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Inside the Mind of a Killer
Put yourself in the position of the hunter.
That’s what I have to do. Think of one of those nature films: a lion on the Serengeti plain in Africa. He sees this huge herd of antelope at a watering hole. But somehow—we can see it in his eyes—the lion locks on a single one out of those thou sands of animals. He’s trained himself to sense weakness, vulnerability, something different in one antelope out of the herd that makes it the most likely victim.
It’s the same with certain people. If I’m one of them, then I’m on the hunt daily, looking for my victim, looking for my victim of opportunity. Let’s say I’m at a shopping mall where there are thousands of people. So I go into the video arcade, and as I look over the fifty or so children playing there, I’ve got to be a hunter, I’ve got to be a profil er, I’ve got to be able to profile that potential prey. I’ve got to figure out which of those fifty children is the vulnerable one, which one is the likely victim. I have to look at the way the child is dressed. I have to train myself to pick up the nonverbal clues the child is putting out. And I have to do this all in a split second, so I have to be very, very good at it. Then, once I decide, once I make my move, I’ve got to know how I am going to get this child out of the mall quietly and without creating any fuss or suspicion when his or her parents are probably two stores down. I can’t afford to make any mis takes.
It’s the thrill of the hunt that gets these guys going. If you could get a galvanic skin response reading on one of them as he focuses in on his potential victim, I think you’d get the same reaction as from that lion in the wilderness. And it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the ones who hunt children, who hunt young women or the elderly or prostitutes or any other definable group—or the ones who don’t seem to have any particular preferred victim. In some ways, they’re all the same.
But it is the ways they are different, and the clues that they leave to their individual personalities, that have led us to a new weapon in the interpretation of certain types of violent crimes, and the hunting, apprehension, and prosecution of their perpetra tors. I’ve spent most of my professional career as an FBI special agent trying to develop that weapon, and that’s what this book is about. In the case of every horrible crime since the beginning of civilization, there is always that sear ing, fundamental question: what kind of person could have done such a thing? The type of profiling and crime-scene analysis we do at the FBI’s Investigative Support Unit attempts to answer that question.
Behavior reflects personality.
It isn’t always easy, and it’s never pleasant, putting yourself in these guys’ shoes—or inside their minds. But that’s what my people and I have to do. We have to try to feel what it was like for each one.
Everything we see at a crime scene tells us something about the unknown subject—or UNSUB, in police jargon—who committed the crime. By studying as many crimes as we could, and through talking to the experts—the perpetrators themselves—we have learned to interpret those clues in much the same way a doctor evaluates various symptoms to diagnose a particular disease or condition. And just as a doctor can begin forming a diagnosis after recognizing several aspects of a disease presentation he or she has seen before, we can make various conclusions when we see patterns start to emerge.
One time in the early 1980s when I was actively interviewing incarcerated killers for our in-depth study, I was sitting in a circle of violent offenders in the ancient, stone, gothic Maryland State Penitentia ry in Baltimore. Each man was an interesting case in his own right—a cop killer, a child killer, drug dealers, and enforcers—but I was most concerned with interviewing a rapist-murderer about his modus operan di, so I asked the other prisoners if they knew of one at the prison I might be able to talk to.
“Yeah, there’s Charlie Davis,” one of the inmates says, but the rest agree it’s unlikely he’ll talk to a fed. Someone goes to find him in the prison yard. To everyone’s surprise, Davis does come over and join the circle, probably as much out of curiosity or boredom as any other reason. One thing we had going for us in the study is that prison ers have a lot of time on their hands and not much to do with it.
Normally, when we conduct prison interviews—and this has been true right from the beginning—we try to know as much as we can about the subject in advance. We go over the police files and crime-scene photos, autopsy protocols, trial transcripts; any thing that might shed light on motives or personality. It’s also the surest way to make certain the subject isn’t playing self-serving or self-amusing games with you and is giving it to you straight. But in this case, obviously, I hadn’t done any prepa ration, so I admit it and try to use it to my advan tage.
