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Battle of the Shrinks
What kind of person could have done such a thing?
During our serial-killer study, Bob Ressler and I were in Joliet, Illinois, where we’d just interviewed Richard Speck. I was back in my hotel room that evening and was watching CBS news when I saw Dan Rather interviewing another killer, named Thomas Vanda, who also happened to be incarcerated at Joliet Penitentiary. Vanda was in for killing a woman through multiple stab wounds. He’d been in and out of mental institutions for much of his life, and every time he’d been “cured” and let out, he would commit another crime. Before the murder for which he was now doing time, he’d killed once before.
I called Ressler and said we had to talk to him while we were here. From the televised interview, I could tell he was the perfect inadequate type. He could as easily have been an arsonist as a killer. Or, if he had the tools and skills, he could have been a bomber.
We went back to the prison the next day and Vanda agreed to see us. He was curious as to what we were doing there, and he didn’t get many visitors. Before the interview, we went over his file.
Vanda was white, about five foot nine, and in his mid-twenties. He had a soft, inappropriate affect and smiled a lot. Even while smiling, he still had “the look”—eyes darting back and forth all the time, nervous twitches, hand-rubbing. You wouldn’t comfortably turn your back on this guy. The first thing he wanted to know was how I thought he looked on TV. When I told him he looked good, he laughed and loosened up. Among the things he told us was that he had joined a Bible study group in prison and thought it had helped him a lot. It may very well have. But I’ve seen a lot of inmates nearing parole-board appearances join religious groups to show they’re on the right path to be released.
You could argue about whether this guy belonged in a maximum security prison or a secure mental hospital, but after the interview, I went to see the staff psychiatrist who treated him. I asked him how Vanda was doing.
The psychiatrist, who was around fifty, gave me a positive response, saying Vanda was “responding very nicely to medication and therapy.” The psychiatrist mentioned the Bible study group as one example and said Vanda could be ready for parole if this progress continued.
I asked him if he knew the specifics of what Vanda had done. “No, I don’t want to know,” he replied. “I don’t have the time, with all the inmates I have to deal with here.” And, he added, he didn’t want to unfairly influence his relationship with the patient.
“Well, Doctor, let me tell you what Thomas Vanda did,” I insist. Before he can protest, I went on to relate how this asocial, loner-type personality joins a church group, and how, after a meeting when everyone else is gone, he propositions the young woman who hosted the meeting. She turns him down and Vanda doesn’t take the rejection real well. Guys like that generally don’t. He knocks her down, goes to her kitchen, comes back with a knife, and stabs her numerous times. Then, as she’s on the floor dying, he inserts his penis into an open wound in her abdomen and ejaculates.
I’ve got to say, I find this amazing. She’s like a rag doll at this point. Her body is warm, she’s bleeding, he’s got to be getting blood on himself. He can’t even depersonalize her. And yet he’s able to get an erection and get it off. So you’ll understand why I insist this is a crime of anger, not sex. What’s going through his mind is not sex—it’s anger and rage.
This, by the way, is why it doesn’t do any good to castrate repeat rapists—as satisfying and fulfilling as the idea may be to some of us. The problem is, it doesn’t stop them, either physically or emotionally. Rape is definitely a crime of anger. If you cut someone’s balls off, you’re going to have one angry man.
I finished my story about Vanda. “You’re disgusting, Douglas!” the psychiatrist declared. “Get out of my office!”
“I’m disgusting?” I countered. “You’re gonna be in a position to make a recommendation that Thomas Vanda is responding to therapy and could be freed, and you don’t know who in the hell you’re talking to when you’re dealing with these inmates. How are you supposed to understand them if you haven’t taken the time to look at the crime-scene photos or reports, to go over the autopsy protocols? Have you looked at the way the crime was committed? Do you know if it was planned? Do you understand the behavior leading up to it? Do you know how he left the crime scene? Do you know if he tried to get away with it? Did he try to establish an alibi? How in the hell do you know if he’s dangerous or not?” He didn’t have an answer and I don’t think I made a convert that day, but this is something I feel strongly about. It’s the basis of what we do in my unit. The dilemma, as I’ve stated many times before, is that much of psychiatric therapy is based on self-reporting. A patient coming to a therapist under normal circumstances has a vested interest in revealing his true thoughts and feelings. A convict desirous of early release, on the other hand, has a vested interest in telling the therapist what he wants to hear. And to the extent that the therapist takes that report at face value without correlating it with other information about the subject, that can be a real failing of the system. Ed Kemper and Monte Rissell, to name but two, were in therapy while they were committing their crimes, and both managed to remain undetected. In fact, both showed “progress” to their therapists.
The problem as I see it is that you get young psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers who are idealistic, having been taught at their universities that they really can make a difference. Then they come up against these guys in prison, and they want to feel that they’ve changed them. Often, they don’t understand that in trying to assess these convicts, they’re actually assessing individuals who themselves are expert in assessing people! In a short time, the convict will know if the doctor has done his or her homework, and if not, he’ll be able to downplay the crime and its impact on victims. Few criminals will willingly give out the nitty-gritty details to someone who doesn’t already have them. That’s why complete preparation was so critical in our prison interviews.
