Would You Fall for a Serial Killer’s Lies?

Read This Before You Answer.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy. D.
8 min readJan 23, 2024

Forty-year-old Washington state resident Richard W. Bradley, Jr. is the latest accused serial killer who allegedly lured his victims to an untimely death. He is currently charged with the murders of four people between 2019 and 2021 around Auburn, a King County city 30 miles south of downtown Seattle: forty-four-year-old Brandi Blake, thirty-six-year-old Emilio Raul Maturin, and father and son Michael Goeman, fifty-nine, and Vance Lakey, thirty-one.

courtesy of Maleng Regional Justice Center

Authorities claim that Bradley lured his victims into the woods with the promise of digging up gold he claimed he had buried after previous robberies. He promised to share the gold in exchange for their help in exhuming the buried treasure. Not only did this seem to be an easy path to paydirt, but imagine the thrill of adventure!

Once he had them alone and isolated, he killed them and buried their bodies deep in the woods of Game Farm Park. It is as yet unclear how he targeted his victims.

All we know they had in common so far is:

  1. He convinced each of them that his story was true.
  2. When they disappeared, each victim had large sums of money either on them or in their names. Goeman received a large inheritance just before he and his son were killed, Maturin was carrying $15,000 in cash on him when he left with Bradley in 2019, and when Blake went missing in early May 2021, she had just won $20,000 at a casino.
  3. They were not the first — and they won’t be the last — people to fall prey to the lure of a serial killer’s tale.

Let’s take a look at the most common ruses serial killers use to trick their targets.

It’s So Much More “Fun” When They Come Willingly

We true crime aficionados have stocked quite a few safety tips in our stockade of self-protection over the years:

  1. Always walk in a lighted area.
  2. Carry something that can be used as a weapon.
  3. Always answer your door through a locked screen or look out the window before opening the door.

And so on.

Many of these safety tips are geared towards avoiding abductions. Without question, walking alone at night in a dimly lit, high-crime area is risky business. But the reality is that many serial killers don’t ambush their victims. They lure them.

Killer Ruses

The creativity and energy serial killers use to come up with deadly deceptions are mind-boggling. From Ted Bundy’s fake casts to Ken Bianchi’s phony police uniforms, they use whatever they can to give themselves an unfair advantage. While the specifics of the ruse can vary wildly, I believe the serial killer’s preferred role tends to fall into three categories: the victim, the chameleon, or the benefactor.

The Victim Role and the Sympathy Ploy

The “victim” serial killer relies on sympathy to trap his victims. Ted Bundy is the serial killer who immediately comes to mind when I think of faking an injury to lure a victim. He kept a stash of casts and crutches in his home and would often don one and then go and ask an attractive young female for help carrying something to his car. I remember the mother of one of Ted Bundy’s victims who fell for his arm-in-a-cast ruse tearfully saying how she wasn’t surprised her daughter had fallen for Bundy’s ruse.

After all those years of experience as a forensic psychologist, I might think about why this man asked for my help when stronger men were around (as there often were), ask a few colleagues to join me in my assistance, or decline the plea altogether. Back when I was in my twenties? No way. I, too, was raised that way.

He’s not the only serial killer to rely on sympathy. Curtis Dean Anderson used to abduct girls by asking them to help open his car’s jammed window. Serial killers don’t have to pretend to be disabled, though, to bank on a victim’s pity. While already in prison for a sex offense, French serial killer Michel Fourniret put an ad in a Christian magazine asking for help with his loneliness. (Instead of victims, he found a partner who joined him in future murders). Serial killers have asked children to help them find a lost puppy or kitten, asked both adults and children for directions, and given other assorted tales of woe.

Although I’ve heard it argued otherwise, I refuse to believe that the devious deceptions of a few means we can no longer afford to be kind to those around us. It’s not whether we should or should not help a stranger who asks for it. The question we should ask ourselves is, can I help this person safely?

The Chameleon and the Use of Camouflage

The chameleon lures his victims by pretending to be something he is not. The extent of the camouflage can range from “virtue signaling” to the impersonation of an authority figure. Gary Ridgeway, a.k.a. the Green River killer who targeted sex workers, often disarmed his victims early on by showing them pictures of his young son; he actually raped and murdered one of his victims while his young son was sleeping in the back seat of his car. While Rex Heuermann has not been convicted of the four murders he has been charged with, recently released text messages with sex workers show him mentioning his wife and job at the beginning of their exchange. Message to potential victim : I’m a regular married guy with a wife and a steady paycheck. Several serial killing teams have used the female as bait, knowing the victim would be much more trusting if the person approaching them were female.

