"When do you notice a pin least? When it is in a pincushion! When do you notice an individual murder least? When it is one of a series of related murders."A killer has a particular target in mind. However, if that victim just turned up dead then the killer would be an obvious suspect. So the killer decides to kill a bunch of other people who share characteristics with the intended target to make the murders look like the work of a serial killer. BE WARNED: Spoilers abound on this page.
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Anime and Manga
- Detective Conan: A serial arsonist turns out to be doing this, and Conan specifically cites The ABC Murders when explaining it.
- Played with in The Kindaichi Case Files: Supposedly a serial killer has gotten loose and is killing everyone trapped in the Closed Circle, but Kindaichi figures out that they're all connected. While the murderer is looking for one specific person, he doesn't know which person in the group it is and doesn't care that he's killing innocents in the process.
- In Puella Magi Oriko Magica, it's revealed the reason why Kirika is killing magical girls (under Oriko's orders) because she and Oriko were planning to go after Madoka to stop her from becoming a world-destroying witch.
- The serial killer targeting elderly couples in the "Blades" story arc from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #32-34. The killer is the heir of one particular couple.
- In The Maze Agency story "The Return of Jack the Ripper?", an unrelated attack on one member of the Ripperologists gives a member the inspiration to kill their intended victim then try to kill the other members of the club to make it look like a an organised series of attacks (including the first, unrelated attack).
- Variation: in Preacher, Herr Starr is given the task of murdering a man in an insane asylum in such a way that the authorities do not investigate his death too deeply. Being a pragmatic man, Starr simply blows up the entire asylum, so that investigators will have several hundred potential targets to sort through. Rather than a serial killing, it's a mass murder, but the intent is the same.
- Invoked in Bedlam as a possible motive for a series of bombings with no apparent connection. Criminal profiler Fillmore Press first thinks the bomber might be "burying his treasure" and compares it to a shell game — which cup is the ball under? Subverted in that he dismisses this idea as too organized, feeling that the bomber is striking randomly to show that he can hit anywhere.
- In Joker: The Devil's Advocate, The Joker is framed for murder when several people come into contact with stamps laced with his trademark Joker venom. The real culprit was a businessman who wanted to get rid of his wife without a messy divorce and had access to a stockpile of Joker venom that was stashed in a warehouse he owned. The scheme falls apart once Batman discovers that particular bit of info during his investigation. Batman is hindered throughout by the fact that everyone else around him wants the Joker to be executed and finally gone regardless of his actual guilt.
- A variant is done in the 1944 Sherlock Holmes film The Pearl of Death: Bad guys are looking for a pearl which was hidden in one of six china busts of Napoleon. They track down the owners of the busts and hire the Creeper to kill them, and then break open the bust to see if it's the right one. To cover their tracks, the Creeper breaks all of the victim's china, to disguise the fact that they're only really interested in the Napoleon busts.
- Seems to be the case The Nail Gun Massacre. The rapist construction workers that are the actual targets are being killed along with tons of other completely random people.
- This is revealed to be the case in Satan Claus. Sharon discovered her boyfriend was cheating on her with the police captain's wife, so she killed her, then used voodoo to take control of the captain and make him kill her boyfriend. The Santa motif and the rest of the murders were just done to throw the authorities off, making them think there was just some psycho going on a random killing spree.
- In The Sleeping Car Murders a woman is strangled in her sleep before the train reaches Paris. However the woman was chosen at random to hide the later murder of another passenger. One of the murderers is a police detective and knows that the police will concentrate on those with a motive to kill the first victim and consider the other murders of all the people in that compartment as getting rid of witnesses.
- In Hollow Man 2, the direct-to-video sequel to Hollow Man, a politician used the fruits of the research from the first movie to turn a Sociopathic Soldier into an invisible assassin. The assassin killed off the politician's political rivals, then killed random civilians to make it seem like the work of a serial killer. This is only relevant in the backstory; the main plot revolves around the invisible man becoming even crazier and out of control because of the lethal side effects of the invisibility serum.
