Joanna Dennehy: what makes a female serial killer tick

JOANNA DENNEHY, aged 31, has made no secret of her serial killings. Her guilty plea at the start of her murder trial was loud and clear while, prior to her arrest, she is said to have boasted to a woman friend of killing as many as eight people.

Dennehy in fact killed three men by stabbing them in the heart and attacked two others (who survived) in the space of ten days last March in Cambridgeshire. The men she killed were lured to their deaths by her sexual overtures.

Her two alleged accomplices, Gary Stretch, aged 47, and Leslie Layton, aged 37, found guilty today of various charges, also seemed to be under her spell. Yet, there is no sign of sexual motives as far as we know behind these killings. So what drove Dennehy to kill again and again?

She first met her landlord and subsequent victim, Kevin Lee, aged 49, and his business partner, Paul Creed, when she was looking for a room to rent. According to Creed, "She told us a story that she had killed her father due to her father raping her and having his child and losing the child… She also showed us multiple scar(s) on her arms and stomach." Creed did not want to house her but Lee "wanted to give her a chance".

Dennehy also told another witness that "she had served 13 years in prison for killing her father because he had been sexually abusing her from the age of five or six". None of these stories was true but were they a warning of what was to come?

Known among neighbours as the "man woman" for her aggressive intimidation, Dennehy, along with Gary Stretch, carried out part-time work on Lee's rental properties. When Lee failed to pay them, Dennehy complained of his harassment and said "she would f***ing kill him".

Carla White, who shared a flat with Stretch, met Dennehy three weeks before the murders and described her as "very rude and very arrogant". After shaking her hand, Dennehy told White to "f*** off". White got "feisty" and Dennehy put her hands around her throat. When White grabbed a hammer, Dennehy let go of White's throat and apologised.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Dennehy's aggression, Lee, who had witnessed the encounter, seemed to be attracted to her.

Weeks later, Dennehy provocatively invited her first victim, Lukasz Slaboszewski, aged 31, to meet her in a flat she had access to. There she stabbed him to death. After putting her victim's body in a wheelie-bin, she openly pointed it out to a teenage girl. Ten days later, Dennehy committed two other murders – of Falklands veteran John Chapman, aged 56, and, finally, of her landlord and then lover, Kevin Lee. Stretch and Layton were called to the scene to photograph the bodies and help Dennehy dispose of them.

Chapman was said to have been high on drugs and alcohol when he was murdered, suggesting that Dennehy may have behaved seductively towards him.

Soon after Chapman's murder, Lee received a text from Dennehy asking him to meet her and specifying that she wanted to dress him up and rape him. Dennehy stabbed him in the heart and, before dumping his body, dressed him in a black sequined dress. Lee's body was found with his buttocks facing upwards and exposed. The prosecution described this as a "deliberately engineered… act of post-death humiliation".

Several days later, Dennehy told Stretch to find her a victim, making it clear that she was only interested in killing men. After driving across country, they found Dennehy's next victims in Hereford where Dennehy told the men as she stabbed them: "I want my fun."

What is most striking about Dennehy's behaviour is the attempts she made to draw attention to her murders, as if to fulfil her story about murdering her father. It is clear that in her mind the murders were something to boast about; they attracted attention and made her feel triumphant. A friend testified that Dennehy was "jumping around" in delight when she saw her face on the news.

As few as one in six known serial killers are women, but the number of known female serial killers has increased significantly since the 1950s. What has also changed, in line with the changes in women's social roles, is the profile for women serial killers. These women are now wielding guns and knives whereas in the past they tended to use poison and other covert means of killing. The method of killing has become markedly more phallic and less associated with women's role as nurturers.

Women killers are also less likely now to have had a prior relationship with their victims. And their motives have changed. The ‘Black Widow' female serial killer of Victorian times, who murdered one husband after another for their money, no longer predominates. Women serial killers, like many of their male counterparts, murder for power and attention, and often as a way of creating an illusion of control as a reaction to a history of serious abuse. Murder may also promise a final triumph over abusive relationships from the past.

According to her younger sister, Maria, aged 29, Joanna Dennehy "was a great kid and my parents' favourite". She is described as having had a normal upbringing with doting parents and to have done well at school.

Then, aged 15, she dropped out of school and ran away from home. Her parents, who had wanted her to be a lawyer, tried to get their daughter to come home but when Joanna reached the age of 16, she refused and went to live with John Treanor, now aged 37, with whom she had two daughters. Maria said: "There was cannabis and drugs involved. She became a bit of a rebel."

There are no indications of family troubles. However, Maria admitted that her sister's last-minute admission of guilt was not a surprise, saying: "I think she did that to control the situation. She likes people to know she's the boss."

During her trial, Dennehy was diagnosed by a consultant forensic psychiatrist as suffering from paraphilia sadomasochism. Sexual excitement is derived from inflicting pain, humiliation or bondage on another. Like other perversions, this condition tends to become more and more extreme and violent over time as it is repeatedly re-enacted.

At the heart of violent crimes there is a powerful unconscious fantasy that is being played out in reality by the perpetrator. The fact that the fantasy is deeply rooted in the killer's psyche also means that its enactment is unlikely to be ultimately satisfying. The reality of the past remains unchanged in the unconscious. This is what often leads to crimes being repeated.

For Dennehy, the scenario that seems to have been acted out was seduction followed by brutal stabbing to death. The victims were specifically men and, as the prosecution pointed out, humiliation was an important factor.

It is a scenario that suggests that Dennehy may have wanted to hurt – and destroy – these men in the way that she may have felt hurt herself in the past, i.e. at first made to feel wanted and desired and then cruelly attacked and humiliated. As Dennehy explained: "They shouldn't have pissed me off, they shouldn't have flirted with me." Here was the danger.

In her need to feel in control, Dennehy seems to have been frightened to allow herself to be at all vulnerable, even attacking White's greeting hand. Dennehy exploited her reputation as a "man woman", describing herself as "gay" and intimidating those around her. However, this is no indication that she wanted to be a man. On the contrary, what seemed important was to be seen to be powerful – and more powerful than men.

This may be the story on one level. But there may be a deeper level at work. Our first love relation and the most powerful person at the start of our lives is our mother. Is it possible that Dennehy's violence was directed at her loving mother who had betrayed her in having another child with her husband?

This situation is often experienced as a painful rejection and betrayal by the older child, particularly so when that child has been idolised. This "special" treatment can be immensely narcissistically damaging as it places huge emotional expectations on the child and ignores the child's basic needs and limitations. The child becomes a god without limits and, because of this, without security.

Following on from this dynamic, Dennehy may have been trying to kill two birds – or parents – with one stone. She was enacting revenge on her mother who betrayed her and destroying her rival, her father, so that in fantasy she could regain her position as the ruler-child, able to control the world around her. She could once again be ‘Star', her nickname after the green star tattooed on her cheek.

Why Dennehy began killing when she did we have yet to discover. We do know that her former partner, John Treanor, after suffering continual abuse and violence from Dennehy, expelled her from the house. One neighbour recalled: "Jo was a nightmare. She was trouble from the start. She hit him all the time, he would have black eyes and marks on his face."

Treanor subsequently moved north, explaining: "I really believe Jo is evil, pure and simple, that is why I took the girls as far away from her as possible."

Dennehy's recent conflict with her lover, Lee, and his attempt to evict her from her property may have had a lethal effect. This final rejection, albeit provoked by Dennehy, may have touched the narcissistic wound of her infancy, unleashing overwhelming feelings of hatred and anxiety. Once this happens, murder may have been the only solution, paradoxically, to utter insanity. · 

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