As with Thomas Vanda’s doctor, people in the helping professions often don’t want to be prejudiced by knowing the gory details of what the criminal did. But as I always tell my classes, if you want to understand Picasso, you have to study his art. If you want to understand the criminal personality, you have to study his crime.
The difference is, the mental-health professionals start with the personality and infer behavior from that perspective. My people and I start with the behavior and infer the personality from that perspective.
There are, of course, varying perspectives on the issue of criminal responsibility. Dr. Stanton Samenow is a psychologist who collaborated with the late psychiatrist Dr. Samuel Yochelson on a pioneering study at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., about criminal behavior. After years of firsthand research that gradually stripped away most of his preconceived notions, Samenow concluded in his penetrating and insightful book, Inside the Criminal Mind, that “criminals think differently from responsible people.” Criminal behavior, Samenow believes, is not so much a question of mental illness as character defect.
Dr. Park Dietz, who works with us frequently, has stated, “None of the serial killers that I’ve had the occasion to study or examine has been legally insane, but none has been normal, either. They’ve all been people who’ve got mental disorders. But despite their mental disorders, which have to do with their sexual interests and their character, they’ve been people who knew what they were doing, knew what they were doing was wrong, but chose to do it anyway.” It’s important to keep in mind here that insanity is a legal concept, not a medical or psychiatric term. It doesn’t mean someone is or is not “sick.” It has to do with whether that person is or is not responsible for his or her actions.
Now, if you believe that someone like Thomas Vanda is insane, fine. I think a case can be made for that. But once we’ve carefully examined the data, I think we have to face that whatever the Thomas Vandas of the world have, it may not be curable. If we accepted that, they wouldn’t be let out so fast to keep doing what they do over and over again. Remember, this murder wasn’t his first.
There has been a lot of talk lately about the concept of criminal insanity, and this talk isn’t new. It goes back at least hundreds of years in Anglo-American jurisprudence, to William Lambard’s Eirenarcha, or “Of the Office of the Justices of Peace” of the 1500s.
The first organized statement of insanity as a defense against criminal charges is the M’Naghten Rule of 1843, named after Daniel M’Naghten (sometimes spelled McNaughten or McNaghten), who tried to kill British prime minister Sir Robert Peel and did manage to shoot Peel’s private secretary. Peel, by the way, was responsible for organizing London’s police force. To this day, London cops are still referred to as bobbies in his honor.
After M’Naghten was acquitted, public outrage was so great that the lord chief justice was called before the House of Lords to explain the logic. The basic elements state that a defendant is not guilty if his mental condition deprived him of the ability to know the wrongfulness of his actions or understand their nature and quality; in other words, did he know the difference between right and wrong?
The insanity doctrine evolved over the years into what was often referred to as the “irresistible impulse test,” which stated that a defendant was not guilty if, because of mental illness, he was unable to control his actions or conform his conduct to the law.
It received a major overhaul in 1954 with Judge David Bazelon’s Court of Appeals ruling in Durham v. United States, which held that a defendant is not criminally responsible if his crime was the “product of mental disease or defect,” and if he would not have committed the crime but for that disease or defect.
Durham, which gave such broad latitude and wasn’t primarily concerned with appreciating the difference between right and wrong, wasn’t terribly popular with law enforcement personnel and many judges and prosecutors. In 1972, in another Court of Appeals case, United States v. Brawner, it was abandoned in favor of the American Law Institute (or ALI) Model Penal Code Test, which hearkened back to M’Naghten and irresistible impulse in saying that the mental defect had to make the defendant lack substantial capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or conform his conduct to the requirement of the law. In one form or another, the ALI Test has enjoyed increasing popularity among courts as time goes on.
But along with this discussion, which often degrades into a speculation on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, I think we have to deal with a more basic concept. And that is dangerousness.
One of the classic confrontations in the ongoing battle of the shrinks was the serial-murder trial of Arthur J. Shawcross in Rochester, New York, in 1990. Shawcross had been accused of the murders of a string of local prostitutes and street people whose bodies had turned up in the wooded areas in and around the Genesee River gorge. The murders had gone on for nearly a year. The later bodies had also been mutilated after death.
After doing a detailed—and, as it turned out, highly accurate—profile, Gregg McCrary studied the UNSUB’s developing behavior. When police discovered a body that had been mutilated, Gregg realized that the killer was going back to the dump sites to spend time with his prey. He then urged police to comb the woods to locate the body of one of the still-missing women. If they could do that, then secretly stake out the site, Gregg was sure they would eventually find the killer there.
As it happened, after several days of aerial surveillance, New York State Police did find a body in Salmon Creek along State Route 31. At the same time, Inspector John McCaffrey noticed a man in a car parked on a low bridge spanning the water. State and city police were called in to follow him. The man they picked up was Arthur Shawcross.
Under interrogation from a team led by Dennis Blythe of the State Police and Leonard Boriello of the Rochester Police Department, Shawcross confessed to several of the crimes. The key issue at his intensely covered ten-count murder trial was whether or not he was insane at the time of the killings.
