How the FBI paints portraits of the nation's most wanted

April 22, 1996

One way or another, the work of the criminal profilers of the FBI's investigative support unit has been at center stage in the FBI's biggest recent cases--the sieges at Waco and Ruby Ridge, and now the capture of the alleged Unabomber. As the reality of Theodore Kaczynski's life and times emerges from the Montana woods, it bears a striking likeness to the profilers' most recent sketch of the probable suspect: a white male in his late 40s or early 50s, a highly educated loner who had difficulty forming relationships.

How do the FBI's behavioral scientists do it? Those who have served in the elite unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., say there's no magic in profiling, and they admit it's still as much art as science. Whatever it is, it's in demand: With serial killings and bombings on the rise, the FBI's 12 profilers are assisting their colleagues and other cops worldwide in 1,000 cases a year.

The mad bomber. The roots of profiling lie in another famous bombing case, that of George Metesky, the "Mad Bomber" who terrorized New York City in the 1940s and '50s with at least 37 bombs in train stations and theaters. The strikingly accurate profile compiled by James Brussel, a New York psychiatrist, helped lead police to Metesky in 1957. Just as Brussel predicted, he was wearing a buttoned double-breasted suit.

In the late 1970s, FBI agents Robert Ressler and John Douglas, and later others, took the discipline the next step by embarking on a series of interviews with a rogue's gallery of killers, including Charles Manson, Richard Speck, David Berkowitz, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy.

That research into criminal motives, methods and thinking forms one important plank of the profiling program; it is bolstered by each profiler's own investigative experience, which totals hundreds of cases. Finally, the unit demands an exhaustive file of information on any new case: forensic tests, autopsy results, toxicology reports, crime-scene photos, area maps and background data on victims.

What emerges from the piles of data is a series of likely conclusions drawn from some seemingly innocuous clues. For instance, if a killing takes place in daytime, it usually suggests that the killer is familiar with the area. If the crime scene indicates that the killer used a level of violence beyond what was necessary for the killing, the victim probably knew the killer. If a rape victim is elderly, the offender is probably a juvenile. A messy crime scene is usually evidence that the crime was committed by a messy, unkempt criminal.

Many of the FBI's profilers have advanced social science degrees, but a psychology background isn't crucial; the unit wants savvy investigators willing to put in two years of on-the-job training. But the profilers have sometimes clashed with professional psychologists--most sharply over an FBI profile of Gunner's Mate Clayton Hartwig, a suspect in an explosion aboard the battleship USS Iowa in 1989 that killed him and 46 shipmates. A bureau analysis requested by the Navy indicated Hartwig was suicidal and homicidal. But a majority of a panel of psychologists and psychiatrists consulted by a congressional committee challenged both the methodology and conclusions of the FBI's work. The Navy later withdrew its accusation against Hartwig.

The investigative support unit has also had prickly relations with other FBI executives, some of whom view the profilers as little more than crystal-ball gazers. Official post-mortems on the Waco and Ruby Ridge sieges concluded that the behavioral scientists were underutilized, and similar questions have been raised about the bureau's use of the Unabomber profiles. Still, surveys show that 80 percent of the cops assisted by the investigative support unit are pleased with the profiles. And the picture of Theodore Kaczynski that is developing says there may be something to it.


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