Serial Killer Profiling is Still Just a Best Guess

In society’s search for the reasons behind why individuals commit crime, there have been many theories. These theories, while still only theories, along with advancements in technology and a scientific approach to evidence collection, have led to the development of a structured approach to understanding crime in general and serial killers in particular. This approach is called profiling. While most profiling of crime is based on the prediction of behavior based on known motive, violent serial crimes are profiled in reverse, that is the unknown motive is explained in terms of known behavior (Turvey, 1995).

In the early 1970’s FBI Special Agent Howard Teten initiated an informal criminal profiling program that emphasized a multi-disciplinary approach integrating forensic sciences, medicolegal death investigation and the behavioral sciences. This combination became known as reconstructive analysis. This was the primary tool used to develop a profile. The Federal Bureau of Investigation formed The Behavioral Analysis Unit to house profiling. This unit is a component of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC), established in 1984, which is located at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. As defined by the Federal Bureau Of Investigation, “Criminal profiling is a process now known as criminal investigative analysis” (Anonymous b, 2005). The individuals that make up the Behavioral Analysis Unit are called profilers. They are, according to the FBI, highly trained and experienced Agents and/or law enforcement officers who study the behavioral and forensic details of unsolved violent crime scenes. With the information they garner from their study, they then construct a profile of the criminal. Multidisciplinary criminal profiling techniques are sought out to help reduce suspect pools, assist with case linkage, and develop relevant leads and strategies in unsolved cases. Criminal profilers are also called in to assist attorneys with court cases that involve complex or bizarre behavioral evidence. These are the types of trials so often seen on television or followed closely by the media because of their sensationalism.

Building a profile is like baking a cake, there are a number of required “ingredients” that must be combined in a prescribed way in order to achieve a finished product. The “recipe” for a first class profile includes the following components:

�· physical evidence,
�· crime scene reconstruction,
�· forensic analysis,
�· victim profile or victimology and
�· crime characteristics.

Each of these components contributes to the overall picture or profile of the offender. It is important to keep in mind that the profile is just the “cake.” The “frosting” only comes if the profile is solid enough to lead investigators to the perpetrator. The basic details found in a criminal profile include: probable age, sex, race, residence, intelligence, occupation, marital status, living arrangements, psychosexual maturity, type and condition of vehicle, motivating factor for commission of the crime, arrest record, triggers that initiate action or reaction in the perpetrator and interrogation techniques that might be effective (O’Connor, 2005). It may also include particulars of the offenders “technique” or “MO.” One key word to note in all of this is probable. The profile is only a “best guess” and profiles are not always correct.

In addition to the components listed above, technology has added components to the profiling methodology, one of which is mapping or geographical profiling. Software has been developed that allows investigators to plot primary and secondary crime scenes and identify “hot spots” or areas where the killer is most likely to be found (Wilson, 2002). This in turn allows law enforcement to focus manpower in areas where they are most likely to find their suspect. It is interesting to note from a technology perspective that enhancements in databases and the ability to cross reference through state and national databases has increased the possibility that a serial offender will be identified sooner. In the past, serials were often missed due to the inability to reference across jurisdictions.

The objective of a criminal profile is to provide investigators with specific information about suspects that will aid in identification and/or apprehension. The profiling process reduces the number of suspects to a group of suspects with unique habits and characteristics. Any crime showing mental, emotional, or personality aberration can be analyzed for profiling purposes. However, certain crimes are particularly appropriate for this process. The more violent, aberrant, or sexual the crime, the more profiling can be a benefit. Profiling is most helpful in violent serial crimes, because with each subsequent offense the total amount of physical crime scene evidence increases. Each crime scene is a classroom for the investigator and the offender. While the investigator can learn about the offender, the offender becomes more proficient and “learns” what behaviors to include or omit from future offenses. Crimes that can benefit most from profiling include: a series of rapes, lust murder, serial murders, child molesting, ritualistic crimes and serial arson (Hazelwood, Burgess, 1995).

The most commonly known and understood application of profiling, by the general public, is profiling associated with serial killers. FBI agent Robert Ressler coined the term Serial killer in the 1970s, so that criminologists could distinguish those who claim victims over a long period of time from those who claim multiple victims at once (mass murderers). A third type of multiple killer is a spree killer. The terms serial killer and mass murderer are often thought to mean the same thing. Criminologists distinguish between the three as follows:

�· A serial killer commits a number of murders over a long period of time, with the killings separated by long periods of apparent normalcy.
�· A mass murderer kills several people in a single event.
�· A spree killer commits multiple-murders in different locations over a period of time ranging from a few hours to several days.

The thing that distinguishes a spree killer from a serial killer is that while the serial killer will return to normal activity between killings, the spree killer will not (Anonymous c, 2005).

Serial killers are not a new phenomenon in so called civilized societies. They are not something created by industrialization or advancing technology, but something more readily revealed through industrialization and advancing technology. There are recorded accounts of serial killers in the fifteenth century, such as Gilles de Rais (Gribbon, 2005) and if we were to look further back into history using today’s definition of serial killer, we would likely find more, where records can be analyzed. Most noted serial killers of the 15th and 16th century were of the aristocracy, the wealthy. They were in a position to pay for the “delivery” of their victims to their location of choice. This is in contrast to serial killers of today who are mostly from working-class backgrounds who hunt and procure their own victims. It could be argued that the modern day serial killer is in a separate category from those of the past, in that serial killers of the 15th and 16th century and before used their power to acquire victims, while today’s serial killer derives his or her “power” from their victims.

The serial killer and the profiler are celebrities in today’s society. The modern day serial killer seeks out attention for his or her acts and the media obliges with as many gory details as they can surmise. The serial killer is part of popular culture. There have been many movies produced over the years about “sensational” serial killers (Anonymous a, No Date), some of which are fictional and others that are at least based in fact, if not factual as a whole. An array of television shows have been developed around the idea of the larger than life profiler who has an almost supernatural gift for getting inside the killer’s head. This may be a contributor to unrealistic expectations in the public and law enforcement.

According to various law enforcement sources, including the FBI, there are a number of serial killers (50 or more) active within the borders of the United States and in other countries at any given moment in time. These killers, however, sometimes become the intense focus of specific communities or nations due to some of the sensational acts committed against their victims. Many of these serial killers are given nicknames that reflect some element of their killing. Some of these nick names, like Jack the Ripper, evoke a mental picture of the killer in action. Other nicknames are associated with the locale in which they conduct their activities, such as The Boston Strangler. This “naming” further serves to “glorify” and promote the killer in the media and heighten the fear he or she so anxiously wishes to create in the community. Who hasn’t heard of Jack The Ripper, The Zodiac Killer or The Boston Strangler? They achieve their place in the annals of history’s infamous because the average person is so horrified by their actions, they must be classified as “freak.” We do not want to believe that the “guy or girl next door” might not be what they seem. Ted Bundy is the perfect example of how a nice looking young man with a mild demeanor can be hiding some very dark secrets. What does the face of a serial killer look like? Like any one of us!

According to the baseline profile constructed and in use by law enforcement, the typical serial killer is: 88% male, 85% Caucasian, the average age they claim their first victim is 28.5, 62% target strangers, 22% kill at least one stranger, 71% operate in a specific area (Apsche, 1993) Most of this description is vague at best, it could be anybody. The physical description of a white male in his 20’s or 30’s could conceivably fit a significant number of the 97,756,380 males in the United States between the ages of 15 and 64 with an average age of 34.7, 77.1 percent of whom are white (Anonymous d, 2004) – pretty big pool of potential suspects. Even this baseline profile does not fit all serial killers. Take for instance the concept that the killer is male. Aileen Wuornos was touted as America’s first female serial killer. This is not the case. There have been other female serial killers in history. Yet, because she was killing strangers and using methods that were deemed “male” in the application, she became a point of focus for the media (MacCloud, 2005). This was such a surprising idea, that a woman could be a serial killer, that her story warranted a book, a documentary and a movie.

There are those that insist these serial killers are “created” out of sexual dysfunction, low self esteem and trauma or abuse suffered in childhood. Most of the information, for which these assumptions are based, comes directly from the serial, who by definition creates fantasies to satisfy his or her own twisted desires. Can this information be trusted? Many individuals may have these “symptoms” or histories, yet they do not become serial killers. Most serial killers are considered sociopaths. It has been estimated that “3% of all males in our society could be considered sociopathic” (Fox & Levin, 1994). All this presumption of underlying cause, begs the question of what other factors must come into play to “activate” the behaviors of a serial killer. Serial killers routinely draw on insanity as a defense for their behavior, yet, according to Dr. Park Dietz, few meet the criteria for mental illness or psychosis. Dietz says there are only three symptoms of mental illness: hallucinations, delusions, and a disorder in the form of thinking. If an individual has none of these, he is not psychotic (Frank, 2000). What is the magic button that, when pushed, turns an otherwise sane and seemingly normal individual into an inhuman monster? And how do we disconnect it?

Whatever the statistics or theory, people want to feel safe. They look to law enforcement to quickly apprehend and dispense justice to those who commit crimes, in particular crimes as heinous as serial killings. The pressure is on with every emerging case to meet the expectations of a public in fear for its safety. The general public and even some members of law enforcement do not fully appreciate that a profile is just a starting point and cannot be churned out like “cottage cheese.” If the profiler rushes to produce a profile to satisfy demand and fails to take into account all the evidence, relying instead on statistics or the past work of others to build the profile, they do themselves, their profession and the public a disservice. A profile should never be used to discount evidence or dismiss potential viable suspects for sake of expedience.

In the paragraphs above it is interesting to note that none of the percentages provided are 100% anything. This lack of finite resolve implies that there is the possibility of error within the concept of profiling. If too much is assumed or “copied,” the probability of error increases. When one looks at the components of what goes into profiling, then takes into account the percentages, it becomes clear that each serial case should be viewed using all the available evidence collected for that particular case and not simply viewed in perspective of the past. One case that stands out as a profiling error is the Louisiana serial killer, Derrick Todd Lee. This case received much criticism from the public, relatives of the victims and the media. One of the most cited components of the profile, indicating the individual was white, sent relatives into a frenzied attack on the profilers and law enforcement as they wondered if Lee had simply been overlooked and allowed to continue killing because he was not white (Springer, 2003). Even some in law enforcement and the behavioral sciences criticized this particular profile as something that was simply “cut and paste.”

Whether it is lack of time or lack of training, some investigators cannot overcome their own biases and beliefs towards serial crimes, in particular those that are sexual. In profiles where bias exists, the profile information can be misleading, even destructive to the investigation. There is some support for the idea that the training being given profilers today may be a truncated version of the original methodology. The initial success of profiling created an overwhelming demand for the service within the FBI. Because the original methodology was time consuming, the FBI was compelled to develop a quicker more efficient method that could effectively address large caseloads. The FBI initiated a one-year-profiling fellowship program in 1984. The premise of this program was to focus on the Organized/Disorganized dichotomy introduced by Ressler and Douglas, as a form of profiling “shorthand.” While this focused training has made it possible to increase the number of “profilers,” it has moved the concept of profiling away from its original multi-disciplinary focus of crime scene reconstruction and placed emphasis on isolated behaviors (Cooley, 1999). Only when the crime scene is thoroughly documented and evidence properly collected and analyzed, can an objective profile of the offender begin. All information must be examined then accepted or dismissed. The physical, scientific reconstruction must be the starting point of the profile, and the elements of the profile must match the physical evidence. Grounding of the profile in physical evidence is imperative to creating an objective profile based on fact rather than simply belief.

While profiling started out as something that had potential as a tool, the oppressive element of time may have negatively affected its application. It moved from a scientific approach to a “quick fix” in the mind of the public and some in law enforcement. Why do long division when you can use a calculator? It is easier to lean on the work of others than it is to create your own. While there is merit to the idea of building on what others have achieved and created, sometimes a blank page is a better place to start. It would seem prudent, even necessary, to apply new knowledge, use logical thought and treat each event as a unique occurrence in the light of its own evidence when it comes to profiling serial killers. Maybe the FBI should offer continuing education programs to incorporate more of the elements of behavioral science?


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Fox, J.A., & Levin, J. 1994, OverKill – Mass Murder and Serial Killing Exposed, pg. 18, Plenum Press

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MacCloud, Marlee. 2005, The Myth And The Reality, retrieved from the Internet February 18, 2005, from

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Turvey, Brent E. 1995, The Impressions of a Man: An Objective Forensic Guideline to Profiling Violent Serial Sex Offenders, retrieved from the Internet from

Wilson, Jennifer. 2002, Mapping Murder

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