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A New Language

Date Published
May 13, 2019

Sidebar to the article Building a Culture of Interagency Cooperation: NIJ as Catalyst, by Paul A. Haskins, published in NIJ Journal issue no. 281.

FBI criminal profiling pioneer John E. Douglas recalled that Ann Burgess, a psychiatric nurse on the Boston College faculty, played a pivotal role in convincing the FBI “Mindhunter” profiling team to shift to a more structured approach in their interviews of sexual murderers in prison, facilitating a scholarly research framework that would attract essential grant dollars from NIJ.

“Ann was pushing us for the professional journals,” Douglas, a retired FBI special agent who is now a consultant and author, said in a recent interview. “We’re getting all this research data that now we begin publishing in professional journals — psychological journals, criminology journals.”

NIJ first funded the FBI Mindhunter profiling work near the end of the 1970s.[1] In ensuing years, various combinations of the FBI profiling team members and academic collaborators — led by Douglas, his FBI behavioral sciences colleague Robert K. Ressler, and Ann Burgess — would publish more than a dozen science-based works establishing psychological and behavioral traits of sexual murderers associated with a variety of crime scene evidence.

NIJ grant support became a constant in that scholarship. “We had no trouble,” Douglas said. “They were part of everything we published. We needed the funding.”

To build an adequate data sample, Burgess told Douglas and his partner Ressler that they would need to complete no fewer than 36 structured interviews of sexual murderers, most of whom were serial killers. Collaborating with Burgess, Douglas and Ressler developed a 57-page prisoner interview protocol, a form with questions about the overall crime, the victim, and the person who committed the offense. Ressler and Douglas directed the profiling unit’s laboratory, and Ressler and Burgess managed the NIJ grants that funded the expanded prison interviews, data collection and analysis, and related scholarship.

The initial NIJ grant, Douglas said, financed the team’s expanded field agenda — covering interviews of three dozen killers incarcerated across the country — and supported its prolific scholarship.

As the FBI team built its profiling arsenal in the 1980s, a portrait of the serial killer in particular cases could emerge more readily. One theory that proved to have high utility was that certain crime scene evidence was associated with a powerful, but hidden, sexual motive anchored in an active fantasy life.[2]

Among the many influential research discoveries by Douglas, Ressler, and Burgess, together or in various combinations with other agency and academic collaborators, were the following:

  1. Isolation of “organized” and “disorganized” murder types. A study based on the 36 sexual murderers who were interviewed (25 of whom were serial murderers) established the validity of an investigative theory dividing those individuals into two groups, “organized” and “disorganized.” Organized persons who commit murder tended to have a high birth order, average or better intelligence, inconsistent parental discipline, and poor work performance, although they were socially adept. Their crime scene typically had a semblance of order, and the persons was calm after the crime. The victim was often a stranger. The disorganized person who committed the offense, in contrast, was typically of low intelligence or low birth order. He was in a confused or distressed state of mind at the time of the crime. He was usually sexually incompetent and socially inadequate, living alone or with a parental figure. The disorganized murderer was impulsive under stress, locating a victim in his own geographic area.[3]

  2. Correlation between abuse in childhood and mutilation in sexual crimes. Ressler and a research team reported, in a study of sexual murders, a relationship “approaching significance” between early sexual abuse and later sexual deviations, including sexual sadism, with the ultimate expression of the murderer’s perversion being mutilation of the victim. Sexually abused murderers were more likely to mutilate victims, after the victim’s death, than were murderers who were not sexually abused.[4]

  3. Fantasy underlying four major phases of sexual murder. Ressler and Burgess reported that the sexual fantasies of sexual serial killers can be so vivid that they provide the impetus for sexual violence against victims of opportunity, driving the murderer’s actions through at least four phases: planning and thinking about the murder, the murder itself, disposal of the body, and post-crime behavior. “Discovery of the body is very important to the overall fantasy, and the murderer may even telephone or write to police.”[5]

Summarizing the impact of NIJ on the FBI’s sexual killer profiling work in that era, Douglas said, “It just professionalized us, and we came up with a whole new language for law enforcement.”

About This Article

This article was published as part of NIJ Journal issue number 281, published May 2019, as a sidebar to the article Building a Culture of Interagency Cooperation: NIJ as Catalyst, by Paul A. Haskins.

Date Published: May 13, 2019