John Douglas is best known to the general public for his groundbreaking work in criminal profiling. While an FBI agent, he served as a SWAT Team sniper and later as a hostage negotiator. In 1977 he transferred to the Behavioral Sciences Unit, where he taught hostage negotiation and criminal psychology at the FBI academy. He is also credited with creating the FBI’s Criminal Profiling Program. Though now a widely embraced law-enforcement tool, criminal profiling in its infancy was not warmly welcomed in the tradition-minded ranks of law enforcement. Douglas had a hill to climb to convince police that profiling worked, and his unbending dedication ultimately opened doors. The accuracy and success of profiling cemented the techniques as a standard.
He has written text books on profiling as well as co-authored several non-fiction books, including "Crime Classification Manual: A Standard System for Investigating and Classifying Violent Crimes." He has teamed with Mark Olshaker on a number of non-fiction books, including the international bestselling “Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit."
Mark Olshaker is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, bestselling non-fiction author and critically acclaimed novelist whose research and experience have led to expertise in key issues of public policy, crisis management, and media and public relations. Early in his career he worked for the St. Louis Dispatch and wrote for the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and numerous other publications. He is an advocate for victim’s rights, and his work with the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease led him to co-author “Unnatural Causes” and “Virus Hunter.”
This pair of devoted men recently united again to produce the non-fiction “Law & Disorder: The Legendary FBI Profiler’s Relentless Pursuit of Justice,” scheduled to be released this month. “Law & Disorder” is an intriguing venture into the cases that haunt law enforcement and public alike: those cases where justice was denied because of bias, bungling, media or other influences. Included are Douglas’s reflections of painful lessons learned and how it feels to take a stand against the tide when you realize the wrong person has been convicted.
“Law & Disorder” is one of those books we need to read, and then read again.
Q) Thank you both for agreeing to answer a few questions. There was a moment where each of you knew your collaboration was feasible. What did you see in the other that made you want to work with him?
MARK) We often joke that John is a detective pretending to be a writer and I am a writer pretending to be a detective, and so we each respect what the other brings to the mix. Actually, when we became aware of each other was when I approached the FBI on behalf of “Nova,” the PBS science series, to cooperate with us in showing the real story behind such archetypal novels and films as “The Silence of the Lambs.” During the course of production on what became the Emmy-nominated program “Mind of a Serial Killer,” which I wrote and co-produced, John and I got to know each other well. Then when he was preparing to retire from the bureau, he asked me if I’d like to work with him on a book about his career. … The result was the best-selling “Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit,” and we haven’t stopped since. We turn out to be a good team. We respect each other’s talents and we genuinely like each other. “Law & Disorder” is our eighth book together.
Page 2 of 7 - Q) Mr. Douglas: You really did hit some brick walls when trying to convince law enforcement criminal profiling was a viable tool. What do you believe was the turning point where the average police officer said, “Wow. This works”?
JOHN) As soon as the unit was up and running we started getting requests, at first mainly from police chiefs and others who had participated in the FBI’s 11-week National Academy program. But it was really the Atlanta Child Murders case of 1979 to 1982 that really put us on the map. When my colleague Roy Hazelwood and I went down there at the request of the Atlanta Police Department, we found a city under siege, with 16 unsolved murders and no end in sight. All of the child victims were black, and most were boys, and the prevailing thought was a Ku Klux Klan-type hate group.
Once we examined all of the evidence and visited all of the body dumpsites, what we had to say didn’t win us any popularity contests. First: This wasn’t the work of a Klan-type hate group. There was nothing symbolic or ritualistic about any of the crimes; nothing public to create the kind of terror and intimidation that these groups strive for. I mean, Klansmen don’t wear white sheets to fade into the woodwork. Second: We were just about positive the UNSUB (unknown subject) was black. The dumpsites were predominantly in black areas of the city, and as soon as Roy and I visited them and saw how obviously we stood out as two white guys, we realized a white individual, much less a white group, could not have prowled these neighborhoods without being noticed. And third: While we could connect a lot of these crimes together by behavior and physical evidence, we couldn’t correlate all of them. We concluded that the two girl victims were not killed by the UNSUB or even by the same offender. A number of the other cases were individual murders that were lumped in because of the timing.
We were convinced we were dealing with a police buff or wannabe and profiled a young black man with a slick come-on who would easily be able to lure these poor and underprivileged children. He would be enticing them with money and or the promise of something to change their lives. We conducted a number of experiments to prove our theories, which are outlined in “Mindhunter.” We were also convinced the UNSUB was closely following the media reporting on the case, and we were able to use that to our advantage.
Through his behavior, we were finally able to predict where his next body dumpsite would be, which is how Wayne B. Williams was caught. Hair and fiber evidence linked him to several of the murders. Then, when he came to trial, I offered strategic advice to the prosecution team. The big hope was that the smooth, confident Williams would take the stand in his own defense, and when he did that, I advised the very talented and incisive assistant district attorney Jack Mallard how to “get to” him and reveal to the jury what this defendant was really like. It worked. Wayne Williams was convicted of two of the murders, and remains in prison to this day.
