Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Murder Project

July 28th, 2009 · 12 Comments

While scouring some FBI press releases last week, we came across this semi-comical gem from the Chicago field office. It announces the arrest of a Indiana tandem who stand accused of trying to arrange a contract killing. Note the details of their proposed payment for this risky task:

FRIEDBURG and ALEXANDER were both charged in a criminal complaint filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Chicago with one count each of Conspiracy to use Interstate Commerce Facilities in the Commission of Murder-for-Hire, which is a felony offense. According to the complaint, FRIEDBURG approached a former co-worker, asking for their assistance in finding someone to kill her ex-boyfriend, who was the father of one of her children. The complaint further alleges that FRIEDBURG wanted her former boyfriend murdered as he was seeking to gain custody of the child that he fathered and that she wanted his death to look like an accident.

The former co-worker cooperated with the FBI and arranged for the introduction of an FBI undercover Special Agent (UCSA) to FRIEDBURG, who posed as a potential “hit man.” During subsequent conversations with the UCSA, FRIEDBURG provided essentially the same reason for wanting her former boyfriend killed and offered him $200 cash and an above-ground swimming pool as payment for the murder.

Our initial reaction was to chortle at the “fee”—is life really that cheap in New Carlisle? (Any Microkhan readers out there who can fill us in, perchance?) But on further reflection, we came to realize there was something worthy of study here—specifically the going rate for murders-for-hire in America today, and how it compares to both historical and international rates.

Believe it or not, our interest isn’t strictly prurient. We actually think such data can tell us something about the state of law enforcement in U.S., since murder-for-hire fees must obviously correlate with the degree of risk involved—the higher the likelihood of capture, the higher the fee. We’re also interested in how much prices range, depending on the desperation of the hired gun and the nature of the target—for example, do targets with higher incomes attract killers with higher fees?

And so we’re proud to announce the launch of The Murder Project, our second Microkhan series (the first being the semi-regular First Contact feature). We’ll be keeping an eye out for stories and studies regarding the murder-for-hire market, with the intent of establishing a reliable estimate of how much contract killings go for nowadays. In addition, we’ll be digging up prices from the olden days, as well data about fees in foreign lands.

We’ll start today with a slam dunk, courtesy of Microkhan ally Nina Shen Rastogi over at Slate. Her February “Explainer” column on the topic is a great place to start, especially this kicker factoid about an Australian study from 2004:

A few years ago, the Australian Institute of Criminology and South Australia’s major crime-investigation branch studied 163 attempted and actual contract killings between 1989 and 2002. The average rate received was 12,700 Australian dollars, or about $8,254. The lowest was 380 AUD (about $250), and the highest was 76,000 AUD (about $49,400).

We’ll have more later this week, as we plow through 108 FBI press releases about murder-for-hire arrests since 2007. Stay tuned.

(Photo above: Murder Inc. impresario Louis Buchalter on his way to court, 1941)


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12 Comments so far ↓

  • Brian Moore

    I think there might be some confounding factors in the cost estimation.

    “We actually think such data can tell us something about the state of law enforcement in U.S., since murder-for-hire fees must obviously correlate with the degree of risk involved—the higher the likelihood of capture, the higher the fee.”

    It seems like once law enforcement efficacy hits a certain level (i.e. pushing the cost high enough), it drives the contract killing market to two equilibria: the down-market killing, like the example you link above. Cheap, unlikely to be successful, and very likely to get caught, as these two were. This is less a market and more “things that stupid and immoral people do.”

    But then there’s luxury market. Expensive, discreet, likely to work — and then the key: unlikely to be caught. Perhaps also, unlikely to be identified even as a killing, or if it is, as a contract killing by authorities. But these features make it hard to track these events, much less determine their price level.

    The best method here might be an insider — some high price hit man who happened to get caught, or decided to come clean for some other reason, and would be willing to reveal trade secrets.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Brian Moore: Excellent points. I’ll actually be addressing some of these problems in future posts, starting later this week.

    In going through the FBI press releases, I’m struck by what a large percentage involve undercover agents. The thing about these operations is that the agents are specifically told NOT to negotiate the prices, as that could lead to entrapment claims. So they just take whatever the first offer is, and it’s usually lowball. ($200 and an above-ground swimming pool?!?!)

    There are some “luxury market” cases to sift through, though, and the prices I’ve come across there are obv. a lot higher. (Just now reading a case in which $300k changed hands, albeit to two hitmen.)

  • Brian Moore

    Though, within societies that seem to have police with less ability (desire?) to prevent such contract killings, we might be able to get better data. Such as Russia, where people (especially journalists who criticize the government) are kidnapped and killed with alarming frequency.

