How to Fabricate a Serial Killer
One fake serial killer mattered more than the lives of over 300 murdered victims
He preys on the homeless. He kills dozens of homeless people across the city but bites them before he kills them. Then, he ties a red ribbon on their wrist as his modus operandi. He calls journalists and sends them pictures of homeless people he’s about to kill.
He’s a serial killer.
The good thing is he’s not real.
The premise is based on The Wire and the plot of the show’s final season. Two characters in the show, homicide detectives, decide to fabricate a serial killer. One of them, James McNulty, is a self-righteous, womanizing, alcoholic detective who is so obsessive over the job he would do anything to catch his target. The two are trying to catch a drug kingpin, who left 22 dead bodies killed in vacant homes.
The problem is no one cares about holding the kingpin accountable. The new mayor promised pay raises, more overtime, better witness protection, and the world to every police officer in the city but followed through on none of his promises. The mayor of Baltimore has been focusing most of the city’s fiscal priorities on addressing a $54 million school system deficit. The mayor could have addressed the deficit through a bailout from the governor the previous year, but he ultimately decided not to take it.
After all, he didn’t want to look bad. He was the mayor of Baltimore, but he wanted to become governor in two years. He had too much pride to beg on his knees for $54 million that would help save his city, so he declined it. His chief of staff tells him that “kids don’t vote” as a reason why, and the welfare of the city comes secondary to his personal ambition.
As such, his promises to fund other bureaucratic entities go out the window. By most metrics, the drug kingpin who ordered the death of 22 people found in vacant homes would be someone who would rapidly be brought to justice. But no one cares, not the mayor, and not the media. The detectives who work the case are not paid overtime. They have very limited resources due to budget cuts. McNulty has to take the bus to crime scenes.
Due to even more budget cuts, the mayor’s office gets the unit to stop the surveillance and investigation into the drug organization. The unit is disbanded, but there’s a problem — the same people investigating the drug organization are also investigating ties to a corrupt state senator. The attorney general keeps two of the detectives of the larger unit, just to keep investigating the state senator.
“So one thieving politician trumps 22 dead bodies. Good to know,” the commanding officer says.
McNulty, absolutely fed up with the budget cuts and the lack of ability for the mayor to make good on his promises, takes initiative. While being called to the death of a homeless man at a vacant home, McNulty manipulates the crime scene. He takes a swig of Jameson, then goes to work. He makes contusions on the body and neck and then ties a red ribbon around the homeless man’s wrists. His partner is horrified at his actions.
“There’s a serial killer in Baltimore. He preys on the weakest among us, and he needs to be caught,” McNulty says, chugging another gulp of Jameson.
His partner, Bunk, wants no part in whatever McNulty is planning. But McNulty has set his mind to it and ties a red ribbon to another dead homeless person’s hand. He tries to talk to the local news media, the Baltimore Sun, about the serial killer on the loose, with the pattern of the red ribbon. But the problem is the story gets caught in the fold in a section no one checks anyway.
It’s not enough. He has to escalate it. McNulty then consults the best detective on the show, Lester Freamon, about what to do. According to Darren Franich at Entertainment Weekly, Lester is the closest thing in The Wire to Sherlock Holmes. While Bunk initially expects Lester to talk McNulty out of the whole plot, Lester tells him he’s not doing enough with the fabrication:
“If you want to do it right, a straight-up strangle’s not enough…Sensationalize it. Give the killer some f — ed up fantasy. Something bad, real bad. It’s got to grip the hearts and minds, give the people what they want from a serial killer.”
And what the people wanted from a serial killer, according to journalists, was “something sexual.” And then McNulty and Lester get dentures and start to introducing bite marks into the serial killer plot with other dead homeless bodies. The serial killer is not only killing people now but sexually preying on them.