The defense brought in Dr. Dorothy Lewis, a well-known psychiatrist at Bellevue Hospital in New York, who had done important work on the effects of violence on children. Lewis had become convinced that most, if not all, violent criminal behavior resulted from a combination of childhood abuse or trauma and some kind of physical or organic condition, such as epilepsy, an injury, or some kind of lesion, cyst, or tumor. There is, of course, the case of Charles Whitman, the twenty-five-year-old engineering student who climbed to the top of the clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966 and opened fire on passersby below. Before police could surround the tower and kill him ninety minutes later, sixteen men and women lay dead and another thirty wounded. Prior to the incident, Whitman had complained of periodic murderous rages. When doctors performed an autopsy, they found a tumor in the temporal lobe of his brain.
Did the tumor cause Whitman’s deadly behavior? We have no way of knowing. But Lewis wanted to show the jury that as a result of a small benign temporal-lobe cyst that showed up on Shawcross’s MRI, a form of epilepsy she characterized as “partial complex-seizure state,” post-traumatic stress from Vietnam, and what he claimed was severe childhood physical and sexual abuse at the hands of his mother, Arthur Shawcross was not responsible for his episodes of extreme violence. In fact, she testified, he was in some kind of fugue state when he killed each woman; his memory of each episode would have been impaired or nonexistent.
One of the problems with this line of reasoning is that weeks and months after the murders, Shawcross was able to relate the details to Boriello and Blythe in minute detail. In some cases, he actually brought them to body dump sites the police had been unable to find. He was probably able to do this because he had fantasized about each one so many times that they were fresh in his mind.
He took steps to destroy some of the evidence so the police wouldn’t find him. After his arrest, he also wrote a rather analytic letter to his girlfriend (he had a wife, too), saying that he hoped for the insanity defense because doing time in a mental hospital would be a lot easier than doing time in prison.
On that score, Shawcross clearly knew whereof he spoke. His troubles with the law began in 1969 when he was convicted of burglary and arson in Watertown, north of Syracuse. Less than a year later, he was arrested again and admitted strangling a young boy and girl. The girl had also been sexually molested. For those two crimes, Shawcross was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison. He was paroled after fifteen. That, if you recall from a previous chapter, was why age was the one aspect of the profile that Gregg McCrary had called wrong. Shawcross’s fifteen years in stir had merely been a holding pattern.
Now let’s take this step-by-step. First of all, if you ask me or just about any of the many thousands of cops, prosecutors, and federal agents I’ve worked with over the course of my career, you’ll get a resounding consensus that twenty-five years for ending the lives of two children is pretty obscene in and of itself. But second, to let this guy out early, it seems to me you have to presume one of two opposite premises.
Premise number one: despite this guy’s bad background, despite his dysfunctional family, the alleged abuse, the lack of good education, his violent past, and everything else, prison life was such a wonderful, spiritually uplifting, eye-opening, and rehabilitative experience that Shawcross saw the light, realized the error of his ways, and because of all the good influence in prison resolved to turn over a new leaf and be an upright, law-abiding citizen from that moment hence.
Okay, if you don’t accept that one, how about premise number two: prison life was so completely horrible, so unpleasant and traumatic every day, so thoroughly punishing in every way, that despite his bad background and continuing desire to rape and kill children, he never wanted to be back in prison and resolved to do anything he could to avoid going back.
I agree, that one’s just as unlikely. But if you don’t accept either of these two premises, how in the hell do you let someone like that out without considering the strong possibility that he’s going to kill again?
Quite clearly, some types of killers are much more likely to repeat their crimes than others. But for the violent, sexually based serial killers, I find myself agreeing with Dr. Park Dietz that “it’s hard to imagine any circumstance under which they should be released to the public again.” Ed Kemper, who’s a lot brighter and has a lot more in the way of personal insight than most of the other killers I’ve talked to, acknowledges candidly that he shouldn’t be let out.
There are just too many horror stories out there. Richard Marquette, whom I interviewed and who had a string of disorderly conduct, attempted rape, and assault and battery charges against him in Oregon by his early twenties, progressed to rape, murder, and mutilation after an unsuccessful sexual experience with a woman he’d picked up in a Portland bar. He fled the area, was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and was arrested in California. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Paroled after twelve years, he killed and dissected two more women before being captured again. What in God’s name led a parole board to think this guy was no longer dangerous?
I can’t speak for the FBI, the Justice Department, or anyone else. But I can say that for myself, I would much rather have on my conscience keeping a killer in jail who might or might not kill again if sprung, than the death of an innocent man, woman, or child as a result of the release of that killer.
It’s an American attribute to think that things are always getting better, that they can always be improved upon, that we can accomplish anything we set out to do. But the more I see, the more pessimistic I become about the concept of rehabilitation for certain types of offenders. What they went through as children is often horrible. That doesn’t necessarily mean the damage can be undone at a later date. And contrary to what judges, defense attorneys, and mental health professionals might want to believe, good behavior in prison isn’t necessarily predictive of acceptable behavior in the outside world.
In virtually every respect, Shawcross had been a model prisoner. He was quiet, kept to himself, did what he was told, and didn’t bother anyone. But what my colleagues and I have found and have tried desperately to get across to others in the business of correction and forensic psychology is that dangerousness is situational. If you can keep someone in a well-ordered environment where he doesn’t have choices to make, he may be fine. But put him back in the environment in which he did badly before, his behavior can quickly change.