    Though the frequency might also be a problem, since I assume if you are an evil Russian overlord who has a high demand for killing people who defy you, (I will hypothetically name you Pladimir Vutin) then perhaps you retain a specific set of people to do this type of work for you — and perhaps other tasks as well, such as security or “protection services.” This is then less contract killing and more murder employment. There are secondary benefits from this: they are kept closer and therefore hopefully more loyal, and perhaps they are ideologically motivated to work for less, do a better job, or not implicate their boss if arrested.

    These individuals start to look more like soldiers than contract killers. Once we establish a “human life price” from the data — the 12,700 dollar average from Australia works, it might be interesting to compare that to the pay rates of professional soldiers (both mercenaries and national soldiers who receive pay, rather than being conscripted) vs. wartime enemy casualty rates. Are governments getting a good value for their money?

  • Brian Moore

    Hey, maybe it was a really nice swimming pool. That is a good point about the negotiations too, because, for example, we might not accept an analysis of the used-car market where the first offer was accepted each time — one would imagine that would skew average prices downwards.

    I vaguely remember a post at marginalrevolution.com a few years back where they asked “why aren’t there more contract killings of CEO’s?” based on the ideas of: competitor CEO’s think other CEO’s are important to their competitor’s business (because they think they are), the relatively low cost of having someone killed vs. the immense gain from defeating a rival in the market.

  • Brian Moore

    Argh, it’s because it was at Overcoming Bias not marginal revolution:


  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Brian Moore: Thanks a million for digging up the Overcoming Bias post.

    I think the third commenter nails it with his/her third point: The risk/reward ratio just doesn’t make sense. Contrary to what Hollywood says, I just don’t think there’s this huge pool of cover super-assassins working in the private sector. (Think of the two guys who off the bipolar lawyer in Michael Clayton.) And even if there were, all you need is one person in the chain of command to crack and betray the scheme, and your whole corporation goes down forever. (I’m skeptical as to whether you could order such a hit without having, say, at least half-a-dozen people knowing. And that’s a ton of potentially loose lips.)

    Fascinating question re: the notion of “value” here. I’ll have to think about that one.

  • Brian Moore

    Yeah, it was actually kind of funny, when I found the link, I found that I had commented on it way back when I saw it originally, saying much the same that you did — the risk/reward is out of whack.

    “(I’m skeptical as to whether you could order such a hit without having, say, at least half-a-dozen people knowing. And that’s a ton of potentially loose lips.)”

    Definitely — and if you didn’t involve any underlings, I don’t imagine most CEO’s would have the cultural connections to find contract killers — they would seem very narc-esque if you started asked around.

    “Contrary to what Hollywood says, I just don’t think there’s this huge pool of cover super-assassins working in the private sector. ”

    Stop wrecking my dreams!

  • Jonathan Witmer-Rich

    Yeah, cases where the hitman is actually an FBI agent have to be factored out entirely, b/c those are not examples of a market transaction that balance the risk/reward of doing a hit. It’s not a “lower-class” market; it’s no market at all. The FBI agent is only interested in getting an agreement that can then be prosecuted.

    For example, I’m defending a case where the FBI agent agreed to do the hit in exchange for $100 in gas money. That was just enough to convict (we’ll see if the court of appeals agrees), but it says nothing about the market price for a real hit.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jonathan: Thanks for the insider comment.

    This is the big challenge in my preliminary research–weeding out the cases in which an undercover was involved in the transaction. Based on my early go-through of the FBI releases, I’d say such cases account for 75 percent of federal murder-for-hire prosecutions.

    There have also been a few total outliers, like the $300k job mentioned above, as well as some hits in which the triggerman was obviously just doing it for drug money (and thus settled for under $1,000).

    Getting those out of the way, though, I’ve been surprised at some of the consistency in the fees. I’ll be posting more about this later in the week–hope you keep reading.

  • Jonathan Witmer-Rich

    Yeah, I would think a very high percentage of murder-for-hire (esp. federal) prosecutions involve an FBI agent as “hitman.” Those cases are easy to indict b/c they tend to be very easy to prove — all of the communications with the “hitman” are recorded/videotaped.

    In contrast, even when a captured killer confesses to cops that he is actually a hitman and tries to rat out the guy who hired him, good evidence — beyond the word of a murderer trying to catch a break — can be much harder to come by.

    The same is true in internet child sex cases, where some dude tries to hook up with a mom pimping her 5-year-old daughter on the web. As it turns out, there are not that many moms on the web looking to find some dude to have sex with her and her young, young daughter. Those moms are almost invariably FBI agents.

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