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Prologue

I Must Be in Hell

I must be in hell.

It was the only logical explanation. I was tied down and naked. The pain was unbearable. My arms and legs were being lacerated by some kind of blade. Every orifice of my body had been penetrated. I was choking and gagging from something shoved down my throat. Sharp objects had been stuck in my penis and rectum and felt like they were tearing me apart. I was bathed in sweat. Then I realized what was happening: I was being tortured to death by all the killers and rapists and child molesters I’d put away in my career. Now I was the victim and I couldn’t fight back.

I knew the way these guys operated; I’d seen it over and over again. They had a need to manipulate and dominate their prey. They wanted to be able to decide whether or not their victim should live or die, or how the victim should die. They’d keep me alive as long as my body would hold out, reviving me when I passed out or was close to death, always inflicting as much pain and suffering as possible. Some of them could go on for days like that.

They wanted to show me they were in total control, that I was completely at their mercy. The more I cried out, the more I begged for relief, the more I would fuel and energize their dark fantasies. If I would plead for my life or regress or call out for my mommy or daddy, that would really get them off.

This was my payback for six years of hunting the worst men on earth.

My heart was racing, I was burning up. I felt a horrible jab as they inched the sharp stick even farther up my penis. My entire body convulsed in agony.

Please, God, if I’m still alive, let me die quickly. And if I’m dead, deliver me quickly from the tortures of hell.

Then I saw an intense, bright white light, just like I’d heard about people seeing at the moment of death. I expected to see Christ or angels or the devil—I’d heard about that, too. But all I saw was that bright white light.

But I did hear a voice—a comforting, reassuring voice, the most calming sound I’d ever heard.

“John, don’t worry. We’re trying to make it all better.”

That was the last thing I remembered.

“John, do you hear me? Don’t worry. Take it easy. You’re in the hospital. You’re very sick, but we’re trying to make you better,” was what the nurse actually said to me. She had no idea whether or not I could hear her, but she kept repeating it, soothingly, over and over again.

Though I had no idea at the time, I was in the intensive care unit of Swedish Hospital in Seattle, in a coma, on life support. My arms and legs were strapped down. Tubes, hoses, and intravenous lines penetrated my body. I was not expected to live. It was early December of 1983, and I was thirty-eight years of age.

The story begins three weeks earlier, on the other side of the country. I was up in New York, speaking on criminal-personality profiling before an audience of about 350 members of the NYPD, the Transit Police, and the Nassau and Suffolk County, Long Island, Police Departments. I’d given this speech hundreds of times and could just about do the whole thing on autopilot.

All of a sudden, my mind started to wander. I was aware I was still talking, but I’d broken out in a cold sweat and I was saying to myself, How in hell am I going to handle all these cases? I was just finishing up with the Wayne Williams child-killing case in Atlanta and Buffalo’s “.22-Calibre” race murders. I had been called in to the “Trailside Killer” case in San Francisco. I was consulting with Scotland Yard on the “Yorkshire Ripper” investigation in England. I was going back and forth to Alaska, working on the Robert Hansen case, in which an Anchorage baker was picking up prostitutes, flying them out into the wilderness, and hunting them down. I had a serial arsonist targeting synagogues in Hartford, Connecticut. And I had to fly out to Seattle the week after next to advise the Green River Task Force in what was shaping up as one of the largest serial murders in American history, the killer preying mainly on prostitutes and transients in the Seattle-Tacoma corridor.

For the past six years, I had been developing a new approach to crime analysis, and I was the only one in the Behavioral Science Unit working cases full-time. Everyone else in the unit was primarily an instructor. I was handling about 150 active cases at a time with no backup, and I was on the road from my office at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, about 125 days a year. The pressure was tremendous from local cops, who themselves were under tremendous pressure to solve cases, from the community, and from the families of victims, for whom I always had enormous empathy. I kept trying to prioritize my workload, but new requests kept pouring in daily. My associates at Quantico often said I was like a male whore: I couldn’t say no to my clients.

During the New York speech, I continued talking about criminal-personality types, but my mind kept wandering back to Seattle. I knew that not everyone on the task force wanted me there, that was par for the course. As in every major case for which I was called in to provide a new service that most cops and many Bureau officials still considered one step removed from witchcraft, I knew I’d have to “sell” them. I had to be persuasive without being overconfident or cocky. I had to let them know I thought they’d done a thorough, professional job while still trying to convince the skeptics the FBI might be able to help. And perhaps most daunting, unlike the traditional FBI agent who dealt with “Just the facts, ma’am,” my job required me to deal in opinions. I lived with the constant knowledge that if I was wrong, I could throw a serial investigation far off the mark and get additional people killed. Just as bad, it would hammer the lid on the new program of criminal-personality profiling and crime analysis I was struggling to get off the ground.

Then there was the traveling itself. I had already been to Alaska on several occasions, crossing four time zones, connecting to a white-knuckle flight close to the water and landing in darkness, and practically as soon as I got there and met with the local police, I would get back on the plane and fly down to Seattle.

The free-floating anxiety attack lasted maybe a minute. I kept saying to myself, Hey, Douglas, regroup. Get a grip on yourself. And I was able to do it. I don’t think anyone in that room knew anything was wrong. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something tragic was going to happen to me.

I couldn’t shake this premonition, and when I got back to Quantico, I went to the personnel office and took out additional life insurance and income-protection insurance in case I became disabled. I can’t say exactly why I did this, except for that vague but powerful feeling of dread. I was physically run-down; I was exercising too much and probably drinking more than I should have been to cope with the stress. I was having difficulty sleeping, and when I did fall asleep, often I’d be awakened by a call from someone needing my instant help. When I would go back to sleep, I’d try to force myself to dream about the case in hopes that that would lead me to some insight about it. It’s easy enough in retrospect to see where I was headed, but at the time there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it.

Just before I left for the airport, something made me stop off at the elementary school where my wife, Pam, taught reading to learning disabled students, to tell her about the extra insurance.

“Why are you telling me this?” she asked, very concerned. I had a wicked headache on the right side and she said my eyes were bloodshot and strange-looking.

“I just wanted you to know about everything before I left,” I replied. At that time, we had two young daughters. Erika was eight and Lauren was three.

For the trip to Seattle, I brought along two new special agents, Blaine McIlwain and Ron Walker, to break them in on the case. We arrived in Seattle that night and checked into the Hilton Hotel downtown. As I was unpacking, I noticed I had only one black shoe. Either I hadn’t packed the other one or somehow I’d lost it along the way. I would be making a presentation to the King County Police Department the next morning, and I decided I couldn’t go on without my black shoes. I have always been something of a flashy dresser, and in my fatigue and stress, I became obsessed with having black shoes to wear with my suit. So I tore out into the downtown streets, rushed around until I found an open shoe store, and came back to the hotel, even more exhausted, with a suitable pair of black shoes.

The next morning, a Wednesday, I made my presentation to the police and a team that included Port of Seattle representatives and two local psychologists who had been brought in to help with the investigation. Everyone was interested in my profile of the killer, whether there could be more than one offender, and what type of individual he, or they, might be. I tried to get across the point that in this type of case, the profile wouldn’t be all that important. I was pretty sure of what kind of guy the killer would turn out to be, but just as sure there’d be a lot of guys who would easily fit the description.

More important in this ongoing cycle of murders, I told them, was to begin going proactive, using police efforts and the media to try to lure the guy into a trap. For example, I suggested the police might set up a series of community meetings to “discuss” the crimes. I was reasonably certain the killer would show up at one or more of these. I also thought it would help answer the question of whether we were dealing with more than one offender. Another ploy I wanted the police to try was to announce to the press that there had been witnesses to one of the abductions. I felt that might draw out the killer to take his own “proactive strategy” and come forward to explain why he might have been innocently seen in the vicinity. The one thing of which I felt most certain was that whoever was behind these kills wasn’t going to burn out.

I then gave the team advice on how to interrogate potential subjects—both those they generated on their own and the many sad crazies who inevitably come forward in a high-profile case. McIlwain, Walker, and I spent the rest of the day touring body dump sites, and by the time we got back to the hotel that evening, I was wiped out.

Over drinks at the hotel bar, where we were trying to unwind from the day, I told Blaine and Ron I wasn’t feeling well. I still had the headache, thought I might be coming down with the flu, and asked them to cover for me with the police the next day. I thought I might feel better if I spent the next day in bed, so when we said good night, I put the Do Not Disturb sign on my door and told my two associates I’d rejoin them Friday morning.

All I remember is feeling terrible, sitting on the side of the bed and beginning to undress. My two fellow agents went back to the King County Courthouse on Thursday to follow up on the strategies I had outlined the day before. As I’d requested, they left me alone all day to try to sleep off my flu.

But when I didn’t show up for breakfast on Friday morning, they began to get concerned. They called my room. There was no answer. They went to the room and knocked on the door. Nothing.

Alarmed, they went back to the front desk and demanded a key from the manager. They came back upstairs and unlocked the door, only to find the security chain on. But they also heard faint moaning from inside the room.

They kicked in the door and rushed inside. They found me on the floor in what they described as a “froglike” position, partially dressed, apparently trying to reach the telephone. The left side of my body was convulsing, and Blaine said I was “burning up.”

The hotel called Swedish Hospital, which immediately dispatched an ambulance. In the meantime, Blaine and Ron stayed on the phone with the emergency room, giving them my vitals. My temperature was 107 degrees, my pulse, 220. My left side was paralyzed, and in the ambulance I continued having seizures. The medical report described me with “doll’s eyes”—open, fixed, and unfocused.

As soon as we arrived at the hospital, they packed me in ice and began massive intravenous doses of phenobarbital in an attempt to control the seizures. The doctor told Blaine and Ron he could practically have put the entire city of Seattle to sleep with what they were giving me.

He also told the two agents that despite everyone’s best efforts, I was probably going to die. A CAT scan showed the right side of my brain had ruptured and hemorrhaged from the high fever.

“In layman’s terms,” the doctor told them, “his brain has been fried to a crisp.”

It was December 2, 1983. My new insurance had become active the day before.

My unit chief, Roger Depue, went to Pam’s school to give her the news in person. Then she and my father, Jack, flew out to Seattle to be with me, leaving the girls with my mother, Dolores. Two agents from the FBI’s Seattle Field Office, Rick Mathers and John Biner, picked them up at the airport and brought them straight to the hospital. That’s when they knew how serious it was. The doctors tried to prepare Pam for my death and told her that even if I lived, I’d probably be blind and vegetative. Being a Catholic, she called in a priest to give me last rites, but when he found out I was Presbyterian, he refused. So Blaine and Ron gave him the hook and found another priest who didn’t seem to have these hang-ups. They asked him to come pray for me.

I hovered in the coma between life and death all week. The rules of the intensive care unit allowed only family members to visit, so my Quantico colleagues and Rick Mathers and others from the Seattle Field Office suddenly became close relatives. “You’ve certainly got a big family,” one of the nurses commented wryly to Pam.

The idea of the “big family” wasn’t a complete joke in one sense. Back at Quantico, a number of my colleagues, led by Bill Hagmaier of the Behavioral Science Unit and Tom Columbell of the National Academy, took up a collection so that Pam and my dad could stay out in Seattle with me. Before long, they’d taken in contributions from police officers from all over the country. At the same time, arrangements were being made to fly my body back to Virginia for burial in the military cemetery at Quantico.

Toward the end of the first week, Pam, my father, the agents, and the priest formed a circle around my bed, joined hands, and took my hands in theirs and prayed over me. Late that night, I came out of the coma.

I remember being surprised to see Pam and my father and being confused about where I was. Initially, I couldn’t talk; the left half of my face drooped and I still had extensive paralysis on my left side. As my speech came back, it was slurred at first. After a while I found I could move my leg, then gradually, more movement returned. My throat was painfully sore from the life-support tube. I was switched from phenobarbital to Dilantin to control the seizures. And after all the tests and scans and spinal taps, they finally offered a clinical diagnosis: viral encephalitis brought on or complicated by stress and my generally weakened and vulnerable condition. I was lucky to be alive.

But the recovery was painful and discouraging. I had to learn to walk again. I was having memory problems. To help me remember the name of my primary physician, Siegal, Pam brought in for me a figurine of a seagull made of shells and sitting on a cork base. The next time the doctor came to give me a mental status exam and asked if I remembered his name, I slurred, “Sure, Dr. Seagull.” Despite the wonderful support I was getting, I was tremendously frustrated with the rehabilitation. I’d never been able to sit around or take things slow. FBI director William Webster called to encourage me. I told him I didn’t think I could shoot anymore.

“Don’t worry about that, John,” the director replied. “We want you for your mind.” I didn’t tell him I was afraid there wasn’t much of that left, either.

I finally left Swedish Hospital and came home two days before Christmas. Before leaving, I presented the emergency room and ICU staffs with plaques expressing my profound gratitude for all they had done to save my life.

Roger Depue picked us up at Dulles Airport and drove us to our house in Fredericksburg, where an American flag and a huge “Welcome Home, John” sign were waiting. I had dropped from my normal 195 to 160 pounds. My kids, Erika and Lauren, were so upset by my appearance and the fact that I was in a wheelchair that for a long time afterward, they were afraid every time I went away on a trip.

Christmas was pretty melancholy. I didn’t see many friends; only Ron Walker, Blaine McIlwain, Bill Hagmaier, and another agent from Quantico, Jim Horn. I was out of the wheelchair, but moving around was still difficult. I had trouble carrying on a conversation. I found I cried easily and couldn’t count on my memory. When Pam or my dad would drive me around Fredericksburg, I’d notice a particular building and not know if it was new. I felt like a stroke victim and wondered if I’d ever be able to work again.

I was also bitter at the Bureau for what they’d put me through. The previous February, I’d spoken with an assistant director, Jim McKenzie. I told him I didn’t think I could keep up the pace and asked him if he could get me some people to help out.

McKenzie was sympathetic but realistic. “You know this organization,” he’d said to me. “You have to do something until you drop before anyone will recognize it.”

Not only did I feel I wasn’t getting support, I felt I wasn’t getting any appreciation, either. Quite the contrary, in fact. The previous year, after working my butt off in the Atlanta “Child Murders” case, I was officially censured by the Bureau for a story that appeared in a newspaper in Newport News, Virginia, just after Wayne Williams was apprehended. The reporter asked me what I thought of Williams as a suspect, and I replied that he looked “good,” and that if he panned out, he’d probably be good for at least several of the cases.

Even though the FBI had asked me to do the interview, they said I was speaking inappropriately about a pending case. They claimed I’d been warned before doing a People magazine interview a couple of months before. It was typical of government bureaucracy. I was hauled up before the Office of Professional Responsibility at headquarters in Washington, and after six months of bureaucratic tap dancing, I got a letter of censure. Later, I would get a letter of commendation for the case. But at the time, this was the recognition from the Bureau for helping crack what the press was then calling the “crime of the century.” So much of what a law enforcement officer does is difficult to share with anyone, even a spouse. When you spend your days looking at dead and mutilated bodies, particularly when they’re children, it’s not the kind of thing you want to bring home with you. You can’t say over the dinner table, “I had a fascinating lust murder today. Let me tell you about it.” That’s why you so often see cops drawn to nurses and vice versa—people who can relate in some way to each other’s work.

And yet often when I was out in the park or the woods, say, with my own little girls, I’d see something and think to myself, That’s just like the such-and-such scene, where we found the eight-year-old. As fearful as I was for their safety, seeing the things I saw, I also found it difficult to get emotionally involved in the minor, but important, scrapes and hurts of childhood. When I would come home and Pam would tell me that one of the girls had fallen off her bike and needed stitches, I’d flash to the autopsy of some child her age and think of all the stitches it had taken the medical examiner to close her wounds for burial.

Pam had her own circle of friends who were involved with local politics, which didn’t interest me at all. And with my travel schedule, she ended up with the lion’s share of responsibility for raising the children, paying the bills, and running the house. This was one of the many problems with the marriage at the time, and I know that at least our oldest, Erika, was aware of the tension.

I couldn’t shake my resentment at the Bureau organization for letting this happen to me. About a month after I returned home, I was out burning leaves in the backyard. On an impulse, I went in, collected all the copies of profiles I had in the house, all the articles I’d written, carried them outside, and threw them all onto the fire. It felt like a catharsis, just getting rid of all of this stuff.

Some weeks after that, when I could drive again, I went to Quantico National Cemetery to see where I would have been buried. Graves are positioned by date of death, and if I had died on December 1 or 2, I would have gotten a lousy site. I noticed it happened to be near that of a young girl who had been stabbed to death on her driveway not far from where I lived. I’d worked on her case and the murder was still unsolved. As I stood there ruminating, I recalled how many times I’d advised police to surveil grave sites when I thought the killer might visit, and how ironic it would be if they were watching here and picked me up as a suspect.

Four months after my collapse in Seattle, I was still out on sick leave. I’d developed blood clots in my legs and lungs as a complication of the illness and so much time in bed, and I still felt as if I was struggling to get through every day. I still didn’t know if I’d physically be able to work again and didn’t know if I’d have the confidence even if I could. In the meantime, Roy Hazelwood, from the instructional side of the Behavioral Science Unit, was doubling up and had taken on the burden of handling my ongoing cases.

I made my first visit back to Quantico in April of 1984 to address an in-service group of about fifty profilers from FBI field offices. I stepped into the classroom, wearing slippers because my feet were still swollen from blood clots, and got a standing ovation from these agents from all over the country. The reaction was spontaneous and genuine from the people who, better than anyone, understood what I did and what I was trying to institute within the Bureau. And for the first time in many months, I felt cherished and appreciated. I also felt as if I had come home.

I went back to work full-time a month later.

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