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Serial Killings, Specific Target

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"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 but wants to avoiding drawing attention to their death specifically for whatever reason, usually to conceal the true motive for the murder. So they decide to disguise the specific murder and its motive by killing a bunch of other people who share characteristics with the intended target in order to make the killings look like the work of a serial killer, and thus throw the detectives off the scent.

Related to Crime After Crime, another trope that often involves secondary murders surrounding a primary one, but with a crucial difference: with Crime After Crime, the killer ends up having to commit additional murders that weren't originally planned (e.g. of witnesses and/or blackmailers) in order to conceal the first murder, while with Serial Killings, Specific Target, the murderer plans right from the start to kill the extra victims simply to create a smokescreen for the primary murder. This trope therefore represents another level of heinousness and is very likely to push the killer over the Moral Event Horizon.

Subtrope of Serial Killer and Smokescreen Crime. Related to Make It Look Like an Accident and the Inverted form of Murder by Mistake, both of which are other ways to disguise the significance of a murder victim. Compare Needle in a Needle Stack, a trope about hiding something among things that look similar, so that even if it's noticed, people won't think it's special.

Compare Trial Run Crime.

BE WARNED: Spoilers abound on this page.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Case Closed: A serial arsonist turns out to be doing this, and Conan specifically cites The ABC Murders when explaining it.
  • In the first Full Metal Panic! novel, Gauron seeks to cover up kidnapping Kaname on her school trip by blowing up the airliner her class is flying on, scattering pieces of everyone across the Sea of Japan. Under the circumstances, nobody would have been able to tell she hadn't been on the plane when it exploded.
  • 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.

    Comic Books 
  • Batman:
    • The serial killer targeting elderly couples in the "Blades" story arc from Legends of the Dark Knight #32-34. The killer is the heir of one particular couple.
    • Another story has men dressed like Batman being murdered. Gordon wonders if it's possible the killer is trying to cover up one specific victim, citing the trope and how the costumes add to the confusion.
    • A variation appears in the KGB Beast's first story. The Beast is out to eliminate those involved in a U.S. defense program. Batman and the police are ready for the Beast to strike at one scientist at a dinner party. What they never expect is for the Beast to poison the entire party of 80 people just to ensure he gets the scientist.
    • In one Detective Comics annual (a Whole Episode Flashback to when Bruce was studying detection under a man named Harvey Harris) a spree killing variant of this is used. Around 1950, Richard Hunt, the leader of a KKK group, got the others drunk and convinced them to attack an African-American shantytown and kill most of the residents. Unbeknownst to the others (who had a collective My God, What Have I Done? moment when they sobered up and disbanded the group), Hunt wasn't motivated by simple homicidal racism, but by the fact that one of the shantytown residents was a black woman he'd fathered a child with, who was threatening to expose him. The whole incident was covered up and even the people aware of it assumed it had just been a random hate crime rather than a calculating murder designed to protect a Dark Secret that Hunt believed would destroy his social status.
    • 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. And to top it off the Joker himself won’t cooperate with Batman’s investigation.
    • In the second volume of Batman: Earth One, the Riddler is a Mad Bomber who commits seemingly random acts of mass murder. However, Batman discovers that the Riddler is actually attempting to kill the four other crime bosses who control Gotham's underworld after the death of the Penguin, and killing a ton of innocent people in the process hides that his bombings are targeted assassinations. So too does his riddle theme, which hides his true motives, since, unlike most incarnations, he doesn't care at all if you answer his riddles correctly or not.
    • Merrymaker used the chaos created by the League of Smiles to murder those he believed had wronged, such as his ex-wife and her lawyer, knowing the murders would be blamed on them.
  • 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.
  • Immortal X-Men: Mister Sinister, who has a seat on the mutant nation Krakoa's ruling Quiet Council, tries to kill as many of his fellow councillors as he can. Partly because it makes the next stage of his plot easier, but mostly because it hides the fact that his one essential target is Hope, who's key to the nation's Resurrective Immortality programme. He eventually succeeds, and his success sets up the Sins of Sinister storyline.
  • In one Judge Dredd story, Dredd is attempting to track down a serial killer, with the taunting assistance of PJ Maybe. Judge Corrigan looks into old cases and finds a number of eldsters who had their top buttons cut off their shirts when they died. This leads them to a different killer, who had murdered his father to collect an inheritance and also killed two others to make it look like a serial killer. He had intended to kill a few more to sell the case but decided against it when the deaths were logged as natural causes.
  • In The Maze Agency story "The Return of Jack the Ripper?", a random—nearly fatal—mugging attempt 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 an organised series of attacks (including the first, unrelated attack).
  • A variation: in Preacher, Herr Starr is given the task of murdering two journalists in an insane asylum in such a way that the authorities do not investigate 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 (and to avoid posthumously vindicating the journalists, who were sent to the asylum before they could reveal too much about the Grail). Rather than a serial killing, it's a mass murder, but the intent is the same.
  • Emmett attempts to invoke this when he plans to murder Belinda in Silverblade #2. He dresses as the killer from the Slasher Movie Quack Killers and plans to leave behind the mask and shotgun so the police will think it is a crazed fan rather than someone with a specific grudge against Belinda.
  • Starman: Mad Bomber the Infernal Doctor Pip was hired by a member of the Sloane family to kill his wife with a bomb and to keep setting up explosives in populated areas to cover his tracks, which Pip was happy to oblige.
  • Wolverine & Gambit: Victims: One of the victims of the London serial killer is actually Big Bad Arcade's loyal assistant Miss Locke. Arcade lost control and accidentally killed her, and the murders that followed are intended to disguise what happened. Even his ally Martinique is unaware of the truth, and thinks Arcade's seeking revenge on the heroes, not trying to frame them for his own crime. She quits when she discovers the truth.

