Copyright 1999 Seattle Times Company

Features News : Sunday, April 13, 1997

The Profiler: Law enforcement's new darlings blend psychology, computers, probabilities and suppositions to get inside the minds of serial killers

by Richard Seven
Seattle Times staff reporter

On television, the "profiler" arrives at the murder scene, notices the victim's shoelaces are missing, has a blinding revelation, and announces that the killer hates his mother and drives a blue Dodge.

The local police detectives (always flat-foots) are no match for the serial killer (a demonic genius) without the hand-holding guidance of the profiler (tormented by his or her ability to "experience" evil).

Even though this bears only passing resemblance to the real world, profilers have become law enforcement's darlings, thanks to TV shows "Profiler" and "Millennium" and a series of movies such as "Silence of the Lambs" that parlay the public's rubber-necking fascination with the deviant minds of serial killers.

While Hollywood profilers work like clairvoyants, real profilers blend behavioral psychology, crime-scene analysis, computer-tracking, probabilities and educated supposition. It is a tool for the tougher cases, the murders that don't make sense, that seem without reason or suspects, or when random killings or rapes begin to fit a pattern.

It is neither a quick-fix nor a sure thing. Without old-fashioned police work and facts, profiling is little more than stereotype in which every suspect seems to be an "unemployed, white male from abusive childhood who has problems with women."

It can also be misguided, as in the case of Richard Jewell, the Atlanta bombing suspect whom the FBI pursued because he was a cop groupie who still lived at home.

One of the nation's highly regarded profilers sits in a Seattle high-rise, behind an orderly desk and looking far less tormented than the executives rushing around the building. Bob Keppel, chief criminal investigator for the state attorney general, studies serial rapists and killers with the same detached, technical fascination that an primatologist has viewing baboons.

Keppel, 52, has chased, interviewed and analyzed serial offenders since 1974 when, on his third week as a King County Police homicide detective, he was handed the Ted Bundy case. He has consulted on the Atlanta Child Murders, Seattle's Green River killings and other serial cases across the country.

He holds a doctorate in criminal justice, having studied aspects of psychology, psychiatry, forensic dentistry and anthropology, sociology and other disciplines that apply to homicide investigation. He puts more faith in computers than intuition and relies not on flashbacks but on refined logic, organization and the imagination that studying thousands of homicides provides.

He also cringes at the word, "profiler," saying he often can only help detectives brainstorm and focus on types of suspects and strategy.

"The best profilers in the world are the actual detectives working the case," he says. "They just never get a chance to take time out, clear their minds and decide what type of creature they're looking for. They are so busy chasing leads they don't get to review their own case, which is the most important thing. That's what an experienced profiler can help with."

Signature left at the scene

Keppel and profilers from the FBI focus on a killer's "signature" - a kind of psychological fingerprint that reveals motivation and personality. The killer's methods will evolve but the reason or compulsion behind the killings, from choosing types of victims to posing the bodies, remains constant.

George Russell, convicted of murdering three women in Bellevue in a two-month span in 1990, killed his first victim in an alley, but the next two in their homes. The M.O. or modus operandi changed, but each woman's body was found grotesquely posed, an obvious and rare signature that revealed his distinct compulsion and linked the crimes.

"The outdoor experience wasn't pleasant for him so he went into houses later," says Keppel, who is writing a book, titled, "Signature Killers." "He was a cat burglar and he felt in better control in homes. But he kept posing the bodies because he needed to."

Questions that corner a suspect

Profilers carefully view the death scene for behavioral signs. Was the killer calm or panicked? Did he do anything other than what was necessary to kill? How much time did he spend there? Profilers pay special attention to what the killer does at the scene after the murder.

"A normal person can decide to commit murder and plan it carefully, but if he hasn't killed before he will be shocked by the loud bang when he fires a shotgun in a house and when he smells the stench of the blast," Keppel says. "That shocks him into doing something stupid. The `crazy' killer doesn't behave like that at all."