This results in immediately more media attention and traction for the fake serial killer. A fake journalist starts to make up information about the serial killer himself, giving even more traction for the serial killer. The mayor goes on an impassioned speech about how we’ve failed the homeless, our most vulnerable citizens:
“Someone is taking the lives of homeless men in our city. They do not have the means or the strength to properly defend themselves. They will be stopped. We will do everything in our power to stop them. You have my word.”
Suddenly, everyone cares about doing their jobs. All limits on overtime pay and funding for police equipment and cars are lifted. Journalists are angling for Pulitzer Prizes in their relentless coverage of the serial killer.
McNulty and Lester are using the resources given by the fake serial killer to catch the drug kingpin and hold him accountable. They are convinced they’re doing justice, doing the wrong things for the right reasons, even though they’re breaking many laws and would go to jail if anyone found out. McNulty also starts playing Robin Hood and signing other detectives’ overtime slips and giving them police cars. Even the FBI gets involved and starts giving McNulty psychological profiles on the homeless killer.
Every problem in the season seems to be fixed with the problem of the serial killer — the lack of funding, the bureaucratic apathy, and government corruption are all subsided.
To get people to care, fabricate a serial killer — that’s the lesson of season 5 of The Wire. To the media, the Black lives killed by the drug trade don’t matter. But the lives of homeless people allegedly killed by a serial killer with sexual inclinations garners national media attention, no-hold-bars funding, and apathetic leaders suddenly impassioned to do their jobs.
Season 5 of The Wire is often derided by many viewers in the fanbase as too unrealistic, and one I thought was too cliche on my first watch. But after working in a bureaucratic institution perpetually underfunded (education) and observing and partaking in the fascination with serial killers in the true crime genre, I am now perplexed by why everyone, myself included, is so fascinated by serial killers.
22 Black men being killed and executed in vacant homes did not grip public fascination in The Wire. A fake serial killer who tied ribbons and bit the homeless did. The only way to get institutions devoted to public service, like the local news media, politicians, and police, to actually do their jobs effectively, is to pretend you’re chasing a serial killer.
Of course, The Wire is just a TV show, and the plausibility of real officers manufacturing a serial killer is low. But in the real world, over 300 people died in Baltimore every year since 2015, and it seems like no one cares, In 2018, that was more murders per capita than Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. It’s been happening for so long, and even local activists who work to stop the gun violence have been getting killed. Last fall, among the names I heard in news reports, included bus drivers, pregnant women, and middle school students.
This should be no one’s America, and yet these are not the stories we see on the front page of national news outlets. To get people to care, the media matters. While we focus a lot on the problems, the media can be a solution in where it directs its attention.
And much of that attention is given to serial killers. But more people are killed in Baltimore in a month than Jeremy Dahmer killed his whole life. Yet the fascination with serial killers like Ted Bundy and Jeremy Dahmer transcends the lost lives here. We love serial killers and true crime because they offer us windows into the minds of killers, a cautionary tale for ourselves.
But in The Wire, deaths of high-profile characters in the drug trade barely make it into the paper, yet the fake serial killer dominated front-page headlines every day. According to one commenter in The Guardian:
“The Wire has showed us a world where a man (and a woman) killing twenty-two people and storing their bodies in vacant houses is not considered a serial killer, but a non-existent person who didn’t kill five people (or technically, a real person who did kill two people but not the other three) is. The Wire showed us a city with a murder rate of over Three Hundred a Year, where most of those murders are considered not media worthy, due to being drug or poverty related.”
I think David Simon was ahead of his time on the season 5 serial killer plotline. It was a plot where the life of one fake serial killer mattered more than the lives of over 300 murdered victims. It was an indictment of the priorities of the media. It was an indictment on society. Above all, it was an indictment on us.
In a conversation that pre-dated Black Lives Matter by many years, McNulty, Lester, and Bunk lament about how no one cares about the dead bodies they were investigating:
“Bunk: “You can go a long way in this country killing black folk. Young males especially. Misdemeanor homicides.
McNulty: If Marlo was killing white women …
Freamon: White children …
Bunk: Tourists …”