Sunday, June 1, 2003 Print This | Email This     

For profilers, missing the mark is common

By John Springer, Court TV

(Court TV) — They thought he was white and lived in Baton Rouge. But the man they arrested is black and lived in a suburb.

They said he was probably a loner who lacked mobility. Turns out the suspect is a husband and father of two who drove a truck.

The FBI behavioral profile of the killer responsible for a series of slayings in the southern part of Louisiana was flawed in many ways. But no one knew the extents of its flaws until investigators arrested 34-year-old suspect Derrick Todd Lee in connection with two murders and announced that he was a suspect in at least three others.

When he was arrested, relatives of some of the women Lee is suspected of killing rushed before the cameras with complaints and questions.

What made the profilers think the suspect was white, and did Lee go unnoticed because he isn't?

If the profilers had created a behavioral composite that hit more of the marks, might Lee have been arrested before the last two victims died?

The questions nag, but since Lee's arrest, authorities have celebrated the interagency cooperation in the intensive investigation and pointed out that FBI profilers had always cautioned that their assessment of the killer's psyche was based on his crimes and those of other serial killers.

"If you are putting out profiles that are terribly uninformed and inaccurate, I think that does harm to the case," said Brent Turkey, a private sector criminal profiler and secretary of the Academy of Behavioral Profiling.

"We saw that in the [Washington-area] sniper case. They were looking for a white male," said Turvey, noting that two black were eventually caught and charged in the multistate spree. "In the Baton Rouge case, they were looking for a white male living in Baton Rouge. They weren't looking for a black male who lived outside Baton Rouge."

The Washington-area sniper or snipers confounded profilers as well.

The nine-page behavioral profile the Louisiana homicide task force released last August starts out cautiously, noting that while the suspect is probably 25 to 35 years old the killer could be older or younger. Experts say it is standard for the FBI to couch its assessment, in case its wrong and in case a defense lawyer decides to use it at trial.

But as the Louisiana profile continues, the verbiage becomes less conditional, less cautionary. The words "probably," "perhaps" and "most likely" become fewer and farther between.

"This offender wants to be seen as someone who is attractive and appealing to women. However, his level of sophistication in interacting with women, especially women who are above him in the social strata, is low," the profile proclaims. "Any contact he has had with women he has found attractive would be described by these women as 'awkward.'"

That is hardly a description one can give a detective and say, "Now, go investigate," but experts in the still-evolving field say that people who think a behavioral profile is going to catch a killer are missing the point.

"Anytime a highly visible investigation goes on, when the case isn't solved people start screaming for a profile. 'We want an FBI profile!'" said Robert Ressler, a retired FBI agent who spent 16 years in the Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va. "The fact is, when a profile is done it is not a solution to a case. It is one part of a bigger picture. It's another element to the investigation that is going to give you more dimension."

Following the arrest of the Louisiana suspects and the suspects in the Washington-area sniper shootings, the public and the media immediately questioned the validity and usefulness of profiles that were materially wrong. But believers in behavioral profiling like Ressler say that the critics should look at the elements of the profiles that were on target.

"Think of it this way. If you get nine or 10 [characteristics] right out of a dozen, that would be good," Ressler said.

In the Louisiana case, the profilers believed the suspect was lower middle class or having financial difficulties. Lee, the suspect, filed for bankruptcy last year.

The profile also indicated that the killer would likely follow media accounts of the investigation and would even talk about them with other people. As it turns out, according to the Zachary, La., police chief during a press conference, one of Lee's relatives tipped off police that he was discussing the disappearance of a 28-year-old woman who wasn't even on the task force's investigative radar.

Accurate, well-reasoned profiles based on a close examination of case file have a place in investigation, but too many profiles in serial killings read pretty much the same, Brent Turvey added.

"The insights they were giving in the Louisiana profile were cut and paste and a lot of stuff
was contradictory in significant ways," Turvey continued. "It really amounted to a zero. The profile was terribly internally conflicted. It looked like something written by a ninth grader."

And that's not 20-20 hindsight. Turvey and other experts in the field were critical of the Louisiana profile — and the sniper investigation before that — as being too generic, too cookie cutter. A number of profilers not involved in the Louisiana investigation directly suggested that police look for someone with a history of burglaries, like Lee, but the FBI profile offered no such insight.

"Make it simple for the public. Don't give them a seven-page description of a psychopath," said Pat Brown, an investigative criminal profiler who teaches on the subject. "I think they turn out a generic profile and it goes out on every case: he's a loser, he's probably between 25 and 35 and has problems with women."

The problem with profiles, and the criticism that comes when they are found to miss the mark, isn't new and likely will not change, Brown continued. She recommends that police share what they know from crime scene analysis and keep their theories to themselves.

"I'm sorry, most of the psychological stuff is junk," she said. "Putting together a vague, generic profile doesn't serve anyone."