Davis was a huge, hulking guy, about six foot five, in his early thirties, clean-shaven, and well groomed. I start out by saying, “You have me at a disadvantage, Charlie. I don’t know what you did.”
“I killed five people,” he replies.
I ask him to describe the crime scenes and what he did with his victims. Now, it turns out, Davis had been a part-time ambulance driver. So what he’d do was strangle the woman, place her body by the side of a highway in his driving territory, make an anonymous call, then respond to the call and pick up the body. No one knew, when he was putting the victim on the stretcher, that the killer was right there among them. This degree of control and orchestration was what really turned him on and gave him his biggest thrill. Anything like this that I could learn about technique would always prove extremely valu able.
The strangling told me he was a spur-of-the-moment killer, that the primary thing on his mind had been rape.
I say to him, “You’re a real police buff. You’d love to be a cop yourself, to be in a position of power instead of some menial job far below your abilities.” He laughs, says his father had been a police lieutenant.
I ask him to describe his MO: he would follow a good-looking young woman, see her pull into the parking lot of a restaurant, let’s say. Through his father’s police contacts, he’d be able to run a license-plate check on the car. Then, when he had the owner’s name, he’d call the restaurant and have her paged and told she’d left her lights on. When she came outside, he’d abduct her—push her into his car or hers, handcuff her, then drive off.
He describes each of the five kills in order, almost as if he’s reminiscing. When he gets to the last one, he mentions that he covered her over in the front seat of the car, a detail he remembers for the first time.
At that point in the conversation, I turn things further around. I say, “Charlie, let me tell you something about yourself: You had relationship problems with women. You were having financial problems when you did your first kill. You were in your late twenties and you knew your abilities were way above your job, so everything in your life was frustrating and out of control.” He just sort of nods. So far, so good. I haven’t said anything terribly hard to predict or guess at.
“You were drinking heavily,” I continue. “You owed money. You were having fights with the woman you lived with. [He hadn’t told me he lived with anyone, but I felt pretty certain he did.] And on the nights when things were the worst, you’d go out on the hunt. You wouldn’t go after your old lady, so you had to dish it out to someone else.” I can see Davis’s body language gradually changing, opening up. So, going with the scant information I have, I go on, “But this last victim was a much more gentle kill. She was different from the others. You let her get dressed again after you raped her. You covered up her head. You didn’t do that with the previous four. Unlike the others, you didn’t feel good about this one.” When they start listening closely, you know you’re onto something. I learned this from the prison inter views and was able to use it over and over in interrogation situations. I see I have his complete attention here. “She told you something that made you feel bad about killing her, but you killed her anyway.”
Suddenly, he becomes red as a beet. He seems in a trancelike state, and I can see that in his mind, he’s back at the scene. Hesitantly, he tells me the woman had said her husband was having serious health problems and that she was worried about him; he was sick and maybe dying. This may have been a ruse on her part, it may not have been—I don’t have any way of knowing. But clearly, it had affected Davis.
“But I hadn’t disguised myself. She knew who I was, so I had to kill her.”
I pause a few moments, then say, “You took something from her, didn’t you?”
He nods again, then admits he went into her wallet. He took out a photograph of her with her husband and child at Christ mas and kept it.
I’d never met this guy before, but I’m starting to get a firm image of him, so I say, “You went to the grave site, Charlie, didn’t you?” He becomes flushed, which also confirms for me he followed the press on the case so he’d know where his victim was buried. “You went because you didn’t feel good about this particular murder. And you brought something with you to the cemetery and you put it right there on that grave.” The other prisoners are completely silent, listening with rapt attention. They’ve never seen Davis like this. I repeat, “You brought something to that grave. What did you bring, Charlie? You brought that picture, didn’t you?” He just nods again and hangs his head.
This wasn’t quite the witchcraft or pulling the rabbit out of the hat it might have seemed to the other prisoners. Obviously, I was guessing, but the guesses were based on a lot of background and research and experience my associates and I had logged by that time and continue to gather. For example, we’d learned that the old cliché about killers visiting the graves of their victims was often true, but not necessarily for the reasons we’d originally thought.
