Killer Instinct

APB Online Hopes Crime Will Pay

With the aid of technology, serial killers are emerging as active players in our lurid fascination with deadly intent. This obsession has created a genre dedicated to a new cultural icon, a prospect revolting to victims' families and law enforcement, but useful to those who want to explore and understand the criminal mind. Sondra London, who was once engaged to Danny Rolling—who terrorized the University of Florida's Gainesville campus in 1990, killing five women—is the latest to get caught up in this controversy. After the threat of a boycott led by Marc Klaas, father of abducted murder victim Polly, AOL shut down London's site in September. The site featured the words (including a "Self-Start Serial Killer Kit"—which London removed prior to AOL's plug pulling) and artwork of Keith Hunter Jesperson, convicted of several murders in the Pacific Northwest. London, undeterred, came back online with a book on how monsters like her former fiancé are created (www.sondralondon.com).

This is just the type of thing Kevin Heldman is trying to put the brakes on. Heldman, an eight-year veteran crime reporter, covers serial homicides for APB. "I had assumed there'd be a lot of hype in this area, that it'd be sexy, high profile, but it's not that at all. There are surprisingly sober concerns, e-mails coming in from the general public, relatives of victims, law enforcement. We've definitely hit some kind of nerve."

bbb Heldman just returned from a two-week stint on the road—the I-10. He was looking for clues to the identities of mostly transient and/or marginalized victims along the highway, hoping to piece together a pattern heretofore undetected. His findings are updated in a growing APB database, the Serial Killer Atlas—where he also plans to post one victim's reconstructed face along with the items found with her body—in the hope that someone may provide a lead on their identities.

APB is also trying to lure amateur detectives with its highly popular interactive component Unsolved, in which former FBI agent John Douglas, the prototype for The Silence of the Lamb's Jack Crawford, challenges the public to examine the evidence and try to come up with a profile. The current subject is the Green River killer, still at large more than 15 years after leaving a trail of 49 corpses in Washington State. The reporter who originally covered the case, Seattle's Tomas Guillen, wrote an introduction.

The message board in this section reflects an audience high on the true crime buzz. "This is the positive side of the Internet. I'm amazed at the focused intelligence of 60 million to help solve crimes [and] find missing people and fugitives," says Sauter.

To what extent this information exchange really works to solve crimes, though, is questionable. "Police will go down more-traveled roads, such as the FBI's VICAP (Violent Crime Apprehension Program) database and talking to one another before going after a lead off the Internet," says Marie Rosen, publisher of Law Enforcement News, a newspaper of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "Given the nature of the beast of the Web, if I were a police officer I'd be really cautious." And she's even more cautious about the run on our latest taboo indulgence. "Like the westerns of the '60s, you turn on something now and it has to do with serial killers or profiling. This kind of site is tapping into an enhanced public interest."

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