Take the case of Jack Henry Abbot, the convicted murderer who wrote In the Belly of the Beast, a moving and penetrating memoir of life in prison. Realizing his exceptional talent as a writer and believing that anyone so sensitive and insightful must be rehabilitated, such literary lights as Norman Mailer campaigned to have Abbot paroled. He became the toast of New York. But within a few months of his release, he got into an argument with a waiter in Greenwich Village and killed him.
As Al Brantley, a former Behavioral Science instructor who is now a member of the Investigative Support Unit, put it in one of his National Academy lectures, “The best predictor of future behavior, or future violent acting out, is a past history of violence.”
No one would accuse Arthur Shawcross of being anywhere near as bright or talented as Jack Henry Abbot. But he was also able to convince a parole board he could be released. After his parole, Shawcross first settled in Binghamton, where an angry community mounted a campaign against him and he left after two months. He was relocated to the larger and more anonymous metropolitan area of Rochester, where he took a job as a salad preparer with a food-distribution company. A year after his arrival, he began killing again—a different targeted victim this time, yet no less vulnerable.
During her examinations of Shawcross, Dorothy Lewis put him under hypnosis several times and “regressed” him to earlier phases of his life where he acted out such episodes of abuse as his mother’s insertion of a broom handle far up his rectum. During these recorded sessions, he is seen to take on other personalities, including that of his mother, in a scene eerily reminiscent of Psycho. (Shawcross’s mother, however, denied ever abusing her son and denounced him as a liar.) In her work at Bellevue, Lewis has documented some compelling cases of multiple personality in children who had been abused. They are so young that it would be difficult to conceive of them being able to fake this. But as Lewis has demonstrated, the rare cases of multiple personality disorder begin early in childhood, often during the preverbal phase. In adults, it seems the only time you really hear about multiple personality disorder is after someone is on trial for murder. Somehow, it never comes up until then. Kenneth Bianchi, one of two cousins who together committed the Hillside Strangler murders in Los Angeles in the 1970s, claimed after his arrest to be a multiple. John Wayne Gacy tried the same approach.
(I’ve often joked that if you have an offender with multiple personalities, I’ll let the innocent personalities go as long as I can lock up the guilty one.)
For the Shawcross trial, lead prosecutor Charles Siragusa, who did a masterful job, called on Park Dietz to present the other side. Dietz examined Shawcross just as extensively as Lewis had, and Shawcross came up with a lot of specific details about the murders. While Dietz didn’t make any absolute judgment about the veracity of the stories of abuse, he thought they sounded at least plausible. Nevertheless, he did not think Shawcross was delusional, found no evidence he had suffered from blackouts or loss of memory, found no correlation between his behavior and any organic neurological findings, and concluded that whatever mental or emotional problems he might have, Arthur Shawcross understood the difference between right and wrong and was able to make the choice as to whether he killed or not. And on at least ten occasions here, and probably more, he had chosen to do so.
When Len Boriello asked him why he had killed these women, he replied simply, “Taking care of business.”
True psychotics—those who have lost touch with reality—don’t commit serious crimes very often. And when they do, they are usually so disorganized and make so little attempt to avoid detection that they are generally caught fairly quickly. Richard Trenton Chase, who killed women because he thought he needed their blood to stay alive, was a psychotic. If he couldn’t get human blood, he’d settle for what was at hand. When Chase was placed in a mental institution, he continued to catch rabbits, bleed them, and inject their blood into his arm. He would catch small birds, bite off their heads, and drink their blood. This one was for real. But for a killer to avoid detection and get away with ten murders, he has to be pretty good at it. Don’t make the mistake of confusing a psychopath with a psychotic.
During the trial, Shawcross always maintained a stoic and immobile, almost catatonic, demeanor toward the jury. It was as if he were in a trancelike state, unable to comprehend what was going on around him. Yet the police officers and marshals who guarded and escorted him reported that as soon as he was outside the jury’s sight and hearing, he would loosen up, become talkative, sometimes joke around. He knew a lot was at stake in selling the insanity plea.
One of the cleverest, most resourceful—and, I have to say, most charming—criminals I’ve ever studied and interviewed was Gary Trapnell. He’d been in and out of prison most of his adult life and at one point actually convinced a young woman to secure a helicopter to land in the middle of the prison yard and rescue him. During one of his notable crimes—an airplane hijacking in the early 1970s—Trapnell is in the plane on the ground trying to negotiate terms for his getaway. In the midst of this, he raises his fist in the air for cameras to catch and demands, “Free Angela Davis!” “ ‘Free Angela Davis’? What’s this ‘free Angela Davis’?” This comes as something of a shock to most of the law enforcement people working on the case. There’s nothing in Trapnell’s background to suggest that he’s in any way emotionally committed to the young black California professor’s radical causes. There’s nothing to suggest he’s political in any way, and here, as one of his demands, he wants Angela Davis freed from prison. The guy must be loony. That’s the only logical explanation.
Later, after his surrender and conviction, when I interviewed him in the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, I asked him about this demand.
