The FBI's John Douglas spends his days profiling criminals


March 11, 1991|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau of The Sun

QUANTICO, VA. — 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.

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