Phil Chalmers’ latest project is a book on black serial killers who, he says, constitute nearly 60 percent of America’s serial killers
BRADENTON, Fla. — A true-crime author who doubles as a church youth director, memorizes stats on American murderers the way other people recite batting averages, and archives personal correspondences from villains like John Wayne Gacy and Charles Manson hopes to rewrite the book on serial killers.
Specifically, he wants the news out that the majority of them are black.
Criminologist and Bradenton resident Phil Chalmers, 53, cites figures indicating just 30.8 percent of murderers who fit the definition are white. By a 59.8 percent majority, according to a joint academic study completed in 2016, African-Americans form the dominant demographic in this horrific niche.
“It’s a myth that all serial killers are crazy white guys — that’s what most people think,” says Chalmers, author of the self-published “Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer” in 2009. “The reality is, there’s been a major shift in the past 20, 30 years, but nobody really wants to talk about it.
“What I’m doing is standing up for the victims, a lot of whom are black females, black children, people who get little if any coverage, and no one knows their stories. People have a different reaction to victims when they’re suburban to upper class, especially if they’re white — those will get huge headlines. But if the victims are lower class, drug addicts, prostitutes of color, the media usually ignores it.”
Chalmers, whose 30-year obsession to understand what drives certain murder behaviors, has attained national exposure with the likes of Fox, A&E and Newsweek. Having stuffed a two-drawer filing cabinet with letters and memorabilia from hundreds of convicted murderers, not to mention digital photo galleries splattered with a deep well of ghastly crime scenes, Chalmers makes his living lecturing on the warning signs of potential young killers, mostly to audiences of law enforcement and educators.
His latest project — a book on African-American serial killers, which he is completing with his wife, Wendi, a Manatee County schoolteacher — will feature an index listing the names and deeds of 500 minority serial killers. “The deadliest serial killer in U.S. history is a guy named Carl Watts, who probably killed anywhere from 100 to 120 people,” Chalmers says. “But nobody ever heard of him.”
The definition of what constitutes a serial killer, however, seems arbitrary and almost impossibly broad. According to the most recent FBI description, issued in 2005, it applies to “the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.” Beyond that, according to a statement provided to the Herald-Tribune by the FBI, the bureau doesn’t track demographic statistics, or at least not for public distribution.
In a 2014 issue of Psychology Today, criminology professor Scott Bonn published an article claiming that 20 percent of American serial killers are black. But that was before a partnership between Radford University in Virginia and Florida Gulf Coast University in Naples collaborated on an even more challenging study released in September 2016.
The new study
Scouring books, court and prison records, newspaper articles and sources such as Ancestry.com, the project — spearheaded by Radford forensic psychology professor Mike Aamodt — assembled a database containing the names of 4,743 serial killers and 13,105 victims. Although it tracks related crimes all the way back to ancient Rome, its most reliable numbers begin in 1900. One of the most dramatic revelations was a racial trend among the perpetrators, beginning around 1970.
Forty-eight years ago, whites dominated the grim statistics by a 60.9 percent to 33.6 percent margin over African-Americans. The intervening years have watched a gradual but steady realignment of those percentages. For psychologist Bonn, who used unofficial FBI sourcing to account for his 20 percent black-perpetrator figure four years ago, the Radford/FGCU project reaffirmed what he already suspected.
“What I would take away from their study is that minorities are grossly underrepresented as serial killers in the news and entertainment media,” Bonn stated in an email. “That is because minority serial killers normally kill minority victims, and the media focus on white male serial killers who kill pretty white girls — hence the stereotype.”
Radford’s Aamodt shared the findings to the FBI but received little feedback. The Herald-Tribune queried the NAACP headquarters in Washington, D.C., for comment, but received no reply.
FGCU industrial-organizational psychologist Terence Leary says the project was able to identify 180 variables contributing to the phenomenon which, by FBI standards, would include murder-for-hire mobsters. Of special interest, however, especially given the escalating percentages of African-American serial murderers, is what may be an evolving sociology in depressed neighborhoods blighted by gang-related homicides.
Leary says serial killings break down into two broad categories: organized and disorganized. The former involves some manner of planning and calculation versus impulsive or emotional propulsion for the latter. Could those more dispassionate or money-related gang hits create emotional dependencies? “It’s something we want to look into,” said Leary.
Two Florida examples
The Herald-Tribune’s initial interview with Chalmers in early December occurred in the immediate aftermath of two ostensibly disconnected events. Tampa Bay residents were riveted by a dragnet for a serial killer wanted in the slaying of four people over a two-month span. It ended on Nov. 28 with the arrest of 24-year-old Howell Donaldson.
