We’re going to take about a week break from Character Blog posts. I have some other things I want to discuss and since December 7th, I’ve written a book just in blog posts.
Topic 1: Profiles and Profilers –
When I gave my personal opinion on the number of active serial killers, I mentioned profiles and that the Great John Douglas did not nail BTK on the head with his profile. It was way off base. Someone said “yes, but profiles aren’t meant to give you suspects.”
The point of a profile is to narrow down suspects, not create them. For example in the Green River killings there were 50+ suspects at one point in the investigation. A profile was created to narrow down those 50+ to a more manageable amount. The Green River profile was fairly spot on. One of the big things in it was that he would insert himself into the investigation at every opportunity. Gary Ridgway actually became a suspect because he was doing just that.
Unfortunately, profiles are hit or miss. When they are accurate, they can be scary accurate. Robert Ressler wrote the profile for the Vampire Killer of Sacramento even saying the killer would be exceptionally thin and unable to drive so would live very close to the locations of the murders. Richard Trenton Chase was brought to the attention of police when he ran into a former classmate and tried to get into her car. The woman called because Chase just set off internal alarm bells and she noticed he had blood on his shirt while they were talking. The profile of the Vampire Killer was so spot on, it was as if Ressler had sat down and wrote a biography of Chase’s life and mental illness.
When they are inaccurate, they are seriously inaccurate. Douglas profiled BTK to have come from a single parent home with a domineering mother whose father had probably left or died at around the same age as the male children of his victims. Furthermore, he didn’t believe BTK would be capable of sustaining relationships or holding a job and that he may have been arrested as a Peeping Tom in the past. He was also positive that BTK had stopped killing because he was in prison for something else or because he was dead. We now know, BTK stopped killing because he had children who were growing up, he was quite capable of holding a job, and he’d been married for a couple of decades. Also, he came from a two parent home and his parents weren’t abusive, domineering, or extremely religious. The dangerous part of that is if Dennis Rader had been a suspect in the BTK murders and the police used the profile to exclude suspects (as they often are) Rader would have been excluded from inquiries.
I use BTK because it’s probably the most famous example of a profile going astray, but it certainly isn’t the only one. The profile for the Hillside Strangler was another epic failure in that not only did it not expect there were two assailants, but the profile did not “describe” either Buono or Bianchi. And part of the question in the Boston Strangler murders involves the profile, which fit Albert DeSalvo so accurately all it needed was his name on it. However, at the time, profiling was definitely more art than science and most cops thought of them in the same way they think of psychics. So, it is quite astounding that DeSalvo would fit the profile almost exactly.
Profiling is a combination of science and art. A profiler is required to make educated guesses about a killer based on the way they kill, any clues left behind, and other factors. And we all know the old joke “it’s a white male 20-40 years old” when a profile is released. But in the US, the majority of serial killers are white males between the ages of 25-35 when they start killing, that generalization may apply to a lot of the population, but we take notice when it’s different.
Most people still believe profiles catch killers, but that isn’t exactly true. Robert Ressler (who is actually more “father of the modern profile” than John Douglas) often said “a profile is only as good as the suspects the police have identified.” Over the past three decades profiling and profiles have gotten better, as have profilers themselves. But that doesn’t eliminate the need for police to have suspects to apply a profile to. It won’t magically produce the answer to who killed someone.
I will say that profiles work best when there is a strong, overt sexual motive for the murder. It is the difference between Jack the Ripper and The Zodiac; Jack the Ripper may not have raped his victims, but it would be hard to argue they weren’t sexually motivated given the mutilations of his victims. In contrast, The Zodiac did not perform any sexual assaults or mutilations, his only nod to them being sexually motivated was his penchant for Lover’s Lane type murders. Berkowitz would admit that his lover’s lane murders were used for masturbatory aids. It is unclear if this is why Zodiac picked Lover’s Lanes, a few profilers in recent years have suggested that they were picked simply because they were easy prey (they aren’t paying much attention to their surroundings and they expect cars that come up on them are doing the same thing they are doing, and so are less suspicious in general). If you remove the sexual aspect of choosing Lover’s Lane victims, it could be why Zodiac was able to avoid detection (with the help of dumb luck for so long).
At any rate, Ressler didn’t factor in everything when talking about profiles, it isn’t just about the suspects the police have. A profile is only as good as the information coming to the profiler, the profiler themselves, and accepting that our preconceived notions might be incorrect. Ressler is the one that began interviewing convicted serial criminals for the BSU in the late 1980s and helped refine profiling, making it more science than art.