Science, Intuition, and Hope: The Art of Personality Profiling by John Philpin

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A widely-publicized personality profile in the Baton Rouge serial killer case suggested that police should expect their perp to be a white male. The man arrested and accused in the killings is black. In the Washington D.C. sniper case, profilers focused on a white male loner. The two men arrested there are black.

In both instances, investigators juggled numbers. They also accepted the myth that serial murder is an intra racial event. As a result of these and other miscues, recent news articles have questioned the efficacy of all criminal profiling.

No profile has ever caught a killer. The entertainment industry can disregard this fact; law enforcement agencies cannot. The disclaimers that once accompanied profiles and crime analyses are vanishing, replaced with an occasional acknowledgment that a report is based on probability. Juries may be instructed to decide what weight to assign this opinion testimony. Police officers are instructed in investigative protocols based on likelihood. Theories of a crime evolve and dictate investigative direction before the evidence is examined.

In 1957, the first modern criminal profiler in the United States developed a profile of George Metesky, New York City's Mad Bomber. Psychiatrist James Brussell described the bomber's personality, his habits and quirks, and included opinions about his living arrangements, physical stature, and taste in clothing. When police arrested Metesky at his home, they declared Brussell's work uncanny. Metesky was even wearing the double-breasted suit (jacket buttoned) Brussell predicted. The media referred to Brussel as "the Sherlock Holmes of the couch," and "a psychiatric seer."

Brussel dismissed the accolades. He said his work was a blend of "science, intuition, and hope." He was also the first to warn that what some called the magic of working backward from a crime scene to describe offender characteristics was no substitute for a thorough criminal investigation based on hard evidence.

In the 1970s, FBI agents at Quantico's Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) began applying and refining the techniques that Brussell had pioneered. The first FBI profilers identified the now familiar general descriptors of offender characteristics: organized, disorganized, and mixed type (the spree type came later). What had been an informal effort was formalized later in the decade as requests for assistance from law enforcement agencies throughout the country increased.

In 1984, the FBI established the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) within the BSU. Originally designed to deal with the increasing number of repeat killers, NCAVC housed the computerized Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP), and Investigative Support Services.

Publicity about the NCAVC spawned an entertainment sub-genre based on "mind hunters," profilers with near psychic abilities who view the world as a killer does. Support ed by cutting edge technology, these crime seers cut through the detritus of a plodding investigation and lead detectives to the killer's door. From James Brussel, to John Douglas, to Thomas Harris — the most infamous serial killer is no longer Ted Bundy, it is Hannibal Lecter.

One result of the fiction-driven profiler-as-supercop phenomenon is heightened expectation. The public and, to some extent, the police, expect the crime guru to duck under the yellow tape, undergo a mental metamorphosis, and gag out the perp’s name, address, and phone number. Some profilers, enamored of their Hollywood image, do little to dampen these expectations. These, of course, are the go-to experts whose names and numbers inhabit the Rolodex of every cable news talking head.

The scientizers are those who seek to label, quantify, and punch data into a PC. Whether they dart about in university laboratories, or linger after midnight at the psychology library, they have the slouch and vague stare of the true believer close on the heels of a unifying principle of violent behavior. What they do, they claim, is scientific, but do they know what that means? To qualify as a science, a body of knowledge must lend itself to systematic arrangement and exhibit the operation of general laws. While there are some generalizations that tend to apply from one set of killings to another, most are worthless as anything more than a referent by which to gauge new behavior samples. Cluttering your professional papers with graphs and footnotes does not make you a scientist.

In recent years, geographical profiling has entered the sleuthing lexicon. Practitioners of this slick, computerized field are fine-tuning their software, and educating us in their new jargon. The more "samples" (e.g., abduction points, crime scenes, body locations) available to the geographical profiler, we are told, the more readily they can wind their way to a killer’s home base.

