Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Glen Rogers, the Cross-Country Killer

Spree vs. Serial

Even as interest surrounded Rogers, a debate emerged as to whether he would be considered a serial killer or spree murderer, in the event he was convicted of all of the crimes with which he'd be charged.  But murderers generally don't think about such categories when they act.  They just act, so it's not always easy to pigeonhole them.

According to the FBI's Crime Classification Manual, which many law enforcement agencies acknowledge, there are three basic categories of multiple murder: mass, spree and serial.  The first involves a single extreme incident and the other two multiple incidents, but with different manifestations. 

Book cover: FBI's Crime Classification Manual
Book cover: FBI's Crime Classification Manual

In strict terms, mass murder is the killing of a number of persons at one time and in one place (usually four or more), such as James Huberty's 1984 fatal shooting of twenty-one people at a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, Calif.  However, mass murder also included cases where the killings were a few hours apart, or at closely related locales. 

James Huberty
James Huberty

If a single precipitating incident is linked to all of the murders, but they're days or even weeks apart, the offender is considered a spree killer.  Serial killers, too, may commit multiple murders across several weeks, but what distinguishes them is a hiatus, or psychological "cooling off" period, between murders.  No one really knows just how long that might be.

The distinction between a long spree and a series of murders attributed to a serial killer seems to rest heavily on method and motive.  Serial killing is most often either a profitable crime, a crime for thrill and self-gratification, or a lust-driven crime where the killer may operate compulsively within an erotic ritual.  Occasionally, it's about revenge.  Spree killing, on the other hand, appears to be motivated by continuing and identifiable stress, taking place in several locales, and across a relatively short period.

If we examine Rogers' crimes and motives, it seems that he killed both for financial gain and his own satisfaction or relief (assuming his murders were triggered by anger).  That he was sloppy in allowing people to see him with all of his victims may have truncated his killing spree, speeding it up with the stress factor of realizing that he would probably be caught or killed.  Thus, he could be classified as either a serial or spree killer.  Neither category is incorrect.  In fact, he might be similar to the Beltway snipers, John Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, who started out with sporadic kills and then went on a spree for three weeks in October 2002. 

Lee Boyd Malvo (left) with John Muhammad
Lee Boyd Malvo (left) with John Muhammad

In the end, it doesn't matter, because Rogers' identity was known from the first murder.


We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'