He said something to the effect of, “When I saw I wasn’t going to work my way out of this one, I knew I’d be doing some hard time. And I figured if the big black brothers thought I was a political prisoner, I’d be less likely to get my ass raped in the shower.”
Not only was Trapnell fully rational at the time, he was planning ahead, virtually the opposite of being crazy. In fact, he wrote his own memoirs, entitled The Fox Is Crazy, Too. This nugget of information also gave us tremendous insight into negotiations. If some totally off-the-wall demand suddenly comes up, it could mean that in his mind, the offender has already moved on to the next stage and the negotiator can react accordingly.
Trapnell told me something else I found very, very interesting. He said that if I gave him a copy of the current edition of DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and pointed to any condition described in it, by the next day he could convince any psychiatrist that he was genuinely suffering from the affliction. Again, Trapnell’s got a lot more on the ball than Shawcross. But just as it doesn’t take all that much imagination to know you’ve got a better shot at parole if you tell the shrink you’re feeling much better and no longer have any interest in molesting little boys, it stands to reason that your fugue-state explanation will play better if the jury can actually see you in something of a trance.
For a long time, the law enforcement community tried to rely on DSM for guidance and definition about what constituted a serious mental disorder and what did not. But most of us found the reference book to be of little value in what we did. This was one of the motivations for developing the Crime Classification Manual, which was published in 1992. The basic structure of the book grew out of my doctoral dissertation. Ressler, Ann Burgess, and her husband, Allen, a professor of management in Boston, collaborated with me as coauthors. Other members of the Investigative Support and Behavioral Science Units, including Greg Cooper, Roy Hazelwood, Ken Lanning, Gregg McCrary, Jud Ray, Pete Smerick, and Jim Wright, worked with us as contributors.
With CCM we set about to organize and classify serious crimes by their behavioral characteristics and explain them in a way that a strictly psychological approach such as DSM has never been able to do. For example, you won’t find the type of murder scenario of which O. J. Simpson was accused in DSM. You will find it in CCM. What we were trying to do was separate the wheat from the chaff as far as behavioral evidence was concerned and help investigators and the legal community focus in on which considerations may be relevant and which are not.
Not surprisingly, defendants and their attorneys will bring up anything they possibly can to avoid assuming responsibility for their actions. Among the laundry list of factors Shawcross’s team suggested had contributed to his insanity was the post-traumatic stress disorder from Vietnam. Research indicated that Shawcross had seen no combat. But this wasn’t a new one. It had been used many times before. Duane Samples, who disemboweled two women in Silverton, Oregon, on the night of December 9, 1975, claimed PTSD as his defense. Only one of the women died, but I’ve seen the crime-scene photos. Both of them look like autopsies. Robert Ressler discovered that Samples hadn’t seen action, either, despite his claims. The day before the attack, however, Samples had written a letter describing his long-standing fantasy of disemboweling a beautiful naked woman.
In 1981, Ressler went out to Oregon to help prosecutors explain why the governor should not follow through with his intention to parole Samples. The argument worked, though he was finally paroled ten years later.
Is Samples insane? Was he temporarily insane when he cut up the two women? The natural tendency would be to say that anyone who could do such a horrible, perverse thing must truly be “sick.” And I wouldn’t disagree with that. But did he know what he was doing was wrong? And did he choose to do it anyway? Those are the important questions as far as I’m concerned.
Arthur Shawcross’s trial in Rochester City Court lasted more than five weeks, during which prosecutor Siragusa displayed a deeper and more complete understanding of forensic psychiatry than I have seen from virtually any doctor. During the trial, every minute of which was televised, he became a local hero. When the jury was finally handed the case after closing arguments, they took less than a day to reach a verdict of guilty of murder in the second degree on all charges. This judge made sure Shawcross would not have the opportunity to repeat his actions. He sentenced him to two hundred fifty years to life in the state penitentiary.
And this brings up another aspect of the insanity defense, one that a good many people don’t realize: juries don’t like it and don’t often go for it.
They don’t go for it for two reasons, I believe. One is that it strains credibility that multiple killers are so compelled to commit their crimes that they have no choice. Keep in mind that no serial killer in my experience ever felt so compelled to kill that he did so in the presence of a uniformed police officer.
The second reason juries don’t go for the insanity defense is an even more basic one. After all the legal and psychiatric and academic arguments are stripped away, when it finally gets down to the deliberation of a defendant’s fate, jurors realize instinctively that these guys are dangerous. Whatever the decent men and women of Milwaukee might intellectually have felt about Jeffrey Dahmer’s sanity or lack thereof, I don’t believe they were willing to entrust his future (and their community’s) to a mental institution about whose security and judgment in keeping him they couldn’t be sure. If they put him in prison, his dangerousness would more likely be held in check.
I don’t mean to imply that most psychiatrists or mental health professionals are hot to spring dangerous offenders from incarceration and put them back in situations where they can do more harm. What I am suggesting is that in most instances, from my experience, these people don’t see enough of what we do to be able to make informed judgments. Even if they have forensic experience, it’s often limited to a particular area, which is what they will then rely on.