    Fan Works 
  • Inverted in the Chunks of Worm chapter "Pushing Back", where Taylor spends an entire night resurrecting a graveyard full of people, to obscure the fact that one of those people is her mother (since that would give away her identity).
  • Coreline: A Tale Of Two Maris offers a case where the "specific target" isn't any of the people being killed; the murder is attempting to frame Captain Makinami for their crimes by targeting villains that resemble the Joker R gang in order to make it appear she's attempting a pre-emptive strike upon the gang. Oh, and they're sprinkling in some innocent victims as "collateral damage" as well.
  • Zig-Zagged in the curse of the anime protagonist: the "Hero Killer" Stain has always been driven by his mission statement to eliminate those he deems "unworthy" of their status. However, after deeming Midoriya Izuku to be a shining example of what he wants to see in Pro Heroes, he adjusts his agenda and starts targeting specific individuals connected to them. Namely, the retired teammates of Midoriya Hisashi, who abandoned Izuku's father in his time of need and left him to die.
  • In the Smallville fic Does One Kiss Change Everything?, Lois and Chloe explicitly use The ABC Murders as an example when investigating murders committed by Wallace Echolls, a meteor freak with the ability to phase through solid objects who killed multiple victims to ensure he wouldn't be suspected of murdering his parents for the inheritance. When he tries to kill Lois after she identifies him as the guilty party, Clark captures Wallace and traps him in the Phantom Zone.
  • In the Kung Fu Panda story The Eyes of the Wolverine, the initial turning point of the story occurs when it is revealed that the kung fu assassin that is being hunted down is targeting the main character, Jo.
  • Im Giving You A Nightcall: The apparent serial killer's various victims have one thing in common: all of them were previously assisted or rescued by the vigilante Fullmetal.
  • In the Daredevil fanfic The Sins of the Father, Wilson Fisk hires Bullseye to kill Elektra Natchio's father Hugo as well as corrupt detective Carl Hoffman. The fact that Fisk had different motives for these two murdersnote  combined with Bullseye carrying out a terrorist attack against a street festival in Hell's Kitchen means that while the police are able to link the two murders, they're inclined to view him as a serial killer and not a professional hitman.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Played with in Happy Death Day; the killer is trying to eliminate the main protagonist, a college student, and not only does she have no qualms about murdering anyone in her path, but she willingly releases a known serial killer notorious for targeting co-eds from custody to create a fall guy should she succeed and/or to have a backup plan should she fail.
  • 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 psychologically lethal side effects of the invisibility serum.
  • 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 targeted kill as a random mass shooting. The apparent "miss" was to provide a pristine bullet that could be linked to the patsy being framed for the whole thing.
  • In Jagged Edge, at least one other woman was assaulted in the same manner as Paige Forrester, raising speculation that there's a serial rapist/killer on the loose and that it's responsible for Paige's murder, rather than Jack. It turns out that Jack himself attacked the other woman to create such doubt.
  • 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". This plan backfires when "The Citizen" is captured by the FBI partway through the film, leaving the villains to improvise a new set of possible notes that would frame other criminals for the attack.
  • 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.
  • Moriarty's plot in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows relies on funding Bomb-Throwing Anarchists in France and Germany in hopes of igniting a War for Fun and Profit. He directs them to bomb a Franco-German business conference in Paris, but only to guarantee the assassination of a particular German industrialist—whose death makes Moriarty the largest shareholder. Or rather, to obfuscate the assassination of that industrialist; he has Moran snipe the German at roughly the same time, and the bomb blast is just to stop people from looking for the bullet hole.
  • The plot of Shooter concerns an assassination attempt on the President of the United States in which an Ethiopian archbishop was killed, the film's protagonist being framed for the attack. It turns out that the archbishop was the real target all along, as he was threatening to expose the involvement of an American oil company in a massacre in an African village. Killing him would've just made for a Revealing Cover-Up... unless they did it while he was meeting with the President, in which case all the focus would've been on the attempt made on the President's life and the archbishop would've been forgotten.
  • Played with in The Silence of the Lambs. The villain is a Serial Killer, but what he's trying to cover up is the death of his first victim, who is connected to him. He hid her body more thoroughly than his later victims, so it was only discovered after the police had established that a random pattern serial killer was at work, thus preventing them realising the relevance of that crime until much later.
  • 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.