Profiling not only can link cases and prioritize an investigation, but it can help detectives approach a serial killer or rapist.

When Douglas County authorities focused on Jack O. Spillman III as their suspect in the methodical mutilation killings of a Wenatchee woman and her 14-year-old daughter in 1994, they asked Keppel for a profile so they could devise an interview strategy.

Keppel pegged the 26-year-old Spillman as an "anger-excitation" sadist acting out a highly ritualized sex-torture fantasy who should be questioned in a precise way. Spillman eventually read Keppel's profile and told the investigator it was dead-on.

"Just looking at the behavior at the scene you could tell that his fantasies were far too developed for this to be the first time - and it wasn't the first time," Keppel said.

Spillman not only pleaded guilty to the murders but also to killing a 9-year-old Tonasket, Okanogan County, girl the year before. He had also been mutilating animals.

Bundy case leads to tracking unit

Keppel, a Spokane cop's son, Washington State University graduate and Vietnam War veteran, had investigated one homicide when he was assigned to investigate the 1974 disappearances of two women from Lake Sammamish. They marked the start of Ted Bundy's killing spree and the direction of Keppel's career.

It took him and his equally young partner 18 months to chase down common threads from other jurisdictions. By the time they had Bundy on their short list of suspects he had been arrested in Utah after a prolonged cross-country rampage.

Keppel was struck by how he and his partner seemed to be winging it, that there was no set approach to investigating a serial case, no clearinghouse of information, no quick way to narrow the field of suspects and no experts for young detectives to turn to.

That prompted him, shortly after joining the attorney general's office in the early '80s, to help push for a violent-crime tracking system he supervises today.

The Homicide Information Tracking Unit (HITS) is the repository for records about murders, rapes, missing person reports and the whereabouts of ex-cons, sex predators, known gang members and other data.

Its 12-person staff includes experienced homicide investigators who work with local police agencies, monitor crimes across the state and in Oregon and make connections between similar crimes in different jurisdictions.

HITS holds hundreds of details of more than 5,500 murders and 6,700 rapes in the two states. It allows investigators to search for common methods, suspects or details.

It also locates the unusual.

Ask it how many women have been killed, bound with with nylons or socks and found in a building since the early '80s and it will provide details of eight cases, solved and unsolved. Plug in a name and you will see that a "witness" in one railroad yard murder was a suspect in a nearly identical killing across the state just a year before.

Keppel is experimenting with the program to see if he can build statistically valid psychological profiles of serial offenders by scoring certain aspects of their crimes.

Still, much of profiling is logic.

Breaking the Atlanta slayings

Early in the Atlanta Child Murders case, in which as many as 29 African-American boys were killed during the late '70s, authorities focused on white supremacists. But Keppel, then-FBI profiler John Douglas, and other experts felt the killer had to be black, someone who could calmly stroll the neighborhoods without being noticed.

The victims were strangled and many were left in degrading poses. That was too personal for a racist. The murderer was filling a much more complicated obsession.

Wayne Williams, an African American, was eventually convicted. Douglas advised the prosecutor to crowd and challenge Williams when he testified. Williams, as Douglas predicted, exploded and exhibited his rage for the jury.

Inspiration for TV shows

Douglas is as flamboyant as Keppel is reserved and is partly the model for the television shows and movies. The FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit in Quantico, Va., which he headed, does more than 1,000 profiles a year.

Douglas, now a consultant and author, was hired by the parents of JonBenet Ramsey, the 6-year-old girl found slain in her Boulder, Colo., home on Dec. 26. He doesn't believe they did it.

While in Seattle promoting his latest book, "Journey Into Darkness," Douglas said the father would not have found' the girl's body in the home's basement and then picked her up if he had killed her. Douglas said the killing was too violent for a mother to have done it.

Months ago, the local prosecutor called a press conference, looked into the camera and announced to the girl's unknown killer that the net was closing.

