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Profiles in evil

ArtTelevision

The morning talk shows were barely over yesterday when Robert K. Ressler - criminologist, retired FBI agent, the man who interviewed Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and the Son of Sam - decided to stop talking to the media. After five days of being stalked by reporters, the renowned profiler had nothing more to say about the sniper who has killed six people in the suburbs of Washington. He did not want to speculate on motives or state of mind or why the most recent victim was a child.

What Ressler wanted was to get back to his vacation.

He explained this over the telephone - briefly - while a crew cleaned out the swimming pool at his house on Santa Rosa Beach. His children and grandchildren who had met him there deserved, he decided, as much of his time and attention as all the TV stations and newspapers that traced him from his consulting and training business in Spotsylvania, Va., to this quiet spot on Florida's Panhandle.

Profiling killers has never been a 9-to-5 job. After more than four decades in the industry - 10 with the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Division, 20 with the FBI, many in the Behavioral Science Unit, 12 at his Forensic Behavioral Services International business - Ressler, now 65, is keenly aware of the cost to his family.

Unlike the barrage of media requests, the gruesome nature of his work seldom creeps into his domestic life. Not listening to Dahmer, who drugged and dismembered his victims, explain a childhood fascination with skinning animals; not hearing Richard Trenton Chase, the Vampire of Sacramento, talk about slashing his six victims and drinking their blood; not getting Christmas cards from Gacy, who buried young men in the basement of his Chicago home - although the cards did "freak out" Ressler's wife.

When Ressler was a boy growing up in Chicago, when the notion of detective work first beguiled him, he did not foresee talking with Katie Couric about Chandra Levy, then a missing intern, or Charlie Gibson about Andrew Cunanan, the man who shot and killed designer Gianni Versace and four other men.

Young Ressler could imagine such a career would involve psychology but not the Massachusetts-based speakers' bureau to which he currently belongs. He could not anticipate coming face-to-face with the nation's most notorious killers or writing two crime-solving manuals and three autobiographies.

It's all there at www.robertkressler.com, he tells interviewers. And it is: How to order an autographed copy of his book about his FBI days, Whoever Fights Monsters, or a copy of his book about his days after the FBI, I Have Lived In The Monster. You can find his future speaking engagements at the College of William and Mary (Oct. 29), his last Court TV appearance (Sept. 10), and read about his international work in 1998 investigating the murders of young women in Juarez, Mexico. You can read an excerpt from his prison cell interview with Dahmer, learn about the difference between "mass murders" and "spree killings," e-mail him questions about what college courses to study, and find out where to catch one of Ress- ler's one-day seminars on "Criminal Profiling as a Career."

Career path

The question he is most often asked comes from college freshmen who think they want to pursue his kind of work. They may have read on his Web site that he was a consultant for The Silence of the Lambs, Copycat, Red Dragon and The X-Files. They may have heard his books have been the basis for works by Mary Higgins Clark and other authors. Whatever the case, they think crimes are solved as they are on TV: between commercial breaks and within an hour.

He tells them that's a myth. It's like the time a Psychology Today writer said Ressler coined the term "serial killer." He did not, but the notion stuck.

He tells those who ask that this kind of work is a commitment, a career that might begin with an inborn interest in understanding people but evolves over a lifetime of work and study, much of it involving the dark side of human behavior.

He tells people who ask that Bundy, who lured young women to their deaths in his Volkswagen, gave him "the chills"; that Gacy grew up four blocks from his childhood home; that Dahmer's house was "a real horror show"; that high-profile murderer Manson liked living in prison; and that the Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, who hunted down couples in dark New York alleys in 1976 and 1977, was "a sadistic little bastard."

What reporters who track Ressler down in Florida want to know now is what the career profiler thinks of the sniper on the loose in Maryland and Virginia. He (or she or they) even struck near Ressler's hometown, Spotsylvania.

"It was a random thing," he says. "I don't think there will be any more there."

Looking for answers

Then they want him to give them the answers, to assure their viewers and comfort their readers, and this is where he reminds them how frustrating it is for investigators in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, how hard it is to solve a crime such as this.

Because profiles begin at crime scenes, where killers leave behavioral clues that serve as footprints, there has been little to work with in the recent shootings. "All you have is a person and a puddle of blood, and there is no crime scene to look at. The killer has not personalized it," Ressler says. "So a profile here is very, very dubious."

What looked like a spree killing in the beginning now looks like the work of a serial sniper to Ressler.

"A profile can be expedient, something to set a direction of an investigation, but it doesn't stand alone. Without good investigative effort and the tips that come in, the profile is a moot point."

That is why he says this conversation with a journalist - his 50th in five days - will be his last for a while.

"If it's a matter of doing it to make a difference, I'll do it. All I'm doing here is being a talking head and providing filler for people running TV shows or writing articles."

For the moment, there is nothing more to say.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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