Serial killers' messages — whether they've been scrawled in lipstick or posed in cryptic symbols — have often inspired responses from police via the media. Some communications experts call the exchange a public "cat-and-mouse game;" others say it's a savvy way to keep clues coming.
After three weeks of Washington, D.C.-area sniper shootings, 10 of them fatal, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose turned to the cameras Monday to discuss a message left for police — a message now believed to be the work of the sniper.
The lead investigator said: "The person you called could not hear everything you said. The audio was unclear and we want to get it right. Call us back so that we can clearly understand," said Moose, who has been leading the hunt.
On Tuesday afternoon, Moose said police had received another message and disclosed details from an earlier communication.
Later Tuesday night, Moose responded to several reports about the contents of a note left near the scene of a shooting Saturday in Ashland, Va.
The note, which investigators believe was from the sniper, said that he had made at least five calls to police that had been "ignored" by operators answering the phones, ABCNEWS has learned.
Chief Gil Kerlikowske of the Seattle police department says it's no surprise that investigators in this case are willing to communicate through the media.
"Given the length of time this case has gone on, and the impact it has had, I would be using every technique possible, just as they are," Kerlikowske said.
Working to Build a Profile
When investigators use the media to communicate with a suspect, it can result in a continuing dialogue and possibly additional clues, said Joan A. Deppa, an associate professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
"I think it's a wise thing to do," Deppa said. "One of the things about communicating is that people will always manage to tell something about themselves, even when they don't mean to. It's the devil we don't know that's making our lives miserable," she said.
Tomas Guillen, a professor at Seattle University who specializes in communication between serial killers and police, says messages from the killer can help police learn something about their identity, but it rarely leads to a direct identification of the killer.
"I think it's possible, but it's been very rare, Guillen said on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America Tuesday. "He's playing a cat-and-mouse game."
Historically, few serial killers have been nabbed through communications alone. "Son of Sam" David Berkowitz, the serial killer who killed six people and wounded seven in New York City, had a dialogue with police through many letters, but was caught only after he received a parking ticket near the location of one of his murders.
San Francisco's "Zodiac Killer" has never been found, despite the 21 letters the killer sent to a local paper.
The "Unabomber," Ted Kaczynski, was caught after he used the media to communicate with the world. His brother recognized Kaczynski's writing style and turned him in after reading the bomber's 35,000-word "manifesto," which he demanded newspapers print.
Messages and Notes Offer Details
In a paper published in the Journal of Criminal Justice titled "Serial Killer Communiques: Helpful or Hurtful," Guillen reviews cases in which serial killers communicated with investigators and/or the media.