What is the difference between a spree killer and a serial killer? Well, it has nothing to do with the number of victims. A serial killer is defined as a person who murders three or more people with a cooling off period between each killing. A spree killer, on the other hand, is someone who kills two or more people with little or no cooling off period in-between.
Spree killers or mass murderers are among the scariest types of killers because most of the time they choose their victims completely at random and carry out their murders in public places. But while some killers truly do snap and act on impulse, most of them, as you will soon see, actually plan their attacks; sometimes years and years in advance. Now that’s a scary thought.
The reasons for mass murders vary considerably. Many spree killers have underlying mental health issues and are socially awkward. They develop a deep-seated hatred for society because they feel like they are unable to fit in. While some of them leave behind notes or videos to explain their murderous actions others leave no clues at all. Some act with political motivations and others do it simply to become infamous.
15. Howard Unruh – Breaking Point: When His New Garden Gate Was Stolen
It’s amazing how just a few minutes can change the course of your life, and the lives of people around you.
In 1949, Howard Unruh, a decorated WWII veteran left his home in the quiet neighborhood of Camden, New Jersey, and in just over 12 minutes shot and killed 13 people. Three of his victims were children and the youngest was only 2 years old.
Howard Unruh had returned from the war after an honorable discharge and was living with his mother at the time of the killings. He was unemployed and was often teased by neighborhood teens who called him a mama’s boy and make jokes about him being a homosexual. With little to occupy his time, he grew deeply paranoid about his neighbors. His breaking point was when he found that his new garden gate had been stolen; he went on his killing spree the following day.
14. 2011 Norway Attacks – Motive: Political (Planned For 9 Years)
The most disturbing detail about Anders Behring Breivik, the man who carried out the 2011 Norway Attacks, is the amount of planning that went into the massacre. According to Breivik, he began planning his killing spree in 2002 – a full nine years before they took place.
On July 22nd, 2011 Breivik detonated a car bomb in Oslo which killed eight people before making his way to the island of Utøya where a Workers’ Youth League (AUF) summer camp was being held. Once there he opened fire on the group and killed 69 more people and injured hundreds more. The motivation behind the attack was political.
Shockingly, although he confessed and was found guilty, Breivik received a sentence of 21 years of preventive detention. This is the maximum penalty allowed in Norway.
13. Columbine High School Massacre – Bullying Pushed Them Over The Edge
Eric Harris & Dylan Klebold were the two American teenagers who carried out the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999. There was plenty of controversy surrounding their motivations for the terrible attack that left 13 students and teachers dead and another 24 wounded. According to some sources, the boys had been the victims the bullying while other experts believe that the pair could have been suffering from depression or psychopathy.
On the 20th April 1999, the pair entered their high school with automatic weapons and between 11:19 am and 12:08 pm they went on the rampage. Eric wore a white t-shirt with the words “Natural Selection” written in black while Dylan had on a black t-shirt with the word “WRATH” in red. The pair committed suicide in unison before the police could get to them. Eric was 18 years old at the time and Dylan was 17.
12. The Chechen Mass Killer – Killed As Many Russians He Could Find
Ahmed Ibragimov was a Chechen mass killer who killed between 34 and 47 members of his village; most of them were Russians. The incident occurred on the 8th of October 1999, during the Second Chechen War. He walked through the village with a Kalashnikov rifle and methodically shot every Russian person that he could find. If he only wounded them with the first shot he followed up with a shot to the head. The youngest of his victims was just 10 years old.
Ibragimov fled the village when he ran out of ammunition, but he was captured two days later and handed over to the relatives of his victims. Hungry for vengeance they handcuffed him to a pole in the village square and beat him to death.
11. Woo-Bum Kon’s Killing Spree – Motive: Unknown
Until Anders Behring Breivik carried out the 2011 Norway Massacre, Woo Bum-Kon had the macabre distinction of being the deadliest lone mass murderer in modern history. His overnight killing rampage left 56 people dead and another 35 wounded.
We will never know the true reason that Woo, a South Korean policeman, snapped that night in 1982 because towards the end of his spree he detonated a grenade and killed himself. His girlfriend claims that he had woken up enraged and beat her before leaving the house. She said that he suffered from low self-esteem and was upset with his neighbor’s remarks about him living with his girlfriend without being married.
10. 2015 San Bernardino Terror Attack – Motive: Racial
Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik found each other over the internet. Syed was a US citizen whose parents had emigrated to the United States from Pakistan, and Tashfeen was born in Pakistan but spent most of her life in Saudi Arabia. The two bonded over their shared Islamic faith but also over their racial ideas and commitment to jihadism and to martyrdom.
On the 2nd of December 2015, the two left their baby daughter with a family member and embarked on their killing spree, targeting employees of the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. Together they killed 14 people and injured 22 more. They died during a police shootout later that day. It was the deadliest terror attack in the United States since 9/11 until the Orlando nightclub shootings in 2016.
9. Virginia Tech Shooting – Columbine Copycat
Sadly some spree killers are inspired by other rampage killers. That was certainly the case with Cho-Seing-Hui, an asocial loner from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University better known as Virginia Tech. Cho-Seing-Hui was in the eighth grade when news about the school shooting at Columbine High School made the headlines. He was completely in awe and even wrote a paper about wanting to “repeat Columbine” which promptly got him sent to a psychiatrist.
