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How Do Hitmen Operate?

• January 28, 2014 • 9:28 AM

(Photo: Public Domain)

British criminologists claim that hitmen are more boring than we make them out to be, but their analysis can’t account for the behavior of “Master” killers.

If a hitman excels at his craft, he’ll operate quietly and without incident. In theory, the whispered meetings will be held in secret, the job will be executed with precision and grace, and no one will witness the escape.

For those reasons, the few criminologists who do attempt to study these misdeeds acknowledge the thorny methodological problems associated with examining “a secret world” to which they have no access. Of course, that hasn’t exactly stifled their ambitions.

A group of researchers at the Center for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University in the U.K. has recently analyzed newspaper articles, court records, and a series of “off-the-record” interviews with informants “who have, or who had, direct knowledge of contract killings” in order to construct what they term a “typology” of British hitmen. For the record, these social scientists “define a hitman as a person who accepts an order to kill another human being from someone who is not publicly acknowledged as a legitimate authority regarding ‘just killing’.” The results of their detailed search of British cases that matched this description in the period between 1974 and 2013 only turned up 27 contracted hits or attempted hits “committed by a total of 36 hitmen” (there was only a single “hitwoman”), but the researchers used the sample to tease out the details and profiles of typical killers-for-hire.

The main thrust of the paper, which will be published in the Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, is that hitmen do not operate with the drama, professionalism, or glamour that mob films and spy novels afford them. In actuality, the majority of killers select jejune settings for their crimes, have occasionally bumbling performances, and are often hired by contractors with lame motivations.

Here’s the profile of an average British hitman, who seems more confined by the boxy restraints of reality than the undulating arcs of fiction:

  • He kills on the cheap. The average asking price was £15,180. It was £100,000 at the highest level, and a teenager was shafted with £200 at the low end. “[A]s another British researcher who studied the economics of contract killing noted: ‘the majority of paid killings take place for very small sums much lower than the economic value of life and lower too than what one would expect as compensation for efforts and risks of the hiree’.”
  • There’s really nothing to do on Tuesdays, so naturally that was the most popular day to make the hit, “although this finding is not statistically significant.”
  • The weapon of choice was a firearm.

Within our sample, the vast majority of hits were carried out using a gun – a not insignificant finding in itself, given the tight controls on the availability of firearms that exist within this country and this finding was statistically significant. Out of an overall total of 35 victims, 25 were shot. Perhaps the most alarming use of a firearm can be found within the murder of David King. Mr King was shot five times by hitman Roger Vincent (33 years) and his accomplice David Smith (33 years). The weapon used in this hit is noteworthy as it was the first time that an AK-47 assault rifle – seemingly originally belonging to the Hungarian Prison Service – had been used on the streets of Britain. Of the ten remaining victims in our sample, three were stabbed, five were beaten to death and two were strangled.

  • The majority of the victims were selected by the contractor for murder on the basis of a sour business deal or rivalry, but the reasoning did vary a bit. “The motivations that we could discern for the remaining hits included: disputes within gangs or more formally-organised criminal networks; domestic disagreements between divorcing husbands and wives; cases of mistaken identity; or, more broadly, the hits related to ‘honour killings’.”
  • Most of the killers were working on first-time contracts, meaning there weren’t many long-distance snipers taking shots from towers.
  • The murders did not occur in the cinematic locations of “smoky rooms, bars and casinos frequented by gangsters.” Instead, the victims were killed in drab suburbia, often “out in the open, on pavements, sometimes as the target was out walking their dog, or going shopping, with passers-by watching on in abject horror.”

Beyond the averages of the sample, the researchers also offered four basic profiles, varying on the basis of skill and experience level: the “Novice,” the “Dilettante,” the “Journeyman,” and the “Master.” “We gave these labels considerable thought as we wanted to capture accurately the skills and experience shown by the different hitmen who we uncovered, although we also accept that some might see these descriptions – especially that of being a ‘Master’ – as too affirming of someone who commits murder,” the researchers wrote. “That is not our intention.”

Predictably, the “Novice” is a total fledgling. He may be decent at organization, but he’s not an expert when it comes to execution. He’s usually apprehended with the use of forensic evidence.

A “Dilettante” is a bumbling idiot, who turns to murder only because he’s desperate for cash. “By using the label ‘Dilettante’ we are implying that this type of hitman does not necessarily come from an offending background and only seems to have decided to accept a contract as a way of resolving some form of personal crisis,” the researchers write. “As such, the ‘Dilettante’ dabbles and dips into the culture of contract killing, but not necessarily with any enthusiasm, or, indeed, with much skill.” 

A “Journeyman” is far more skilled than the “Novice” and often has access to firearms and criminal networks. He can still flounder in the moment, though. This guy gets nailed because he lives in the same area as the victim, and local law enforcement officers are able to connect the dots.

The researchers argue that most crimes are committed by these first three categories of killers. They maintain that the murders are “commonplace and ordinary” in their execution, and “mundane” in their motives. But they also write: “We also acknowledge that our results relate to those hitmen who have been caught and, of course, those hitmen who remain at large might present a very different profile from those whom we have described here.”

That’s where the speculative and expertly trained “Master” comes in. They created his persona based on unsolved murders:

However, we can glimpse how a ‘Master’ hitman operates when carrying out a hit, in such cases as the hit executed on Frank McPhee in Scotland in May 2000. McPhee, popularly described as a ‘gangland boss’, was killed by a single shot to the head from a .22 rifle with a telescopic sight outside his house in Guthrie Street, Maryhill – just 500 yards from the Maryhill Police Station. It was widely believed that McPhee was killed by a hitman to prevent him from becoming involved with the sale of drugs in Northern Ireland. McPhee’s killer has never been brought to justice. We use cases of this kind, which we suggest were carried out by a ‘Master’ hitman, to throw further light on the characteristics and patterns of behaviours associated with our other three types.

A “Master” doesn’t commit the same mistakes as all the other killers do. They parachute into the selected area, kill, and depart immediately. The researchers speculate that they have paramilitary experience or a great deal of criminal expertise, and they do not live in the same geographic area as victims, which makes them less likely to be thwarted by local law enforcement intelligence. “These ‘Masters’, by virtue of evading justice, exist in the shadows – almost like ghosts – and it has, therefore, been impossible to build up any concrete picture of them as individuals, as opposed to the picture that we have been able to present of the types of hits that they might execute,” they conclude.

But this idea that there are “ghost” killers out there negates the argument that there is any “mundane” average at all. To be able to determine what the true average looks like, the criminologists would have to capture every corner of the market, not just the narrow sample they’re working with. The people doing the death-defying, under-the-radar, cloak-and-dagger, tactical operations are the same ones they have absolutely no intelligence on.

Fortunately, the researchers realize the constraints of their methodology, and acknowledge the possibility of something much darker lurking in their midst. “Indeed, might it be the case that there are some hitmen who are so adept as killers that the deaths of their victims does not even raise suspicion and are, instead, simply thought to be the result of natural causes?”

Ryan Jacobs
Associate Digital Editor Ryan Jacobs joined Pacific Standard from The Atlantic, where he wrote for and produced the magazine’s Global and China channels online. Before that, he was a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter @Ryanj899.

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