By Author:

  • 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 serial killings hiding a motive for killing a specific target as "A.B.C. murders."
    • Played with in After the Funeral. A wealthy man dies seemingly of natural causes. At his funeral, one of the family members, a reclusive aunt, strongly implies he was actually murdered. She is met with confusion and disbelief, but the next day she ends up dead - ostensibly because she knew too much. The villain's plan was actually to pull a Kill and Replace on the reclusive aunt all along. They never even murdered the wealthy man at all (who really did die of natural causes). But by masquerading as the real aunt at the funeral and implying he was murdered, they could gain all the benefits of this trope.
    • Downplayed in The Body in the Library, in which one additional victim is killed so that the murderers can swap the two bodies and burn one of them beyond recognition, confusing the investigators. In this case, the intended victim was seen as a prospective heiress for a man who viewed her as a surrogate daughter. The other victim was a random teenage girl with a coincidental resemblance to the intended victim. The killers counted on people confusing the identities of two nearly identical victims.
    • The Moving Finger has another variation. The killer sends anonymous letters with false accusations to everyone in town, which leads one woman to seemingly commit suicide. It was actually murder, of course, and the letters were sent to distract from the intended target in the vein of this trope.
    • The serial killer in Murder is Easy kills anyone who is in any way disliked by their real target, with the ultimate goal of pinning all the murders on him. If that sounds completely insane, that's because it is.
    • One of The Thirteen Problems, "The Herb of Death", features a downplayed example, crossing over with Make It Look Like an Accident. The killer spiked their target's drink with a fatal dose of digitalis, then made sure to slip foxglove leaves (which contain digitalis) into everyone else's food so that everyone would come down with symptoms and obscuring the fact that the victim was specifically targeted. Even if someone realized that the poisoning was deliberate, they would have no way of knowing who the target was and would be unable to solve the case.
    • Three Act Tragedy has one that is disguised as a Crime After Crime. An aged clergyman is killed by poison, and a respectable doctor is killed in a similar fashion at a different party that involves the same guest list. This is meant to mislead the investigators to think that the first victim was the intended target, and the second one has discovered something about the killer and has to be silenced. In fact, the intended victim is the second one, and the first one was randomly chosen. A mystery for much of the story was that the first murder seemed to lack a motive, as nobody benefited from the death and the clergyman had no known foes. It turned out that the killer just needed a random victim and let fate decide who would drink the poison.
    • 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 tries to ensure that their intended victim be charged with the crime and hanged for it.

