2016 was a big year for media coverage of contract killings.
The year started with the murder of Joseph Acquaro, the criminal defence lawyer for Melbourne crime boss Rocco Arico. More recently, crime figure Pasquale Barbaro lost his life in an execution-style killing.
These events feed sensationalist journalism of gangland wars headed by powerful figures who use sophisticated methods to dispose of their rivals. However, a closer analysis of the prevalence and methods of contract killings paint a very different picture.
A study by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) found that contract killings accounted for just 2% of murders in Australia.
This is considerably lower than the 3.2% of killings in the United States.
Significantly, most of the contract killings covered by the AIC study were not in the ‘gangland’ context – the vast majority related to the dissolution of a domestic relationship.
The situation was found to be similar in the US, with most contract killings being organised by current or former domestic partners.
Research suggests that the services of a contract killer are typically sought by a current or former intimate partner as a response to, or to prevent, the victim pursuing a relationship with someone else.
Other cases involved a partner inciting or soliciting a contract killer to eliminate their current partner in order make it easier to be with their new partner. These cases also often involved a financial motivation – such as receiving a life insurance payment or access to the deceased’s estate.
The media reported that Joe Acquaro was aware in 2015 that a $200,000 murder contract had been taken out on him. It was further reported that the figure had doubled by the time of his death.
However, the AIC study found that the average payment for a “hit” was $15,000, with the vast majority falling between the price range of $5,000 to $50,000.
Three-quarters of the hits were for an amount of less than $20,000, and most (54%) were for between $5,000 and $10,000.
The finding that contract killings are for a lot less than many might believe is supported by Samuel Cameron, an economics professor at the University of Bradford in England. His article, titled Killing for Money and the Economic Theory of Crime, suggests that most contract killings offer little financial gain. Cameron found that most contracts were for the low thousands of pounds, with some as low as £200 to £800.
Consistent with US and Australian studies, Professor Cameron found most contract killings in the UK were sparked by the breakdown of a personal relationship, or the opportunity to gain an inheritance.
“They will do it for less money because of their attachment to the person,” Professor Cameron concluded. “The money’s a token. It’s like somebody saying they’ll come round and help you plaster your house or renovate your basement. And you say, “Take something… Here’s £500” – it’s that.”
The studies suggest that media portrayals of contract killings as prevalent, connected with organised crime and expensive are inconsistent with the facts, both here in Australia and in other western countries such as the US and UK.