Pick Me Up! magazine asked for my professional opinion on Moses Sithole (The Smiling Strangler), a South African serial killer who committed the ‘ABC Murders,’ which were named as such because they began in Atteridgeville, continued in Boksburg and finished in Cleveland. I provided the following psychological insight into Mitchell, which was published in the 4th October 2012 edition.
How does the death of a parent affect a child like Moses?
The death of a parent doesn’t just stop at the loss of the person, but includes numerous subsequent losses. Moses not only lost the physical presence of a father, but all of those roles that a father plays in their son’s life. The age of a child can impact the way in which they react to the death of a parent. Moses was 5 when he lost his father. At this age, children have no understanding of time or death and often believe that the dead person lives on. Therefore, it is possible that Moses did not understand that his father was dead, but believed that his father had left him – he had been abandoned. How a child comes to understand this abandonment is that it was some how their fault.
What affect did being abandoned by his mum have on him and his later crimes?
It wasn’t long after Moses perceived abandonment by his father that he was then abandoned by his mother. Here we have a 5 year old child witnessing those people who are meant to protect him, leaving him. It is thus understandable that Moses was angry. However, this anger manifested into a hate of women, which subsequently resulted in an escapade of rapes and murders.
Interestingly, none of Moses’ siblings grew up to be serial killers. Could Moses have been born with the instinct to kill, or did environmental factors have a greater impact on him than his siblings for some reason?
There are a variety of personal and environmental factors that might explain why Moses became a serial killer but his siblings didn’t. One important aspect is age and the age at which the children were abandoned by their mother. At 5, Moses was in a phase of cognitive development that could be highly influenced by his experiences. Moses also experienced abuse at the hands of carers. Although this might also have been the case for his siblings, the way individuals cope, even siblings, can be distinct. Moses clearly had a dangerous personality that was activated by his childhood experiences, in particular his mother’s rejection.
During his time in prison for sexual assault, he claims that he was himself sexually assaulted by other prisoners. How would this have affected him?
After a rather traumatic childhood, Moses had found a way to gain some control over his life through assaulting vulnerable women. Now, in prison, that control had yet again been taken away from him and he was now the victim again. Moses’ life fluctuated from victim to perpetrator, and during those times of being victim it is likely that he longed to regain the power of the perpetrator. When this power was regained, the post-traumatic trauma of his experiences is likely to have perpetuated the severity of his crimes.
What is the significance of choosing to strangle someone with her own underwear?
Only Moses truly knows the significannce of strangling someone with her own underwear. Psychologically, however, it could indicate that Moses was sending the message that it was the victims fault – they made their own ‘bed,’ so to speak.
What made him call the families of his victims to taunt them with details of his murders?
This shows the evil that had ‘grown’ within Moses. Taking someone’s life was not enough to satisfy his sadism, but he gained further satisfaction from inflicting pain on the families of his victims. A key motive here could also be the gaining of pleasure through witnessing the destruction of a family unit. Moses didn’t have a family, so why should others? In addition, it is likely that Moses was trying to transfer his own pain at the loss of family members onto other people – through his crimes, others were losing loved ones just like he had.
Why would his victims have made themselves so vulnerable by believing Moses’ claims he was a businessman looking for employees?
We see this time and again, where serial killers charm victims so that they can lure them to an isolated place where they are attacked. Moses was so skilled at this that his victims didn’t know they had made themselves vulnerable. By identifying something the victim needed (i.e. work), Moses job was made easy. When we are provided with the opportunity of something we need, our guard is dropped and we naturally become more vulnerable. Moses was an intelligent man who recognised this trait within humans.