By Title:

  • 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.
  • Inverted in Ancestral Vices. Emmelia, the only one convinced that Walden Yapp didn't murder the diminutive Willy Coppett, sets out on a spree of attempting to kidnap other Persons of Restricted growth to make it appear that the culprit is still at large.
  • Ben Snow: In "The Ripper of Storeyville", a Serial Killer is preying on the prostitutes of Storeyville; the Red Light District of New Orleans. The killer deliberately mimics the M.O. of Jack the Ripper, causing authorities to worry that the original Ripper may have resurfaced in America (the story is set in 1901). However, the killer is actually deliberately murdering four prostitutes who are the only people who could expose the Dead Person Impersonation his partner is undertaking.
  • 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.
  • 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 a later novel, a killer seeking to emulate Wesley arranges a hate-crime shooting of a gay protest rally while firing a precision shot to kill the person he actually wants to kill.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The title trope in An Embarassment of Corpses by Alan Beechey. TWO LEVELS of camouflage disguise a series of killings, so the real target can be passed off as an "unfortunate bystander shot by accident".
  • Father Brown: 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. 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.
  • A variation in Fraternity of the Stone by David Morrell, which opens with every resident in a monastery being killed except the protagonist who was the intended target, a former assassin who underwent a Heel–Faith Turn. As the monks had all given up their former lives, and lived in identical cells with no way of telling one from the other, the only way to kill their target was to kill all of them.
  • The Further Adventures of the Joker: Used in the story "The Fifty-Third Card". While Batman is out of town, Jim Gordon starts seeing a pattern in murders. A singing group called "The Four Aces", a "king of comedy," a "queen of cosmetics," etc. At first, he seems paranoid but as more victims pile up, others realize all these victims are somehow connected to playing cards and thus it has to be the Joker. The final victim is to be the king of a small European nation visiting Gotham but Batman returns in time to stop it. The Joker is seen running off to a helicopter only for it to crash. Talking to Gordon later, Batman delivers the startling news that this was never the Joker at all. Rather, the king's cousin, Herbert, wanted the throne himself but knew just killing the king would be too suspicious. By making it look like the king was the victim of a wild Joker spree, Herbert could take the crown without suspicion. Gordon is rocked that 51 innocent people were killed to cover up a regicide but Batman then reveals that the helicopter crashed because it was sabotaged.
    Batman: Herbert was trying to kill the entire deck of cards. But he forgot one important thing: Every deck has two Jokers.
  • In the short story Hard Sell by Craig Rice, multiple door to door salesmen are murdered. One of the victims has died by suicide, having previously killed the others so that his family will receive his insurance payout because the police will suspect a business rival or a serial killer.
  • 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.
  • Jack Reacher:
    • In 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 One Shot, the antagonists murder their intended target and several bystanders, planting evidence to make it look like a random mass shooting by a disgruntled veteran.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • In the Lord Darcy book Ten Little Wizards, wizards are murdered in seemingly impossible ways with taunting references to a rhyme similar to that in And Then There Were None. The intent was to make one deliberate murder of a wizard appear to be another locked-room mystery, instead of pointing to the wizard's entourage.
  • The above variation turns out to be the Evil Plan of The Master Sniper by Stephen Hunter. The sniper is planning to kill all the children in an orphanage, who are all dressed in identical uniforms, to be sure of killing his specific target who's the heir to a fortune.
  • 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.
  • Done on a larger scale in the Modesty Blaise novel The Night of Morningstar, which features a terrorist group who claim a different ideology with each attack and seem to be working to no apparent purpose. It turns out that they're being run by an officer of Soviet intelligence and most of their attacks are to confuse things so that it won't be obvious when they commit an attack that advances the Soviet Union's aims.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Sherlock Holmes Stories of Edward D. Hoch: In "The Manor House Case", having murdered one victim, the killer proceeds to murder two others to cover up their crime, while leaving behind a Calling Card to make it look like the work of Serial Killer.
  • Simon Ark:
    • In "The Treasure of Jack the Ripper", it is revealed that the Jack the Ripper murders were a cover for the murder of five specific prostitutes: the mutilation of the bodies being designed to hide the theft of a patch of skin from each of the victims. Placed together, these tattoos form a Treasure Map.
    • In "The Avenger from Outer Space", a killer makes a carefully planned series of murders look like the work of a local lunatic.
  • Solar Pons: In "The Adventure of the Sussex Archers", a would-be murderer sends a cryptic warning to the six members of the eponymous archery club, and then murders one of them; shooting him with an arrow. He intends his actual target to be the second victim, while making the murders appear to be an act of vengeance for a suspicious death the Sussex Archers were connected to twenty years earlier.
  • 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).
  • Teen Power Inc.: Not killings, but in Danger in Rhyme, a series of bombings is meant to cover up of one of the later properties hit.

