Episode #005: Criminal Profiling - Wrestlin' with Ressler

Criminal profiling is a popular conversation to have these days, but it is rarely understood from a historical and theoretical perspective. There have been multiple developments over time. In Episode 5 we talked about the history, development, process, and future of criminal profiling. We also took a look at two major cases in the development and use of criminal profiling. Here are the show notes!


  • Informal criminal profiling can be traced as far back as the Middle Ages when inquisitors attempted profiling heretics. 

  • It has been officially traced to the 1880s during the Jack the Ripper case. 

  • Crime scene clues and autopsy results were used to make predictions about Jack the Ripper’s personality, behavioral characteristics, and lifestyle. 

  • This was performed by London physicians George Phillips and Thomas Bond. 

  • Bond concluded “…all five murders, no doubt, were committed by the same hand … the women must have been lying down when murdered and in every case the throat was cut first.” Ripper had no medical training or knowledge of anatomy despite the killer’s extensive cutting and mutilation of his victims. 

  • This directly opposed what law enforcement thought. They believed it was a physician or someone with medical training. Many thought it was a surgeon because organs had been removed. 

  • Bond determined the wounds were gaping and that they were not consistent with the training of a medical expert or “…even the technical knowledge of a butcher or horse slaughterer.” 

  • Reconstructing murders to interpret behaviors allowed Bond to find that the acts were of a sexual nature coupled with elements of misogyny and rage. 

  • Determined the murdered must have been “…a man of physical strength and great coolness and daring … subject to periodic attacks of homicidal and erotic mania, and the character of the mutilations possibly indicating satyriasis.” 

  • Satyriasis: Excessive or abnormal sexual desire in the male (may also relate to necrophilia, etc.). 

  • In 1943, Walter C. Langer developed a profile of Adolf Hitler that hypothesized his response to various scenarios, including losing the war. 

  • 1972: After the death of psych-skeptic Edgar Hoover, the Behavior Sciences Unit of the FBI was formed by Patrick Mullany and Howard Teten, who are both credited with making the earliest behavioral analyses for difficult cases. 

  • Teten: “By 1900, I had developed a hypothesis that you’d be able to determine the kind of person you were looking for by what you could see in the crime scene. 

  • 1974: Investigations of notorious serial killers Ted Bundy and the Green River Killer were performed by Robert Keppel and psychologist Richard Walter. They went on to develop four subtypes of violent crime and the Hunter Integrated Telemetry System (HITS) database, which compiled characteristics of violent crime for research. 

  • Also around this time is when the idea of “serial killer” came into play. Before that they were called “multiple murderers.” 

  • 1978: Robert Ressler and John Douglas began an informal series of ad-hoc interviews with thirty-six convicts. A typology of sex murderers was created and it eventually formed the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. 

  • The Crime Classification Manual was published in 1992 and introduced the term criminal investigative analysis. 

  • Nowadays we seen criminal profiling in pop culture: Silence of the Lambs, Mindhunter, and Criminal Minds. 


  • Tete’s early method/testing: Reviewed unusual homicides from several agencies and to test himself and develop his approach, he would set up an experiment. “When I would receive the information,” he says, “I would examine all the data and prepare a tentative description of the perpetrator. Then I would look at the individual found to have committed the crime and compare the perpetrator to my description.” He consulted with two psychiatrists to check himself on the psychological disorders. 

  • Tete’s First Profile: This case involved the stabbing of a woman in her home that had confused local law enforcement. Teten considered the circumstances, looked at the documents, and said that it was the work of an adolescent who lived close to the victim. This boy would feel guilty and ashamed. When confronted he would immediately confess. To find him, they should just knock on doors in the immediate neighborhood. 

  • The prediction was correct. 

  • He soon teamed up with Mullany who specialized in abnormal psychology and together they created the criminal psychology program where they presented behavioral analysis as one among many investigative tools. 


  • Offender profiling, or criminal profiling, is an investigative strategy used by law enforcement agencies to identify likely suspects and has been used by investigators to link cases that may have been committed by the same perpetrator. 

The Theory

  • Profiling is described as a method of suspect identification, which seeks to identify a person’s mental, emotional, and personality characteristics based on things done or left at the crime scene. 

  • “Behavior reflects personality.” 

  • Two major assumptions when it comes to profiling: 

  • Behavioral consistency: The idea that an offender’s crimes will tend to be similar to one another. 

  • Homology: The idea that similar crimes are committed by similar offenders. 

  • The majority of profiling approaches assume that behavior is primarily determined by personality, not situational factors, an assumption that psychological research has recognized as a mistake since the 1960s. 

Typologies/Classification (FBI Method)

  • An assimilation phase where all information available in regard to the crime scene, victim, and witnesses is examined. This may include photographs of the crime scene, autopsy reports, victim profiles, police reports, and witness statements.

