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Killers use ‘calling cards’ to taunt
But their messages can be breakthrough clues
— or red herrings
Oct. 9 — NBC’s Fred Francis reports on the familiar pattern of killers who leave calling cards.
By Jonathan Dube
Oct. 11 —  The notorious Son of Sam taunted police with threatening notes he left at the crime scene, the Zodiac killer marked all his letters with his namesake sign, and now the Washington area’s serial sniper has reportedly left a Death tarot card with the words “Dear Policeman, I am God.” The tarot card could be a breakthrough clue that cracks the case open. But it could just as easily lead the investigators on a meaningless chase.

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       SERIAL KILLERS have a history of leaving “calling cards,” signatures that mark their deeds and announce to the world that they have struck again. They do so to taunt police and the public, to create fear that they will kill again and to feed their own ego, experts say.
       Killer calling cards, particularly when they include attempts at communicating with police or the public, can offer key insights into the mind of the killer, and the more often they are left, the more opportunity the killer has to slip up. Fingerprints may be left behind, or handwriting could eventually be used as evidence if the killer is caught.
       “Why was it put there?” wondered Bob Keppel, an expert on serial killers who once worked for the Washington state attorney general’s office and wrote the book “Signature Killers.” “If it is truly put there by the killer, then it can lead to a lot of psychological insights. It might have been put there to send a message to police, but it might just as easily been put there to confuse police and throw them on a wild goose chase. Or it may have been put there by someone who had nothing to do with the crime, which could also throw police on the wrong trail.”
Latest developments in the sniper hunt


Oct. 10 — Former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt, discusses the significance of the tarot card and other clues in tracking the killer.

       During the two-decades-long hunt for the Green River Killer, who was blamed for the disappearance of 49 women in Washington state between 1982 and 1984, thousands of people wrote letters to police, Keppel said. Some were from people claiming credit for the crimes; others were from deranged people who were asking police if they were the killers. Police wasted countless hours tracking down useless leads, and they charged someone in the killings only 20 years later based on DNA evidence.
       The Zodiac Killer murdered five people in San Francisco between December 1968 and October 1969. Letters sent to newspapers in San Francisco claiming to be from the killer were signed with the symbol of the zodiac — a cross superimposed on a circle. In some of the letters there were coded messages about the killings. But despite these clues, the killer was never caught.

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       Another of the most notorious serial killers who communicated with police was David Berkowitz, who killed six people in New York in 1976-77. Among his writings were a letter to newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin and a note addressed to police detectives that said: “I am a monster. I am the ‘Son of Sam.’”
       “He said this was a stimulating thing for him to see the letters in the paper,” said Robert K. Ressler, a former FBI profiler who interviewed Berkowitz after his arrest. “Even though he’s the only one who knows, notoriety becomes very satisfying to an inadequate loser. It’s a way of imposing power and control over society.”

       Communicating with police can backfire, though, as Terry Driver discovered. Driver, a man from Abbotsford, British Columbia, who was convicted of murdering one girl in 1995 and was believed to have killed at least three others, called and taunted police five times before he was caught and even tossed a letter detailing his crimes, wrapped around a wrench, through a window. Driver was arrested after his mother called police saying she recognized her son’s voice on a tape of his calls to police that was released to the media.
       Investigators are studying the tarot card and its message for clues that might lead them to the Washington-area killer.
       Police sources told The Washington Post the card was found 150 yards from the school in a wooded area on matted grass, suggesting the gunman had lain in wait. The Post reported that the tarot card also contained a handwritten request from the sniper that it not be revealed to the media. Some detectives had hoped that if they honored the request, the sniper might communicate with investigators again, the newspaper reported.
       “This was a personal message to us, and the intention of the [shooter] was to develop a relationship with us,” said one detective, who spoke Wednesday on condition of anonymity. The detective said some investigators believed that the sniper “was attempting to build a rapport with us.”

       Establishing continued communication could be key to finding the killer. Often, when serial killers communicate with investigators, they slip up, like in Driver’s case.
       Thus, police are eager to continue communicating, as that dialogue could be more important to the case than the tarot card itself.
       Tarot experts, in fact, question the significance of the card.
       Tarot cards, used mainly for fortunetelling, are believed to have been introduced into Western Europe by Gypsies in the 15th century. The meanings assigned to the cards vary from book to book and user to user. Many tarot enthusiasts say the Death card usually does not connote physical death but instead portrays a symbolic change or transformation.
       “Because that person appears to share the popular misconception that the card is associated with physical death, that person likely knows very little about the tarot, and is most likely not a tarot reader,” the American Tarot Association said in a statement.
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       It’s not that unusual to find tarot cards at homicides across the country, according to Sgt. Cynthia Bergen of the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department in San Antonio, Texas. They are most commonly found in drug-related homicides involving people from the Caribbean and South America, where people are more likely to follow the occult and use tarot cards, she said.
       She, too, thinks the person who left the card was not a serious tarot card reader, pointing out that people who follow the occult believe in multiple deities and thus would be unlikely to make a monotheistic statement like “I am God.”
       “It’s possible that this is a bluff, that they just had a deck and knew what that card was,” Bergen said. “It might have been done to throw people off the track. But then again, its symbolism could be very important, particularly if the police start to find a series of cards. Some of these people who follow the occult are very serious about this.”
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