Serial killer experts say kneeling corpses are symbolic

George Hunter
The Detroit News
DeAngelo Kenneth Martin

Detroit — The person who killed three prostitutes before arranging their bodies in a kneeling position likely wanted to punish the women for their profession and establish dominance over them, experts said.

Detroit police chief James Craig said investigators concluded the deaths are the work of a serial killer because of a "signature" linking the crimes.

Sources told The Detroit News this week the three women's bodies were found kneeling, with used condoms left on the floor nearby in abandoned houses on the city's east side. DNA from the condoms matches one man, sources said.

Craig declined to confirm or deny whether the victims were kneeling, but said in general serial killers "like to have some sort of signature."

"They want their crimes to stand out," said Craig, who was a vice squad officer in Los Angeles during the investigation into Lonnie Franklin, dubbed "the Grim Sleeper" because he took a 14-year hiatus from his killing spree.

Franklin also attacked mostly prostitutes. Craig said sex workers often are the targets of serial killers, "because they're on the fringes," he said. "Often, they don't want to talk to police, and if they go missing, nobody will report it."

Craig has identified Deangelo Kenneth Martin, 34, as a suspect in the homicides of the three women. 

Martin was arrested Friday at a bus stop on Gratiot, and charged Monday with a separate crime: The sexual assault of a 26-year-old woman, one of two alleged victims who got away from their attacker, Craig said. The other woman, attacked June 3, is in her 50s, Craig said.

The three deceased women found in vacant homes were ages 55, 52 and 53. 

Dr. Stephen Raffle, a California forensic psychiatrist specializing in serial killers, who said he's provided expert witness testimony in about 150 trials, said the choice to kill prostitutes may be part of what's known as the "Madonna/whore complex," in which men see women as either saintly or fallen.

Raffle stressed he would have to examine the suspect to reach definitive conclusions, but said there are some aspects of the Detroit killings that apply to most serial killers.

"What's the symbolism of the kneeling? I presume he's punishing them for their behavior," Raffle said. "It's not so different than Jack the Ripper (a serial killer in London during the 1880s), who also singled out prostitutes as victims. 

"By posing them kneeling, the killer is likely demonstrating to himself and whoever he thinks his audience is that these are fallen women," Raffle said. "He's putting himself in God's role as the enforcer of morality.

"Serial killers, believe it or not, see themselves as highly moralistic people, who are offended at the act of prostitution, to such a degree that they act out this rage," Raffle said. "They want women to be Madonnas, and when a woman is not a Madonna, then that woman is a personal insult to them. So they punish the transgressor.

"They have to see women as perfection and nurturing, not as sexual objects," Raffle said. "Their own upbringing usually leads to a splitting of good mother/bad mother, and the prostitute represents the bad mother, who must be punished."

Enzo Yaksic, co-founder of the Atypical Homicide Research Group, which gathers data about serial killers, added: "The kneeling position is symbolic in that it signifies a position of submission."

Placing the victims on their knees, Yaksic said, "essentially dictates that he maintains total power and control over them. Most serial murderers are motivated to dominate others and their actions are a reflection of that need.

"Some ritualistic behaviors are subtle but when serial murderers pose a victim in such a manner it is designed to gratify themselves and send the message to others that they are superior," Yaksic said.

When asked why the killer allegedly left condoms near the bodies, which would make it easy for police to track him down, Yaksic said: "Not all serial murderers are as intelligent as they are portrayed in the movies. They can oftentimes be careless and so overconfident that they pay less attention to details like this.

"Ironically, it is those elements that lead to their capture," Yaksic said. "Serial killers aim to recreate situations they idealize about and can lose themselves in the moment of trying to see their fantasies through to fruition."

The age of the Detroit victims is also significant, Raffle said.

"These women were all in their 50s, which gets into the Madonna ages," Raffle said. "That may have been the age of the killer's mother when he was a boy and something significant happened. It also may be that perhaps his mother recently died. He may be grieving, and this is his way of reconnecting with his mother."

Raffle said serial killers generally are not insane — "at least, not the legal definition of insane," he said.

"Usually, they know what they’re doing is wrong," Raffle said. "If you know what you're doing is wrong, and you do it anyway, then you have the ability to think it through. This is not insanity."

Police began searching vacant homes on the city's east side Monday for more bodies. After the searches, city crews are boarding up the abandoned houses.

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Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN