Credit: Illustration by Slug Signorino

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I’ve always wondered—has anyone tried to estimate how many people are getting whacked each year, and how much are people paying for it to be done? I’m currently employed, but it’s always nice to keep your options open. —Dennis H.

The epistemological problem with questions like this is that successful contract killers don’t advertise, post about it on Facebook, or get caught. Our knowledge of the trade derives largely from incompetent contract killers, defined as those attracting the attention of the law. We also find the occasional mob bio or how-to manual, but these tend to be dubious, anecdotal, or both. Not to worry; we’re professionals. Boldly ignoring the occasional qualm about comparing apples with other fruit, we came up with the following plausible estimate of U.S. contract murders in a year.

In 2010 the federal government opened investigations of 958 murder suspects. In the same year 31 people were charged with violating chapter 18, section 1958 of the U.S. code, “Use of interstate commerce facilities in the commission of murder-for-hire.” Using these two figures we get a rough murder-for-hire rate of 3.2 percent.

The total number of U.S. murders in 2010 was 12,996. If we assume 3.2 percent of these crimes were committed on a commercial basis, we get 416 contract hits. That sounds like a lot. However, let’s inquire further.

One of the better recent studies on contract killings was conducted in Australia, where an estimated 2 percent of all murders are for hire. Over a three-year period there were 69 contract killings and 94 attempted killings. A more recent Australian study concentrated on homicides in the state of Victoria, examining 208 homicides over a seven-year period. Four percent of all offenders in the study were involved in murder for hire, double the number who committed gang-related killings. We notice murder for hire seems to occur at roughly the same rate in Australia as in the States.

Hit-man mythology tends to focus on the mob, but the evidence suggests most contract killings are carried out by small-time freelancers hired by schlubs. In Australia nearly a fifth of all successful contracts were driven by a bad romantic relationship. In about 16 percent of cases, the root issue was money. Least common is the professional contract killing. In Australia, less than a quarter of hits were related to organized crime.

The first Australian study found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that contract killers strongly tend to be men between 25 and 49 years old, typically unmarried. Firearms are the most common weapon, as one might also expect—though in the U.S., Murder Incorporated, a loose confederation of killers for hire employed as enforcers by the mob in the 1930s and ’40s, were known for using an ice pick.

Costs vary: In Australia, contract offers ranged from $500 to $100,000, with an average of $16,500. One undercover investigator, hired as a hit man more than 60 times in 20 years, lists his largest proposed payoff as $200,000 in jewels (and that was just the down payment) and his stingiest as “seven Atari computer games, three dollar bills, and $2.30 in nickels and dimes.”

Genuine professional killers are a scary group. The Murder Incorporated goons allegedly carried out 400 to 1,000 contract killings in their day. One researcher examined the career of a veteran hit man allegedly responsible for more than 100 contract killings over 30 years and found not only that he meticulously planned each murder but also that he studied innovative ways to kill, such as spraying cyanide in the victim’s face or putting the body in an industrial refrigerator to conceal the time of death.

But that kind of dedication is rare. Most reported attempts at contract killing reek of amateurism:

  • An Idaho man paid a contract killer $10,000 in silver coins to rig his wife’s car with a pipe bomb in hopes of killing both his wife and mother-in-law.
  • A former Roman Catholic priest was sentenced to 60 years in prison for trying to hire his neighbor’s brother to murder a man who’d accused him of sexual abuse.
  • An inept contract killer in England made the news recently when he missed his first target, hit but didn’t kill his second, and the third time around shot the wrong guy.

Some of the highest-profile hits nowadays happen in Russia, where the rise of wild-west capitalism has led to a boom in contract killings, with victims including politicians, editors and journalists, businessmen, even poets. However, I found no evidence anyone had ever put out a hit on a street mime, proving again there’s no justice in the world.

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