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Why Do Serial Killers Call Their Victims’ Families?

The potential death count is now up to 10 for the possible serial killer currently known as the Long Island serial killer, who dumped the bodies of his victims-prostitutes who advertised their services on Craigslist-on an isolated stretch of beach bramble. The New York Times reported on April 8 that police believe that the killer called the 16-year-old sister of one of the victims from a cellphone in crowded locations around Manhattan*. The suspected killer’s series of phone calls to Amanda Barthelemy, the sister of victim Melissa Barthelemy, was described as “taunting” by the Times. Amanda and Melissa’s mother, Lynn, told Good Morning America that the killer specifically asked to speak to Amanda , and had intimated that Melissa might still be alive. Lynn told Good Morning America that she believes the killer has been stalking the family for a while, and that she now fears for Amanda’s safety as well.

The Long Island serial killer is not the only one to make these sorts of creepy calls. The Zodiac Killer , for instance, who terrorized the Bay Area in the ‘60s and ‘70s, also called his victim’s families. He also called police, lawyers, a schoolteacher, the writer Robert Graysmith, and others. According to Dirk C. Gibson’s book Clues From Killers: Serial Murder and Crime Scene Messages , the calls fell under the following themes: “[T]he Zodiac’s superiority, the ineptitute of law enforcement, and the frightful nature of future planned Zodiac crimes.” When he would call victims’ families specifically, he meant to terrorize: He would just call and breathe heavily into the receiver. When the Zodiac did speak on the phone, his words were concise, and appeared to be “planned and scripted.” Melissa’s mother told Good Morning Americ a that the phone calls to her daughter also sounded planned-he would not let her daughter have a word in edgewise.

The Long Island serial killer may be getting a distinct thrill from making these phone calls because he believes he’s not going to ever be caught-and he’s pushing boundaries. As an FBI report on serial murderers released a few years ago notes, ” As serial killers continue to offend without being captured, they can become empowered, feeling they will never be identified.”

The sister of Melissa Barthelemy can never erase the phone conversation that she had, or undo the fact that her sibling has been killed. But at least the families of these victims are banding together during this awful ordeal. As ABC News reports, the Barthelemys and the families of several other victims are sending one another Facebook messages and generally supporting each other.

*Correction, April 12, 2010 : The original version of this post said the killer called the victim’s sister from pay phones.