At the other end of the spectrum, it will come as no surprise that several serial killers have impersonated authority figures. Ken Bianchi (one-half of the Hillside Stranglers) pretended to be a police officer. Rodney Alcala masqueraded as a modeling agency scout. Mexican serial killer Juana Barraza, who targeted older adults, posed as a social worker or a nurse offering medical services to gain the trust of her victims. There have been serial killers pretending to be service repairers, handypersons, or doctors. For every profession that provides access to vulnerable groups, a serial killer has likely tried it.

I think the worst ruse, though, is not just when a serial killer preys on our basic trust in others but when they betray faith in a specific relationship. We often think of serial killers, especially those who are sexually motivated, to target strangers. But that is not always the case. Ericka Pena, the lone survivor of Juan David Ortiz, the border patrol agent who was recently convicted of killing four sex workers, said she had no qualms about hopping into his truck the night she was almost murdered; after all, she had known him for five months and trusted him.

Helen Golay and Olga Rutterschmidt murdered two homeless men for insurance money, pretending to be do-gooders who helped people get off the streets; these two connivers took care of them for two years while taking out multiple life insurance policies. I’m sure they fantasized every day about the day the policies would be active, and they could (and did) drug them and run over them with their car.

Is there a lesson here? Yes. It never hurts to call the company of someone who shows up at your door unannounced to verify their credentials — before we let them in the door. We do not have to legally pull over when we see flashing lights in the rearview mirror; we can always drive to a public place (or even the nearest police station) to ensure those lights belong to a real cop. And no. Predators are skilled, and there is no way we can protect ourselves in every situation. So, before we judge a victim for being in the wrong place at the wrong time or not spotting the danger signs, remember this: serial killers have fooled hardened prison inmates, correctional officers, investigative journalists, experienced attorneys, judges, and police officers.

The Benefactor: I’ve Got What You Need (or Want)

Money. Drugs. A Ride. Work. Sex. Marriage. Baby Clothes. Roadside Assistance. A Religious Cleansing. Candy. A Place to Stay. A Better Life. Each of these — and more — has been used by at least one serial killer to lure a victim into their trap.

Here’s one likely example: On March 2, 1996, Alicia Showalter Reynolds left her home in Baltimore, Maryland, at about 7:30 a.m. to meet her mother for a day of shopping in Charlottesville, Virginia, but never showed up. Her abandoned car was found along the highway around 6:00 p.m. that evening with a napkin on the windshield, a common indication that the vehicle’s owner had car trouble. Alicia was nowhere to be found, and an inspection of her car later indicated nothing was wrong with it. Her body was found two months later.

A witness said they had seen Alicia along the road with her car hood up, talking to a man who drove a blue truck. So did at least twenty young women driving along the same route, who said that an unidentified man had tried to get them to pull over by pulling up alongside them, honking his horn, flashing his lights, and yelling that something was wrong with their car. One week before Alicia’s disappearance, a woman told police that she had pulled over and gotten into the car with him when he offered her a ride to a pay phone. A few minutes later, he attacked her with a screwdriver. She jumped out of the truck, breaking her ankle but probably saving her life. Police now suspect this highway troll was Alicia’s murderer, a serial killer refining his ruse to lure unsuspecting young women into his car.

Fortunately, cell phones have made us much less reliant on the rescue of strangers when we get into a tough situation. But as we all know, technology has its dark side, and the internet has become a hunting ground for serial predators who promise sex, love, or money in exchange for meeting up. And it’s not just women who are victimized; in the fall of 2023, Rebecca Auborn was indicted on four counts of murder, four counts of involuntary manslaughter, and five counts of aggravated robbery after she allegedly “met men for sex and drugged them so she could rob them.” Four of these men died.

So what is the takeaway? We all need things — love, security, food. We all want things — excitement, pleasure, romance.

Bad things can happen to anyone. If there is a lesson in this, perhaps it’s the danger of desperation. It’s when we desperately need or want something that we are most vulnerable, that we are most likely to ignore that bad feeling or throw caution to the wind. The best way to guard against desperation is to make sure we have people in our lives who care about us and have the courage to ask for help when we need it.

If you enjoyed this article and like learning about forensic psychology and true crime, please subscribe to this newsletter and check out my YouTube channel, Unmasking a Murderer. I am always open to feedback and suggestions. Hope everyone’s 2024 is off to a great start. Stay safe, my friends.



Joni E. Johnston, Psy. D.

Forensic psychologist/private investigator//author of serial killer book. Passionate about victim’s rights, the psychology of true crime, and criminal justice.