Facing the Beltway snipers, profilers were dead wrong

Books: The Argument

The typical mass murderer is extraordinarily ordinary," says James Alan Fox, author of books titled The Will to Kill: Making Sense of Senseless Murder, (Pearson Education, 2000) and Overkill: Mass Murder & Serial Killing Exposed, (Da Capo Press, 1994). He is also a teacher with a textbook: How to Work with the Media (Sage Press, 1993), and maintains a self-promoting Web site named Wolfman Productions. Facilely exploiting his experience in both areas, Fox had previously managed to become a talking head on high-rated broadcast shows.


During the tempestuous three weeks of this October, while the media raged and the Beltway Sniper rampaged, Fox, his colleagues and competitors were truly in their glory. A cross section of ordinary people were being slaughtered as they went their usual ways within range of an assault rifle. That was the only link connecting the crimes -- ten dead, three critically wounded -- pedestrians, motorists pumping gas, shoppers, a schoolboy, a bus driver. With little to supplement repetitious accounts of the continuing killings, the media offered limitless space for the speculations of self-aggrandizing experts on whodunnit.

"He stops and shoots and doesn't hear the screams," Fox dramatically divulged to his alarmed audience. "Others enjoy squeezing the last breath from their victim. It makes it easier for him psychologically to murder." Clifton Van Zandt, a former FBI profiler, agreed: "This is someone who is cold, who is calculating, who has the skills and doesn't care who they hurt."


"This could be a disgruntled employee who was fired. It is someone who is angry," offered Brent Turvey, who wrote Criminal Profiling: An Introduction to Behavioral Evidence Analysis, (Academic Press, 1999) Turvey was echoed by Robert K. Ressler, best-selling author of I Have Lived in the Monster (St Martin's Press, 1998), and Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI, (St.Martin's Press, 1993).

Where does the Beltway Sniper hang out? "He's a weekday warrior. Even snipers have jobs," declared Fox. On the theory that serial killers strike close to home, D. Kim Rossmo, author of Geographic Profiling (CRC Press, 1999), applied his computerized mapping techniques, which, according to him, narrow the police target by 95 percent on average. "The more killings you have, the better it works," said the software manufacturer.

Ressler lamented that there were "no behavioral clues at the scene." Indeed, even the parameters of the sites were uncertain -- from where were the shots fired? There were no eyewitnesses, just bodies hit with matching bullets, and sightings of a motor vehicle thought to be a light-colored truck or van. "That vehicle will be in a garage or a lake," predicted Van Zandt.

The experts were neither misogynists nor racists. They all agreed with Van Zandt that "this is something white males do." Fox and Van Zandt, along with most others, estimated his age to be in the 20s to early 30s. Ressler thought there were two men, "a strong leader and a driver, and the leader is the shooter." He anticipated that "at least one of them may be in trouble with the law." "They see the end of the tunnel coming. They're going to go out in a blaze of glory."

When John Muhammad, 41, (aka John Williams) and Lee Boyd Malvo, 17, (aka John Lee Malvo) were apprehended without resistance at a rest stop off Route 70, near Frederick, they were placidly sleeping in a dilapidated Chevy Caprice sedan with a shooting hole cut out of its trunk. They turned out to be unemployed drifters with no permanent ties to Maryland -- or anywhere else, for that matter. People who encountered them in the course of the frantic search for the sniper -- at the Silver Spring YMCA, at several fast food eateries within moments of the shootings -- saw a man and his "son" who were deferential and polite. Muhammad was "charming," Malvo, "quiet".

"We were looking for a white van with white people, and we ended up with a blue car with black people," was D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey's afterthought upon the fact that the culprit car had attracted police attention at least 10 times during the critical period, once on an overnight stopover in Baltimore when Mohammed displayed his authentic Washington state driver's license, and was waved on his way in an old Chevy bearing New Jersey tags, headed toward the next set of shootings in Virginia.

Wrong place, wrong ages, wrong race -- the wrong men, if the jury is made up of profilers. The media, however, did serve an odd, but useful purpose when acting as a conduit to the killers. They were asked say "'We have caught the sniper like a duck in a noose.' " That bears analogy to the New York Times publication of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski's 35,000-word manifesto. It worked. The FBI profilers on that case had been looking for an uneducated man with a menial job.

Consumer confidence in the profiling branch of criminology -- which has risen to ridiculous heights since its inception in the early 1970s -- should be poised for a nosedive. Good for him that the pioneer profiler, John Douglas, voluminous producer of true crime books including Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit (Pocket Books, 1996), and who was the real-life prototype of an FBI character in Silence of the Lambs, has continued to stray into fiction: His thriller, Man Down: A Broken Wings Thriller (Atria Books) just came out.


During the sniper hunt, Douglas was a relatively reticent talking head. He says now that he declined numerous invitations from leading media hosts because, unlike some of his FBI progeny, he wouldn't sully the profession by going public with pure speculation. This felicitous reasoning doesn't serve to explain why, when he was hired by the parents of Jon Benet Ramsey to provide a negative profile of their child-killing propensities, he was eager to share his opinion "with Larry King and Katie Couric and everybody in between." Neither of the Ramseys nor anyone else has ever been charged.

Security guard Richard Jewell, innocent though he was, got the reverse treatment. An FBI profile transformed him from the hero who discovered a pipe bomb at Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, to the monster who planted the bomb that killed one and injured 116 of the people he tried to save. Zealous agents had conformed the profile to fit the prey. Jewell made more favorable headlines when he recovered damages from the media, and clearance from the federal prosecutor.

Dr. Steven Hatfill is still plagued by fitting the FBI profile of the "Anthrax Killer." Small comfort that a year after the Justice Department focused the glare of the media upon him, kept him under surveillance, searched his house, cost him his reputation and university teaching position, that Attorney General John Ashcroft announces Hatfill is and never has been a suspect.

And what about the horrendous case of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, who spent months in shame and solitary confinement, falsely accused of espionage, of giving Chinese colleagues top secret documents from his lab at Los Alamos -- a crime that never happened. Racial profiling played a major role in bringing about that travesty.

Back to the Beltway Sniper(s): The anticipated outpouring of books on the case is suspended while publicity-seeking prosecutors fight over which is most likely to end the story with the death penalty. Whatever happens, one doubts the profilers will want to claim credit.

Elsbeth L. Bothe retired from Baltimore Circuit Court after 18 years as a judge trying serious criminal cases, many of them murder. An active member of the Society of Connoisseurs in Murder for 40 years, Bothe has been collecting books on crime (mostly murder) since age 10. She collects skull and skeleton artifacts.