One of my first cases as a profiler involved the murder of an elderly woman, Anna Berliner, in her home in Oregon. The local police had consulted a clinical psychologist about the type of UNSUB they were looking for. Among her injuries were four deep pencil stab wounds in the chest. The psychologist had conducted interviews with about fifty men charged with or convicted of homicide. Most of these examinations had been done in prison. Based on his experience, he predicted that the offender would be someone with a fair amount of prison time, probably a drug dealer, because only in prison is a sharpened pencil widely considered a deadly weapon. People on the outside, he reasoned, wouldn’t think to use an ordinary pencil to attack someone.
When the police contacted me, I gave them an opposite opinion. I thought the age and vulnerability of the victim, the overkill, the fact that it was a daytime crime and that nothing of great value was missing, suggested an inexperienced juvenile offender. I didn’t believe that he carefully analyzed the pencil’s use as a weapon. It was there and he used it. The killer turned out to be an inexperienced sixteen-year-old who had gone to her house trying to get a contribution to a walkathon in which he was not actually participating.
The key feature of this crime scene was that all behavioral evidence suggested to me an offender who was unsure of himself. An ex-con attacking an elderly woman in her home would be very sure of himself. Merely picking up on a single piece of evidence (such as the negroid hair in the Francine Elveson case) doesn’t give the entire picture. In fact, in the Anna Berliner murder, it could have led in just the opposite direction from the truth.
The most difficult question any of us in this business are asked has to do with whether a particular individual is, or will be, dangerous. For psychiatrists, it’s often posed in terms of “a threat to himself or others.”
Around 1986, the FBI was contacted about a roll of film sent in from Colorado to a photo lab for developing. The pictures depicted a man in his late twenties or early thirties, dressed in camouflage gear, posed on the tailgate of his 4X4 with his rifle and a Barbie doll that he had subjected to various tortures and mutilations. No law had been broken in doing this, and I said that the guy would not have a criminal record. But I also warned that at his age, this fantasy he was acting out with the doll would not be satisfying much longer. It would evolve. Just from the photographs, I didn’t know how important it would be in his life, but for him to have gone to the care and trouble he did, it must have had some important significance. I said that this guy should be watched and interviewed, because this was a case of dangerousness waiting to happen. I’m not sure if most psychiatrists would have had the same perspective.
As strange as this incident may sound, I can think of several “Barbie doll cases” brought to me over the years, all involving adult men. One subject out in the midwest would stick pins in every inch of the doll and leave it on the grounds of the local psychiatric hospital. Occasionally you get this kind of thing with satanic cults, voodoo, or people who think they’re into witchcraft, but there was none of that here. Nor did he attach a name to the doll, indicating an orientation to a particular person. This was a general sadistic tendency, characteristic of someone who has a real problem with women.
What else can we say about this individual? We can say that he has probably experimented with torturing small animals and may do it regularly. He will have difficulty dealing with people his own age, either men or women. When he was growing up, he would have been a bully or sadistic with younger, smaller children. And he either has or will soon reach the stage in which acting out his fantasies on a doll won’t be enough. You can argue about whether or not he’s “sick,” but sick or not, I can tell you I’d have a real concern about his dangerousness.
So when is this dangerous behavior likely to occur? This guy is an inadequate loser. In his mind, everyone’s out to get him and no one recognizes his talents. If the stressors in his life become unbearable, that’s when he’ll go one step further with his fantasy. And with a doll mutilator, one step further doesn’t equal going after someone in his age group, it means going after someone younger, weaker, or lamer. He’s a coward. He’s not going to go after a peer.
That doesn’t mean he’s going to go for children necessarily. Barbie is portrayed as a mature, developed woman, not a prepubescent girl. No matter how warped this guy is, what he desires is contact with a mature woman. If he’s mutilating or abusing a baby doll, we’ve got another set of problems.
And yet the guy who’s sticking pins in the doll and leaving it at the hospital is going to be fairly dysfunctional, he won’t have a driver’s license, he’ll stand out in a crowd as being weird. The guy in camouflage is going to be much more dangerous. He’s got a job because he has money for his rifle, his truck, a camera. He can get around and function “normally” in society. The minute he snaps, someone’s in real trouble. Do I trust most psychiatrists or health-care professionals to make this distinction? No. They just don’t have the background or the orientation for it. They haven’t verified their findings.
One of the key features of our serial-killer study was the idea of verifying what people told us by studying tangible evidence. Otherwise, you’re relying on self-reporting, which is incomplete at best and scientifically meaningless at worst.
The evaluation of dangerousness has many uses and applications. On Friday, April 16, 1982, U.S. Secret Service agents met with me about a series of letters written by the same individual beginning in February 1979, threatening the life of the president (the first one targeted Jimmy Carter, all the others Ronald Reagan) and other political figures.
The first letter had been sent to the Secret Service in New York, from “Lonely and Depressed.” It was two pages long, handwritten on notebook paper, and threatened to “shoot and kill President Carter or someone else who has power.”
Between July 1981 and February 1982, eight more letters followed. Three were sent to the Secret Service in New York, one to the FBI in New York, one to the FBI in Washington, one to the Philadelphia Daily News, and two directly to the White House. They were handwritten by the same hand as “Lonely and Depressed,” but these were all signed “C.A.T.” They were mailed from New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. The letters expressed C.A.T.’s intent to kill President Reagan, who was variously referred to as “the evil of God” and “the Devil.” Other politicians who supported President Reagan were also threatened. The writer also made references to John Hinckley, promising to carry out his failed mission.
