Ritual killings are relatively unusual, but sometimes bear some of the hallmarks of a serial killing, such as mutilation of the corpse or some kind of special positioning. Many ritual murders involve the idea of human sacrifice, usually for religious reasons. The term religion is, however, used quite loosely in this context, as it can include belief systems such as satanism and vampirism. There may also be cultural, psychological, and psychosexual elements to a ritual murder . The hallmark of a ritual killing is evidence of acts not necessary to bring about death. For example, bite marks, excessive violence, and sexual assault may be found in connection with a ritual killing.
Human sacrifice is a feature of some, but not all, occult belief systems. The word occult means hidden and by its very nature, this kind of ritual killing can be hard to investigate. Violence motivated by religion may not be a crime in the eyes of the perpetrator, but it is treated no differently from any other murder in the eyes of the law. Research into motivation for ritual killings has shown that the practice is thought to lead to transformation, self-deification, and healing. Many people also believe that satanic human sacrifice is done as a way of drawing down dark forces. Investigators may assume that those involved in human sacrifice are simply mentally disturbed and hiding behind a belief system that seems to justify their actions. Yet understanding the beliefs that led to the crime, however distorted they appear, may actually be helpful in solving it and aid in the prevention of future occurrences.
Many ritual killings have involved teenage perpetrators drawn into satanic cults. In 1997, 16-year-old Luke Woodham of Pearl, Mississippi, killed his mother and then went to school with a rifle, killing two classmates and wounding seven more. Woodham had been instructed by his peers in a satanic group that murder was a way of achieving their purposes. The jury rejected an insanity defense and he was sentenced to a life term for each murder. In another case, three teenage girls in Italy murdered a nun, having formed their own satanic group. There have been other murders, in both Europe and the United States, involving young people who have been in satanist groups.
In vampirism, there is a belief that drinking blood and practicing cannibalism can help the individual to achieve power and immortality. There have been a number of ritual homicides committed in the vampire tradition, some of them involving teenagers. For instance, 17-year-old Michael Hardman broke into the home of 90-year-old Mabel Leyshon in Anglesey, Wales. After killing her by stabbing, he arranged her body with the legs propped on a stool and placed two candlesticks on her body and a candle on the mantelpiece. He then removed her heart and drained blood from her leg to drink in a vampire ritual, thinking these actions would render him immortal. When police searched his bedroom, they discovered a large amount of vampire-related books and Internet material. Hardman, known as the "Vampire Boy Killer," was sentenced to a minimum of 12 years in jail in 2002.
The above cases of ritual killing involve young people who appeared to be dabbling in the occult rather than being committed to it. Often they acted alone or in a small group. There are others who are committed to a belief system, or pretend to be for the purposes of committing the crime. It can be difficult to distinguish between the two motives. For example, Richard Trenton Chase, the so-called "Vampire of Sacramento," murdered a woman and drank her blood in 1978. Psychological profilers noted the disorder at the scene and concluded the murderer was white, thin, undernourished, and in his mid-twenties. As a disorganized type, he'd be unemployed and live alone. They also guessed he would kill again, which he did. Trenton had a history of mental illness and admitted the crimes, but did not see he had done wrong. He told his interrogators that his own blood was turning to sand, so he had to become a vampire.
Another case of a killer incorporating some ritual elements into his crime was the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez, who terrorized Los Angeles between 1984 and 1985 with a rampage of rape and murder. He would try to make victims declare a love of Satan. At his conviction for 13 murders in 1989, he raised a hand with a pentagram design on it and shouted, "Hail Satan." It is widely believed that killers like Ramirez use belief systems like satanism as a cover or justification for their crimes. Whether or not they are also mentally deranged is debatable.
Even more difficult for forensic psychiatrists are those cases where a murder has been committed by a true believer who considers murder to be a sacred act of sacrifice. Such deaths tend to occur outdoors in a designated sacred area on a significant date. Generally such acts are blood rituals involving a knife. Depending on the belief system involved, the killing may involve a rapid slitting of the throat or be slower and more tortuous. The blood may be drained from the corpse, which will be an unusual finding at autopsy . Mutilation post-mortem, along with sexual abuse, carving symbols into flesh, and dismemberment, are not uncommon in such killings.
A recent case of murder, committed by apparent true believers, involved the discovery of the mutilated torso of a young boy found floating in London's River Thames in 2002. The body was found close to seven half-burned candles. An autopsy showed hallmarks of a ritual killing and the body had been dismembered in a manner consistent with a human sacrifice. There was a name on the sheet in which the candles had been wrapped and African experts suggested the signs were consistent with a ritual homicide of the kind sometimes carried out in Nigeria to bring good luck to the perpetrators. It may be that the boy was sacrificed to an ancestor god of the Yoruba people, Nigeria's second largest ethnic group. Orange shorts, orange being the color associated with the god, were placed on the corpse.
Genetic testing, including mitochondrial DNA analysis , suggested the boy came from West Africa, probably Nigeria or a nearby country such as Togo or Benin. The boy was circumcised, which commonly occurs after birth in West Africa, but later on as a passage to adulthood in Southern Africa. Analysis of stomach contents and bone chemistry further revealed that the boy could not have been brought up in London. Forensic examination of the cuts where the head and limbs had been severed from the body suggested the expert use of very sharp knives. The flesh had first been cut down to the bones, which were then slashed with a single blow from a weapon like a butcher's meat cleaver. The body was then held while the blood was drained from it.
Investigators believe that those involved in this case included a magician or priest who would have carried out the ritual. The limbs may have been kept as magical trophies. The orange shorts have been traced to Germany, suggesting the boy was brought into Britain by a common route used in human trafficking. It is a complex case and, so far, a so-called muti (the African Zulu word for medicine) killing (in which body parts are taken for use in traditional medicines) has been ruled out. The reason is that the boy's genitals were left intact. In a muti killing, the genitals are removed, because they are believed to be a powerful medicine. Forensic investigators assume that the killers were more interested in the boy's blood. A number of Nigerians were arrested in 2003 in connection with the murder. It appears the boy may have been kidnapped and brought to Britain purely for the purpose of carrying out this ritual murder.
In terms of conventional psychological profiling , the ritualistic aspects of a killing are sometimes rather similar to the signature of a serial killer. So far, the theory of psychological profiling has not been developed to distinguish the serial killer from the ritual killer. To do this, various cultural and religious aspects would have to be added to current psychological theory. Those who indulge in religious violence know it to be illegal but do not believe it to be wrong. Many killers who are mentally ill do not understand they have done wrong and may or may not believe their acts are illegal. Understanding the difference between these two groups is clearly challenging for the forensic psychiatrist but is worthwhile in terms of appreciating the context of certain brutal murders.
see also Autopsy; Serial killers; Trace evidence.