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Serial Killers Should Fear This Algorithm

Source: Bloomberg

By Robert Kolker

Thomas Hargrove is building software to identify trends in unsolved murders using data nobody’s bothered with before.

On Aug. 18, 2010, a police lieutenant in Gary, Ind., received an e-mail, the subject line of which would be right at home in the first few scenes of a David Fincher movie:

“Could there be a serial killer active in the Gary area?”

It isn’t clear what the lieutenant did with that e-mail; it would be understandable if he waved it off as a prank. But the author could not have been more serious. He’d attached source material—spreadsheets created from FBI files showing that over several years the city of Gary had recorded 14 unsolved murders of women between the ages of 20 and 50. The cause of each death was the same: strangulation. Compared with statistics from around the country, he wrote, the number of similar killings in Gary was far greater than the norm. So many people dying the same way in the same city—wouldn’t that suggest that at least a few of them, maybe more, might be connected? And that the killer might still be at large?

The police lieutenant never replied. Twelve days later, the police chief, Gary Carter, received a similar e-mail from the same person. This message added a few details. Several of the women were strangled in their homes. In at least two cases, a fire was set after the murder. In more recent cases, several women were found strangled in or around abandoned buildings. Wasn’t all of this, the writer asked, at least worth a look?

The Gary police never responded to that e-mail, either, or to two follow-up letters sent via registered mail. No one from the department has commented publicly about what was sent to them—nor would anyone comment for this story. “It was the most frustrating experience of my professional life,” says the author of those messages, a 61-year-old retired news reporter from Virginia named Thomas Hargrove.

Hargrove spent his career as a data guy. He analyzed his first set of polling data as a journalism major at the University of Missouri, where he became a student director of the university’s polling organization. He joined an E.W. Scripps newspaper right out of college and expanded his repertoire from political polling data to practically any subject that required statistical analysis. “In the newsroom,” he remembers, “they would say, ‘Give that to Hargrove. That’s a numbers problem.’ ”

In 2004, Hargrove’s editors asked him to look into statistics surrounding prostitution. The only way to study that was to get a copy of the nation’s most comprehensive repository of criminal statistics: the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, or UCR. When Hargrove called up a copy of the report from the database library at the University of Missouri, attached to it was something he didn’t expect: the Supplementary Homicide Report. “I opened it up, and it was a record I’d never seen before,” he says. “Line by line, every murder that was reported to the FBI.”

This report, covering the year 2002, contained about 16,000 murders, broken down by the victims’ age, race, and sex, as well as the method of killing, the police department that made the report, the circumstances known about the case, and information about the offender, if the offender was known. “I don’t know where these thoughts come from,” Hargrove says, “but the second I saw that thing, I asked myself, ‘Do you suppose it’s possible to teach a computer how to spot serial killers?’ ”

Like a lot of people, Hargrove was aware of criticisms of police being afflicted by tunnel vision when investigating difficult cases. He’d heard the term “linkage blindness,” used to describe the tendency of law-enforcement jurisdictions to fail to connect the dots between similar cases occurring right across the county or state line from one another. Somewhere in this report, Hargrove thought, could be the antidote to linkage blindness. The right person, looking at the information in the right way, might be able to identify any number of at-large serial killers.

Every year he downloaded and crunched the most recent data set. What really shocked him was the number of murder cases that had never been cleared. (In law enforcement, a case is cleared when a suspect is arrested, whatever the eventual outcome.) Hargrove counted 211,487, more than a third of the homicides recorded from 1980 to 2010. Why, he wondered, wasn’t the public up in arms about such a large number of unsolved murders?

To make matters worse, Hargrove saw that despite a generation’s worth of innovation in the science of crime fighting, including DNA analysis, the rate of cleared cases wasn’t increasing but decreasing—plummeting, even. The average homicide clearance rate in the 1960s was close to 90 percent; by 2010 it was solidly in the mid-’60s. It has fallen further since.

These troubling trends were what moved Hargrove to write to the Gary police. He failed to get any traction there. Sure enough, four years later, in October 2014, in Hammond, Ind.—the town next door to Gary—police found the body of 19-year-old Afrikka Hardy in a room at a Motel 6. Using her phone records, they tracked down a suspect, 43-year-old Darren Deon Vann. Once arrested, Vann took police to the abandoned buildings where he’d stowed six more bodies, all of them in and around Gary. Anith Jones had last been seen alive on Oct. 8; Tracy Martin went missing in June; Kristine Williams and Sonya Billingsley disappeared in February; and Teaira Batey and Tanya Gatlin had vanished in January.

Before invoking his right to remain silent, Vann offhandedly mentioned that he’d been killing people for years—since the 1990s. Hargrove went to Gary, reporting for Scripps, to investigate whether any of the cases he’d identified back in 2010 might possibly be attributed to Vann. He remembers getting just one helpful response, from an assistant coroner in Lake County who promised to follow up, but that too went nowhere. Now, as the Vann prosecution slogs its way through the courts, everyone involved in the case is under a gag order, prevented from speculating publicly about whether any of the victims Hargrove noted in 2010 might also have been killed by Vann. “There are at least seven women who died after I tried to convince the Gary police that they had a serial killer,” Hargrove says. “He was a pretty bad one.”

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