In "thrill" slayings, killers are not so much driven by the thrill of victory over their victims, but rather the agony of their past defeats.
Gary Hirte, 18, did not look like a potential thrill killer. An Eagle Scout and honors student and member of the track, wrestling and football teams at Weyauwega-Fremont High School near Oshkosh, Wis., he seemed to have a promising future ahead of him. But today he sits in Winnebego County jail, charged with first-degree intentional homicide.
Hirte is accused of the death of Glenn Kopitske, a substitute teacher who was found dead in his home last August, shot once in the head and stabbed twice. His slaying went unsolved until a girl Hirte had dated contacted police and told them he had confessed to the killing. Police say they found Kopitske's keys in Hirte's bedroom and DNA analysis identified the victim's blood on a knife sheath recovered from the room.
According to a criminal complaint, Hirte had told several friends that he had killed Kopitske to see if he could get away with it — but no one took him seriously.
Now Weyauwega residents are wondering why someone with such promise could throw it all away — apparently, law enforcement officials say, for kicks.
Experts say thrill killers are motivated by need to feel empowered, but they are not always loners or obviously disenfranchised members of a community. Even someone who appears to be successful can feel so powerless that they feel compelled to lash out and make a statement through murder.
"A person can appear outwardly successful to others, but for some reason, he may feel like a failure," said Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Conflict and Violence at Northeastern University. "Maybe they feel like they've fallen short of their goal. They don't feel like they're in control, and they erupt in way that is some kind of sadistic thrill.
"The frightening thing is that [some of them] never talk about it. They never let you know it's coming."
A Powerful Common Need
Thrill killers are mostly male and teenage, but they do not otherwise have a typical profile, experts say. Since different people have different standards of success and can feel wronged for various reasons, it is difficult to categorize thrill killers in cooker-cutter criminal profiles. They can range from a quiet 30-something-year-old office worker to an angst-filled unpopular teenager to, allegedly in Hirte's case, someone who looks like a winner.
Thrill killers' common denominator is that they feel inadequate or minimalized and are driven by a need to feel powerful.
"To a certain extent, they [thrill killers] may make their victims suffer so that they can feel good," said Levin. "Sadism is fairly common in thrill killings. The killer might torture, degrade, or rape his victim before he takes his or her life."
The ‘Invisible’ Warning Signs
Shock and disbelief immediately followed Hirte's arrest in late January. Several Weyauwega residents said they couldn't believe Hirte was capable of the slaying. "This kid had everything going for him. He can do anything he sets his mind to," said Mayor Howard Quimby. "I don't think anybody in town can believe the situation."
Still, experts say, there are always warning signs before a killer decides to strike. Observers don't see the signals, don't treat them seriously or ignore them.
"Whenever you hear stories like these, you hear people say things like, 'It's so shocking. I don't know how he could have done this.' People are not going to literally change overnight and wake up one day and decide they're going to kill someone," said Pat Brown, CEO of The Pat Brown Criminal Profiling Agency.
"Usually, there have been signs all along and the killer may have been able to hide them or manipulate situations so that they're not seen. … And sometimes we as parents don't want to believe certain things in our own child and just treat the signs as his being different or 'just being a boy.' "
The Fine Line Between Thrill and Revenge
Sometimes the warning signs in thrill killers appear more obvious.
In trials of Thomas Koskovich and Jason Vreeland, who were convicted in the 1997 slayings of two New Jersey pizza deliverymen they lured to an abandoned house, defense attorneys cited drug addiction and, particularly in Koskovich's case, an unstable family life riddled with emotional abuse and relatives who were in and out of prison. Arguably, criminologists said, Koskovich was a ticking time bomb whose environment — and perhaps a feeling of helplessness — turned him into a killer.
In the Columbine High School shootings, the warning signals in Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were well-documented before they gunned down 13 people and took their own lives. They were outsiders within the school, dubbed "The Trench Coat Mafia." Other students complained of death threats, and police received a tip about a Web site where Klebold and Harris bragged about having pipe bombs.
Sometimes the line between a thrill kill and a perceived revenge slaying is very thin.
"Columbine was a kind of thrill killing, if you think about it," said Levin. "These guys were bullied, teased, seen as outcasts. They targeted the kids who were seen as popular — the jocks, the important students."
A Question That May Never Be Answered
Gary Hirte has pleaded not guilty to Kopitske's slaying. He is scheduled to go on trial Oct. 25 and faces life imprisonment if convicted.
Thrill theories aside, a conviction may not yield answers to why he allegedly killed Kopitske. Murder motives come more easily from suspects who appear shunned and mostly unsuccessful. They're more puzzling in someone who appears successful.
"With some people, their need to feel successful is so extreme, nothing is ever enough," Brown said. "Everybody has their own definition of what success is."