News & Politics

Serial Killers on the Side

If you want to commit a crime, he can tell you where you have the best chance of not getting caught.

Tom Hargrove found lots of possible serial killers the law had overlooked. Photograph by Erik Uecke.

Tom Hargrove settles into a barstool at Mio, a downtown DC restaurant on Vermont Avenue frequented by journalists. He orders a burger and attempts to explain his latest award, for a Scripps Howard series called Murder Mysteries, in which he crunched FBI data to detect serial killers among the nation’s nearly 200,000 unsolved murders.

“I’ll never be done with serial murders,” he tells me. “That’s my hobby.”

Who talks like that?

An investigative reporter who combines statistics, computer programs, and databases to solve questions, break news, and win awards—that’s who.

Hargrove’s first Philip Meyer Award—the “Pulitzer for nerds,” he calls it—came in 2008 for a series that put the lie to sudden infant death syndrome. Turns out many infants whose death had been ascribed to SIDS actually had smothered accidentally. The series on serial killers is his second Meyer Award.

“If you want to commit murder, come to me,” he says. “I can tell you where you have the best chance of not getting caught. Right now it’s Detroit. Their arrest rate is 21 percent.”

Death doesn’t immediately come to mind when you meet Hargrove. He’s a pleasant-looking fellow of 56 who combs over his gray hair, crops his white beard close to his cheeks, and peers through wire-rimmed glasses. He lives with wife, Anne, and son Matthew in Hollin Hall, a neighborhood in Alexandria.

Hargrove cut his teeth as a cop reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald. He saw two men die in shootings, got his tires slashed covering race riots, was shot at by a sniper. He also cut his teeth with statistical records, which he used to show that voter lists in some Alabama counties had been plumped up with the names of the dead. His exposé prompted changes in the law and whetted his appetite.

In 1990, Hargrove was promoted to the Scripps Howard Washington bureau. At the time, the Cincinnati-based company owned 19 newspapers and nine TV stations. Hargrove saw the bureau thrive and reach its peak at 45 staffers in 2000, then barely weather the recession when the number fell to 15 by 2008. (It’s now adding reporters.)

Hargrove landed the coveted White House beat in 1997 and covered the Bill Clinton impeachment saga. “Horrible beat,” he calls it. “Terribly uncreative, too controlled.” Scripps Howard editors, in particular Peter Copeland, unleashed Hargrove to pursue his investigative projects.

The 2011 Meyer prize grew from his discovery of the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report. Hargrove asked himself: “Could we teach a computer to spot serial murderers?”

Using algorithms to organize the FBI data, he found 161 highly suspicious clusters that could have been the work of serial killers. His work has triggered investigations in Youngstown, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana.

His latest? Exposing how the Social Security Administration mistakenly lists about 14,000 living Americans as dead, in its little known Death Master File. Living citizens who make the list find their bank accounts closed and the effects nearly impossible to undo. Hargrove’s stories prompted congressional hearings in February.

“That was fun,” he says.

Who says stuff like that?

This article appears in the March 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.