Page 3 of 7 - After that case, the requests from all over the country multiplied, we were getting requests from around the world as well, and they never stopped growing during the rest of the career with the FBI.
MARK) John won’t say this about himself, but I will. He became a legendary figure in law-enforcement circles to the point where some observers started asking him if was psychic. His response was always, “No, but I wish I was.” It was simply an illustration of Sherlock Holmes coming to life. It all seemed like magic until John would explain each analysis, and then it all made perfect sense – a combination of inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning and some inspiration and imagination based on both innate talent and hard-won experience.
For example, around the same time John was working the Atlanta Child Murders, he was called into the case of the Trailside Killer in the San Francisco Bay area, centered on Mount Tamalpais State Park overlooking the Golden Gate. The murders of a number of attractive and successful young and middle-aged women whose bodies were found in densely wooded areas was terrorizing the region and making people afraid to go out hiking. After studying the case files and crime scenes, John gave the assembled task force his profile, involving age, background, intelligence level, etc. And then he added, “The killer will have a speech impediment.” Everyone sat in stunned disbelief until he explained his reasoning. And even after that, not everyone took him seriously.
But when police followed a trail of evidence to David Carpenter, a 50-year-old industrial arts teacher, he did indeed have a severe stutter. In fact, John’s profile was spot-on in every respect except for age. Interestingly, one victim who survived reported that during her brutal attack, Carpenter’s stutter temporarily disappeared.
Q) Mr. Douglas: The horror of murder in all its aspects (the crime, victims, and perpetrators) has been a part of your life for so long, I have to ask how you step away from it to maintain your sanity and embrace life.
JOHN) It’s difficult, and you can’t always do it. I was in my 30s in December 1983 when I collapsed in a Seattle hotel room while working on the Green River Murders. I came down with severe viral encephalitis that basically shut my brain down. I was in a coma at Swedish Hospital for a week and not expected to live. They even picked out my burial spot in a Veterans Cemetery. I was handling so many cases at the same time, traveling so much, feeling this intense pressure from the bureau and responsibility to all the victims and all the individuals who would become victims if we didn’t take some of these serial killers off the street, I had this premonition something was going to happen to me. In fact, just before I left on the Seattle trip, I took out additional life insurance. Altogether, I was out on disability five months.
Page 4 of 7 - Even beyond situations like that, you realize from time to time how much you internalize what you do. I mean, you don’t come home to the dinner table and have your wife say, “How was your day?” because she knows you’d say something like, “I spent the morning studying crime scene photos from twelve prostitute killings in Rochester and I’m pretty sure the killer is coming back to masturbate over the bodies. I think that’s how we’re going to catch him.”
Or another example, when our kids were young, I’d be with them in a park or someplace, and I’d suddenly think to myself, This looks just like the stream they pulled those children’s bodies out of down in North Carolina.
So ultimately, I think, you just have to embrace life and realize there is more good than evil in the world. You have to maintain that perspective, you have to maintain a sense of humor, and you have to try to reassure the gift of every day.
One thing that has been very meaningful for Mark and me is the relationships we’ve developed with a number of families of murder victims. The FBI doesn’t encourage getting emotionally involved with cases, but in my line of work, you’d have to be pretty insensitive not to. We’ve shared weddings and birthdays and other happy events as well as funerals and memorials. Some of these people have become like family to both of us and our wives. I think they appreciate our understanding that while their lives will never be the same after their horrible losses, that they will never stop grieving and there will never be “closure” – a word most victims hate, by the way – that they are more than just the tragedies that befall them.
Q) Mr. Olshaker: You keep returning to crime, but your expertise also lies in health. What sparked your interest in virus and disease to become actively involved to a level of national recognition and respect?
MARK) First of all, I come from a medical family. My late father was a pediatrician and then a psychiatrist who did a stint a St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital and taught part-time at the George Washington University Medical School for 50 years. Both of my brothers are doctors; one in emergency medicine and one in radiology. The radiologist’s wife is a gastroenterologist with a specialty in liver transplantation. So that all might have given me some background. But what I think made me so interested in the subject is that crime and disease have a lot in common. They are two great evils that plague the human race and both are wrapped in mystery. Shortly after the publication of “Mindhunter,” while John and I were getting ready to tackle “Journey Into Darkness,” I collaborated with Dr. C.J. Peters, a legendary epidemiologist with the Army and later Chief of Special Pathogens for CDC, on “Virus Hunter,” chronicling his exploits against mysterious and deadly diseases around the world. And I realized that what C.J. and John do are not too dissimilar from each other. Not to overdramatize it, but they are both detectives engaged in single combat against death and injury and pain, or as the docs call it, morbidity and mortality. These men are both specialists – when you have a case that you haven’t seen the likes of before, that is baffling and potentially deadly, these are the guys you want to call in.