Meanwhile, in the Fort Lauderdale area, authorities on Nov. 9 arrested a 22-year-old named Nathaniel Petgrave for the murder of three homeless men in separate attacks in late October.
Donaldson and Petgrave are African-American and, if convicted, would clearly meet the FBI standard for serial killers. Chalmers doubts residents in both cities were aware of the murders unfolding on opposite coasts of Florida. Contained in the details of both murder sprees, Chalmers adds, is another myth-buster, that serial killings are typically intimate events involving close contact, such as stabbing or strangulation.
“Forty-seven percent of serial killers today like to shoot people. That’s their preferred method,” says Chalmers. “They’ll shoot someone and then spend time with the body after death.”
Indeed, after allegedly shooting a man named Derick Tucker, Petgrave is said to have written, in Tucker’s blood, the words “4 Stop Wait Time.” Investigators theorize Petgrave believed Tucker was Petgrave’s fourth homicide, when in fact the victim of an earlier attack managed to survive.
Chalmers’ knowledge of serial killers and their methods is encyclopedic. He has letters from “clown killer” John Wayne Gacy, conversed face-to-face with David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, interviewed Chris Scarver — the man who killed cannibal serial killer and fellow inmate Jeffrey Dahmer — and received Christmas cards from Charles Manson who, as Chalmers points out, “was never convicted of personally killing anybody.”
Chalmers has discovered a handful of other books about black serial killers, released with little or no publicity. When Chalmers goes to press this year — “It’s just too politically incorrect; nobody will publish it” — he says, his book will be more distinctive. “I will have interviewed more serial killers than anybody else in history.
“Read about John Douglas,” he adds, referring to the founder of the FBI’s elite serial crime unit, popularized in the “Mindhunter” Netflix series. “Douglas interviewed about 30 serial killers. I’ll be meeting with [BTK killer] Dennis Rader pretty soon.” Fragments of Rader’s story teased the beginning of each “Mindhunter” episode.
‘Somewhere in between’
A knock against Chalmers is his lack of an academic degree. The Detroit native attended two years of college before dropping out. But according to some law enforcement officials who attend his lectures, what separates Chalmers from other aspiring crime-stoppers are those countless real-world interviews with so many inmates. Chalmers says law enforcement agencies are in dire need of refresher courses.
“Most of your so-called experts are 20 years behind because most of these guys won’t talk to police. They don’t like the police and they won’t talk to the media,” he says. “So I’m somewhere in between, and I can gain their trust.”
Darin Chance, the new police chief in Ash Grove, Missouri, has attended maybe half a dozen of Chalmers’ seminars and says a lack of college credentials is irrelevant when it comes to the message.
“What makes his research so valuable is that he’s actually gone out and interviewed these people,” says the vice president of the Missouri School Resource Officers. “Plus he’s gone everywhere and obtained crime-scene photos and information we would never otherwise see. It’s a compelling presentation. The two big areas he focuses on are school safety and homicide prevention, and the pointers he gives on the warning signs are invaluable.”
“Phil doesn’t go with what you’d call a textbook approach,” adds Sgt. Bryon Hennessy, training coordinator for the Morgantown, West Virginia, police department. “His interviews with killers bring us perspectives we wouldn’t have thought of. Obviously there’s no magic formula, but he’s given us a lot of indicators for identifying someone who could be problematic, people who we might want to pay more attention to.”
For Ralph Hoehne, pastor of The Source church in Bradenton, Chalmers showed up with big ideas last year at a time “when we were desperately looking for a youth pastor.” Among them — getting well-heeled members to buy a Hummer, then giving it away to the teenager who collects the most combined points for a) attending Sunday evening youth services, and b) bringing other young peers into the circle. The competition ends in July.
“Phil brings a powerful message to these kids, whether it’s about drugs, alcohol, addiction to pornography, violent video games, cutting, bullying — he’s on the edge and he knows how to hold their attention,” says Hoehne. “We could never pay him what he’s worth, but he’s not here for the paycheck. He wants to save lives.”
Growing up in a crime-riddled urban neighborhood, son of an alcoholic father, Chalmers says he might have ended up like inmates on the other side of the cage were it not for a mother “who nudged me in the right direction.”
Among Chalmers’ most curious possessions are two exquisitely detailed, full-sized violins, constructed with popsicle sticks, sandpaper, glue and water. They are the handiwork of William Clyde Gibson, convicted in the mutilation murders of three women in Indiana.
“Some of these guys are unbelievable artists,” Chalmers says. “It makes you wonder how their lives might’ve turned out differently if they’d gotten help when they were kids.”
Billy Cox is a reporter for the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald Tribune.