Behavior reflects personality.
One of the reasons our work is even necessary has to do with the changing nature of violent crime itself. We all know about the drug-related murders that plague most of our cities and the gun crimes that have become an everyday occurrence as well as a national disgrace. Yet it used to be that most crime, particularly most violent crime, happened between people who in some way knew each other.
We’re not seeing that as much any longer. As recently as the 1960s, the solution rate to homicide in this country was well over 90 percent. We’re not seeing that any longer, either. Now, despite impressive advances in science and technology, despite the advent of the computer age, despite many more police officers with far better and more sophisticated training and resources, the murder rate has been going up and the solution rate has been going down. More and more crimes are being committed by and against “strangers,” and in many cases we have no motive to work with, at least no obvious or “logical” motive.
Traditionally, most murders and violent crimes were relatively easy for law enforcement officials to comprehend. They resulted from critically exaggerated manifestations of feelings we all experience: anger, greed, jealousy, profit, revenge. Once this emotional problem was taken care of, the crime or crime spree would end. Someone would be dead, but that was that and the police generally knew who and what they were looking for.
But a new type of violent criminal has surfaced in recent years—the serial offender, who often doesn’t stop until he is caught or killed, who learns by experience and who tends to get better and better at what he does, constantly perfecting his scenario from one crime to the next. I say “surfaced” because, to some degree, he was probably with us all along, going back long before 1880s London and Jack the Ripper, generally considered the first modern serial killer. And I say “he” because, for reasons we’ll get into a little later, virtually all real serial killers are male.
Serial murder may, in fact, be a much older phenomenon than we realize. The stories and legends that have filtered down about witches and werewolves and vampires may have been a way of explaining outrages so hideous that no one in the small and close-knit towns of Europe and early America could comprehend the perversities we now take for granted. Monsters had to be supernatural creatures. They couldn’t be just like us.
Serial killers and rapists also tend to be the most bewildering, personally disturbing, and most difficult to catch of all violent criminals. This is, in part, because they tend to be motivated by far more complex factors than the basic ones I’ve just enumerated. This, in turn, makes their patterns more confusing and distances them from such other normal feelings as compassion, guilt, or remorse.
Sometimes, the only way to catch them is to learn how to think like they do.
Lest anyone think I will be giving away any closely guarded investigative secrets that could provide a “how-to” to would-be offenders, let me reassure you on that point right now. What I will be relating is how we developed the behavioral approach to criminal-personality profiling, crime analysis, and prosecutorial strategy, but I couldn’t make this a how-to course even if I wanted to. For one thing, it takes as much as two years for us to train the already experienced, highly accomplished agents selected to come into my unit. For another, no matter how much the criminal thinks he knows, the more he does to try to evade detection or throw us off the track, the more behavioral clues he’s going to give us to work with.
As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes say many decades ago, “Singularity is almost invariably a clue. The more featureless and commonplace a crime is, the more difficult it is to bring it home.” In other words, the more behavior we have, the more complete the profile and analysis we can give to the local police. The better the profile the local police have to work with, the more they can slice down the potential suspect population and concentrate on finding the real guy.
Which brings me to the other disclaimer about our work. In the Investigative Support Unit, which is part of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime at Quantico, we don’t catch criminals. Let me repeat that: we do not catch criminals. Local police catch criminals, and considering the incredible pressures they’re under, most of them do a pretty damn good job of it. What we try to do is assist local police in focusing their investigations, then suggest some proactive techniques that might help draw a criminal out. Once they catch him—and again, I emphasize they, not we—we will try to formulate a strategy to help the prosecutor bring out the defend ant’s true personality during the trial.