Page 5 of 7 - I guess I love the mystery, I love the high drama, I love the intensity, I love the heroism and I am awed and humbled by the stakes. In both criminal justice and public health, you see the human condition at its extremes; writ large, if you will. Of the three venues in which I have spent most of my career – documentary films, novels and nonfiction books – these are the two subjects I’ve covered in all three; not once but again and again.
Q) Mr. Olshaker: Your film work has covered history, architecture, science, medicine and drama. On the outside, Mark Olshaker appears to be a complicated, resourceful, driven man. How do you hope your family views him?
MARK) I suppose what I really hope is that they think of me as someone who is endlessly curious about just about everything. And I’ve been very fortunate in my career as a writer that I have been able to spend so much of my time “living other people’s lives” vicariously. I’m amazed and extremely grateful everyone time a fascinating man or woman lets me “tag along” on his or her career so I can get it right when I write about it. I am a huge fan of both theater and architecture, and have been privileged to be able to write about and produce films with some of the modern greats in each field. And as for history, I think that has to be the central discipline for any writer.
Addressing your three highly complimentary adjectives: I guess I am driven and I hope I’m resourceful. But as to “complicated,” once you get to know me, I think I’m fairly simple and straightforward.
Q) Lastly, do either of you have any parting comments for fans or those not familiar with your work?
JOHN) In some ways, “Law & Disorder” is a departure for us. Our previous books, from “Mindhunter” through “The Anatomy of Motive,” all had as a general theme the idea of catching the bad guys and delivering justice to victims and their families. “The Cases That Haunt Us” was kind of a transition, in that we were taking cold murder cases from Jack the Ripper to JonBenet Ramsey and trying, after you clear away all the myth and hype, to figure out what actually happened and didn’t happen.
When I was in the bureau and headed up the Investigative Support Group at Quantico, we were overwhelmed by case consultation requests and could only work for the police/prosecution side. Except for rare exceptions like David Vasquez in Virginia, we were not in the exoneration business. But when I retired and started getting consulting requests from both sides, I came to realize that profiling and the kind of behavior-based criminal investigative analysis we had developed was just as applicable in determining who had not committed a given crime as it was in determining who the actual perpetrator might have been. This caused me not only to agree to work for the defense in certain cases, but also to reflect on and re-evaluate a number of cases throughout my career. It’s difficult ever to admit you might have been wrong in a certain case, but if you have gained the insight and perspective to understand why you might have been wrong, that can be a very useful and enlightening experience. Why investigations and prosecutions go bad and what can be done differently is one of the main themes of “Law & Disorder.” It is really a cautionary tale of what happens when theory supersedes evidence and prejudice deposes rationalism.
Page 6 of 7 - MARK) John is referring to a case early in his career, that of the so-called Chicago “Lipstick Killer” William Heirens, whom John interviewed in prison for his serial killer study. Revisiting that case made us both realize that an investigator can only be as good as the evidence and case materials he is presented with. And we’re not saying it’s easy. In the book we present two murder cases, neither of which John worked, in which the convicted defendant went to his execution proclaiming his innocence and declaring that the state was killing a man who had done nothing wrong. Later scientific evidence proved that one of them was, indeed, guilty. In the other case, all of the forensic scientific evidence and data pointed to his innocence.
On the other hand, the book portrays two major cases John did work – the JonBenet Ramsey murder in Colorado, where he was instrumental in keeping two innocent parents from being charged, and the “West Memphis Three” in Arkansas, where he helped get three innocent men out of prison – one off death row. We also did a complete forensic analysis of the murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy, for which her flat mate Amanda Knox and Amanda’s new boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, were charged, convicted and served harsh prison time. Like the Ramsey case, John was none too popular when he started stating publicly that Amanda and Raffaele were innocent and that their trial had been an egregious miscarriage of justice. And like all of the other cases in the book, these are fascinating, character-driven stories. But the tragedy in each one that compounds the tragedy and horror of the original murders, is that good, evidence-based investigation could have prevented all of those miscarriages justice.
What we found in each case we examined – and believe me, each one of these is representative of so many others – what each case has in common is that the crime itself fit into a pre-existing attitude or belief system and that ends up directing both the investigation and the media coverage. This attitude or belief system might be held by the police, the prosecutors, the community, the media or practically anyone associated with the case. But if it is not combatted, if objectivity and rationality don’t intervene, the results can be disastrous and justice is buried along with the victims.
JOHN) And so we end “Law & Disorder” with an enumeration of the factors that lead to bad verdicts and our prescription for how the criminal justice system should be improved to prevent or lessen the chances of this kind of thing happening in the future. We hope all of our readers – those who work in the system as well as members of the general public – will pay attention and join in the public debate.
DA Kentner is an award-winning author. Learn more on www.kevad.net.
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