There were more letters, with the mailing list expanded to Congressman Jack Kemp and Sen. Alfonse D’Amato. Of particular concern to the Secret Service was the inclusion of photographs of Senator D’Amato and Congressman Raymond McGrath of New York City. Taken at very close range, they demonstrated C.A.T.’s ability to get close enough to carry out his threats.
Finally, on June 14, 1982, the fourteenth letter was sent to the editor of the New York Post. It declared that everyone would know who he was after he did away with the president, whom he referred to as “the Devil.” He claimed that no one listened to him and everyone laughed at him, none of which surprised me.
But within the text of this communication he also gave the newspaper “permission” to talk to him after he had completed his historic mission. This was the opening we were looking for. C.A.T. was willing, probably eager, to engage in a dialogue with a newspaper editor. We would supply one.
From the language and usage in the letters, as well as where they were sent and to whom, I was pretty sure this guy was from New York City. I profiled a single white male in his mid-twenties to early thirties, a native New Yorker living on the outskirts of the city, probably alone. He would be of average intelligence with a high school diploma and maybe some further courses in political science and literature and was probably the youngest or only son in his family. I suspect that in the past, he was heavily into drugs and/or alcohol, but now would be only an occasional user. He would see himself as a failure, having never fulfilled the dreams his parents or others had set for him, and had a lifelong list of incomplete tasks and goals. In his early to mid-twenties I expected him to have been psychologically taxed by an uncontrollable stress, perhaps related to military service, divorce, illness, or loss of a family member.
There was a lot of speculation about what “C.A.T.” stood for or symbolized. I told the Secret Service not to spend too much time worrying about that, since it might not mean anything at all. There is often a tendency to read too much into every detail when, in fact, the UNSUB might just like the sound of it or the way it looked written out.
The issue for the Secret Service, as it always is, was whether or not this guy was actually dangerous since a lot of people who make threats and spout in letters would never follow through. But I told them that personalities like this one are always searching for something. They turn to political groups and cults, but don’t find it. Other people think they’re weird and don’t take them seriously, so the problem worsens as time goes by. They focus on a mission to give their lives some meaning. This is the first time he’s felt any control, and he likes the feeling, which will lead him to take frequent and greater chances. People who take chances are dangerous.
I thought he would be familiar with weapons and prefer close-range assault, even though that would mean he couldn’t get away. Because his mission might be suicidal, he’d be keeping a diary for posterity, so the world would know his story. Unlike a personality like the Tylenol poisoner, C.A.T. doesn’t want to be anonymous. When the fear of life becomes greater than the fear of death, he will perpetrate his act of violence. He will seem very calm just prior to his act. He will camouflage himself and blend into his surroundings. He will chat with police or Secret Service agents nearby, and he will seem ordinary and nonthreatening.
In certain ways, he was the same type as John Hinckley, whose case and trial were much in the news. He also seemed fixated on Hinckley, about whom we knew a fair amount. I thought he might want to hear the trial verdict or sentence and suggested to the Secret Service that at that time, they go to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where Abraham Lincoln had been shot and where Hinckley visited before he shot President Reagan. I also told them to watch the nearby hotel where Hinckley had stayed. If anyone requested Hinckley’s room, that could very well be him.
The hotel did report a request for that specific room. Secret Service agents swooped in and raided an elderly couple who had spent their wedding night in that room and had been back many times since.
In August, the Secret Service got two more letters signed “C.A.T.” addressed to the “Office of the President, Washington, D.C.” These were both postmarked from Bakersfield, California. Since a lot of assassins travel around the country stalking their prey, there was real concern that the guy might be on the move. In these letters he said, “Being of sound mind & Sound Body [I] am takeing it upon myself to organize as many United States Citizens as I can, to bear arms, and exterminate from my country, the enemies from within.” In a long, paranoid rambling, he talked about the “torture & Hell” he had been through and acknowledged the possibility that he could be killed “in my attemps to bring to Justice the scumb at the top.”
I went through these letters carefully and concluded we were dealing with a copycat. For one thing, these were written in script rather than the block capitals of the earlier letters. They referred to President Reagan as “Ron” rather than “the Devil” or “the Old Man.” I thought it likely the writer was a woman, and as unpleasant as the sentiments and threats expressed were, I did not think this individual would be dangerous.
The real C.A.T. was a different story. I thought a “tactical stall” would be the best approach, engaging him in a dialogue until we could locate him. We cast a Secret Service agent as the newspaper editor and briefed him on how to seem and what to say. I emphasized that he should try to get C.A.T. to open up to him so that his “full story” could be told. Once the level of trust was built up, the “editor” should suggest that they meet, but make it late at night, someplace out of the way, because the editor was even more concerned than C.A.T. about keeping it secret.
We placed a carefully constructed classified ad in the New York Post, which C.A.T. answered. He began having regular conversations with our man. I thought he’d be calling from some large public facility such as Grand Central or Pennsylvania Station, or possibly one of the libraries or museums.