"That was John Douglas 101," Douglas said. "That's my technique. It is intended to create stress on the killer."

No one has been arrested and the couple are still refusing to be interviewed separately by Boulder police.

Search for the Green River killer

Douglas' profiling, Keppel's organizational skills and a team of several dozen detectives weren't enough to solve Seattle's Green River killings, in which as many as 49 women were slain between the summer of 1982 and early 1984.

The killer or killers abducted the women, mainly prostitutes, from Pacific Highway South and dumped their bodies in and near the Kent-area river and five other sites.

Outside of the first five women, who were strangled and found in or near the river shortly after they disappeared, most of the victims were identified by skeletal remains. Eight still haven't been found. Investigators never got a confirmed description of a suspect.

In 1983, Douglas was called in to provide a profile. He had been working 150 different cases, collapsed in his Seattle hotel room and almost died of viral encephalitis fueled, he says, by stress.

Keppel took leave from the Attorney General's Office to help organize the investigation about the same time. He was floored by the haphazard way the probe was being conducted and wrote a scathing report saying so.

Near the end of 1984, the strange case got stranger. Bundy wrote Keppel from death row in Florida and offered to give his own profile of the Green River killer. Keppel quickly accepted, not only to learn more about a serial killer's thinking, but also hoping to get Bundy to confess to his own Washington murders.

"He was very good at it (profiling)," Keppel says of Bundy. "He certainly had the experience. And he was also very good at interviewing his buddies on death row."

Much of Bundy's profile of the Green River killer, recounted in Keppel's 1995 book, "The Riverman," could be directly applied to Bundy himself. He got excited talking about the Green River death scenes like an alcoholic thirsting for a drink.

The killer, said Bundy, was an opportunist with intimate knowledge of the street lifestyle, enabling him to move without suspicion and fool his victims. He was probably in his 20's because the type of victim he pursued was generally suspicious of older people, Bundy said.

The Green River killings stopped in 1984, something many detectives, and Bundy, believe serial killers don't do. Police could find no evidence the pattern was being played out elsewhere. The killer could be in prison or dead. Some believe there may have been at least one copycat involved.

Days before his 1989 execution, Bundy finally confessed to Keppel that he had killed 11 women in Washington. Keppel had known about eight.

Inside a killer's mind

"What I learned from Bundy and others like him is that the process of murder for these guys goes on longer than our perception of it," Keppel says. "One of them told me, `the murder ain't over until I say it's over.' "There is no cooling off period for them because they are living it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from the fantasy life to practicing their routine, to renewing their remembrances through souvenirs that they keep to randomly selecting the next opportunistic victim."

Profilers believe a serial killer will be either unemployed, underemployed or working in a job that enables him to scout victims or sites to dump the bodies. They are likely to take souvenirs from the kills so they can re-live it. They are so deep into fantasy that a meaningful relationship is almost out of the question.

Late in the investigation, the Green River Task Force focused on a former Spokane-area law student who frequented and kept photos of prostitutes, had amassed police paraphernalia and fake IDs, and had been in the area through 1982 and 1984. He was later exonerated because he had alibis.

Keppel said the suspect didn't fit the profile for one important reason, he was too distracted committing other crimes and petty scams that he was not focused enough on murder.

Critics call method flawed

Profiling has skeptics - even some in law enforcement - who believe it is just one-size-fits-all stereotyping and psychological mumbo-jumbo that can lead police down a dangerously wrong path as in the case of Richard Jewell, who ultimately was cleared in the Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta. Others say its just hasn't withstood enough testing.

Keppel says that's all true if it is done without facts, expertise or caution. He, too, wants more study, more in-depth interviews with serial offenders and academic study. A serial personality can sometimes be detected, he says, before it produces a serial killer .

"We're only scratching the surface. There is so much more we need to learn and understand. I mean, what if we could somehow prevent this?"