ELECTRONIC MAIL&GUARDIAN
Johannesburg, South Africa. October 8, 1997

The woman who
stalks the killers

THE ANGELLA JOHNSON INTERVIEW

The fragile woman with the job of 'chief psychologist' to the police is edgy and chain-smoking. Which is perhaps to be expected of someone whose job is tracking serial killers.

"I NEVER allow my picture to be taken for newspapers or magazines; it's too dangerous," insists Dr Micki Pistorius, chief investigative psychologist for the South African Police Service. She is edgy and dragging on a "borrowed" cigarette, having failed at yet another attempt to quit smoking.

I can see her point. If your job is to track down serial killers by tapping into the minds of the country's most dangerous criminals, it is not a good idea to let them know what you look like. As Pistorius's fictional female counterpart in the television series Profiler discovered when one of her subjects became fixated with her. There seems little danger of that happening here: Pistorious has her pick of burly detectives who are never far from her side.

So what exactly does this modern-age crime fighter do? "I assess a crime scene and try to reconstruct in my mind what happened and why. Then I put together a profile of the killer, his background, age, colour, etcetera." Some people call her a forensic psychologist, "but that sounds as if I examine dead bodies, so I prefer the term investigative psychologist'', she says.

It is a 24-hour job and she gets called whenever or wherever police come across a serial killing, sexually motivated murder, serial rapist or serious child abuse. It is not a job for the squeamish, and I wonder how Pistorius (36) copes with the pressures.

Standing at about 1,6m tall, she seems little more than a slip of a girl, too fragile to have committed so many murders in her mind. Today, decked out in pure white from head to toe as if for her confirmation - from her stiletto pumps and tights to her knee-length skirt, sleeveless blouse, and the huge bow securing mousy long brown hair - Pistorius is looking positively virginal.

The heart-shaped face is not particularly arresting - except for that shy little smile, quietly amused; and the eyes (ringed by smudged pale blue circles), holding back, like shutters keeping locked away sights too gruesome to be shared casually.

Maybe the pressure is beginning to tell. Images of bloody crime scenes and of greedy maggots feasting on decomposing bodies invade her sleep. "It's nothing to worry about," she assesses calmly. "Just a message for me to slow down and take things easy for a while.''

It is just as well that she has recruited, and trained, another woman psychologist to help with the wave of serial murders and other sexually motivated crimes that have plagued the country since the term serial killer was first recognised by the SAPS in 1994. That was when Pistorius joined the service, straight from completing her masters in psychology at Pretoria university. Until recently this former SABC journalist was the only person to whom the country's police could turn to for help whenever a serial killer was suspected.

It has meant sudden departures from her home in Pretoria, lengthy absences and erratic hours, all of which eventually caused the collapse of her eight-year marriage. "What man could put up with such pressures? It's no wonder I have no relationship, or any social life for that matter," she quips.

So are women better at this job because of feminine intuition? "It's nothing to do with gender; there's a lot of intuition in it, but anyone can do what I do. I've trained over 100 detectives, mostly men, to be able to investigate such cases."

But getting into the mind of a serial killer taxes the emotions. "The main thing is to try to focus on the person's sexual fantasy. You have to try to picture that; no matter how grotesque it is, to relive the most minute detail." To her the crime scene is like a painting. "You have to decipher it as you would a work of art. You know, things like the position of the body; weaponry, was torture involved, the kinds of wounds, how the body is positioned, is there evidence of a pattern?''

It is the little touches or rituals that make a difference "You have to reconstruct chronologically what he did (for it almost certainly is usually a male perpetrator) and figure out why he did it. If you want to kill someone you only have to shoot them, anything extra will give you characteristics of your killer.''

 

She describes four main types of serial killers: the visionary or psychotic, who act out a vision; the missionary, someone driven to do something like killing all prostitutes or Jewish boys. She laughingly cites King Herod as a serial killer. Power and lust are the other driving forces. But these also overlap and divide into the organised and the disorganised killer.

Pistorius believes that a serial killer starts off with a fixation in his early psycho-sexual developmental phases. There's the oral stage, which is up to two years old. "If the fixation starts here then the man is likely to attack or mutilate the breast."

Six to 12 years (the latency stage) is when the future killer starts to have abnormal sexual fantasies. But he is a loner and fails to develop a conscience. Pistorius argues that these boys usually lack a male role model. By the time he reaches puberty the fixation has taken hold. He begins to masturbate and will act out some of his sexual fantasies on other children or on animals. "He tends to be a loner and a daydreamer who fails to respond to social norms."

For example, as a boy, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer used to dissect dead animals found on the roadside. "His father thought he was going to become a doctor. Little did he know his son was getting an erection while cutting them up," says Pistorius.

The trigger that will send this fixated individual into the killing field could be anything that threatens his self-image and makes him feel useless. Those parents now worried about their shy introverted son can take heart; Pistorius claims that up to the age of 13 a child can be rehabilitated.

"Teachers, neighbours and family members should be on the look out for signs of fixation, such as breaking off dolls' heads, especially from children who have either been neglected or abused," she argues. Does this mean serial killers are socially created?

"No! It's in the individual. Social factors contribute - you won't get a serial killer from a happy family - but it is how the person reacts to circumstances." Her own upbringing was a happy one in an academically orientated family. She wants to keep them anonymous, revealing only that she grew up in Pretoria with several brothers and sisters.

Pistorius is a staunch Catholic. The first thing she does at a crime scene is pray for the victims and the killer. The most gruesome was when police discovered nine of Moses Sithole's alleged victims in the Boksburg veld. "They were in various stages of decomposition. It tells me that the women knew they were going to be killed. They must have seen the other bodies lying there.''

But there is no time for sentimentality. I ask if she has become inured. "You have to desensitise yourself to keep sane,'' she explains. Is there a point where burnout kicks in? Long fuchsia nails brush aside a stray hair. "Probably. But I can't see myself doing anything else. There is a sense of fulfilment in it, especially when we make an arrest. To know that no other innocent person will be targeted.'' -- Mail&Guardian, October 8, 1997.