    Live-Action TV 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Batwoman (2019): In "A Narrow Escape", Robles apes the Detonator's MO to make people think the original has returned, but in fact he's trying to destroy buildings which contain evidence of his crimes. He's caught because it's too suspicious that the Detonator would just happen to target locations of specific importance to him.
  • A recurring foe on The Blacklist is the Freelancer, who specializes in causing huge disasters, often written off as massive accidents, willing to kill dozens or even hundreds of innocent people just to cover his one true target.
  • 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.
  • Charlie's Angels: "The Sandcastle Murders", whose villain plans to kill his wife to inherit her property and chooses to kill several women of similar appearance first (at one point targeting Kris) to evade suspicion.
  • A variation on Crazy Like a Fox. A doctor is blown up in his car and Harry and Harrison are baffled as the many suspects all have alibis. Going over the records, they find the doctor was supposed to operate on a woman the day he died but the surgery was delayed and the woman died with her husband inheriting both money and life insurance and suing the hospital for negligence. Harry relates "We've been investigating the wrong murder." The husband knew if anything happened to his wife directly, it'd be suspicious. By killing the doctor, he ensured his wife died anyway, and doing it in such a public matter put all the focus on him and his wife's "accidental" passing a footnote.
  • Criminal Minds:
    • The episode "Won't Be Fooled Again" featured a serial bomber who kills or seriously injures several people with bombs left in packages at their homes. It turns out that the bomber was an antiquities dealer who had sold several forgeries to buyers. When one of them, an old woman, discovered that a collection of coins she had bought were fakes and he was in danger of being exposed, he sent her the first of his bombs, killing her, and then sent more bombs to random people to make her murder look like a part of a bombing spree.
    • "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.
    • "Unforgettable" has a nurse murdering several Federal government employees through lethal injections in order to disguise the murder of her husband as part of a wider conspiracy by Russia and claim his life insurance policy.
  • CSI:
    • In one episode, 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.
    • An unintentional example in "Code Blue Plate Special". When his brother refuses to agree to sell off their diner for a huge payday, an owner decides to have someone stage a robbery with the specific aim of shooting the brother. But it goes horribly wrong when his brother fights back and ends up removing the guy's mask. Panicking, the guy proceeds to shoot the other seven people in the diner. The owner then came out of hiding to shoot the guy himself and make it look like he was a random customer. The guy defends himself on how it was just a bad idea gotten out of hand but Nick coldly points out how they realized his own daughter was still alive and saw the whole thing, so he shot her himself to cover the massacre up.
  • CSI: NY: In "Page Turner," the killer poisons his wife with thallium and then coats a book in the library where she works with it, knowing that others will be exposed. After another two people die, he launches a lawsuit against the city and the library.
  • Daredevil (2015):
    • In "Condemned", Wilson Fisk decides that Detective Christian Blake is a liability that needs to be eliminated because he leaked secrets to Matt Murdock under duress. He has an ESU sniper take a position on a rooftop overlooking a scene where Blake and Hoffman are overseeing a hostage standoff caused by Matt overpowering a rookie police officer who caught him holed up with Vladimir. If just Blake gets shot, the police will comb through every aspect of his life and career to find a potential motive for why someone would want to kill him, and will eventually find his connection to Fisk. So the sniper also shoots two uniformed cops nearby, making it look like Blake was randomly targeted, and heads off deeper inquiries.
    • In "Nelson v. Murdock", several people are poisoned at a charity benefit that Fisk is throwing, including his girlfriend Vanessa Marianna. As Fisk later uncovers, Leland Owlsley orchestrated the whole affair because he and Madame Gao think Fisk's relationship with Vanessa is distracting him from his criminal ventures, and the other poisoning victims were an attempt to make it look like Fisk's enemies tried to kill him.
