It was a billboard along Britain’s M6 motorway that first sparked criminologist David Wilson’s interest in hitmen. For a full week, during Wilson’s daily commute to his post at Birmingham City University, Agent 47, the star of the Hitman video game series, stared fixedly down at him.
“It was a fetishized image. He had a shaved head, he wore suits, he wore gloves. I thought, is this the reality of what hitmen look like? Here was I, one of the country’s leading experts on murder, and I thought, ‘Why don’t I do some research on that?’”
Wilson was inspired to turn his scholarly eye toward contract killing. It’s no exaggeration to say that Wilson is now the world’s leading expert on the life of a hitman. He’s fascinating to talk to, and his research applies the detached voice of academic study to pulpy, lurid details that could have been torn from the grimy pages of used crime novels. In “Becoming a Hitman,” a research paper for The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, Wilson and his partner Mohammed Rahman delved into four “classes” of hitman that had been identified by a previous researcher.
The classes sound like increasing ranks in a hierarchy, but they’re really more like four separate, parallel tracks: Novice, Dilettante, Veteran (or Journeyman, a name preferred by Wilson because it avoids the misleading military connotations of “Veteran”), and Master.
A Novice hitman is a trainee in a gang or organized crime, who kills to win favor with his peers. While this archetype, like all of them, was originally identified in the U.K., I spoke with some experts to shed light on American-style contract killing. Jack Garcia worked with the FBI for 26 years, many of which were undercover with the Gambino crime family. “A lot of people think that you have to kill somebody to get in the mob. That’s not true — that’s Hollywood,” he told me. There are many ways in which mobsters can prove themselves, and if a mafioso’s skills are better suited to something else, he won’t be asked to sully his hands with murder. But Garcia admitted that, if you bring nothing else to the table, “You could be called upon to kill somebody.” So, the Novice has its counterpart here as well.
While Novices kill to gain standing, Dilettantes are desperate souls: “They’ve gotten divorced, they’ve been made bankrupt, or they’re in debt, and they’d do anything for 3,000 quid,” said Wilson. “Somebody would say, ‘Well, I know somebody who’d be prepared to pay you if you [killed someone].”
Because Dilettantes aren’t career criminals, they don’t typically have access to guns in the U.K. Wilson said a Dilettante might use “a knife, a club, strangulation. Often the Novice would be very successful in carrying out the hit, but the Dilettante would be caught, and there was one case of a Dilettante’s intended target talking the Dilettante out of carrying out the hit.” A Dilettante is not a heartless killer, but an ordinary person driven to extraordinary measures.
By contrast, the Veteran or Journeyman is an experienced, reliable murderer who skillfully plans his missions. “In the mob, it’s all about being an ‘earner’ — a person who makes money,” said Jack Garcia. “But there are guys who don’t have that mental capacity — they’re dumb as a box of rocks. Guys who have no remorse. Sociopaths. They’re shooters.” It’s just that type of mentality that makes for a Journeyman hitman.
Finally, there’s the Master hitman. In my research, Master hitmen sounded like almost mythical figures, and the closest to the media’s glamorization of contract killers. “Obviously Agent 47 would be a Master hitman,” said David Wilson.
Wilson told me about Jimmy Moody, a real-life Master hitman with over 100 victims. Originally hired as an assassin for the Irish Republican Army, Moody’s motivations were not largely political, but personal. He had an affinity for murder that’s hard to imagine. He called his preferred method of killing — a gunshot at point-blank range to the back of the head — an “O.B.E.,” for “one behind the ear,” grisly wordplay on an acronym that traditionally stands for the official name for a British knighthood. Moody embraced a “hitman lifestyle” right down to the look. In “Becoming a Hitman,” David Wilson refers to an encounter Moody had with his wife, who returned home unexpectedly to find him “dressed head to toe in black — balaclava, shirt, jacket and his favourite highly polished monkey boots — standing directly in front of a full-length mirror hanging on the back of a bedroom door. Moody briefly looked up as his wife entered. ‘Hello, luv. Just tryin’ something out,’ he said.”
I asked Wilson how a man could commit murders well into the triple digits, have a wife and child, and never be caught, eventually meeting his end at the hands of another hitman. “Master hitmen escape detection,” Wilson replied. “I theorize that this is because they don’t live within the area in which the hit takes place, where there would be local intelligence that the police would be able to use to identify the perpetrator. They will often leave the gun at the murder site, because that gun can then never be connected back to them.”
George Dekle worked as a Florida Assistant State Attorney from 1975 through 2005, where he prosecuted murderers of all kinds, including Ted Bundy. He told me about Joe Salas, a Chicago building inspector who moonlighted as a hired killer. Salas was caught and convicted, and thus doesn’t fall neatly into the definition of the “uncatchable” Master hitman, but he shared some characteristics with Jimmy Moody that I found notable. Salas took joy in killing for its own sake, racking up victims seemingly as much for gratification as for money. He kept his life in Chicago but traveled all around the nation to commit murder, before he was ultimately apprehended in Florida. And, chillingly, Dekle told me Salas favored “a large-caliber handgun, placed at the back of the head, behind the ear.”
The four categories of hitman described by Wilson may seem almost too cut-and-dried to be perfectly accurate, and I suspect the boundaries between them may, in reality, overlap a little more than the research claims. But one thing those categories do well is portray, in broad strokes, the basic motivations for hired murder. Some, like gaining standing in a group, or desperately scraping together a few dollars to survive, will seem familiar to many people. Others, like killing for the love of it — because it gives you, in Wilson’s words, “the joy of transgression” — seem so alien that these motivations have to be attributable to deep psychological disorders.
Wilson told me about the fundamental question underpinning his work: “As a young man who played rugby, in which I was often required to be violent, why was my behavior regarded as aspirational? Why did people look up to me and give me plaudits, when exactly the same behavior, in the streets of Cambridge as opposed to the University of Cambridge, would lead to prison?” Thinking about the ability to apply the “right kinds” of violence in the “right kinds” of contexts led Wilson to a storied career as a wildly successful, internationally respected academic. Without that ability — or without the capacity to care about the context of his violence — he could have gone down a very different road indeed. A road of brutality and blood, far away from Birmingham City University and the M6 motorway, where Agent 47 once glowered at passing drivers with a cool, impenetrable gaze.
Tony Carnevale is a senior writer for Studio@Gawker.
Illustration by Jake Inferrera.