Skip to main content

‘Missing Missing’ and Serial Killers

The most common victims of serial killers may be much more numerous than experts generally believe.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
Chicago Police guard evidence near a murder scene in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on July 27th, 2017, in Chicago, Illinois.

Chicago Police guard evidence near a murder scene in the Humboldt Park neighborhood on July 27th, 2017, in Chicago, Illinois.

When Washington state’s notorious Green River Killer was arrested in 2001, police estimated he had murdered 48 women. But at least one academic thinks he accounted for a lot more victims — upwards of 50 more.

Kenna Quinet, an associate professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, points out that at least one-third of the killer’s known victims had never been reported missing, were absent from police missing-persons databases or remained unidentified. Many were female prostitutes or teenage runaways.

Referring to these victims as the “missing missing,” transients on the lower rung of society whose absence seems to go unnoted, Quinet said, “You can’t kill 50 CEOs, cops or professors in the U.S. There would be a whole SWAT mentality; we would hunt you down.”

Quinet’s recent paper, “The Missing Missing: Toward a Quantification of Serial Murder Victimization in the United States,” which was published in the journal Homicide Studies, argues that victims of serial murderers are being grossly undercounted in this country. She believes the most accurate figure may be as high as 1,832 serial killer victims annually, or 10 times the number given by recent academic estimates.

Quinet claims all known calculations tend to neglect people who have never been reported missing (which could include “thrownaways,” kids kicked out of the house by their parents); bodies so disfigured they can’t be identified; “marginals,” such as the homeless, prostitutes and illegal immigrants; and people who are “expected to die”: those in nursing homes, in hospitals and under custodial care.

It’s not that no one cares about these people, according to Quinet. It’s more “an information issue. I don’t believe the police care any less about the death of prostitutes. It’s a matter of in the U.S. we did not have a system that linked missing persons and unidentified dead.”

Quinet’s research came up with some interesting statistical anomalies. She notes, for example, that people who have outstanding warrants for their arrest are never referred to as missing but as fugitives. Mentioning the case of Herb Baumeister, an Indiana serial killer, Quinet notes that several of his victims had been missing, but because they also had outstanding warrants, no one was really looking for them.

“Their families don’t even report them as missing,” Quinet said of the “missing missing.” “They’re estranged from their families, and no one follows up. These people fall between the cracks. It’s no one’s fault; it’s the transient nature of their lives, the lack of information sharing and the fact that missing-persons cases are not the most glorified police work. This is not priority police work.”

Quinet has been interested in this issue since the 1980s, when she wrote a graduate school paper debunking the notion that there were 5,000 annual serial murders in the United States. But not long ago, while discussing the Baumeister case with some buddies in the Indianapolis Police Department, she said, “I told them, ‘If (the victims, mostly gay males) had been college co-eds, you guys would have had a task force by the second or third victim.’ And they said, ‘These guys come up missing all the time,’ and we started discussing transient victims. The idea of keeping track of this population — who’s going to report another prostitute as missing?”

Quinet used a number of sources for her research: known information about serial killers and their victims, data about missing persons, hospital census figures and any numbers available about the “missing missing.” She also dipped into reporting done by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on serial killing in Washington, which she used to extrapolate figures for the country as a whole.

“I believe my lower range (182 victims annually) is extremely conservative,” said Quinet, “and that would double the yearly number.”

But things may be getting better, at least in the statistical sense. With last year’s founding of NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, police departments, coroners and medical examiners now have a national database of missing-persons records and unidentified-decedent cases.

Yet there is still much to be done. Quinet believes there should be better missing-persons reports management on the part of the police, such as not purging missing-persons reports at the end of the year but renewing them. A similar recommendation goes for missing children: Once they reach the age of 18, many jurisdictions purge them from the files because they’ve become adults.

“I would also take a rehabilitative approach to working with prostitutes,” Quinet said. “There are, for example, mobile vans in some areas that check in with them. They give them a meal so someone knows where they are and will know if they’re missing.”

The bottom line? It’s dangerous out there, especially if you’re homeless, gay, elderly or a prostitute. “I think social service agencies need to do a better job in serving a very vulnerable population,” Quinet said. “Let’s keep track of each other somehow.”