    • In "The Devil You Know", Fisk has FBI agent Benjamin "Dex" Poindexter dress up in a Daredevil costume and attack the New York Bulletin. The main target of the attack is Jasper Evans, who Dex is under orders to eliminate so he can't go on the record to having been paid to shank Fisk as part of Fisk's scheme to manipulate the FBI into letting him out of prison. But before he kills Evans, Dex first murders a bunch of Karen's coworkers, wounds Karen's boss Mitchell Ellison and Foggy, and also critically injures Matt after a drawn out fight around the office. These killings enable Fisk to discredit Karen on account of her affiliation with Daredevil while simultaneously tarnishing the reputation of Matt (the real Daredevil), and make Evans' death look random.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Diagnosis: Murder: In "The Bela Lugosi Blues", the owner of a failing football team hires a killer vampire* to murder his star player—who is planning on leaving the team—so he can collect on the $20 million life insurance policy he has on the player. The player is on L.A.'s Most Eligible Bachelor list, so the killer murders two other bachelors on the list so it won't be obvious the footballer was the intended target.
  • 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.
  • Fargo: Season Three: V.M. Varga, seeking to assert his control over Emmit Stussey following the death of Emmit's brother Ray, has Meemo kill two men named Stussy in St. Cloud and Eden Valley in ways that mimic the deaths of Ennis and Ray. He does this to make it seem like all four were killed by a very unusual serial killer and, in doing so, voids Emmit's confession to his brother's death. He even hires a willing patsy who "confesses" to the whole thing.
  • Father Brown: In "The Winds of Change", the murderer Peter Mossop killed his best friend Joe Tellford before murdering his wife Jennifer, because he knew that if suspicion fell on him following his wife's death, no one would believe that he would have killed his best friend.
  • Forensic Files: "Postal Mortem" and "Something's Fishy" both feature killers diverting attention from their main targets by killing additional people.
  • The Good Wife: "Breaking Fast" 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.
  • In the Red features a serial killer targeting bank managers. It turns out that he has a particular motive for the death of one specific bank manager, and all the other killings are just to disguise that connection.
  • In Highlander: The Series, Nicholas Ward is an English Immortal who likes to make money by marrying a wealthy heiress, murdering her, and disguising it as the work of a Serial Killer by murdering others in the same fashion.
  • Jake and the Fatman:
    • In "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", a serial killer who's targeting winos taunts McCabe with phone calls before each killing. However, his real target is his brother who is living on the streets, and the other murders and the calls to McCabe are theatrics designed to hide this fact.
    • After a journalist is dumped by her lover, she murders his wife and makes it look like the work of a Serial Killer in "More Than You Know".
  • Law & Order sometimes has these:
    • In the Law & Order: Criminal Intent episode "Poison", Trudy Pomeranski uses poisoned OTC painkillers to murder her husband and then plants them on store shelves so that she can sue the manufacturer while appearing to be just another grieving relative. This episode was inspired by the Tylenol murders.
    • In an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a man 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.
    • Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: In "Raw", a sniper shoots several children playing in their school's yard. One of the murdered children is the authentic target; the sniper shot the others intentionally to muddy the waters and make it seem like a random crime.
    • In one episode of the original series, a sniper kills four people across the city at apparent random. It turns out that one of the victims was targeted, and the other three were killed to create the illusion of a random spree.
  • Marcella: The series 1 killer is this. Henry Gibson only intended to kill Grace but covers it up by killing others to impersonate the plastic bag killer.
  • 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 in 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 single tamperer a la the Tylenol poisonings.
  • The Mentalist: In "Carnelian Inc.", a series of threats against the title corporation ends with one of the executives being murdered via Chute Sabotage. Later a second executive is shot. However, the second executive was always the real target, with the first murder being random to create the impression of a maniac with a grudge against the company.