  • The "classification stage", which involves integrating the information collected into a framework which essentially classifies the murderer as "organized" or "disorganized".

  • Organized murderers are thought to have advanced social skills, plan their crimes, display control over the victim using social skills, leave little forensic evidence or clues, and often engage in sexual acts with the victim before the murder.

  • In contrast, the disorganized offender is described as impulsive, with few social skills, such that his/her murders are opportunistic and crime scenes suggest frenzied, haphazard behavior and a lack of planning or attempts to avoid detection. They might engage in sexual acts after the murder because they lack knowledge of normal sexual behavior.

  • Following the classification stage profilers attempt to reconstruct the behavioral sequence of the crime, in particular, attempting to reconstruct the offender's modus operandi or method of committing the crime.

  • Profilers also examine closely the offender's “signature” which is identifiable from the crime scene and is more idiosyncratic than the modus operandi—the signature is what the offender does to satisfy his psychological needs in committing the crime.

  • From further consideration of the modus operandi, the offender's signature at the crime scene, and also an inspection for the presence of any staging of the crime, the profiler moves on to generate a profile. 

  • This profile may contain detailed information regarding the offender's demographic characteristics, family characteristics, military background, education, personality characteristics, and it may also suggest to the investigator the appropriate interview/interrogation techniques to adopt.


  • A girl named Susan (Jaeger), age 7, had disappeared during a family camping trip in Montana in June 1973. Someone sliced through the tent fabric and grabbed the girl before she could cry out. Due to the nature of the crime site, Patrick Mullany (abnormal psych specialty and created the criminal psychology class for the FBI) believed the perpetrator was a local resident, a Caucasian male who’d spotted an opportunity. He would have an impaired history of relationships and would tend to stay to himself. He had military experience and he’d killed before, and possibly since. It was likely he’d taken Susan to kill her. He’d also collect trophies. 

  • They looked at other murders and missing persons cases in the general area, but none was similar. An anonymous caller suggested David Meirhofer, a 23-year-old Vietnam veteran, but when questions, Meirhofer had been polite, articulate, well-dressed, and helpful. To local investigators, he seemed unlikely. Under the influence of truth serum ("Truth serum" is a colloquial name for any of a range of psychoactive drugs used in an effort to obtain information from subjects who are unable or unwilling to provide it otherwise. These include ethanol, scopolamine, 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate, midazolam, flunitrazepam, sodium thiopental, and amobarbital, among others.), he’s taken a polygraph and passed. Still, he had  many of the traits and behaviors that the agents had described. Mullany and Teten were convinced Meirhofer was a cold-hearted psychopath who could lie easily. 

  • Teten recalls “Pat and I discussed his profile, and then advised the Montana agent that this type of personality can pass a polygraph. For this reason, he should still be considered a suspect.” 

  • Their belief in Meirhofer’s guilt failed to find support, even with Dunbar, who had invited them into the case. Still, they were determined to see this through. 

  • They urged the Jaegers to keep a tape recorder by their phone, and their hunch was solid: On the first anniversary of the abduction, a man called the Jaegers to say that Susan was with him. Mrs. Jaeger surprised the caller by forgiving him, provoking tears. An attempted trace of the call failed and while voice analysis indicated that the caller could have been Meirhofer, it was not definitive. 

  • Then, in 1974, a 19-year-old-woman, Sandra Dyckman, disappeared, and Meirhofer was again named as a suspect. (She had refused a date with him.)Human bone fragments discovered on an abandoned ranch near where Meirhofer had worked launched a more thorough investigation. In an attempt to throw Meirhofer off balance, Mullany urged Mrs. Jaeger to travel to Montana and confront him. So she did. 

  • Although Meirhofer still denied involvement, he later called her again, pretending to be someone else. She recognized his voice and called him David, greatly upsetting him. This time, the FBI had traced the call and was able to arrest him. 

  • They now had enough evidence for a warrant to search his home, where police discovered human remains rapped in packages labeled “Deerburger.” One contained a hand thatw as identified as Sandra’s. 

  • The day before Meirhofer committed suicide, he admitted to four mursed, including Susan’s. Teten and Mullaney believed that his motive had been the thrill of killing for sport. They thought he’d had a comorbid condition, schizopathy – a mix of psychopathy and simpe schizophrenia. 

The Basics

  • There are two major ways to profile: typological and geographical. 

  • Both represent attempts to work out the characteristics of an offender (or offenders) from the characteristics of their offenses. 

  • Both can be used as an adjunct to conventional police work to help police link crimes, focus their investigation, and narrow the suspect field. 

  • Application and the type of information they potentially provide is what makes them different. 

Geographic Profiling

  • Favored in UK.

