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The FBI's John Douglas spends his days profiling criminals


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

"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

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