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THE CRIMES OF JOSEPH WAMBAUGH : A Fascination With Sociopaths Lures the Cop Novelist to England--and a High-Tech Detective Tool

February 26, 1989|SEAN MITCHELL

The investigation continued for three years, and because no strong local suspects emerged, speculation increased that the killer was a drifter who had moved on. Until one day, the raped and bruised body of another girl, Dawn Ashworth, was found near the psychiatric hospital. This time, suspicion centered on a young, slow-witted hospital employee who, under fierce interrogation by the police, confessed. Except that he didn't do it, as was proved by a new kind of blood test pioneered by a geneticist working at nearby Leicester University.

The then-experimental blood test is capable of identifying a person's unique DNA pattern, which the police sought to match with the DNA pattern taken from samples of semen recovered from the two girls. In an effort to catch the killer, more than 4,500 men from the villages volunteered to provide blood samples--or be "blooded," as the police called the procedure. Pitchfork, however, eluded the test by having someone else provide a blood sample for him. It wasn't until his surrogate later blabbed in a pub that Pitchfork came under suspicion and was arrested. Before he was finally given the test, he confessed; subsequently, his DNA fingerprint was found to match the semen samples.

Wambaugh has reassembled these events into a suspenseful whodunit, marked by his characteristic portraits of harried police officers chasing after shadows and vivid descriptions of the crimes. But he found that his methods, honed after years of practice, came into question in Britain, a country where murder mysteries are beloved as long as they're fiction and true crime stories are considered unseemly.

Wambaugh thinks of himself as something of an Anglophile and enjoys British soap operas on public television, ("My wife says I watch anything with an English accent"), but he says he began to lose his patience with the English when he discovered that they weren't eager to cooperate in such a book.

"We think we're alike. We're not at all. Not only are they reticent, but they're deliberate, slow to the point of being ponderous in everything they do. You have to get a decision like 'Will you give me an interview?' and they want to think about it for three days, and then after three days, they may call and make an appointment for a fortnight hence. And you don't have a fortnight hence. You're sitting in a hotel room freezing to death in February in the Midlands, and you have to try to make the English move."

"The Blooding" may be notable for its unveiling of a forensic technique likely to make the cerebrations of Sherlock Holmes seem more dated than ever, but it is also another encounter with the blank horror of the sociopathic killer, someone who kills mechanically and without remorse.

Wambaugh has been drawn to sociopaths (the term is synonymous with psychopath) since he traced the lives of Gregory Powell and Jimmy Lee Smith, the Onion Field killers. Sociopaths turn up in his novels as well.

"They have no capacity for love--to give or receive love," he points out. "More importantly, they have no capacity for guilt. So once you understand them, you can quit making unrealistic assumptions. You have no idea how tired I get of reading in the newspaper that at the sentencing, 'the defendant showed no remorse.' Of course, they show no remorse. There's no remorse in their makeup."

Colin Pitchfork, after raping and strangling his second victim, went home and baked a cake for his wife. He came from a good family, as did the two convicted killers in "Echoes in the Darkness," who were, in fact, suburban Philadelphia schoolteachers.

Sociopaths are biologically different from other people, psychiatrists tell us, which is not to say they don't know right from wrong. Legally, they're considered sane. "They're cortically under-aroused and don't react to punishing stimuli," explains J. Reid Meloy, author of "The Psychopathic Mind" and chief of forensic mental health services for San Diego County. "We think there's something wrong with the limbic system of the brain, which is the source of emotion and the ability to bond."

Wambaugh says: "I'm very interested in the concept of the sociopath--very interested--because my conscience has bothered me all my life. Talk about regrets--I have about 20 every day. I was educated in Catholic schools, and they did that to me. So I have to cope with a conscience all the time. And I'm interested in a creature who has none of that."

Wambaugh, who is Irish and German, was an altar boy during his early years in East Pittsburgh. He was an only child--his father was a policeman and a steelworker--and came to California with his parents when he was 14.

Despite his Catholic upbringing, Wambaugh doesn't like to talk about good and evil, especially in connection with a man like Colin Pitchfork.

"I don't deal with that if you'll notice. I don't know about evil and good. I gave up on that a long time ago."

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