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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
Philpin is the author of "Dreams in the Key of Blue"
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Baton Rouge Serial Murders - 5 Part Series
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