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Profiling Not Always Model of Accuracy

Forensics: Instant analysis of a serial killer in O.C. case may be pushing limits of an inexact science and causing undue alarm, experts say.


Someone had splashed cold water in the face of a carefree town. It was 1990, and five students had been murdered in Gainesville, Fla. Stumped investigators turned to criminal behavior analysts--detectives who specialize in developing a psychological "profile" of a potential criminal suspect's mind.

The ensuing profile was so general, though, that it only muddied the case. Angry detectives demanded answers: Where did the killer live? What kind of car did he drive? The answers, they were told, were not available. It took months--and luck--to arrest Daniel Rolling.

Nine years later, three women were murdered near Yosemite National Park, and police sought a profile. This time, the FBI brought back specifics: The women were killed by drug-dealing bikers from Modesto. They were wrong. Police eventually arrested Cary Stayner, a local handyman--but not before he killed again, investigators believe.

Wednesday's disclosure by authorities that they believe a serial killer is on the loose marked another day in the periodically brilliant, often-clunky and ever-imprecise development of psychological profiling.

Profiling is a natural contradiction. Its masters claim to understand the minds of strangers--often irrational killers. It is a soft, inexact science in a field that demands specifics.

And in the case of the murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, many law enforcement officers and criminologists say, Orange County may have pushed the limits.

Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona on Wednesday said the girl had been sexually assaulted and that the fact her body was not meticulously hidden indicates that the killer wanted it found and may be challenging police.

Those claims, said former and current law enforcement agents, either mean that Orange County officials know more than they are telling the public or that they are leaping to conclusions and presenting them as fact to a terrified public.

"I don't buy it," said Robert Ressler, former supervisor at the FBI's behavioral science unit at Quantico, Va. "There is no way they can come to these sorts of conclusions."

This sort of rapid profiling, based on an eyewitness account from the girl's 5-year-old playmate and a quick review of the evidence, "is about as accurate as infomercials about dieting techniques," said James Alan Fox, professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University.

"Profiling, when done right, is not a cram job. They may have overreached. And it does tend to instill and inspire a tremendous amount of hysteria," he said.

Carona insisted he did not intend to frighten parents. Nonetheless, said Fox, the message, even if unintended, is, "Lock up your children."

Officials stood by their conclusions. "This is an extreme case," said Richard T. Garcia, head of the FBI's criminal division in Los Angeles. "Because of that, it is very important for us to move quickly.... The concern is that this person will strike again. And soon."

The use of profiling to capture a suspect in a child abduction is further clouded by the lack of knowledge about the prevalence of a crime that historically has not been included in the federal government's Uniform Crime Report. Local agencies have only sporadically kept data.

The vast majority of child abductions, an estimated three-quarters, are committed by relatives or acquaintances--many because of custody battles, according to a 2000 U.S. Department of Justice report.

An academic team commissioned by the government concluded in 1990 that strangers abduct between 3,200 and 4,600 children each year. The vast majority of those children are held for a short time, then released unharmed, according to the study, which is the most recent definitive research on the subject, said Ben Ermini, a director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and a former police captain in Yonkers, N.Y..

A small subset of that group, between 200 and 300 children each year, are the so-called "stereotypical" child abductions--victims of strangers who pluck them from their families with no intention of returning them, Ermini said.

All kidnappings, whether by strangers or in custody cases, taken together constitute only one-tenth of 1% of crimes committed against children, officials note. Kidnappings by strangers who intend to harm make up as little as 4% of that total.

"For every child abducted and killed this way, there are tens of thousands of children who are sexually abused by fathers, stepfathers and men who have some reason to be around the children. Yet this kind of crime, of course, frightens the community because it is so horrible and publicized and irreversible," said Park Dietz, a noted forensic psychiatrist.

While the cases are rare, investigators have been able to develop a profile of the stranger-abductor, Ermini said. Typically, they are single, white men, older than 25, who live alone or with their parents. They are child molesters with criminal records and they were likely abused as children themselves, he said.

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