TRACKING SERIAL KILLERS The FBI's John Douglas spends his days profiling criminals


Quantico, Va.--It's no wonder actor Scott Glenn, who portrays the FBI's expert on serial killers in the movie "The Silence of the Lambs," still has nightmares.

He and co-star Jodie Foster spent a week at the FBI Academy with John Douglas -- the real-life expert on serial killers and the head of the FBI's National Center for Analysis of Violent Crime -- and got a taste of what Mr. Douglas does for a living.

For starters, Mr. Douglas, 45, and far more engaging and jollthan the movie character based on him, played audio and video tapes for Mr. Glenn of killers torturing their victims.

"Here's an actor coming from Idaho," he says of Mr. Glenn. "He's played a lot of parts over the years. Maybe he's a liberal guy. If he's going to portray this correctly, I want him to realize the nature of the work, that this stuff does exist. I want him to have feelings for what the victim goes through, and even my position on crime and punishment.

"I did such a good job with him that by the time he left here, he got to the elevator and said, 'I can't believe this. I'm ready to start a vigilante group.' "

And he had only been there for a week.

Mr. Douglas, a New York native with a Ph.D. in adult education, has been studying killers for more than decade. He's interviewed more than 50 serial killers, including such notorious murderers as Charles Manson, David Berkowitz ("Son of Sam"), James Earl Ray and nurse-killer Richard Speck. The psychological profiles he's developed are used to nab criminals, including Wayne B. Williams, who killed 27 black children and young men in Atlanta in the early '80s.

"It's almost as if the serial killers all read the same book," says Mr. Douglas, who along with other agents assisted Thomas Harris, author of "The Silence of the Lambs," with his research. "They do the same kinds of behavior."

They are often police buffs who follow up on their crimes, returning to the scene (serial killer Ted Bundy told him "the crime scene becomes part of the killer") or visiting the gravesites of victims. They commit crimes on their home turf, kill within their race and somehow inject themselves into the investigation.

"The scary part is they're very normal in their exterior," he says, adding that they generally boast average to above-average IQs.

If there is a single common thread, it is a troubled childhood, says Mr. Douglas. "All of them have had a terrible childhood of abuse or neglect."

But in terms of personality, he says, they can be as gregarious, extroverted and appealing as Ted Bundy or as shy and withdrawn as David Berkowitz.

Mr. Douglas was recruited by the FBI in 1970, while in the Air Force and attending graduate school in New Mexico. He was a street agent in the Detroit and Milwaukee FBI offices, working on bank robberies and kidnappings, as a hostage negotiator and a sniper on a SWAT team.

"I always wanted to find out what made these bank robbers tick," he recalls. "To me, that was the fascinating part of it."

So in his spare time, he hung out in medical examiners' offices, looking at old cases, talking with the examiners.

In 1977 he went to the FBI's National Academy at Quantico, a program for select police officers, but instead of relying on old course material for his class on "Applied Criminology," he decided to search out fresh information.

Along with colleague Robert K. Ressler, he started visiting penitentiaries around the country -- unarmed and dressed down -- to interview criminals about victim selection, tactics, post-crime behavior. "They liked nothing more than to

talk about their crimes," says Mr. Douglas. "Almost without exception, they didn't want us to leave."

In the early '80s, as part of what was then called the Behavioral Science unit, Mr. Douglas and the handful working with him started applying the information they were getting from the criminals to new cases.

Back then, he says, "profiling was so new that this was something akin to bringing in a psychic."

But the Wayne Williams case, which brought national publicity to his efforts, changed all that.

Mr. Douglas was brought into the Atlanta investigation, reviewed the evidence, observed the autopsies, visited the crime scenes and created a stir -- among the police and even the FBI -- by telling Atlanta police they should be looking for a black, as opposed to a white, male.

Although historically there have been few black serial killers, Mr. Douglas concluded, "You had to be black to move around in this community, to get a black child, abduct a black victim out of that community."

His profile proved to be correct, even up to the suggestion that bridges be staked out since victims were found in bodies of water. And indeed, Williams was caught on a bridge.

During the trial, Mr. Douglas coached the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Jack Mallard, guiding him through his cross-examination of the composed Williams.

"The jurors were looking at someone who looked on the order of John F. Kennedy," says Mr. Douglas, "a real toothy smile, good-looking guy who played his jury like playing an audience."

At Mr. Douglas' instruction, Mr. Mallard kept Williams on the stand at length, trying to rattle him with detailed questions. Finally, in a lowered voice, he asked the defendant, "Did you panic, Wayne? Did you panic when you wrapped your hands around your victim's throat?"

Williams weakly answered no, recalls Mr. Douglas, and then exploded, cursed and swore, and the jury saw a different man.

After the much-publicized Williams case, unsolved crimes came pouring into the FBI's profiling unit, which in 1984 expanded to become the National Center for Analysis of Violent Crime. The unit now works on all sorts of serious crimes -- murders, arson, bombings, rapes, kidnappings and tampering, such as the Tylenol and now Sudafed cases.

Today, the unit of about 35 handles some 100 cases at any given time.

It is not easy work, says Mr. Douglas, whose livelihood consists of examining decapitations, stabbings, skinnings -- the most grisly, inhuman acts imaginable. The more bizarre the crime, he says, the easier it is to solve.

And it is hard to keep a distance. He, like others in his unit, has developed such instincts about crimes and perpetrators that when he is involved in an investigation, "I start talking like the killer. I try to put myself in the frame of mind of the killer, and do the same with the victim."

Mr. Douglas nearly died in 1983 when viral encephalitis caused him to collapse and fall into a coma while in Seattle investigating the "Green River Killer." Doctors told him stress most likely played a large part in his illness.

Now, the father of three tries to balance his life more with family, humor and relaxation -- but that's not easy either. After his coma, doctors gave him soothing tapes to listen to. "They drove me nuts," he says. "They were talking too slow. I just couldn't stand it."

For years he has joked that one day he'll go over the edge and his colleagues will find him wearing a blue chiffon dress, smoking a cigar -- like Cpl. Max Klinger on "M*A*S*H."

And last December, for his 20th anniversary at the FBI, "I got nice gifts -- pens, watches. But they also gave me dresses, two blue chiffon dresses."

And, indeed, there they are, hanging on a coat rack outside his office -- just beyond the gun-cleaning room.

'Buffalo Bill' is a composite

"Buffalo Bill," the fictional serial killer being stalked by the FBI and police in the 1988 book and new movie, "The Silence of the Lambs," is a composite of three real-life killers, says John Douglas, the FBI's expert on serial killers:

*Ed Gein, the "Ghoul of Plainfield (Wisc.)," who skinned his victims in the 1950s, killing two women and digging up graves of others.

*Ted Bundy, sent to the electric chair in 1989, who often used a cast on his arm as a ruse, luring his victims by asking for their help.

*Gary Heidnik, of Philadelphia, who kept the women he abducted in a pit in his basement in 1987.

"Lambs" author Thomas Harris sat in on FBI classes and #F conferred with Mr. Douglas and his colleagues for his research. "He picked up cues from us," says Mr. Douglas, "and then let his imagination run wild."

Mr. Douglas says that fortunately, he's never seen the likes of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the brilliant psychiatrist-murderer in the book (played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie), who eats his victims.

"Dr. Lecter is something almost inhuman," says the FBI expert. "Harris didn't pick that up from us."

--Susan Baer

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad