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How I Started Profiling Predators and Their Prey

The other day, a woman stopped me at a burger place near my house and asked, “When did you know you were going to be a profiler?” It was a difficult question, and I didn’t have a quick answer. I wish I could’ve told her that I woke up one night to a blinding light and a voice telling me what I was meant to do.

In truth, becoming “the Mindhunter” was a process of dangerous research and heavy caseloads that nearly put me in my grave. All this was spread over many years of telling the bureau and local law enforcement what I thought needed to be done, while many of the powers-that-were resisted.

Thinking about this made me wonder whether you folks who read this column know about my background, and about what qualifies me to analyze current cases for pardon and parole boards, defense attorneys, local law enforcement and Trust me, although I’ve been on TV more times than I can remember, it hasn’t been glamorous.

The important thing is that what I’ve learned helps us solve crimes. By working with my brilliant associates and investigating and interviewing convicted serial killers, arsonists, rapists and other dangerous offenders, I learned how to “profile” criminals and their victims.

What is profiling? I’ll tell you what it’s not. It’s not magic or telepathy. I’m not “The Profiler” you see on TV. I don’t go into a trance and “see” the crime. I apply behavioral patterns to crimes by looking at the crime scene evidence, police reports, victim statements and autopsy results.

I should start at the beginning. As an FBI special agent, my first assignment was in Detroit, a city then plagued by bank robberies. I was fascinated with the thought processes that led robbers to select the branch, teller or weapon they had used. I began asking the guys we caught a lot of “why” questions, and they answered me.

I learned that criminals felt comfortable talking to me and that I could get into their minds by listening to them describe their crimes. The bank robbers basically told me how to prevent robberies by saying, for instance, that branches without windows on the street were prime targets, that taking the holdup note was crucial to escaping, and that hitting the same bank again after a cooling-off period made sense if the bank had been a good score.

Fast forward to 1977, when I joined the bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit at Quantico, Va. It was with this group that I conducted interviews with monsters like David Berkowitz, Ed Kemper, Richard Speck and Charles Manson. Using the same logic that I had used with my bank robber interviews, I sat down with these serial killers for hours at a time and got them to confide in me.

In the early 1980s, I met a rapist-murderer named Charlie Davis who was imprisoned in Maryland. You may not have heard of him, but you should be grateful that he was put away. In a way, he was like Britain’s Dr. Harold Shipman — both used their positions in the medical profession to fulfill their sick and deadly fantasies.

A deadly ride

Davis was an ambulance driver. He’d select a victim, rape her, strangle her, lay her body on the side of the road and anonymously report the body’s location. Then, playing the hero, he’d respond to his own call and pick up the corpse.

Davis opened up to me, as did the others I interviewed. He described how he’d follow a pretty girl into a bar or restaurant parking lot and, using the contacts he had through his father, who was a police lieutenant, he would call in her license tag and get a name. He’d then call the restaurant and have her paged, saying her lights were on. When she emerged, he would pounce. Taking off with her in either his car or hers, he would attack and kill her, then begin the second part of his vile game.

From the patterns I’d established, I knew his objective had been to rape his victims because the strangulations had been quick and uncomplicated. He explained that he had killed the women because they had seen his face and could identify him. I heard this from so many other violent offenders that it became part of the patterns I mentioned, and it is one of the best pieces of advice that no woman wants to hear: If you’re attacked and you see your assailant’s face, you must get away or he will kill you.

I thrived on learning from the killers I interviewed, but there was an enormous downside for me. I would go to sleep every night with images of disembodied heads, mutilated bodies and women being held and electrocuted in watery pits. I worried excessively for my wife and kids. By the end of 1983, it was too much. The weight of trying to solve 150 cases at once, including the “Trailside Killer” and England’s “Yorkshire Ripper,” brought on viral encephalitis, which literally split my brain in two and nearly killed me.


One Response to Going Mindhunting

  1. mdricex says:

    Mr. Douglas and Mr. Olshaker:
    I think that Mr. Douglas’s brush(es) with death are just a small part of the price he has had to pay for what he does. Lord knows, I am no FBI profiler, but I do think that the underpinnings that have guided my interest are similar to those of profilers, being: you don’t choose it, it chooses you. For me, I find that it is sometimes difficult to explain to others what drives the interest, and sometimes it is truly impossible for others to understand that the fascination is not some macabre perversion of which I get kicks reading about this horrid stuff. It affects you, at every inch of the core of you, but what other choice is there? Someone has to do it. Someone has to study these monsters. Someone has to “know” them. And with taking that into consideration, I found myself wondering if the training at the FBI Behavioral Science Unit for those involved in this work includes something which provides the scaffolding of “a soft place to fall” so to speak. I’m not talking about stress management, I am talking about something deeper, not necessarily religion but something similar to help check that they remain grounded and at least reasonably healthy. Does that make any sense, or am I just not getting what I am trying to say across very well?

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