We're not thinking like he's thinking. --A veteran cop describing the search for a serial killer
It was 1956. New York police, frustrated in their efforts to catch a man who was setting off bombs in movie theaters and other public places around the city, asked psychiatrist James A. Brussel to study the letters and other evidence that the so-called "Mad Bomber" had left behind.
Brussel's conclusion: The suspect was a quiet, meticulous, paranoid Eastern European between 40 and 50 who lived with a maiden aunt or sister in a Connecticut city, and when police caught him, he would be wearing a double-breasted suit. Buttoned.
When police arrested George Metesky of Waterbury, Conn., they found Brussel's profile was extraordinarily accurate--right down to the suit.
It is telling that the episode remains the finest moment in the much-romanticized art of psychological profiling, a process in which an unknown suspect's next move is predicted by the clues he leaves behind.
Today, the FBI maintains a vaunted computerized profiling operation in Quantico, Va. Portrayed as "mind hunters" by a wave of favorable publicity, the profilers handle 300 referrals a year from local law enforcement agencies who are looking for serial killers or rapists--including the case of the Night Stalker, who has been linked to 14 slayings and 21 rapes, assaults and kidnapings in California.
The FBI's psychological profile of the Night Stalker, based on physical evidence and victim interviews assembled by detectives from various police agencies, was returned to the 50-member task force in Los Angeles last week.
However, if past cases are any indication, the bureau's description contains little that will lead police directly to the Stalker. The best it will probably do is save detectives valuable time by winnowing out some of the 2,000 tips that have poured in.
"It's not going to tell you that he's a blue-collar worker who goes to church three times a week," said Robbie Robertson, a former Michigan State Police captain experienced in serial murder cases.
"Killers don't leave that much information at the scene about their personalities," said James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminal justice professor who co-authored a book earlier this year on mass murderers.
"They're not really telling us anything new," said Bob Keppel, a member of the Washington state attorney general's office who spent four years as chief detective in the search for serial killer Ted Bundy and is now a consultant to a task force seeking the Green River Killer, who has murdered numerous prostitutes in Seattle. "What they're telling us are things they think are most prominent in a case."
The basic advantage the FBI's profilers have over local investigators in correlating clues and behavior is experience.
Interviews With Murderers
Since 1978, agents in the FBI Academy's behavioral science unit have been conducting prison interviews with murderers like Charles Manson, "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz and Richard Speck, who murdered eight student nurses in Chicago in 1966. Nearly 50 murderers have answered a 57-page questionnaire, which examines details such as how the killer approached his victim, what he said to the victim and how he reacted after he killed.
Contents of the Night Stalker profile are closely guarded by investigators, and officials at the FBI Academy refused to discuss their profiling process even in general terms, citing the ongoing investigation. But advice given in past cases provides a glimpse of the conclusions the profilers have developed:
- Did the killer stab the victim's sex organs? The more vicious that kind of stabbing, the greater the odds that the killer knew the victim.
- Did the killer use whatever weapon was available, such as an iron fireplace tool? That indicates that the act was impulsive and should lead detectives to suspect that the killer came on foot. If the killer brought his own weapon, he probably drove there.
- Does the killing appear to have been done with sudden fury? This indicates a youthful killer, possibly nervous and determined to quickly subdue his victim. Similarly, the more methodical, sadistic killing leads investigators to suspect a person in his 20s or 30s.
- Did the killer carry away an artifact, like a bracelet or a compact? He may be doing this so that he can later re-create the experience by himself.
- In the case of a rape, did the attack take place with anyone else around? This can indicate that the suspect has a self-styled \o7 macho \f7 personality.
- In a slashing, was the victim killed with a single slash across the throat? That should lead detectives to suspect that the suspect has killed before.
"It draws you away from the suspects that are totally opposite in character," Green River investigator Keppel said. "It really helps in the prioritization of information."