Cho was a troubled man, but no one ever suspected that he could be homicidal. All that changed on the 16th of April 2007 when Cho walked into Virginia Tech and shot 32 people, leaving 32 dead and 17 injured. Before police could get to him Cho turned the gun on himself.
8. Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting – Motive: Curiosity?
On the 14th of December 2012 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his mother in the head four times, took her car and drove to the Sandy Hook Elementary School. He carried a number of semi-automatic weapons with him and shot his way through the glass front door. In the five minutes that followed Lanza shot and killed 20 small children and 6 adult teachers. A few minutes before police breached the building Lanza took his own life.
An official investigation into Lanza’s background failed to uncover his motive for committing such an unprovoked attack on innocent children. It did determine that the attacks were planned and that Lanza had been researching other mass killings for quite some time. He had been suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and some believe that he may have also had undiagnosed schizophrenia and anorexia.
7. Tsuyama Massacre – Motive: Vengeance
On the evening of May 20th, 1938, Mutsuo Toi took his revenge and during an overnight killing spree he murdered 30 people, almost half the community of his small village. He walked from home to home, killing the occupants by either shooting them with his Browning shotgun or hacking them with the sword and axe that he also carried. His motive was pure vengeance.
Toi had contracted tuberculosis, which at the time was an incurable disease. In the suicide note that he left behind, he stated that the women in the village rejected his sexual advances once they learned about his illness and that he felt ostracized by the other villagers. It seems that in his mind if he had to die he wasn’t going to go alone.
6. 2012 Aurora Mass Shooting
On the 20th of July 2012, an armed gunman entered the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Without warning, he set off a number of tear grenades and started shooting at the movie goers inside the theater. When police arrived a few minutes later the gunman surrendered immediately, but 12 people lay dead inside with another 70 wounded.
The perpetrator was 24-year-old James Holmes. James had been struggling with emotional issues since his teens and had recently broken up with his girlfriend. She had ended the relationship because of his strange behavior and had urged him to seek professional help.
For his crimes, he received 12 life sentences in prison without the possibility of parole plus an additional 3,318 years. He narrowly escaped the death penalty because three of the jurors believed that he was suffering from mental illness at the time of the attacks.
5. Port Arthur Massacre – Motive: Anger
Martin John Bryant began displaying disturbing behavior as a small child. He would break his toys, torture animals, and bully other children. He struggled academically and when he was assessed it was found that he only had an IQ of 66. When he left school his psychiatrist recommended that he receive a disability pension as he was socially inept and incapable of holding down a job.
Throughout his life, Bryant was lonely and socially awkward. This drove him into depression and multiple suicide attempts. He was angry because people did not want to engage with him and this seemed to be the motivation behind his attack. In 1996 he perpetrated the Port Arthur Massacre, which left 35 people dead and 23 injured. He continues to serve out his sentence in a secure mental ward today and will never be released.
4. 2014 Isla Vista Killings – Bullied & Angry
Elliot Rodger was an angry young man. He was upset that at the age of 22 he was still a virgin and that girls were not interested in dating him. He was lonely and struggled to make friends; often complaining that he was bullied.
His anger reached a boiling point on May 23rd, 2014 when Rodger went on a murderous rampage. He began by stabbing three fellow students to death and then took to the streets, shooting randomly at anyone he could find. He then turned the gun on himself.
3. The Texas Tower Sniper
Some spree killers are clear about their motivations and want to make sure that other people know too. But that was not the case with Charles Whitman, AKA The Texas Tower Shooter. Charles himself was unsure of where his compulsion to kill had come from and even requested in autopsy in his suicide note. A small brain tumor was actually discovered, but doctors were not convinced that it could have caused him to kill.
Charles was a man with an above average IQ who had served as a U.S Marine. After being discharged from service he had worked a number of jobs and studied further. But for reasons we will never truly understand Charles killed his mother and wife on the 1st of August 1966 and then went to the University of Texas, where he shot 17 people dead and wounded 31 more before police fatally shot him.
2. Luby’s Massacre – Seemed To Resent Women
The date was the 16th of October 1991 and it was National Bosses Day. Luby’s, a restaurant in Killeen, Texas was packed with around 140 inside, all enjoying lunch. Suddenly the plate glass window at the front of the restaurant exploded as a pickup crashed through. For a moment people thought the crash was an accident until 35-year-old George Hennard jumped out of the vehicle and opened fire. Hennard killed 23 people, most with single shots to the head, and wounded another 27 before shooting himself in the head.
People who knew George, an unemployed merchant mariner, described him as an angry and withdrawn man. He carried a deep hatred for women and on the day of the attack seemed to target women (14 of his victims were female).
1. The Hungerford Massacre
The Hungerford Massacre was one of the worst firearm-related mass killings to ever take place in the United Kingdom. The spree killing was carried out by a 27-year-old man named Michael Robert Ryan.
During a six-hour rampage on August 19th, 1987, he killed 17 people, including his mother and himself, and seriously injured 15 others in various locations in Hungerford, Berkshire. He carried a small arsenal with him that included a handgun and two semi-automatic rifles. Before police could apprehend him Ryan committed suicide.
The motivation for the killings still remains unknown. Ryan lived at home with his mother and didn’t have many close friends. The only two people who may have been able to shed light on his reasons were his mother and Ryan himself.