends. Also, while I believe he has an average if not slightly above average IQ, he is hardly a genius.

Inmate #305917 as he appears today.
5. Serial killers want to get caught. Howell tells me that he did everything possible to avoid getting caught and I discuss measures that he took in the book; from removing the license plate on his van during the murders, to burying his victims in a burial ground that was inaccessible to the public. He does admit to doing careless things that eventually led to his arrest, such as continuing to drive a vehicle that contained the DNA of 6 of his 7 victims when he knew that Detective Robert DeRoehn was on the hunt for it. "Why didn't I just get it crushed?" he now wonders.
Copyright 2018, Anne K. Howard, all rights reserved. 

6. Serial killers are only motivated by sex. It is true that Howell is a sexual sadist and his crimes were motivated, in part, by his insatiable sexual appetite. However, the overriding motive was not lust- it was the need for power. He had no power in his life, but torturing his victims gave him a sense of omnipotence that he lacked in his everyday world. It was also a means of venting the suppressed rage inside of him.

7. All serial murderers travel and operate interstate. Howell did travel back and forth from Connecticut to Virginia and North Carolina at the time of his killing spree. Perhaps he does have more victims down south. On the other hand, the evidence that led to his convictions indicates that all of his crimes took place with in an approximately 40 mile radius, ranging from Waterbury, to Torrington, to Hartford, to Wethersfield, to New Britain, Connecticut.

In her article, Ramsland also discusses the fact that there is no set formula for determining how much is nature and how much is nurture when it comes to the creation of a serial killer. My book is divided into two parts. Part I discusses Howell's childhood, adolescence, and adulthood in an attempt to figure out what events may have contributed to Howell's downward spiral into darkness. Part II comprises Howell's detailed confessions that he exclusively gave to me after pleading guilty in September 2017. In relaying those confessions, I frequently reference the fact that there is something neurologically wrong with Howell. Whether it is chemical, or genetic, or the result of doing too much LSD or drinking every day starting at the age of twelve is a mystery that will never get solved.

As you can see in Howell's most recent mug shot, he does not possess the exterior markings of a monster. Perhaps that is what terrifies me the most about him. Pass him on the street and you wouldn't think twice.

To purchase His Garden: Conversations with a Serial Killer, go directly to the publisher's link ( or the Amazon links: or  . The book will be released on Tuesday, July 10. 

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