Women who Run with Killers

When police in Vienna got a warrant to search the apartment of suspected serial killer Jack Unterweger, they found restaurant receipts from California and photographs of Unterweger posing with female members of the LAPD. They confiscated items that linked him to several murders in Austria and supported a warrant for his arrest.

But Unterweger was gone. He’d fled to Florida with his eighteen-year-old girlfriend, Bianca Mrak. On the run, Unterweger gave interviews to Austrian journalists to claim he was being framed. One journalist asked if he had forced Bianca to go with him, so she assured anyone who asked that she was a willing companion.

Bianca did not know that Unterweger had murdered nearly a dozen women. She believed his version. After all, he was a celebrity, a noted author and playwright.

The U. S. Marshals approached them in South Beach. As Unterweger fled, they made Bianca show them where the two were staying. A search turned up Unterweger’s travel journal. The agents had intervened just in time. According to his journal, Unterweger had contemplated killing Bianca. He was later convicted of the murders of ten women in three different countries.

Women like Bianca Mrak are in a different category from compliant accomplices – women who know that their partner is a killer and who reluctantly participate from fear for their own lives or that they will otherwise lose their man. Instead, some women find themselves involved with a killer without realizing his dark secrets.

Liz Kendall (her pseudonym) wrote The Phantom Prince to describe her extended relationship with Ted Bundy. They’d met at a bar in 1969. To impress her, he’d bragged that he was applying to law school and writing a book.

“I knew when I first looked at him…that he was a cut above the rest of the crowd,” she wrote. “The way he moved projected confidence. He seemed to be in control of his world.” Kendall, a single mother, was so certain that fame and fortune were in Bundy’s (and her) future that she allowed him to exploit her for “temporary” financial support. She had a few unsettling moments with him and even gave information to the police, but quickly changed her mind. She learned later that he’d killed other women while dating her.

Bundy had some tricks. Whenever Liz caught him in lies, he made her believe she was to blame. She accepted it. Bundy and Unterweger were similar in their ability to pose as normal, to be verbally persuasive, to be charming, and to present themselves as caring boyfriends. They compartmentalized well and planned their predatory activities strategically. They successfully duped those who were closest to them, because they watched for what these people expected, met expectations (mostly with lies), and made their girlfriends emotionally dependent. (See The Predator’s Advantage.)

Predators can spend as much time polishing the image they need to dupe others as pursuing their criminal lives. They know they need a cover story, look for people to persuade, and groom their targets with care. They keep these people alive for their own purposes.

We’d all like to believe that we can spot a serial killer. If we watch enough TV, we think we have a good idea of what to look for. Except that real life is not like TV. Predatory killers, male or female, frequently seem ordinary. Many defy “bad guy” stereotypes. They look for things they can use to their advantage, including need and naiveté. (See 6 Things Predators Know about You.)

In 1974, the FBI hunted for a man who appeared to be killing across the southeast U.S. The suspect was Paul John Knowles, released early from prison thanks to his fiancé’s attorney. When he went to see her, she felt skittish and broke off the engagement. Knowles launched a murder spree.

In Atlanta, Knowles met British journalist Sandy Fawkes. He posed as Lester Daryl Golden and assured her that he’d be a good subject for a book. He said he was going to die within a year and that he would become famous. She doubted it, but humored him, staying with him for several days.

In bed, Fawkes observed his inability to perform without self-stimulation, although he laughed about it. She sensed that he wanted to be liked, and while she thought he was strange, he was sensitive, considerate, and protective. Fawkes sometimes joked that “Golden” might be a killer.

After they parted, police arrested Knowles and came looking for Fawkes. She learned his real name and that he was a suspect in several murders. Then his prediction came true: During a prison transfer the “Casanova Killer” grabbed for an officer’s gun and was shot dead. On tapes he’d made and entrusted to an attorney, Knowles claimed to have killed thirty-five people, but just half that number was officially attributed to him.  

Fawkes wondered why Knowles had not killed her, and decided that her status as a writer had protected her. He wanted to be famous and she could make that happen – but only if she remained alive. At any rate, while Knowles was in the midst of his killing spree, even dressing in the stolen clothing of one victim, Fawkes had experienced him as merely an awkward, ordinary guy. (She did go on to write a book).

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