Around this time, the FBI got another evaluation from Dr. Murray Miron, the noted psycholinguistics expert at Syracuse University. Murray and I had collaborated on research and articles on threat assessment, and I thought he was one of the best in the business. After the telephone dialogue began, Murray wrote an analysis for the FBI stating he no longer considered C.A.T. dangerous, but instead, a publicity-seeking fraud who was getting off on manipulating all of these important people. Murray certainly thought he ought to be caught, but didn’t see him as the threat I did.
Gradually, we were able to keep him on the phone long enough to establish a trap and trace. On October 21, 1982, a combined Secret Service-FBI team picked him up in a phone booth in Penn Station while he was talking to the “editor.” His name was Alphonse Amodio Jr., a twenty-seven-year-old, white, native New Yorker with a high school education.
FBI and Secret Service agents went to his cramped, roach-infested apartment in Floral Park. The family seemed quite dysfunctional, and when Mrs. Amodio was interviewed, her description of her son matched the profile. “He hates it [the world] and feels it hates him,” she told the agents. She described his violent mood swings. He had been clipping newspaper stories for years and had filled two filing cabinets with folders labeled with the names of various politicians. As a child, he had had such a bad stutter that it had held him back from starting school. He had joined the Army but went AWOL after basic training. Other than several diary references to himself as an “alley cat,” the agents could find no logic or explanation for the C.A.T. moniker.
Amodio was placed in the psychiatric lockup at Bellevue. Before his trial, U.S. District Court judge David Edelstein requested an evaluation from a psychiatric social worker, who found the defendant severely emotionally ill and therefore a serious danger to the president and other government officials.
Amodio did confess to being C.A.T. Agents questioning him could find no political component to his thinking. He just did it for the power and attention.
He is no longer institutionalized. Is this type of person still dangerous? I don’t think he would be an immediate threat, but if the stressors built up again and there was no way for him to cope, I would begin getting nervous again.
What do I look for? One of the key things is tone. If I see a series of letters to a politician, a movie star, an athlete, or any celebrity in which the tone becomes increasingly rigid and urgent (“You’re not answering my letters!”), I take them seriously. It becomes mentally and physically exhausting to maintain that obsessive-compulsive rigidity. In time, the individual will begin to break down. Again, you can call behavior a form of mental illness, but what I have to concern myself with is how dangerous it may be.
Though we have interviewed women such as attempted assassins and Manson family sympathizers Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sarah Jane Moore, our published prison study only involved men. While you find the occasional woman assassin type, you will note that every case of serial murder or lust killing I’ve mentioned involves a male offender. Our research has shown that virtually all serial killers come from dysfunctional backgrounds of sexual or physical abuse, drugs or alcoholism, or any of the related problems. Women come from these same backgrounds, and if anything, girls are even more subject to abuse and molestation than boys. So why do so few of them grow up to commit the same kinds of crimes as the men? A female serial killer suspect such as Aileen Wuornos, accused of killing men on interstates in Florida, is so rare as to be instantly noteworthy.
For this subject we’re on shakier ground, because there simply haven’t been the studies to answer this question definitively. As some have speculated, it may be related directly to testosterone levels and otherwise hormonally and chemically based. The only thing we can say with an experiential authority is that women seem to internalize their stressors. Rather than lashing out at others, they tend to punish themselves through such things as alcoholism, drugs, prostitution, and suicide. Some may repeat the psychological or physical abuse within their own families, as the mother of Ed Kemper appears to have done. From a mental health viewpoint, this is very damaging. But the fact remains, women do not kill in the same way or in anywhere remotely near the numbers men do.
So what can be done about dangerousness? How can we intervene in cases of mental instability or character defect before it’s too late? Unfortunately, there’s no quick or simple answer. In many instances, law enforcement has become the front line of order and discipline, rather than the family. This is a dangerous situation for society to be in, because by the time we enter, it’s too late to do any good. The best we can do is to keep more bad from happening.
If you’re asking the schools to be the answer, you’re also asking a lot. If you take a kid from a bad background and expect the overburdened teachers to turn him around in seven hours a day, it might or might not happen. What about the other seventeen hours in a day?
People often ask us if, through our research and experience, we can now predict which children are likely to become dangerous in later life. Roy Hazelwood’s answer is, “Sure. But so can any good elementary school teacher.” And if we can get them treatment early enough and intensively enough, it might make a difference. A significant role-model adult during the formative years can make a world of difference.
Bill Tafoya, the special agent who served as our “futurist” at Quantico, advocated a minimum of a ten-year commitment of money and resources on the magnitude of what we sent into the Persian Gulf. He calls for a wide-scale reinstatement of Project Head Start, one of the most effective long-term, anticrime programs in history. He doesn’t think more police are the answer, but he would bring in “an army of social workers” to provide assistance for battered women, homeless families with children, to find good foster homes. And he would back it all up with tax incentive programs.
I’m not sure this is the total answer, but it would certainly be an important start. Because the sad fact is, the shrinks can battle all they want, and my people and I can use psychology and behavioral science to help catch the criminals, but by the time we get to use our stuff, the severe damage has already been done.