Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Serial Killers and Criminal Profiling

By Pete Klismet
[Editor’s Note: Criminal profilers conjure up all kinds of images to the average Joe. Movies, television shows, and novels have often given us misconceptions of this special breed of investigator. Our guest writer today can help us understand this part of law enforcement because that is what he is trained to do—profile criminals. Pete Klismet, is a retired FBI criminal profiler who teaches, writes, and provides consulting services on this subject.]

“How’d you know that?”

“Are you some sort of a psychic?”

“Do you have a crystal ball or something?”

Anyone who has been trained in criminal profiling and has worked with law enforcement agencies, or has taught about the concept in college, has heard all of these comments.  And many more.  The word “profiling” conjures up some sinister images in people’s minds, and seems almost devilishly frightening to some, but yet fascinating to others.


Criminal profiling is the art of developing a behavioral profile of an offender based on evidence from a crime scene, and many other factors involved in an investigation of a violent crime.  Profiling is sometimes done by a forensic psychologist -- someone who has studied the criminal mind. However, since the mid-1980’s, the FBI has assumed a prominent role in the use of this technique.  A profile may then be used by police departments to assist in apprehending the criminal.  But a criminal profile by itself, rarely solves a crime.  In most cases, that is accomplished by old-fashioned detective work.

A profile is intended to be a behavioral portrait of an offender. If done correctly, the profiler may be able to determine ‘why’ a person committed the crime he did.  If ‘why’ can be determined, then we may have motive, and thus help identify the person who committed the crime.  There is a lot that a crime scene can tell a profiler about the person who committed the crime. This is especially true in homicide investigations. Criminal profiling is often used to help investigators identify psychopaths and serial killers who may otherwise go free. It can also be used to help identify other types of offenders, such as serial sex offenders.

In criminal profiling, a crime scene often helps to label the offender as organized or disorganized. An organized offender will plan ahead, often choosing the victim ahead of time. Any tools needed are brought by the offender. He is meticulous with details, and it is clear that the crime was well thought out. This tells a profiler much about the offender.

Organized offenders tend to be high in the birth order of their family. They are very intelligent, but often were underachievers in both school and life. Most of them have a live-in partner, are socially adept, and will follow the coverage of their crimes in the media very carefully.  Contrary to popular belief, a killer of this nature, even a serial killer, is not ‘crazy.’  Quite the opposite is true.  They also ‘hide in plain sight,’ and when identified are a complete surprise to people who know them and thought they were ‘perfectly normal.’

A more spontaneous or impulsive offense is often the work of a disorganized offender. He will act impulsively, with little to no planning involved, and the crime scene will usually show this lack of planning. Seeing this, a trained profiler can draw some conclusions about this offender.  Disorganized offenders are often of average or slightly below-average intelligence. They were younger children, they usually live alone, and are not as socially mature or competent as an organized offender. They often live or work near the scene of the crime, and tend to have a poor work history. Typically, they are younger than the organized offenders.

Criminal profiling is used not only to find potential offenders, but also to narrow down a list of offenders that has already been compiled by the police. Although it doesn’t work in every case, criminal profiling has helped investigators to apprehend hundreds of criminals. By studying the patterns and motives of previous offenders, profiling may enable investigators to predict the characteristics of current and future offenders, allowing killers and other perpetrators to be caught before they can continue on to other crimes.


Serial killers are a fairly recent phenomenon on the American landscape, and many people are captivated by what they do and how they do it.  Some of them, such as Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez “The Night Stalker,” and Jeffrey Dahmer have even had cult followings, as odd as that may seem.  In some ways it seems ghoulish, and in other ways the allure of a person who commits multiple murders seems to present a fear of the unknown, of not being able to comprehend such irrational acts, and a desire to learn more about what makes these people tick.  To some it’s not all that interesting, but to many others it’s something they can’t learn or read enough about.

I became friends with the husband of one of my students, an Air Force major, some years ago.  We both enjoyed golf, and would get together once or twice every couple of weeks and play 18 holes.  After one round, we sat down and were enjoying a couple of cool, refreshing beers.  Without any prompting, and literally out of the clear blue sky, Paul said, “By the way, I want to thank you for ruining my love life.”

“Me?  What did I do?”

“Brandy lies in bed every night with a book about one serial killer or another.  I have a hard time getting between her and her books.”

“Sorry… bad.”

While we both got a good laugh out of that, I know I’ve had more than a few of my college students who were similarly absorbed with learning more and more about the dark and gruesome, illogical actions of people who kill others for “fun.”  It’s one of the most irrational things man can do, yet trying to learn what drives them to kill with such blood-lust can almost consume one’s life.

When I went through what we called “Profiling Boot Camp” at the FBI Academy in the mid-1980’s, I was the same way.  I’ve spent nearly thirty years reading virtually every book on particular serial killers that I could get my hands on.  To the present date, that probably numbers well over one hundred books.  With every book I read I learn something new, and I’ve continued to do the same thing for many years.


But in my case, there’s a method to my madness.  When I combine my years of training and experience with what I may learn from a book, it almost seems unfair to not share that with other people who may have a similar interest, or may be taking a course on criminal profiling in college.   There are other books out there which some consider textbooks.  Some of these contain information which is not consistent with what I learned and practiced.  A few of these books offer the author’s own personal ‘spin’ on profiling, and more often than not, this is someone who declared themselves a ‘profiler’ because they read some books and perhaps have taken some psychology classes in college, including “Abnormal Psychology.”

I suppose anyone can make the same claim, but relatively few of us can make the claim with the training, education and experience to back it up.  And I think that’s what’s driven me for so many years.  No one “knows it all” about criminal profiling, and I certainly won’t claim to.  In fact, one thing I’ve learned over the years is the more I learn, the less I seem to know, but I continue to want to learn as much as I can.  And that’s what I hope to offer anyone who reads this book, whether you’re similarly fascinated and want to know more, or whether this book is used as a textbook for a college class.

This is not an academic treatise in which you will have to review statistical tables with boring columns of numbers and percentages.  Unlike a college textbook, I’ve tried to write this in a conversational manner, or as if I were doing a lecture in my college classroom.  I hated reading textbooks when I was in college or graduate school.  This is a practical guide which, while it won’t turn you into an instant profiler, will give you considerable understanding into how a profiler's minds work, and why they work the way they do.  Hopefully, I’ve written it in a way that will be understandable, and the cases I’ve reviewed should add some credibility to the concepts in an earlier part of the text.

I promise you that I’ve put as much of my learning and experience into this book as I possibly can, and if you study some of the concepts and cases I’ve studied or profiled, you may gain a similar thirst to know even more.  If I’ve made you think in a different way, I’ve done my job.  And an author or a teacher can’t hope to accomplish more than that.


Pete Klismet retired as full-time Professor of Criminal Justice in May of 2013. He is also retired from the FBI, where he was selected to be one of the original group of criminal profilers. He is the founder of Criminal Profiling Associates, on the web at He is the award-winning author of FBI DIARY: PROFILES OF EVIL, available from, his publisher at Houdini Publishing  or through the links on his own web site listed above.