At a minimum, the above approaches require a killer to meet the accepted definition of a serial killer: three kills separated temporally by "cooling off periods." This requires, of course, that law enforcement agencies overcome their inclination toward linkage blindness, and recognize patterns of behavior across jurisdictions. The inability or unwillingness of Baton Rouge authorities to make that leap resulted in a flurry of activity in the summer of 2002, when suspect killings had been occurring in the greater metropolitan area since at least 1992.

If profiles do not catch killers, what good are they? A profile generated from the facts of a crime can narrow the focus of an investigation. In the academic arena, the sayings (after translation) and doings of someone like Ted Bundy or Edmund Kemper or Antone Costa are informative. They have little to offer an assessment of tomorrow’s crime scene. Likewise, probabilities generated from historical data do little more than clutter the mind. That 75% of incarcerated serial killers claim to have been abused as children is about as meaningless a statistic as 99% of all heroin addicts having been breast-fed as infants. The evidence remaining at a crime scene, the victim’s background and habits, and an initial crime reconstruction are among the elements that allow a profiler to offer police investigative suggestions.

Humans leave physical and psychological traces of themselves wherever they go. A single predatory act committed by one stranger against another at a single location typically offers enough information to reconstruct the crime event, to identify some characteristics of the assailant, and to suggest avenues of investigation.

Twenty-three-year-old Stephanie Bennett was asleep in her ground-floor apartment on the night of May 20, 2002. Raleigh, North Carolina police theorize that an intruder popped the screen on Bennett’s bedroom window, entered the apartment, and sexually assaulted and strangled the young woman. With the exception of his DNA, Bennett’s killer left very little behind. The crime was planned. He had observed Bennett on prior occasions, and monitored her closely enough to be somewhat familiar with her habits. The assault was immediate and intense, and confined to a single room. When he left the scene, the killer took Bennett's 1995 compact JVC MXC-220 stereo system.

The autopsy report states the cause of death as ligature strangulation. It also notes wrist and ankle marks consistent with the use of restraints. Police believe the killer gagged Bennett with her underwear, restrained her, sexually assaulted her, and strangled her with a length of rope. He removed the rope and other restraints and took them with him when he left.

Police compared the crime scene DNA with two hundred of Bennett’s friends, co-workers, and acquaintances. They ran details of the crime through the VICAP system searching for other crimes similar to this one. There were sexual assaults, burglaries, and burglary attempts in the city, and there was another break-in attempt in Bennett’s apartment complex. A neighbor reported a peeping tom staring into Bennett’s apartment two weeks before the murder. Police have released a sketch of the man. These standard investigative techniques have produced leads but no arrest.

On June 9, 2003 Raleigh investigators released Bennett’s autopsy report, and three "behavioral characteristics" they believe the killer exhibits:

  • A heavy interest in sexual activity involving bondage, including the use of restraints.

  • An interest in (or has been involved in) sexual activity involving "role-playing" in which a theme of control or rape was central to the activity.

  • Combined the activities mentioned above in a fantasy expressed and engaged in within the context of a prior, consensual sexual encounter with a female.

For the time being, Bennett’s murder must be considered a stand-alone case, but there is enough crime scene information to draw some inferences and suggest some avenues of inquiry from even this minimal information. Bennett’s killer is probably local, in his twenties, a voyeur who, prior to killing Bennett, had escalated at least to entering homes, whose sexual fantasies and interests require a helpless female object, and to whom control, the exercise of power, and inflicting suffering are essential.

He may or may not have an adult arrest record, but police are aware of him and may have questioned him. His day-to-day interactions with women are awkward at best: when he does not control the female, he perceives her as a threat to the way he views himself. For him to be denied what he wishes is infuriating and unacceptable.

Oh, and the compact stereo? It is more than a memento or souvenir to him. He still has it and listens to it.

Anyone with information about this case is asked to call Raleigh Police at (919) 890-3951.

John Philpin is the author of "Dreams in the Key of Blue" (Bantam).

More articles by John Philpin:

Recipes for Sturgeon: Scott Peterson's Trial by Media

The Baton Rouge Serial Murders - 5 Part Series

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