Someone commits a particularly gruesome murder in a small town somewhere in the U.S.
A series of violent sexual assaults occurs in a relatively quiet neighborhood.
Several suspicious fires are set in a rural area, seemingly by the same offender.
The question on most everyone’s mind in each crime is, “Who would do such a thing? If we only had a profile of the suspect.”
“Profiling” is a term that has been around since at least the 1880s when Dr. Thomas Bond attempted to profile “Jack the Ripper,” who hacked and slashed his way into the darkest fears of the people of London in 1888.
The FBI defines profiling as, “A way to identify the personality and behavioral elements of an individual by looking at the crime scene and analyzing the crime the individual has committed. It is as complete a description of the individual who committed the crime as possible ... based on the crime scene and the crime itself. This may include, depending on the amount of information available and evidence left behind at the crime scene, the suspect’s gender, age and race, level of intelligence, job status, living circumstances and ability to maintain interpersonal relationships.”
Simply put, a person’s basic behavior exhibited at a crime scene also will be present in that person’s lifestyle.
A profiler puts together a profile based on a review of police reports detailing the incident, crime scene photos, autopsy photos and report and a determination of the apparent risk level of the victim, which is called victimology. For example, a person who stays inside, rarely ventures out, keeps doors and windows shut and locked and would never open his or her door for a stranger would be considered a low-risk victim. On the other hand, a prostitute would be considered high risk simply because of the number of individuals he or she interacts with, combined with the overall dangerousness of his or her occupation. To put together the best possible profile of a suspect, generally speaking, the more information available to the profiler, the more interaction between the suspect and the victim, the more complete and accurate the profile.
You may be thinking, “Anyone can put together a profile of a suspect, right? Why, they do it on TV in an hour all the time and it looks so easy!”
Yes, technically anyone can be a “profiler.” If you are a parent, for example, you probably have been putting together your own profiles for years without ever realizing your extraordinary expertise or having your own TV show.
Let’s say you have two children and, assuming they are like mine, they’re polar opposites. One, let’s call him the “clean freak,” is well-organized in every aspect of life and intends to leave absolutely no ecological footprint behind on this planet. The other child, bless his heart, never met a mess he didn’t like or drag his sleeve through. You come home from a hard day’s effort at the office simply wanting to spend a few minutes of well-deserved relaxation before starting the evening routine. As soon as you open the door, there it is: a disaster in plain view on the kitchen table. A half-glass of milk, cookie crumbs everywhere, crumpled napkin and the comics section laying out on the table. No one’s around, but you can hear a commotion upstairs that sounds like the Buckeyes are holding football practice. You know immediately which kid’s name to bellow and chastise for not cleaning up. You have just done the job of a profiler. Move over, Clarice Starling!
All kidding aside, there is an art to putting together an accurate, well-thought-out profile, based on a sound reading of the crime scene and victimology. Although many factors go into being a good profiler, including having a background in investigations and an understanding of psychology, more importantly, having common sense and an intuitive nature are a must.
In 1983, when I entered the FBI, I started my training to become a profiler. Even though I had been a police officer, detective and a campus police chief before entering the bureau and had received my master’s degree in counseling and psychology, I learned that I needed a much more thorough understanding of the investigation of homicide and sexual assault. At the urging of the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, Roger Depue, I embarked on an effort to shore up those areas of study, along with additional work in abnormal psychology.
During the early years of my FBI career, I had the opportunity to work with and learn from others in the unit, including John Douglas, Roy Hazelwood, Robert Ressler, and Ken Lanning – all considered giants in the field of profiling. One thing that seemed to be a common trait was their common-sense approach to viewing crime scenes and intuitive nature.
From 1979-81, there were a series of 29 murders of young black men and boys in the Atlanta area. The murders were dubbed the “Atlanta Child Murders.” Most of the black community believed the perpetrator had to be a white man, most likely an extreme racist and member of the KKK.
Douglas and the others in the Behavioral Science Unit put together the FBI’s profile of the offender and were laughed at because they indicated their belief that the suspect was a black male. Their common sense and intuitive nature told them that the offender had to be black, as only a black man could move about comfortably in the predominantly black neighborhoods in Atlanta where most of the killings took place.
When Wayne Williams, a 23-year-old aspiring music producer – and black male – was arrested and charged with two of the murders, people stopped laughing. Williams was convicted of the murders mostly through physical evidence, including hairs and carpet fibers.
Another example of this common-sense approach to profiling includes the Thomas Lee Dillon case. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a series of five homicides of hunters and fisherman were committed in five counties in southeastern Ohio by someone using a high-powered rifle. In that case, the task force used an FBI profile that mentioned the offender was most likely white, as he seemed to fit in with the population in those counties; likely in his late 30s to early 40s, because the suspect showed maturity in the commission of his crimes; was highly intelligent as he picked up his shell casings after the shootings and left no physical evidence behind; was gainfully employed throughout the week as the murders were committed only on the weekends; was most likely married as he possessed attributes conducive to attracting a mate; and had the ability to come and go for long hours on the weekends when the murders were committed, most likely under the guise of hunting.
The profile was released to the public and a friend of Dillon’s called the task force and said he suspected Dillon since he matched the profile. Dillon, a white man, 42 years old, married with one child, an IQ of at least 135 and employed at the Canton Waterworks during the week, eventually was arrested and charged with the murders. Dillon pleaded guilty to all five murders and was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences. He died in prison in 2011.
So, if you want to know how to become a profiler, shore up your investigative skills, study up on psychology, sharpen your intuitive nature, but don’t forget the common sense. Profiling is not an exact science. It is merely another – yet potentially very effective – tool in an investigator’s tool box.
Harry W. Trombitas is a retired special agent for the FBI. He currently is a senior consultant for Armada, a security consulting company, in Powell.