No matter what creators of shows on Investigation Discovery want viewers to think, it’s not shocking when women kill. That said, while women do commit violent crimes, the numbers don’t lie. In the United States, women are responsible for a mere 10 percent of homicides every year.
Serial murder accounts for only one percent of yearly homicides writes Scott Bonn in Why We Love Serial Killers, and Bonn says women are responsible for 17 percent of that total. That’s why the number of known female serial killers is so small.
What many may not understand is when a woman kills repeatedly, her motivations are often completely different from a man’s. Male serial killers have—historically—murdered out of sadistic, sexual motivations, distinct from spree killers and mass murderers, who kill out of psychopathic, nihilistic rage. Sometimes male killers have a female partner, but there’s strong evidence that the majority of those women were the more passive members of the relationship, going along with what the dominant killer wanted—admittedly, some of those convinced themselves they were into the act as well.
The name Aileen Wuornos is synonymous with the phrase “female serial killer.” Wuornos’s seven victims were mostly men she met while working as a prostitute. Sometimes robbery was her motivation, though over time an element of humiliation crept into the murders.
In her non-sexual motivations, Wuornos was perhaps a classic example of the differences between men and women when it comes to multiple murders. Here is a list of five female serials whose names aren’t well-known, of their crimes, and their likely motivations.
Velma Barfield was, like many women who murder multiple victims, a poisoner. Her early life wasn’t that different from many men who go on to kill. She had criminal tendencies from age seven on—mainly stealing money—and her father sexually abused her.
After her wedding at age 17, her life seemed relatively normal. She had two children whom she treated well, but after a hysterectomy, something changed. She began abusing drugs like Valium, even as she detested her husband Thomas for being an alcoholic. After he died in a house fire, Barfield cut a swath through her life, killing at least six more, including a boyfriend and her mother.
Her weapon of choice was usually arsenic, and she claimed the murders were committed by an alternate personality, “Billy.” She was sentenced to death, with the distinction of being the first woman executed by lethal injection. Like many women with a string of victims behind them, she was motivated by money, but sometimes also motivated by sheer irritation.
Dana Sue Gray
Many women who took three lives or more over time (the FBI definition of a serial killer) were outwardly so normal that it’s still hard to believe what they did today. Dana Gray was unique among any group of serials, male or female. She was attractive, middle-class, well-liked by those who knew her. She was a labor and delivery nurse, but her three victims weren’t babies—they were elderly women who trusted her.
Gray was going through a divorce, family strife, and in major debt when she murdered Norma Davis in February 1994. Gray was athletic and strong and for a female killer, unusually hands-on. She stabbed Davis in the throat and in the chest.
Then about two weeks after Davis’s death, Gray attacked June Roberts. She strangled the 66-year-old with phone cords, stole some credit cards, and went shopping.
Her third victim, Dora Beebe, let Gray in her home to use the phone. Gray killed Beebe and took one of her credit cards as well. The trail she left using the credit cards plus eyewitness testimony by surviving victim Dorinda Hawkins led to Gray’s capture. She’s serving life without parole.
Gray told police she basically killed so she could go shopping.
If there’s anything like a common type of female serial killer, Genene Jones might be a perfect example. She was a pediatric nurse and had hundreds of babies in her care throughout the years, so she had a huge pool of victims.
At a minimum, she killed seven children, but investigators suspect she took as many as 60 lives over the course of 13 years before she was caught. She was ultimately sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Jones’s motivations were complex compared to those of many such killers. She would use common drugs and inject a victim, forcing a code. Then she would help revive the baby hoping her co-workers would see her as a hero.
Killers like Jones can be male or female and are often called “Angel(s) of Death”—they have a compulsion to seem like a hero.
Dennehy may be the most recent notable female serial killer, though her trials were much bigger news in the United Kingdom than elsewhere. In many ways, Dennehy’s actions were not unlike those of some male serial killers. She was, after all, a diagnosed psychopath.
Dennehy reportedly came from a decent, middle-class British home, but by her early teens was addicted to drugs. She ran away from home at 15 and began a series of (often violent) relationships. This later led to the man with whom she fathered two children taking them away for their safety.
In March 2013 Dennehy was living in an efficiency apartment owned by her occasional lover, Kevin Lee. She launched a murderous campaign aimed at male victims. She first lured Lukasz Slaboszewski via sexting and stabbed him to death. She dumped his body in a ditch in Peterborough, England. Next, she murdered John Chapman, who lived in the same house. Finally, she killed Kevin Lee. She dressed his corpse in a black dress, pushed up to reveal his buttocks.
She tried to kill two more, but they survived.
Dennehy ultimately pled guilty to the murders.
Police and the British public believe Dennehy did it just for fun—the power and the violence thrilled her. In that way, she had more in common with a majority of men who kill three or more victims.
Alleged Serial Killer Kelly Cochran
Cochran, a 34-year-old woman from Indiana, was convicted of killing her husband Jason via heroin overdose then smothering him. She was sentenced to 65 years in prison. But she was already serving life for the 2014 murder of boyfriend, Chris Regan.
Cochran dismembered Regan after killing him, and many of her friends and relatives think she served his remains at a barbecue.
Kelly Cochran is suspected of murders in Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee, and Minnesota. She’s referred to having “friends” buried in those states, and police are still investigating.
While Cochran’s apparent reasons for her known crimes aren’t that unusual for women who kill, the bizarre sadism of possibly serving one victim as barbecue is so strange it’s hard to really grasp. It shows a rare level of comfort with violence and gore.
Still, having been convicted of just two murders, Cochran isn’t officially a serial killer. Not yet, anyway.
With Dennehy and Cochran, it’s hard to not feel like there has perhaps been a change in the way women kill multiple victims—on the relatively rare occasions when they do. The level of violence meets or exceeds that of many serial murders committed by men. As to what cultural forces might contribute to such a change, it’s hard to say.
What’s not hard to say is it’s getting easier to believe there will be more.
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