- Psycho for Hire Burke (a.k.a. "The Liberty Bell Strangler") adopts this method in Blow Out to cover up a political assassination. The last witness to the killing was a call girl (played by Nancy Allen), so he starts targeting women who resemble her, in the hope that when he finally does kill her, it won't seem particularly suspicious. Despite being killed himself, he's completely successful.
- Jack Reacher (the adaptation of the novel One Shot) has Reacher discover the first victim in a mass shooting was simply a test-fire to verify the shooting conditions for the sniper, the second was the real victim, the remaining three were to disguise the real crime and the apparent "miss" was to provide a pristine bullet that could be linked to the patsy being framed for the whole thing.
- A variant in The Alphabet Killer: The murderer initially targeted a single victim, a girl named Carla Castillo. The fact that she had an Alliterative Name and few other details made the lead detective think there had to be a serial killer behind it and she drove herself crazy trying to prove it. While in a support group, she met the killer without knowing it and related stories of how she'd lost her job to him. He felt bad for her, so he committed more murders of girls with alliterative names so that the police would see that her theory had been correct and give her back her job.
- In Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Moriarty bombs an entire hotel full of industrialists in order to obfuscate Moran's murder of one specific delegate.
- Miss Congeniality: This is the Big Bad's plan to get away with murdering the winner of the "Miss United States" beauty pageant: they set the whole thing up to look like it was committed by a notorious serial killer calling themselves "The Citizen". Backfires when "The Citizen" is captured by the FBI partway through the film, leaving the villains with nobody to pin their crime on.
- Agatha Christie:
- In The ABC Murders, the killer sets up an alphabetical motif: someone whose name begins with A is killed in a city that begins with A, and so forth. The "C" murder is the significant one; the victim is a wealthy man, killed by his brother in order to inherit his vast estate. The work is something of a modern Trope Codifier, as some later works have referred to fake serial killings hiding a motive for killing a specific target as "A.B.C. murders."
- Another Christie example is Three Act Tragedy. Three people are killed by poisoned drinks at three separate dinner parties. The second murder is the significant one, while the third served to cover it up. The first murder turns out to have been merely a dress rehearsal for the second, with the victim chosen at random.
- Not exactly a serial killing, but Towards Zero has a case where the murder victim and the intended target are not the same. Instead, the criminal murders an old lady and somehow ensures that their intended victim be charged with the crime and hanged for it.
- One of the earliest examples (though the disguise is an intentionally provoked military battle rather than a serial killing) is "The Sign of the Broken Sword" (1911) by G. K. Chesterton, featuring Father Brown. In his own words:
Father Brown: Where would a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. If there were no forest, he would make a forest. And if he wished to hide a dead leaf, he would make a dead forest. And if a man had to hide a dead body, he would make a field of dead bodies to hide it in.
- Another early example of the device, the Jorge Luis Borges story "Death and the Compass," offers an interesting Double Subversion in that the villain's intended victim is the detective himself, who turns up early after deducing the particular place and time suggested by the pattern to try and stop the last murder. He thus becomes the victim of an ambush by the killer, his longtime Arch-Enemy. As above, the added twist makes this story a bit of an early, Unbuilt Trope version of the device.
- In the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain, this happens often enough for the detectives to have a shorthand term for it, "classic smokescreen". One example: In the novel Long Time, No See, a murderer wants a particular blind person dead, so he kills a number of other blind people to make it look like the work of a serial killer.
- In the Simon Ark story "The Avenger from Outer Space" by Edward D. Hoch, a killer makes a carefully planned series of murders look like the work of a local lunatic.
- The Elizabeth Peters novel The Murders of Richard III has a variation of this: rather than murders, there are a series of embarrassing but non-lethal pranks designed to mimic the murders attributed to Richard III in Shakespeare's play. The prankster/murder's intention is that the last prank will "go wrong" and end up killing the target.