  • Midsomer Murders: In "The Scarecrow Murders", Barnaby and Winter investigate a series of killings were the bodies of the victims are left dressed and posed as Scary Scarecrows. The idea of a Serial Killer is floated, but Barnaby points out there are too many inconsistencies; including that serial killers refine their technique as they progress, but all three murder methods in this case were radically different. It turns out to be a case of Everybody Did It with three different killers working together to take revenge on an online gambling company that ruined their lives, and used the scarecrow motif in the hope it would taken as the work of serial killer targeting people randomly.
  • In Monk, some of the murderers of the week attempt to do this:
    • "Mr. Monk and the 12th 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.
    • "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 fast 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.
    • "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'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.
    • Inverted in "Mr. Monk and the Voodoo Curse": 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 murdered as the others died in freak accidents (hit by a baseball or struck by lightning).
  • 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.
    • The murderer in "Dr Osler Regrets" poses as a serial killer euthanizing the over-sixties with chloroform. Further complicated by the killer copycatting a Suicide, Not Murder he had an alibi for.
  • In the NCIS episode "Designated Target", the killer targets black taxi drivers who immigrated to the US from Africa, with the intended target being a political refugee from an unnamed dictatorship. The team gets involved because a Rear Admiral was killed as well in one of the killings as collateral damage.
  • Painkiller Jane: A (mostly) non-lethal version of this occurs in "Trial by Fire." The only person that the Neuro was interested in killing was his own wife, so he set a bunch of victimless house fires before killing her by setting their own home on fire; fortunately for him, the blame for the fires ended up being placed on Connor.
  • Peter Gunn: "The Crossbow" centers around three seemingly random murders (an elderly recluse, a carnival fire-eater, and a judge) who were killed by a stolen crossbow. Suspicion falls on the weapon's owner, who was having problems with the judge concerning a possible property acquisition. However, a fourth murder happens while the owner is being detained by police. That death, along with forged checks found at the judge's murder scene, leads Gunn to the real killer - the judge's disillusioned son, who used the checks to support a gambling habit.
  • Poirot: "The ABC Murders" and "Three Act Tragedy" both feature a murderer deliberately targeting other people to conceal their true motivations for the one murder that actually mattered to them. (See Literature above).
  • The Professionals. In "Man Without A Past", The Mafia set off a bomb in a London restaurant, hoping the IRA will be blamed instead of their target who ironically was tipped off and never showed. Unfortunately Bodie took the intended victim's reservation for a date and is out for revenge after she gets seriously injured in the blast.
  • The Punisher (2017): It was hinted in Daredevil (2015) season 2 that Frank Castle had been specifically targeted by the people that killed his family. Here, when he catches up to Carson Wolf, the Special Agent in Charge of the DHS office for New York City, he tortures then tricks Wolf into revealing that the whole three-way gang shootout and the death of Frank's family were all staged to cover up the true motive.
    Frank Castle: What are you saying? You killed my family to get to me?
    Carson Wolf: Misdirection. A good player hides his hand, Frank. We figured if there were enough dead bodies, nobody would really care to look close enough at any given one of them. It was a calculated risk. You understand, right?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Streets of San Francisco: In "Legion of the Lost", Roy Richardson is a greedy businessman who seeks to ensure that the rightful heir of his boatyard corporation, Paul Thomas, never claims his inheritance. Knowing Paul is currently homeless and living among vagrants, Richardson has his hatchet man, Terry, go about beating homeless men to death over the course of several nights, leaving three bodies in his wake. Richardson then tries to have Paul himself beaten to death, hoping for it to look like just another serial killing, and Paul's best friend Jake is killed in the process.
  • The Spanish series Victim Number 8 revolves around one of these. The younger son of a wealthy businessman wants his brother dead so he can inherit his position (and his wife), but can't figure out a way to do it without arousing suspicion, so his accomplice (a corrupt intelligence agent) arranges to kidnap a random Muslim immigrant and fake a jihadist attack, with the brother among the victims.
  • 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.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • 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.