We’re able to do this because of our research and our specialized experience. While a local midwestern police department faced with a serial-murder investigation might be seeing these horrors for the first time, my unit has probably handled hundreds, if not thousands, of similar crimes. I always tell my agents, “If you want to understand the artist, you have to look at the painting.” We’ve looked at many “paintings” over the years and talked extensively to the most “accomplished” “artists.” We began methodically developing the work of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, and what later came to be the Investigative Support Unit, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And though most of the books that dramatize and glorify what we do, such as Tom Harris’s memorable The Silence of the Lambs, are somewhat fanciful and prone to dramatic license, our antecedents actually do go back to crime fiction more than crime fact. C. August Dupin, the amateur detective hero of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 classic “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” may have been history’s first behav ioral profil er. This story may also represent the first use of a proactive technique by the profiler to flush out an unknown subject and vindicate an innocent man imprisoned for the kill ings.
Like the men and women in my unit a hundred and fifty years later, Poe understood the value of profiling when forensic evidence alone isn’t enough to solve a particularly brutal and seemingly motiveless crime. “Deprived of ordinary resources,” he wrote, “the analyst throws himself into the spirit of his opponent, identifies himself therewith, and not infrequently sees thus, at a glance, the sole methods by which he may seduce into error or hurry into miscalculation.” There’s also another small similarity worth mentioning. Monsieur Dupin preferred to work alone in his room with the windows closed and the curtains drawn tight against the sunlight and the intrusion of the outside world. My colleagues and I have had no such choice in the matter. Our offices at the FBI Academy in Quantico are several stories underground, in a windowless space originally designed to serve as the secure headquarters for federal law enforcement authorities in the event of national emergency. We sometimes call ourselves the National Cellar for the Analysis of Violent Crime. At sixty feet below ground, we say we’re ten times deeper than dead people.
The English novelist Wilkie Collins took up the profiling mantle in such pioneering works as The Woman in White (based on an actual case) and The Moonstone. But it was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal creation, Sherlock Holmes, who brought out this form of criminal investigative analysis for all the world to see in the shadowy gaslit world of Victorian London. The highest compliment any of us can be paid, it seems, is to be compared to this fictional character. I took it as a real honor some years back when, while I was working a murder case in Missouri, a headline in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat referred to me as the “FBI’s Modern Sherlock Holmes.” It’s interesting to note that at the same time Holmes was working his intricate and baffling cases, the real-life Jack the Ripper was killing prostitutes in London’s East End. So completely have these two men on opposite sides of the law, and opposite sides of the boundary between reality and imagination, taken hold of the public consciousness that several “modern” Sherlock Holmes stories, written by Conan Doyle admirers, have thrown the detective into the unsolved Whitechapel murders.
Back in 1988, I was asked to analyze the Ripper murders for a nationally broadcast television program. I’ll relate my conclusions about this most famous UNSUB in history later in this book.
It wasn’t until more than a century after Poe’s “Rue Morgue” and a half century after Sherlock Holmes that behavioral profiling moved off the pages of literature and into real life. By the mid-1950s, New York City was being rocked by the explo sions of the “Mad Bomber,” known to be respon sible for more than thirty bombings over a fifteen-year period. He hit such public landmarks as Grand Central and Pennsylvania Stations and Radio City Music Hall. As a child in Brooklyn at the time, I remember this case very well.
At wit’s end, the police in 1957 called in a Greenwich Village psychiatrist named Dr. James A. Brussel, who studied photographs of the bomb scenes and carefully analyzed the bomber’s taunting letters to newspapers. He came to a number of detailed conclu sions from the overall behavioral patterns he perceived, includ ing the facts that the perpetrator was a paranoiac who hated his father, obsessively loved his mother, and lived in a city in Connecticut. At the end of his written profile, Brussel in structed the police: Look for a heavy man. Middle-aged. Foreign born. Roman Catholic. Single. Lives with a brother or sister. When you find him, chances are he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit. Buttoned.
From references in some of the letters, it seemed a good bet that the bomber was a disgruntled current or former employee of Consolidated Edison, the city’s power company. Matching up the profile to this target population, police came up with the name of George Metesky, who had worked for Con Ed in the 1940s before the bombings began. When they went up to Waterbury, Connecticut, one evening to arrest the heavy, single, middle-aged, foreign-born Roman Catholic, the only variation in the profile was that he lived not with one brother or sister but with two maiden sisters. After a police officer directed him to get dressed for the trip to the station, he emerged from his bedroom several minutes later wearing a double-breasted suit—buttoned.