- Burke mentions this was a favorite tactic of Professional Killer Wesley. He would kill one man, then burn down the building so the police would have a bunch of other possible victims/motives to investigate.
- In The List Of Adrian Messenger a killer destroys a train and a plane just to get one person in each as part of a long range plan.
- The Lord Darcy book Ten Little Wizards uses this; wizards are being killed in seemingly-impossible ways so that one deliberate murder of a wizard will seem to be another locked-room mystery, instead of pointing to the wizard's entourage.
- In The Calling of the Grave by Simon Beckett, a man kills the teenage girl he was having an extramarital affair with. Afterwards, he discovers that the girl's twin sister knew about their relationship, so he has to kill her too. Then he kills a third girl, who resembles the twins physically, in order to make it look like the work of a serial killer.
- In Brookmyre's A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away, the chief villain kills everyone on a passenger jet simply in order to fake his own death.
- In the Jack Reacher novel The Visitor (known as Running Blind in the States), Reacher is taken in by the FBI because he matches the criminal profile of a currently active serial killer, but cleared of suspicion almost immediately and forced to aid in the search of the real killer. The twist in the end is that the killer was The Profiler herself, whose real target was her stepsister. She had deliberately chosen the other victims so she could plausibly fabricate a profile pointing to someone with an entirely different kind of motivation.
- In the short stories "The Ehrengraf Defense" and "The Ehrengraf Nostrum" by Lawrence Block, charges are dropped against Amoral Attorney Martin Ehrengraf's clients after each alleged victim becomes the first of a string of apparent serial killings, most of which having been committed during the clients' time in jail. It's heavily implied that Ehrengraf commits the additional murders himself.
- In the short story "Hit the Ball, Drag Fred", Nicholson wants to kill his best friend and golfing buddy Fred for having an affair with his wife, but the affair would make Nicholson the prime suspect. On the other hand, if Fred is just one of several golfers found ritualistically murdered on golf courses, the police will look for a serial killer.
- In the Star Trek Expanded Universe (non-canonical) Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel "The Siege" (by Peter David), DS9 is terrorized by a series of mysterious killings. It turns out the killer is a psychopathic shape-shifter hired by a rival Ferengi to kill Quark, and needed the serial killings to remove any suspicion (as revenge is illegal under Ferengi law).
- Nick Velvet: In "The Theft of Santa's Beard", two men dressed as Santa are killed, seemingly at random. Several large department stores then receive extortion letters warning that their Santa will be murdered in their store unless they make a large cash payment to the killer. However, the first two Santas were the intended victims all along, and the extortion attempt is a smokescreen.
- In the Mike Hammer novel The Twisted Thing, the killer simply murders the victim with a hatchet, knowing his death will lead to other crimes and revealed secrets among his Big, Screwed-Up Family as they all scramble for his fortune, thus creating a large number of suspects.
- Joe Pickett: An inadvertent version occurs in Blood Trail. The authorities think there is a serial killer targeting hunters. However, the killer is actually after five specific men who happen to be hunters.
Live Action TV
- Episode "Mr. Monk and the Really, Really Dead Guy": A doctor kills his date, but realizes that the cake in her stomach has gold leaf, which would show up in an autopsy and lead police to the one restaurant that does this and he'd get caught. So he kills one street performer in a ritualistic manner similar to a serial killer and sends taunting messages to the police proclaiming himself as one to distract detectives until the stomach content decomposes.