  • Originates in psychological expertise

  • Based primarily on empirical, quantitative, statistical methods

  • Looks at the distribution of series of crimes

  • Applied to all sorts of crime

Typological Profiling

  • Favored in the US

  • Originates in law enforcement expertise

  • Based primarily on qualitative data and experience

  • Focuses primarily on behavioral evidence obtained at the scene(s) of specific crime(s). 

  • Evidence about how the offender committed the crimes is used to assign them to a particular category of offender.

  • Different categories are said to have different psychological characteristics. 

  • Category information is combine with other insights to build up a picture of the sort of person who committed the crime(s). 

  • Tends only to be used in cases of stranger murder and rape where several offenses are connected in a series. 

The FBI’s Approach

  • Most influential typological profiling approach developed by the FBI in the late 1970s. 

  • Originally based on interviews with 36 convicted serial killers and rapists (Mindhunter), combined with multiple crimes investigated and solved by the FBI. 

  • Cornerstone of this approach is the classification of crime scenes (and hence offenders) as either organized or disorganized. 

  • Four-stage process

  • Data Assimilation: Investigators gather together information from multiple sources (e.g., crime scene photos, police reports, pathologists’ reports). 

  • Crime Scene Classification: Profilers decide whether the crime scene represents an organized or disorganized offender. 

  • Crime Reconstruction: Hypotheses are generated about what happened during the crime (e.g., victim behavior, crime sequence). 

  • Profile Generation: Profilers construct a “sketch” of the offender including demographic and physical characteristics and behavioral habits. 

  • Along with that process there are five behavioral characteristics that can be gleaned from the crime scene: 

  • Amount of planning that went into the crimeDegree of control used by the offenderEscalation of emotion at the sceneRisk level of both the offender and victim, andAppearance of the crime scene

  • Determination of a crime scene being organized or disorganized is based on evidence of planning on the offender’s part. 


  • Suggests control and forethought

  • Evidence from the crime scene

  • Weapon brought to the scene

  • Evidence removed

  • Control of the victim

  • Likely characteristics of the offender

  • Unknown to victim

  • Socially & sexually competent

  • Normal to high intelligence

  • Angry/depressed


  • Suggests unplanned, chaotic behavior

  • Evidence from the crime scene

  • Weapon improvised

  • Evidence left at sceneLittle control of the victim

  • Likely characteristics of the offender

  • Possibly known to victim

  • Socially & sexually inept

  • Low intelligence

  • Severely mentally ill

  • From these concepts the profile is eventually constructed and will go beyond the typical characteristics of organized/disorganized offenders and include information extrapolated from the crime scene about the offender’s physical characteristics, employment/skill set, sexual history, age and ethnic group. 

Strengths and Weaknesses of the FBI’s Approach

  • Strengths

  • This is the first systematic approach to offender profiling and it has been enormously influential. 

  • Adopted by law enforcement agencies all over the world, many of who have adapted it and enhanced it. 

  • Offender typologies are potentially very useful in allowing offences to be linked and facilitating predictions about the timeframe of the next attack and how the series is likely to develop

  • Attempts to obtain and organize data about different types of offender have been important in challenging the stereotypes that investigators may hold about offenders and which may mislead investigators. 

  • Weaknesses

  • Attacks have generally centered on how objective the process is, the scientific status of the evidence on which is based and the usefulness of the profiles it generates. 

  • Assumes that offenders are one thing or the other and that this is stable over time.  Most offenders show both organized and disorganized features in their crimes and they may shift from one to the other between crimes. 

  • Judgements based on the evidence are necessarily speculative. 

  • Up to the profiler to decide which aspects of the crime scene evidence are important in determining the profile, so different profilers may reach different conclusion. 

  • The practice is based off the interviews of 36 serial killers and rapists who may have distorted recall of their own crimes and are already known for being manipulative, raising question about the data’s validity. 

  • Profilers are much more likely to report their successes than failures, which gives us a false read on how successful this truly is. 

Case Stats

  • Between 1971 and 1981, the FBI had only profiled cases on 192 occasions. By 1986, FBI profilers were requested in 600 investigations in a single year. By 1996, 12 FBI profilers were applying profiling to approximately 1,000 cases per year. Usage of profiling has been documented in Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, South Africa, Germany, Canada, Ireland, Malaysia, Russia, Zimbabwe, and the Netherlands. 

Case Study

  • Dennis Rader – BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill)

  • Motive: Sexual Sadism

  • Convictions: Murder, 1st Degree, 10 count

  • Penalty: Life without possibility of parole for 175 years (10 consecutive life sentences)

  • Victims: 10Span of Crime: January 15, 1974 – January 19, 1991 (some believe it was for thirty years, spanning from his age of 29 to 59)

  • Imprisoned: El Dorado Correctional Facility – Central 

  • Lt. Ken Landwehr – head of the multiagency task force that was attempting to catch him – called in the FBI. FBI sent two agents from their Behavioral Analysis Unit who helped devise an overall strategy for dealing with Radar. Created a personality profile of the killer and offered the task force ongoing advice on how to keep the suspect talking without antagonizing him further. Recommended that Lt. Landwehr be the designated go-between, helping him to write his prepared remarks in response to BTK’s communications. 

