Disciple Killers

D is for Disciple Murderers

The Disciple Murderer is one who follows the dictatorship of a charismatic leader, and kills for that leader. This post follows on quite nicely from one on cult murders yesterday.

The Profile and Motivation of the Disciple Killer

The anticipated gain of the disciple killer is psychological or expressive: the leader of the group demands the action (e.g. poisoning others) and the killer wants the acceptance of the leader. The psychological acceptance is paramount in the need hierarchy of the disciple. Money, revenge, or sex are neither motivational factors nor anticipated gains.The disciple killer desires psychological approbation and feels he or she deserves it after carrying out the wishes of the leader…

Spatial mobility is also an element in the disciple killer’s profile. Typically, the killer’s acts of violence are carried out near the location of the leader. So, a disciple killer is rarely a traveller in the same sense as a geographically transient serial killer. However, as noted earlier, the disciple killer follows the leader and is unlikely to be originally from the general area in which the crimes are committed.

Disciple killers, unlike mass murderers, do not appear to have a general dislike for the world around them, nor do they believe that killing is the only way out of a particular situation. Disciple killers murder because of the effect their leaders have on them. Their victims, typically strangers, are selected by their leaders, so victim selection is not a factor for disciple killers. In a way, these killers may be compared with soldiers who kill prisoners-of-war, not out of fear for their own lives, but because of their dedication to the message of the leader. Such killers may feel they are relieved of a certain amount of personal responsibility by this scenario.

(Holmes & Holmes, 2001)

Examples of Disciples

One of the best known examples of disciple killers sit with the Johnstown massacre, and Reverend Jim Jones. For those of the 900+ people who refused to commit mass suicide, disciples of the Reverend forced the issue: young babies via syringes squirting the poison into their mouths, adults were force-fed the poison, or shot by armed guards if trying to escape.

Another example is the followers of Charles Manson. They fell under the “spell” of the leader, and desired nothing more than to please their leader. When arriving at that first Sphan Ranch, the ‘Family‘ already included at least forty – mostly girls aged between 15 and 25 with a scattering of men.
Most of the women Manson recruited, such as Susan Atkins (died in prison of cancer, Sept 2009), Lesley Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel, who are now serving life sentences, were the neglected middle-class kids of a permissive, generation, desperately looking for a parent figure. They were mesmerised by Manson’s homespun philosophy and his songs about love. (Source: Daily Mail)
Victim selection is usually random or has some symbolic meaning known only to the leader. Spatial mobility is a possibility, but usually the murders are committed fairly near the location of the leader. Weapons of choice are usually hand weapons, but poison, nerve gas, biologicals, and other weapons of mass destruction are also possible. Rarely is the disciple dispatched on a suicide mission as the whole point is to live to strike again. (Source: O’Connor, T).
Gang initiation and cult loyalty killings fall into this category.

Citations and References

  • Murder in America‘, Holmes, Ronald M & Holmes, Stephen T, 2nd Edition, 2001, Sage Publications.
  • The Devil’s disciples: 40 years after his killing sprees, Charles Manson is now a grotesque celebrity with a Twitter Page‘, by Ivor Davis, Daily Mail August 9, 2009.
  • O’Connor, T. (2011). “Mass murder,” MegaLinks in Criminal Justice. Retrieved from http://www.drtomoconnor.com/4050/4050lect07.htm accessed on Feb 28, 2012.


MoreA to Z of Serious Crime INDEX

  • For more on Cult leaders and murders see C for Cult Murders
  • For more on team killings see T for Team Killers


This post participated in the Blogging from A to Z April Challenge. Find other worthwhile blogs to read, comment on and follow through the A to Z Challenge blog.




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Hunter Emkay writes psychological thrillers set in our contemporary domestic world. Hunter Emkay grew up and moved between small town surburbia to corporate geekiness – and back. Maybe all that surburban excitement has led to a little too much murder on her mind.

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