- "Mr. Monk Goes Home Again": A guy named Paul Gilstrap wants to kill his wife by poisoning one of the Neptune chocolate bars she ate every night before bed. But he couldn't just poison one chocolate bar as the police would immediately suspect him. Therefore, he poisoned not one, but several candy bars, which he then took to his local Beach's Market and dropped back into circulation. The idea is that several random people would die from poisoned candy bars, including his wife, and the police would assume these deaths were the work of an anonymous serial killer. Except, the plan goes awry when he gets caught returning the tetrachlorodrine poison he used, which means Gilstrap is forced to abort his plan because if anyone dies now from a poisoned candy bar, the police will immediately find him. This forces him to go back to the supermarket, and get all of the poisoned candy bars out of circulation. He fails to get two of them: one going to Ambrose's house, and another that falls into the possession of an armored car driver. Seeing that the driver has already taken a bite, Gilstrap knows that he has to act fact because if the driver simply collapses in the parking lot, the police would have the body autopsied. So he catches up to the driver at his truck, and after the poison hits the driver and he collapses, Gilstrap grabs the driver's pistol and shoots him five times, on the thought that the police won't look for evidence of poisoning in the body of a shooting victim. Then he goes after the poisoned bar that ends up at Ambrose's house.
- And inverted in yet another one, "Mr. Monk and the Voodoo Curse," where a paramedic leaves Voodoo Dolls in delivery packages at the homes of dead or dying patients she shows up to save, giving the impression the dolls were already there when the person died and that it is either the work of a very crafty serial killer, or even that some kind of magic was involved. She finally sends one to her still living elderly uncle, who she then poisons with an untraceable drug for the inheritance, but he is the only one she actually to be murdered as the others died in freak accidents (hit by a baseball or struck by lightning).
- The episode "Mr. Monk's 100th Case" takes a twist on this type of spree. In this one, a serial killer is strangling young women and stealing their lipstick (a calling card). However, it turns out that the supposed fourth and final victim of this killer is in fact the work of a copycat trying to frame the original killer.
- In "Mr. Monk and the Twelfth Man", a rich man is being blackmailed by someone who served on the jury in a court case he was involved in years before. Not knowing which juror it is, he starts killing them all. Unlike many of these examples, where people try to cover up their crimes by making them look like serial killings, this guy didn't know the exact identity of the person he wanted dead, but had it narrowed down to 12 people.
- In the pilot of Castle, the killer murders his sister for her money, then stages the murder to look like something out of one of Castle's books and commits two similar murders so it'll look like one of her clients — who's obsessed with the books — did it. Castle sums up the trope beautifully:
Alexis: How do you get away with one murder by committing two more?Castle: At one death you look for motive, at two you look for connection...at three you look for someone like Kyle [the above mentioned obsessive fan]; at three you don't need motive because mentally unstable serial killers don't usually have one.
- In an episode of CSI a comedian dies from drinking a poisoned bottle of water. Then a kid dies from drinking the same brand. The first victim was the target, the killer (a rival comedian who hated his style) says he blames the CSIs for not finding the poisoned bottle in time as he's arrested after confessing out of remorse.
- Done with a serial rapist in "Helpless", where it turns out that his first two rapes were 'dress rehearsals' so he could have all of the details worked out by the time he went for his intended victim.
- One of the tie-in comics features a Jack the Ripper copycat who turns out to have targeted one specific girl and then killed a bunch of other women picked out at random so he could frame somebody from a ripperologist convention that was in town.
- Done accidentally in an episode of The '70s TV series Ellery Queen. A movie is being filmed based on Ellery, and the man playing Ellery is killed by a gun that was supposed to be filled with blanks. Later, after the role of Ellery is recast, the stunt double is killed in a stunt gone wrong. Is the production cursed? Is someone out to shut it down? It turns out that the stuntman was the target in the first place; he was originally supposed to do the stunt in which he was shot, but the scene was changed at the last minute, and the killer couldn't switch the guns back before it happened.
- In The Red features a serial killer targeting bank managers who turns out to be this trope.
- CSI: NY: In "Page Turner," the killer poisons his wife with thallium and then coats a book in the library where she works, knowing that others will be exposed to it. After another two people die, he launches a lawsuit against the city and the library.
- Rizzoli & Isles:
- In "Rebel Without a Pause", a sniper misses their shot at their target on their first attempt and kills someone else. They do another random shooting to make the police think this a series of random attacks before making another attempt on their original target.
- In "Bite Out Of Crime", a sniper shoots a couple of random victims to cover the fact he is after one particular target.
- Alias Smith and Jones: In "The Fifth Victim", the killer tries to disguise the murder of his ex-lover's husband by killing men who were all in a particular poker game, after first faking evidence that someone in the game had been cheating. The issue gets confused when he does try to kill the husband; the man kills him instead but then keeps quiet, afraid he'll be accused of the other killings.
- Alcatraz: Cobb is a variation on this. He is a serial killer, but at each kill he shoots a number of random people as 'noise' to mask his true choice of target.
- The Medium episode "A Cure For What Ails You" combined this with "Strangers on a Train"-Plot Murder: 5 strangers, all of whom wanted someone close to them dead meet on an airport lobby due to a delayed flight. One of them works as a chemist and suggests poisoning them with tainted painkillers. Since none of the people have any connection between them, the deaths would be blamed on a serial poisoner a la the Tylenol poisonings.
- Law & Order sometimes has these:
- In the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode "Poison", Trudy Pomeranski uses poisoned OTC painkillers to murder her husband and slips the extras onto store shelves to allay suspicion and set up a lucrative class action lawsuit. This episode was inspired by the Tylenol murders.
- In an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a man who killed his wife and then killed another woman for this exact reason. However, it doesn't fool the detectives, as they note that the second killing was cold and detached, whereas the original victim died brutally, showing that the murderer had a lot of genuine rage towards the first one but didn't care at all about the second.
- Criminal Minds: "Sniper Sniped" has the BAU team dealing with what appears to be a sniper rampage in Dallas, and finally finding that the Cold Sniper behind them is a mercenary hired by a rich domestic abuser out to eliminate his runaway wife, killing his way through the "underground railroad" she used to escape.
- Murdoch Mysteries:
- Constable Crabtree proposes this as the explanation for the multiple deaths in "Murdoch on the Corner". He posits a long-standing feud between two neighboring shopkeepers is the real motive, and that one of the antagonists killed the other people merely to cover his tracks. Murdoch and Brackenreid suggest this to the man in an interrogation, and the man tells them they are crazy.
- The true explanation for the serial deaths in "Twisted Sisters". A man is being blackmailed by a woman who works for him, and during their argument she hits her head. The man knows she was involved in another death some years earlier (along with several other women), so he disposes of his blackmailer and the other women to divert suspicion from himself. While he's at it, his actions point to a Persian university professor who had been romantically involved with the young white woman who had died years ago, and his own secret involves his interracial marriage.
- In Days of Our Lives, the Salem Stalker killed one woman (who was going to marry the man she loved) and was forced to keep killing people in order to cover up the murders.
- In an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger dealt with a man and woman hitman pair who covered up their targets by killing 7 other random people alongside their target. Their current target is ADA Alex Cahill.
- Scream Queens (2015): In one episode, Dean Munsch's ex-husband is brutally murdered, and the evidence ultimately points to his current girlfriend, who ends up institutionalized. We find out at the end of the episode, however, that the Dean herself did it, taking advantage of the Red Devil killings as a cover, all so that she could get revenge on her ex and the student for whom he left her.
- Bizarrely, the other murders seemed to be completely irrelevant. Munsch gets away with it, but no one seems to seriously believe that Feather is the Red Devil.
- DCI Banks: In "Innocent Graves", the killer murders a second girl using exactly the same M.O. as his first killing. The second killing is designed to make it look like a serial killer is at work.
- A case in The Good Wife involved a man who had seemingly murdered his ex-wife by shooting her before committing a series of similar sniper attacks against other women (and one man) in order to deflect suspicion away from himself and make it look like his ex was simply the victim of a serial killer. But then it turns out that he didn't kill his ex or anyone else, and that there really is a serial killer, one with a pattern (he met all of the female victims through dating websites, so they all had the same astrological sign) and everything. Investigators had failed to discern this earlier because of how wholeheartedly convinced they were that the prime suspect did it, and because the male victim (who the killer had accidentally shot while aiming at someone else) threw them off.
