Facing the Beltway snipers, profilers were dead wrong

The Argument

On virtually every point, the talking heads' guesses were way off the mark.

December 15, 2002|By Elsbeth Bothe | Elsbeth Bothe,Special to the Sun

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.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.