  • The FBI didn’t want to make the profilers names public in the event they had to be called as witnesses. They said that Rader is a lot like other serial killers in some ways, but not in others. 

  • Roy Hazelwood, retired FBI agent and one of the agency’s original profilers and now a researcher, teacher, and private consultant, says Rader may be the most fascinating serial killer he has ever studied. Most serial killers exhibit at least one type of paraphilic behavior (Paraphilic disorders are recurrent, intense, sexually arousing fantasies, urges, or behaviors that are distressing or disabling and that involve inanimate objects, children or nonconsenting adults, or suffering or humiliation of oneself or the partner with the potential to cause harm.) Rader has at least seven – the most he’s ever seen in one person. 

  • Rader also has two personality disorders – narcissism and psychopathy – that are common among serial killers. In layman’s terms, that means Rader has, among other things, an exaggerated sense of self, a lack of empathy for others, and no feelings of guilt, remorse, or fear.

  • Rader went on a spree that was unique in that it lasted an unusually long time. Also unusual was the amount of time that passed between his crimes.Robert Ressler, another retired FBI profiler believes that Rader may be responsibility for more than the 10 killings that have been attributed to him. “People don’t just stop for years at a time.” 

  • Another unusual feature is that he communicated so much and so frequently with the police and the media. In total Rader sent 19 messages in all, 10 of them in the 11 months before his arrest. Hazelwood finds it odd that Rader interacted with and seemed to trust Landwehr so completely, which he attributes to Rader’s feelings of superiority and invulnerability. 

  • Hazelwood, who profiled BTK as an FBI agent in 1984, got somethings right and others wrong. He said that BTK has fantasized about committing sadistic acts as a child, had an interest in psychology and criminology, and was an outdoorsman – all of which turned out to be true. He said that BTK was articulate, had likely been interviewed by and been cooperative with the task force, and was probably known to the operator of an adult bookstore in the area – all of which proved to be incorrect. 

  • Ressler says BTK’s penchant for communicating with the police and the media is typical of serial killers whose egos tend to be so fragile they seek attention for their crimes. To make that point, Ressler cites a passage from one of the letters in which BTK asks, “How many do I have to kill before I get a name in the paper or some national recognition?” A solid cry for attention. 

  • Many folks say that Rader wanted to be caught. Nobody who knows anything about the case believes that he wanted to be caught. If that were the case, he had over 30 years to turn himself in. He was planning another murder when he was arrested. His grand scheme was also to write a book about BTK, place it in a safe deposit box under an assumed name, and have it discovered after his death. 

Future of Criminal Profiling

  • Steven A. Egger, Ph.D., University of Illinois at Springfield,

  •  Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Vol. 15 No. 3, August, 1999 242-261

  • “Profiling is generally based on the premise that an accurate analysis and interpretation of the crime scene and other locations related to the crime can indicate the type of person who committed the crime…In order for there to be any substantial progress toward the licensing of profilers…it will be necessary for profiling to become much more of a science than an art…

  • “In addition to computerized profiling, social scientists are making progress with forensic analysis of written documents. Hodges, Callahan, and Groesbeck are developing and experimenting with a concept that they refer to as “profile decoding” [since changed to “thoughtprint decoding”]. Profile decoding is based on Dr. Robert Langs’ theory of the unconscious mind and the encoding of hidden communication…This work is currently being applied to the JonBenet Ramsey kidnapping note. With this written document, these researchers are attempting to seek the identity and the motive of the author of the note by decoding and clarifying the hidden communication of the narrative of the note. This new profiling technique has the potential to increase law enforcement’s forensic capabilities in dealing with ransom notes and other criminal writing…

  • “Some observers of profiling in the United States may argue that the art of science of profiling by the FBI, although significant and important, has not progressed or moved forward since its development of the asocial disorganized and nonsocial organized types in the late 1970’s…It becomes readily apparent that policing is becoming a knowledge industry. In the age of information…policing must gather all the information possible and shape it into knowledge in a timely and effective manner…The better the profile, the better its forensic quality.

  • “The behavioral sciences have indeed contributed greatly to offender profiling as a tool for law enforcement. Now that this tool is readily available…it needs to be sharpened and honed through refinement of research techniques and the further development of theoretical constructs so that it can increase the effectiveness of criminal investigation.”

  • Steven A. Egger, Ph.D., University of Illinois at Springfield, Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, Vol. 15 No. 3, August, 1999 242-261


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