    Video Games 
  • 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. note 

    Visual Novels 

    Real Life 
  • 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 police would generally investigate a victim's ex-husband, he hoped to avoid scrutiny if she was thought to be the random victim of a serial killer.
  • 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, a document forger who made a fortune in the 1980s selling faked letters from early Mormon history, did an interesting variation. He was trying to sell a collection of rare documents, but his buyers were getting increasingly antsy and demanding he show it to them—unaware that there was no collection at all. The day Hofmann was supposed to deliver the collection, he killed one of the buyers with a homemade bomb. He sent another to the buyer's former business partner, killing the man's wife, in hopes of making people think the bombings were by a disgruntled ex-investor and were unrelated to the document deal. He nearly delivered a bomb to a third target, but we'll never know who it was because he detonated the bomb by mistake in his car, losing a few of his fingers in the blast.
  • Following the 1982 Chicago Tylenol murders, numerous copycat crimes popped up, with several having this specific trope in mind. One theory for the original Tylenol crimes is that a specific target was also intended but this was never proven.
    • One such copycat occurred 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 DC Sniper 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.
  • In 1955, United Air Lines Flight 629 was destroyed by a bomb in the cargo hold over Longmont, Colorado, killing all 44 people onboard. It was eventually determined that one of the passengers, Daisie Eldora King, had unwittingly brought the bomb onboard after her son, Jack Gilbert Graham, snuck it into her luggage. Graham had persuaded his mother to purchase a life insurance policy with him as the beneficiary just before she departed on the flight. Apparently, Graham believed that having his mother die in a mass murder would make investigators less likely to look at him as the prime suspect.
  • An Arizona woman named Julie Williams died after mysteriously collapsing at work, from what was later determined to be cyanide poisoning. It was later discovered that the water cooler and coffee pot at her workplace had been poisoned, meaning only sheer luck prevented a mass murder. The perpetrator turned out to be Lewis Harry Jr., a man who had been trying unsuccessfully to kill his wife for several months and, in frustration, decided to simply poison everyone in her office in the hopes that would work. He still didn't manage to kill his wife and ended up serving a life sentence for killing a complete stranger.
  • Some people have speculated that Jack the Ripper was Joseph Barnett, the boyfriend of the final canonical victim Mary Kelly, and the earlier murders were committed to make police assume it was a random maniac rather than someone close to her.