- The murderer in the Murdoch Mysteries episode "Dr Osler Regrets" poses as a serial killer euthanasing the over-sixties with chloroform. Further complicated by the killer copycatting a Suicide, Not Murder he had an alibi for.
- Modesty Blaise: In "The Grim Joker", the Goodchild brothers commit a series of bizarre murders designed to look like the work of a madman. They intend to murder their uncle as the last victim so they can inherit his fortune. Unfortunately for them, they choose Willie Garvin as their penultimate victim.
- The story of the Blood and Wine expansion of The Witcher 3 starts with a string of murders of prominent knights of the Duchy of Toussaint, with the murderer's motive seemingly to punish these knights for failing to live up to one of the five Knightly Virtues of Honor, Valor, Generosity, wisdom and Compassion. If you decide to investigate further, you'll discover that the final target was Duchess Anna Henrietta. It turns out that her sister Sylvia Anna was planning to kill Anna Henrietta to take vengeance for a tragic event during her childhood, which led to Sylvia's banishment. The murders of the previous victims were purposefully connected to the Five Knightly Virtues so people would assume these to be divine punishments and also assume the death of Anna Henrietta to be one, allowing Sylvia Anna to be free of suspicion.
- It has been theorized that John Allen Muhammad, the DC Beltway Sniper who randomly shot and killed 11 people and wounded six more, was eventually going to kill his ex-wife, knowing that the police would not automatically look at an ex-husband as a suspect if they thought she was just a random victim.
- Ronald Clark O'Bryan (nicknamed The Candyman) (October 19, 1944 – March 31, 1984) was a murderer from Deer Park, Texas (near Houston), who was convicted of killing his eight-year-old son Timothy on Halloween, 1974 with cyanide-laced Giant Pixy Stix candy in order to claim life insurance money. It's alleged he tried to cover his tracks by giving poisoned candy to other children in an attempt to invoke the Razor Apples Urban Legend. However, neither Elizabeth, his daughter, nor any of the other children ate any of the poisoned candy.
- Mark Hofmann, the forger who was in danger of having his epic scam of the Mormons come to light, did an interesting variation. In order to provide an excuse why a promised collection of documents (which he hadn't yet forged) wasn't available, he killed a local document collector with a bomb, then a woman connected to the first victim, then blew up his own car in an apparent failed attempted murder. He was his own specific victim, the goal being to portray himself as a lucky survivor of a serial bomber/killer and give him an excuse to lay low and not have to provide the documents.
- Another (cruel and stupid) variation: in 1986, Auburn, WA resident Stella Nickell successfully killed her husband by poisoning his headache pills with cyanide. The coroner's report didn't mention any poison and listed his cause of death as emphysema, meaning she had gotten away scot-free... until she got her husband's life insurance payout and noticed it was $106,000 less than she expected because the insurance company hadn't ruled her husband's death as being an accident. So she decided to try to reverse the decision by leaving her poisoned bottle in a store (resulting in the death of one other person) hoping the media would interpret it as another Tylenol-esque mass poisoning. Unfortunately for her, the greater scrutiny placed on this caused her to get caught.
- In 2001, Rosa Lewis filed for divorce from her husband William Charles Lewis. He was enraged, but much like the "Muhammad" example above, knew that the police would immediately focus on him if anything would happen to her. To that end, over several weeks, he randomly gunned down four other people—one of whom was one of her co-workers—leaving notes with the name "Jack" printed on them, culminating in shooting his wife herself. His efforts failed when (a) his wife survived; (b) while in the hospital, a friend of hers came to the police with a letter she had given him, explicitly stating that if anything happened to her, that her ex-husband was likely the one responsible; and (c) when the cops came to inform him of his wife's shooting, his Incriminating Indifference made them suspicious, as well as the presence of paper and the type of pen similar to what was used to write the "Jack" notes.