Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

ROBERT K. RESSLER: TAKING ON THE MONSTERS

Meeting the Killers

The behavioral profilers who went on the road to offer instruction to local law enforcement agencies decided to go into maximum-security prisons to interview some of America's most notorious murderers.

"In 1974, there was no operations unit yet," Ressler says. "We were just teaching. Around 1978 I came up with the idea of improving our instructional capabilities by conducting in-depth research into violent criminal personalities. I suggested we go into the prisons and interview violent offenders to get a better handle on them and to formulate a foundation for criminal profiling. If I were in California, for example, I would contact the agent who was our training coordinator there and have him set up interviews at local prisons with people like Charles Manson or Sirhan Sirhan. At the conclusion of our training, I would do the interviews."

The initial program involved 36 convicted offenders, but over the years Ressler participated in over one hundred such interviews. In the process, he coined the term, "serial killer."

"It wasn't from a specific case," he points out. "It just became evident that I was dealing with a lot of cases that were repetitive homicides. The media was calling all of them 'mass murder' without any differentiation, and my colleagues and I became aware of the fact that this was too general. We thought we ought to come up with a way to identify different forms of homicidal behaviors, so we started coming up with terms. 'Serial' became more or less self-evident because I'd been to England and there they called repetitive crimes 'crimes in a series' or 'series crimes.' I didn't want to just lift the British term, but I was thinking along those lines. When I was a kid, I'd go to the movies and we'd watch these ten-minute serial adventures that they used before the main feature and it took several weeks to play out the story. So from that I started calling these crimes 'serial crimes.'"

The goal of the interviewers was to gather details for a database about

  1. How murders were planned
  2. How murders were committed
  3. What the killers did afterward with the body
  4. What they did and thought about once they left the crime scene or dumpsite

From compiling information from the many cases, the interviewers learned:

  • Patterns of an offender's values
  • The development of sexual-homicidal fantasies
  • Patterns of an offender's thinking processes
  • Levels of recall of the crime
  • Degree of an offender's sense of responsibility
  • The evolving of MO from experience
  • The nature of ritual at the crime scene

To make the interviews as detailed as possible, the agents researched as much as they could find out about a particular killer. That way they could establish a "focused interest" in the target subject. Focus conveys respect, which generally helps to establish rapport and get results. It was important, they knew, to understand the subject's world and to go into it without judgment about the crimes committed. The point was to get information and all project participants were to keep that as their primary goal.

William Heirens
William Heirens

Among those killers who made the list, Ressler included one that had influenced him in childhood, William Heirens. In December 1945 at the age of 16, Heirens broke into an apartment on Chicago's North Side to steal something. Confronted by Frances Brown, 33, he shot and killed her. Then he found a knife and stabbed her. He tried to wash her off and then wrote on the mirror in lipstick, "For Heaven's sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself." The following month, he killed and dismembered a six-year-old girl and distributed her parts into sewer drains. The police tried to track him down but failed until June 1946, when Heirens entered an apartment and was chased and grabbed by the police. He confessed, added another killing that had not been linked to him, and was convicted of the three murders.

Lipstick on mirror (POLICE)
Lipstick on mirror (POLICE)

"Even as a kid, I had been interested in law enforcement," Ressler recounts. "I'd play cops and robbers, and since my father worked for the Chicago Tribune, he would bring home the newspaper. I learned that there was a killer loose in Chicago who was killing woman and leaving writings on the wall, so I started following it. Before he was identified, I conjured up a game with other kids to form a detective agency. We had cap guns and cameras, and we'd follow neighbors around and conduct crime scene examinations to find 'the Lipstick killer.' We got old tubes of lipstick from our mothers and wrote things on walls. We did this every day and at the end of the day we'd meet together to compare notes. Then when the thing concluded with Heirens' arrest, we all congratulated ourselves on our part in the investigation that caught the killer."

When Ressler was scheduled to give instruction in southern Illinois, he recalled that Heirens was in Vienna Men's Correctional Facility not far from there, so he got permission to interview him. "It was weird," he recalls, "because many kids have sports heroes and that sort of thing, and I wanted to meet this serial killer. I told him that I'd followed his case. He was about nine years older than me and he was kind of taken aback that, in a sense, he had a fan."

Aside from this interview, Ressler was involved in many others and on the list were murderers like Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan, Richard Speck, Edward Kemper, and John Wayne Gacy. In fact, Ressler conducted one of the last interviews with Gacy before the man was executed.

Robert Ressler (right) with John Wayne Gacy (CBI)
Robert Ressler (right) with John Wayne
Gacy (CBI)

Gacy, a businessman and charity worker in Des Plaines, Illinois, became a suspect in the case of a missing boy in 1973. Within a month, investigators had found the remains of 28 young men buried in the dirt crawl space beneath his house. He admitted to dumping five more into a nearby river. When tried for these murders, he used an insanity defense and one of the psychologists who examined him claimed that he'd experienced thirty-three separate cases of dissociated compulsion, otherwise known as "irresistible impulse." The jury didn't buy it and Gacy was convicted and sentenced to die. As appeals delayed his execution, he made himself available to some interviews. Ressler, who had already spoken with him a number of times, went in again.

"We had lived on the same street," he says. "It was eerie to be with him. I got into the investigation on that one with the police after they had already developed him as a suspect. They suspected him of one missing kid and then started finding the bodies, so I helped them sort out what they actually had from the standpoint of a multiple homicide. They had never encountered something like it before. I also helped them prepare the prosecution of the case."

About being face to face with someone like this, Ressler remembers Gacy as quite manipulative. "Yet he was gregarious and outgoing enough in the many interviews I had with him that even in his attempts to manipulate, he revealed a great deal of his personality and his patterns and motives. He'd get angry and then friendly. In a single session we'd go through a gamut of emotions. A lot of it was play-acting on his part, but we seemed to get along real well. There was no misperception, however. I was there to dig him in deeper. I believed that he was responsible for more than 33 homicides. He had traveled to 14 states during the time that all this went on, so I was trying to get more information and he was trying to maintain his status quo as a victim. These guys were victimizing him, he said, and he had a number of stories about them, but if you put all the stories together, it didn't make any sense."

Gacy was among many manipulative killers that Ressler encountered, but in some cases, he's called on a special type of expertise that few other profilers have.

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