Episode: “The Thin White Line” (14 February 1997)
Writers: Glen Morgan & James Wong
Director: Thomas J. Wright
Quote: “The Joker! You think you’re safe in here, with all these guards all around and me shackled, and this little panic button at your fingertips? It takes them thirty-three seconds from the moment you push that button to the time they open that door. I counted. You know what I can do to you in thirty-three seconds, Meat?” –Richard Alan Hance
Profile: Richard Alan Hance was clearly possessed of a disturbed mind from an early age. Remanded into foster care at the age of six having never known his father, he spent the next decade between nine different foster families before being labelled “irredeemable” by the social welfare system. We are left not entirely certain whether his early childhood resulted in these disturbances or if these were in part or whole inherent to his psychological make-up.
What we do know is that his behaviour became murderous shortly after he moved to the rural isolation of his grandparents’ farm in Montana. Six months after he moved in with them, they were found dead in a nearby lake. In the absence of evidence, there was no attempt at a prosecution, but Hance was encouraged to join the military. This he did, serving two terms in Vietnam before being discharged in 1977.
This personal history seems most relevant to his subsequent killings. Shortly after his release, he committed two pairs of murders, leaving half a torn playing card – a “death card” similar to those used by some soldiers in Vietnam – at the site of the killings, and also marking each victim with a distinct cut on the palm of the right hand. The use of calling cards led to Hance being called the “Death Card Killer”, and it is not uncommon for serial killers to leave such tokens as part of their signature, taunting both the police and the wider public whilst engendering a sense of fear and so increasing their own sense of power. Hance himself offers an explanation for the marking of his victims: he is thus denoting them as his “meat”. This is not a mark of sadism – he would take longer to enjoy the act of mutilation if this were the case – but rather an indication of domination and control over his victims, and thus the perceived sense of ownership of their bodies to which he lays claim.
Hance also suffers a psychosis in thinking that his victims offer themselves up to him. As Frank quotes, “Certain people have to be sacrificed. God says if you’re repentant, that you’ll be forgiven. I’ve made my peace, now you must do your duty.” We see Hance’s protégé, Jacob Tyler, come to adopt this same mantra. Quite why he kills in pairs remains a mystery too, but we can speculate that it may relate somehow to how he viewed his own incomplete family unit as a young child.
Following a period of unknown activity after exacting two pairs of kills, Hance escalates his activities and becomes yet more aggressive. In luring the police to an abandoned building where he makes what turns out to be his last stand, he sets a test for both himself and them wherein “the hunters become the hunted”. Again he is trying to assert control over his situation here, killing three FBI agents in quick succession before Frank Black is instrumental in ensuring he is finally brought into custody. It is likely also that he deliberately evaded but did not strike the police during their search of the building but specifically lay in wait for the FBI since they would offer a more prestigious target.
Following his arrest and prosecution, Hance is kept in isolation under high security having killed a prison guard. There is increasing support from investigative units to preserve killers in this fashion so that we might learn more about their psychology and methods from them whilst in captivity and hence assist future investigations. Frank certainly takes a high – if calculated – risk in interviewing Hance in the way that he does, but from his experience he recognises that in order to strike up a rapport and stand any chance of gaining useful insights he needs to establish a level of trust, placing them on a level footing of sorts. He seems aware also that having already been marked he is unlikely to be attacked by Hance again, showing him his scar when the situation threatens to turn violent and thus letting Hance know that he has already “eaten” him. Serial killers confined under such circumstances will often become bored to the point of temporary insanity and will still be preoccupied by thoughts of their killings, and hence can in some instances be encouraged to discuss their crimes in some detail under these conditions.
There are some striking (and quite deliberate) parallels that can be drawn between Hance and the killer Edmund Emil Kemper, and hence which bear reflection here. Kemper was oversized as a child, which proved problematic for him socially, and he grew to be a giant at six foot nine in height. Added to this – and key to his psychology – he was brought up by a single mother who was overbearing and abusive towards him. Kemper started his career as a serial killer whilst living with his grandparents, first shooting and stabbing his domineering grandmother and then shooting his grandfather too before he could discover what he had done.
He subsequently spent several years in a mental hospital before convincing the authorities that he was safe to return to society, whereupon he soon started killing again, even whilst convincing the psychiatrists who continued to evaluate him that he posed no danger. He claimed to have been driven to his next kill by the imperfection of the previous one in comparison to his fantasies with his penultimate killing being that of his own mother, to whom he attributed his murderous desires in the first place.
Kemper allowed himself to be interviewed on a number of occasions by celebrated FBI agent Robert Ressler, and during one of these interviews threatened Ressler in a very similar fashion that Hance did with Frank Black, coolly stating to him that, “I could screw your head off and place it on the table to greet the guard.” Nevertheless, Kemper has proven to be a valuable resource in helping the FBI to deepen their understanding of like-minded killers.
Investigation: Frank Black was a young – but still clearly gifted – FBI agent at the time of the investigation into the Death Card Killer. After the first two pairs of victims, there was a lull in Hance’s activities and the FBI believed he may have moved on. The Seattle Police Department then received an anonymous tip-off regarding his whereabouts but, whilst they found evidence that he may have squatted there, they could not find him and the FBI were brought in to examine the scene for themselves. Frank determined that the location was a good substitute for Hance’s grandparents’ isolated farm and so trusted the tip-off. It turns out, however, that it was Hance himself that made the anonymous call in order to lure the police and FBI to his hiding place, killing three agents before Frank – narrowly escaping becoming the fourth – is instrumental in ensuring his capture.