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COLUMN ONE : Probing the Dark Side of the Mind : Psychiatrist Park Dietz helps catch and convict criminals by unraveling twists of human behavior. Stalkers and serial killers are among his specialties.

October 20, 1993|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — It is a dark world that Dr. Park Dietz inhabits, a landscape of sexual sadist killers, psychopaths, a failed presidential assassin, an actress stalker and one world-famous necrophiliac-cannibal.

As America's best-known forensic psychiatrist, Dietz is part of an elite fraternity of specialists so small that there is virtually no competition. How many authorities do we need on why people push others to their death on New York subways? He spent a year studying this.

Dietz is the FBI's premier shrink, helping agents nab serial killers. He is an often-published researcher, he counsels celebrities about how to dodge crazed fans and he tells corporations how to prevent mass slayings in offices. He has been quoted as an expert on pornography, product tampering and erotomania, in which a person has delusions of love from others. His cases have included Jeffrey Dahmer and John Hinckley Jr.

Legend has it that Dietz is so deft at gazing into the criminally ill mind to help catch murderers that he inspired author Thomas Harris, who created the brilliant killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs."

Although highly regarded nationally by the psychiatric and law enforcement communities, Dietz, 45, occasionally has been dogged by controversy. He took heat during Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court confirmation hearings--most people now say unfairly--for meeting with Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), who sought Dietz's help in trying to discredit Anita Hill. Dietz said he was asked to testify before the Judiciary Committee but balked, citing professional ethics.

And a few defense attorneys have concerns that he mostly works for one side--the prosecution--as an expert witness. His fees--in the case of Dahmer, $3,000 a day--provoked one attorney to call Dietz a hired gun.

His supporters would argue that all professional witnesses are paid, and Dietz is worth every penny.

"His strengths are his intelligence and his common sense," said FBI Agent Ron Hazelwood, a longtime colleague and friend. "I frequently find that the two don't go hand in hand. He has this ability to speak to different types of groups--mental health groups, a jury, a police officer--and he's able to relate to all levels.

"I might ask one psychiatrist to tell me something about a killer, and he might say, 'Well he's an insomniac.' And he'll maybe give you some medical jargon," Hazelwood said. "Park (Dietz) will say: 'He's nocturnal, and you will find him at places that are only open at night.' He tells you something in a way that you can use."

Dietz, who is in private practice, mostly works behind the scenes. An FBI agent or a prosecutor may call him with details of a crime or suspect and ask Dietz to give his take on the kind of person they should be hunting.

When a southern federal judge and a civil rights lawyer were killed by mail bombs in 1991, Dietz was brought in. By studying the crimes, he said he was able to figure out "what the heck this guy was doing," theorize why he was doing it, and help detectives catch the killer, Roy Moody.

These days, Dietz is devoting more time to the prevention of mass violence in the workplace. Every office gun battle, he says, every time an enraged or disgruntled employee has opened fire, could have been prevented. Somebody always knew that the killer was potentially lethal.

That's how the hard-boiled Dietz sees the world: 5 million psychopaths are roaming the country, bumping our shopping carts and waiting behind us at the red light.

Once confident that he was unscathed by the subjects of his work, Dietz has come to understand that, despite the cool whisper of his cuff-linked exterior, his work bleeds into his personal life.

He chain-chews nicotine gum. He has made sure that his wife hits the bull's-eye with a gun. And how many fathers wait for a Disneyland ride with their son by playing "Spot the Psycho?"

After years of threats from the deranged and disturbed he has helped put away as an expert witness, Dietz plays it safe. He is an award-winning marksman. He works in a high-security office. He refuses to be quoted about his family or say much about his personal life.

"I only recently realized that it all has an effect on me," Dietz said with a sigh, pressing together all 10 fingertips, gazing out the glass walls of his office. "It gives me an entirely different outlook on humanity, what I expect will happen."

*

Like a lot of college roommates, Park Dietz and Greg Milmoe bonded over their love for beer, Ayn Rand books and their Cornell fraternity. Even then, Milmoe said, Dietz was an original.

It was only later that Milmoe discovered that Dietz had "the best collection of pornography available. Many of us would be reading pornography for the prurient interest, and here Park would be reading it as a scholar ," said Milmoe, a New York corporate and securities attorney.

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