Illuminating how he reached his uncannily accurate conclusions, Dr. Brussel explained that a psychiatrist normally examines an individual and then tries to make some reasonable predictions about how that person might react to some specific situation. In constructing his profile, Brussel stated, he reversed the process, trying to predict an individual from the evidence of his deeds.
Looking back on the Mad Bomber case from our perspective of nearly forty years, it actually seems a rather simple one to crack. But at the time, it was a real landmark in the development of what came to be called behavioral science in criminal investigation, and Dr. Brussel, who later worked with the Boston Police Department on the Boston Strangler case, was a true trailblazer in the field.
Though it is often referred to as deduction, what the fictional Dupin and Holmes, and real-life Brussel and those of us who followed, were doing was actually more inductive—that is, observing particular elements of a crime and drawing larger conclusions from them. When I came to Quantico in 1977, instructors in the Behavioral Science Unit, such as the pioneering Howard Teten, were starting to apply Dr. Brussel’s ideas to cases brought to them in their National Academy classes by police professionals. But at the time, this was all anecdotal and had never been backed up by hard research. That was the state of things when I came into the story.
I’ve talked about how important it is for us to be able to step into the shoes and mind of the unknown killer. Through our research and experience, we’ve found it is equally important—as painful and harrowing as it might be—to be able to put ourselves in the place of the victim. Only when we have a firm idea of how the particular victim would have reacted to the horrible things that were happen ing to her or him can we truly understand the behavior and reactions of the perpetrator.
To know the offender, you have to look at the crime.
In the early 1980s, a disturbing case came to me from the police depart ment of a small town in rural Georgia. A pretty fourteen-year-old girl, a majorette at the local junior high school, had been abducted from the school bus stop about a hundred yards from her house. Her partially clothed body was discovered some days later in a wooded lovers’-lane area about ten miles away. She had been sexually molested, and the cause of death was blunt-force trauma to the head. A large, blood-encrusted rock was lying nearby.
Before I could deliver my analysis, I had to know as much about this young girl as I could. I found out that though very cute and pretty, she was a fourteen-year-old who looked fourteen, not twenty-one as some teens do. Everyone who knew her assured me she was not promiscuous or a flirt, was not in any way involved with drugs or alcohol, and that she was warm and friendly to anyone who approached her. Autopsy analysis indicated she had been a virgin when raped.
This was all vital information to me, because it led me to understand how she would have reacted during and after the abduction and, therefore, how the offender would have reacted to her in the particular situation in which they found themselves. From this, I concluded that the murder had not been a planned outcome, but was a panicked reaction due to the surprise (based on the attacker’s warped and delusional fantasy system) that the young girl did not welcome him with open arms. This, in turn, led me closer to the personality of the killer, and my profile led the police to focus on a suspect in a rape case from the year before in a nearby larger town. Understanding the victim also helped me construct a strategy for the police to use in interro gating this challenging suspect, who, as I predicted he would, had already passed a lie-detector test. I will discuss this fascinating and heartbreaking case in detail later on. But for now, suffice it to say that the individual ended up confess ing both to the murder and the earlier rape. He was convicted and sentenced and, as of this writing, is on Georgia’s death row.
When we teach the elements of criminal-personality profiling and crime-scene analysis to FBI agents or law enforcement professionals attending the National Academy, we try to get them to think of the entire story of the crime. My colleague Roy Hazelwood, who taught the basic profiling course for several years before retiring from the Bureau in 1993, used to divide the analysis into three distinct questions and phases—what, why, and who: What took place? This includes everything that might be behaviorally significant about the crime.
Why did it happen the way it did? Why, for example, was there mutilation after death? Why was nothing of value taken? Why was there no forced entry? What are the reasons for every behaviorally significant factor in the crime?
And this, then, leads to:
Who would have committed this crime for these reasons?
That is the task we set for ourselves.