People Who Pay People to Kill People

The twisted logic behind hiring a hit man

James Graham

Megan Danielczak couldn’t stand living with her husband, but couldn’t afford to live without him. So she came up with a plan that was boilerplate noir: Hire a killer to murder him, and collect the life-insurance payout. She met the hit man in a Walmart parking lot on Valentine’s Day last year, and gave him a down payment of three gold rings and $402 in cash, and a promise of another $4,500 on the back end. Fortunately for Danielczak’s husband, if unfortunately for her, the hit man was an undercover cop. She is now serving two years in a Wisconsin prison, having been convicted of solicitation to commit first-degree intentional homicide.

Stories of unconsummated contract killings make headlines on a regular basis. Sometimes the motive is shockingly impersonal: Last year, a Houston man allegedly took out a $2,000 contract on the police officer who had been slapping his business’s vehicles with tickets. More often, the crime can be traced to an intimate but fractured relationship. In February, federal authorities charged an Indiana man and his girlfriend with murder for hire, after the two allegedly solicited a hit on the man’s ex-wife following a child-custody battle. The couple agreed to a fee of $5,000 to $10,000, “depending on the job’s complexity.” As in the Danielczak case, both the Houston and Indiana plots were foiled by undercover law-enforcement officers.

Criminologists have a name for a person who hires a hit man: instigator. They also confirm what news stories suggest: Lots of instigators get caught because they don’t know what they’re doing. After all, most of us don’t socialize with professional killers. The average person therefore looks to acquaintances or neighbors for referrals, or finds his way to criminal bottom-feeders who are likely to be inept and inexperienced. The former may be inclined to call law enforcement, while the latter may lose their nerve or botch the job. Which helps explain why so many murders for hire don’t produce any dead bodies.

In 2003, the Australian Institute of Criminology published an analysis of 163 contract-killing cases (some completed, others merely attempted) in Australia; it remains one of the most significant studies ever conducted of the subject. The authors determined that 2 percent of all murders in Australia were contract killings and that contracts were, in some cases, surprisingly affordable. One unfulfilled contract was for 500 Australian dollars; another job was completed for just $2,000. Among other key findings, nearly 20 percent of all contracts involved a romantic relationship gone wrong, and 16 percent were financially motivated.

Another study, this one of contract killings in Tennessee, found instigators pretty evenly split between men and women. This is notable, given that almost all conventional murders are committed by men. But it tracks with the fact that women are almost as likely as men to wish someone dead. In The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill, David M. Buss, an evolutionary psychologist, reports that “91 percent of men and 84 percent of women have had at least one vivid fantasy about killing someone.”

What of the people who are hired to kill? Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist who has consulted on a dozen murder-for-hire cases, told me that virtually all of the contract killers he’s examined display moderate to severe psychopathy. “Psychopathy, as a constellation of personality traits, gives them both the aggression and the emotional detachment to be able to carry out an act like this for money,” he says. Other experts I spoke with believe that both parties to a contract killing are engaged in psychological distancing. The contractor comforts himself by saying, This is my job. I’m just following orders. The instigator thinks, I’m not a murderer—he’s the one pulling the trigger.

Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist who has testified in court cases of criminals ranging from serial killers (Jeffrey Dahmer) to deranged assassins (John Hinckley Jr.), has another theory as to why homicidal people hire help. “My prime suspect is the depiction of hit men in popular culture, such as films, TV, video games, and novels,” Dietz told me, noting that the last time he entered hit man into Netflix, hundreds of results appeared. According to Dietz, such entertainment gives “the illusion that this is a service available to anyone.” In a world where dangerous or unpleasant tasks are routinely outsourced, a viewer might think, Well, why not this too?

This article appears in the July 2019 print edition with the headline “Hired Guns.”