Robert D. Keppel, Ph.D. an Interview
Q. Your latest book is titled Serial Murder Future Applications for Police Investigations. Both the title and content indicate that it is pitched more towards the law enforcement professional. What was the motivation behind the writing of this book and what impact do you think it will have?
The motivation behind it was that it was actually a paper that I had written for the law section of my Ph.D. and I was told by one of my advisors that I should publish it, so I sent it out to a couple of journals but it was too long. Then one of the journal people got back to me and suggested that I publish it as a book. In 1989, I found Anderson publishing company so that's where it was first published. A couple of years later they didn't want to publish it anymore because the sales weren't up to their specifications so it just sat around until I found out about Authorlink. Now I've got it online again where students at universities and community colleges can have access to it because they are the kind of people who have picked up on this book, especially those in the criminal justice courses. It's perfect for students because it's not as expensive as a normal textbook, it has a narrow scope and it deals with the law and how serial killers attack the police work in their appeals. Rather than looking at the way they attack the death penalty statutes, let's look at the way the police do their work and see if we can improve the way we investigate serial killers by exposing the way they attack us. Either an eye witness testimony that's poor or a confession that's poor or things like that might help investigators to do things right at the beginning.
Q. How has the process of serial murder investigation changed since the Bundy case?
The big process is probably the presence of information systems that actually deal with the recognition of serial killers in operation, that's probably the big thing. That's why I started the Homicide Investigation Tracking System in Washington, that still exists today. It has over seven thousand murders in it, eight thousand sexual assaults and it is a repository for violent crime information which you can link other cases to or you can even find suspects in those cases that may be responsible for the "unknown offender" cases. That's the big thing that has changed is that there are information systems out there that monitor murder information and sexual assault information where, in the past, there weren't any.
Q. How do most serial killers get caught?
With the ones that I've seen, it's a combination of good police work, on the part of uniformed police officers and the ability to have an investigative force that recognizes when that traffic stop or a contact with that police officer, turns into a lead that they can develop into a good suspect lead. I always say that most of the time it's luck because some police officer has stopped them or come across them in some other uniform situation but it also takes the investigators in the background, either in a task force or working on a case, to pick up and recognize the information that could lead to the resolution of the case. That's one thing with a lot of these cases - when they become known to law enforcement, it's usually through the uniformed officers. How they categorize their information and use it is a different story. It takes a decent investigative force to take that information and make it something valuable.
Q. You have stated that catching a serial killer is only half the battle, the other half is conducting an effective interview. What interview techniques are used in serial murder investigations and how do they differ from a normal homicide interview?
In a normal homicide interview they are normally short term, perhaps a couple of hours and the issue is done. In a serial murder interview you better pack your lunch because you're going to be there for a while because they are a long-term proposition. There are two types of serial killer interview. One, where you have the goods on them and it's going to take you a long time to get into the fact that they're going to confess to you and the other where you don't have the goods on them. They'll still talk to you but you're not going to get the direct - "I did this"- type of information from them but you may get a lot of circumstantial information that they don't realize they are giving during the interview. You have to be patient as an interviewer in that, even though they're not talking about what they did with specific victims, they may be wrapping themselves up, and probably destroying, their own alibi by talking to you. They need to talk to you because what they're doing is maintaining their significance. They maintain this in a couple of ways. If they know you have the goods on them, they maintain their significance by bragging to you, and explaining to you, all the intricacies of the murders they committed. If you don't have anything on them, they can still maintain their significance and talk to you by leading you on for hours and they still get the same reward from that interview. That's why they talk and don't necessarily confess.
Q. What is your function at the Institute for Forensics?
I am the president of a very small, non-profit corporation that, at the moment, has a federal grant which enables us to give training throughout the United States on managing investigative technology. We go through all the various methods and techniques in technology that have been used to help catch violent criminals. We show the departments what they can do with their technology, with their hardware, with their software and with their databases and how to best use that to get the bad guys. That's one function. The other one is that I do a lot of teaching throughout the world on homicide investigation. The best ways to proceed; how to investigate; what is an investigation about and; how to follow leads. Most homicide investigators are over-trained in crime scene processing but no one ever teaches them how to follow leads and investigate them that's what I do, I try to emphasize that part of the equation. I am also called in as a consultant on many, many crimes where people have just given up and don't know what to do next so they call me in to give advice on how to proceed in their investigation. Most of the ones I get called in on are the hardest ones around. Cases that they have no hope of solving yet are high profile that the people doing the investigation have struggled with. Now, I don't know why, but I've had a lot of success in helping to solve these types of cases.
Q. What does the future hold for Bob Keppel?
I'm not really sure but I'm probably going to write a few more books. One is titled Grisly Business and that's on the psychology of the serial murder task force. Another one is called Stranger Killers. I'm doing that one with Bill Weiss who is a professor at the university where we conduct a lot of murder investigation analysis. We wanted to set out clearly the straight story about the true stranger killer in society and what they're like. I also continue to give expert testimony on signature analysis in criminal cases. I have just published my third article in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. My first article was on time and distance as solvability factors in murder cases. The second one was on signature murder and the George Russell case. The third I did was actually a case for the Canadian authorities on a signature series and was to be the first time that a crown counsel was going to use a testimony about connecting murder cases together but the guy pleaded guilty so I didn't get to do it but I wrote a journal article on it anyway. If you can get your hands on those it might give you more of an insight as to where I'm headed. I honestly believe that signature analysis is better than profiling. You see, you have this crime scene assessment umbrella over a lot of the work that we do and offender profiling is just one part. Signature analysis is another. Of course, figuring out how to solve the case is another phase of the crime scene assessment and figuring out interview procedures based upon the crime scene is yet another. I believe that signature analysis will be more beneficial than the other two. When somebody calls up and asked me to do an offender profile I say - sure, but do you want an offender profile or do you want to be told how to solve the case? I am more directed to helping law enforcement resolve investigations rather than just doing an offender profile that may or may not be right. I have had an extreme amount of success in solving murder cases by just reading paperwork and understanding how important that process can be. I'm not afraid of paperwork, most people are but I'm not. I also know what to look at. I know that the first thirty days of an investigation are very important to the solvability of the case because I have proven through statistical analysis that 94% of the time the police have information about the killer in their case files. They may not have focused on it but it's there. The next step is how do you figure out, from that first thirty days, who it is? What did they do right in the beginning? Let's say the case is six months old, a year old or three years old, what did that first thirty days tell you? In 94% of the time, having information about the name of the killer in the first thirty days is a hell of an advantage when you go to analyze a case. I am committed to helping investigators figure out how to solve cases because I know what's tearing them up. I know they don't get paid enough or they're not getting any overtime. A new investigator in the United States today doesn't work a case unless he gets overtime, which the departments can't pay him so the case just sits there. Pretty soon you have a huge problem starting up with political ramifications about not investigating cases followed by civil suits where parents say that the police didn't investigate the death of their child or what they should do or what they shouldn't have done. We have already started that in the United States where they're starting to instigate civil actions against the police for incompetent investigations. I have feelings on both sides. If you did your job you're safe with me, if you didn't do it, you're in trouble.