Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mike DeBardeleben: Serial Sexual Sadist

Uncovering Evil

Mike DeBardeleben, (US Secret Service)
Mike DeBardeleben, (US Secret Service)

The agents realized that DeBardeleben was possibly the elusive suspect in two cases of abduction and rape in 1979. He had often posed as a law enforcement officer, gaining the trust of his victims or insisting they accompany him before forcing them to do his will. Those who survived his attacks reported that he yelled a lot, swore at them, forced them to perform degrading acts, and could not maintain an erection. One girl reported that he'd said he wanted to get back at women because he'd had a wife who'd given him a raw deal. Often, he took photos of his victims naked and engaging in forced sexual acts. He threatened to use the photos against them if they ever told.

Based on the accounts from these women, Special Agent John Douglas had come in from the Behavioral Science Unit in Quantico to offer a description of this suspect's likely background and personality characteristics. Among those listed were:

  • Weak father and domineering mother
  • Record of previous offenses, including voyeurism and burglary
  • Adjustment problems in school and the military
  • Difficulty with females
  • Believes that his victims desire what he does to them
  • Fantasies influenced by sadomasochistic pornography
  • If married, he degrades his wife and experiments with her
  • Cagey and intelligent
  • Likely to be a police buff
  • May stalk the victims to relive the experience

In fact, DeBardeleben appears to have had most of these traits, and he took steps to strengthen his approach to victims and to escalate his behavior. For example, when he experienced fear during one episode, he devised a strategy to give himself more courage, and then wrote descriptions of what he could do next. There were times when he even wore women's clothing while he performed his fantasies. He would also take pictures, posing his victims in various ways. He even used the photos from one victim to help him perform with another, as if he needed dance steps drawn on the floor before he could participate.

He'd write about his feelings and plans, including the possibility that he might murder someone; in any event, he had to be "ready" for it, and it wasn't long before he went ahead.

How did he become such a person, and how closely did he actually fit the profile? According to Michaud, the Secret Service managed to discover a number of disturbing facts, many of them a match to Douglas's character analysis.

DeBardeleben was born on March 20, 1940 in Little Rock, Arkansas, the middle of three children. He was named after his father, who was an army officer and a rigid, controlling autocrat with a bad temper. Young Mike apparently had a strong love-hate relationship with his mother, who was an alcoholic and who frequently punished him for his stubbornness. By the time he was in high school, he had started to beat her up. He also got caught with a weapon and by the age of 16, racked up his first arrest. He went into the military but was quickly court-martialed for a variety of offenses.

DeBardeleben ended up having five different wives (one of which had dissociative identity disorder). He married the first one when he was nineteen and it lasted all of three weeks. Shortly after their separation, he began to steal cars. He married again, had a child, and was divorced in short order. Then his younger brother, Ralph, killed himself. He thought this was due to their upbringing.

DeBardeleben served eight months in prison for auto theft, and when he got out, he moved in with his parents, menacing them and indulging himself in pornography. Then he married his third wife and brutalized her to get her to participate in his elaborate cons. She later reported that DeBardeleben thought he was God.

It was his fourth wife, Caryn, who left a deep impression. He was thirty, she was eighteen, and he set about subjecting her to complete degradation. It was his goal to control her totally. She, too, participated in his criminal schemes, as did his next wife. Both of these women were subjected to different forms of humiliation and domination, and both were terrified of him even after he was out of their lives. His hatred for Caryn in particular was so intense that he often mentioned her to his rape victims. Eventually he turned to murder.

In 1982, as "Dr. Zack," he asked realtor Jean McPhaul in Bossier City, Louisiana, to show him some houses. She went out with him and never returned. After she failed to check in, they found her in one of the empty houses, lashed by the neck to a rafter in the attic. She had two puncture wounds to her heart, but she'd not been sexually assaulted. No one could determine a motive. It was an FBI agent who suggested that the motive was simply to kill for the thrill of it, or possibly to relieve stress. It was also likely that this offender would kill again, and DeBardeleben later became the chief suspect in the murder of another female realtor.

From that location, he passed funny money in several stores, and the agents who were seeking him on counterfeiting charges were able to pull witnesses together to get a composite sketch. Yet it was a year before they finally reeled him in at the mall in Knoxville.

Once detectives from various jurisdictions pieced things together, DeBardeleben faced numerous separate prosecutions in several states, including two for homicide. It was clear to everyone that they'd caught a very warped and dangerous man. Those involved wanted him executed, but that was not to be.

After three trials, DeBardeleben directed his own defense, claiming that the seizure of the tapes and sexual paraphernalia were not within the limits of the search warrant for counterfeit equipment. He moved to have them suppressed, which would have effectively halted the trial. However, the judge decided against suppression and that trialthis one for kidnapping and assaultmoved forward.

By the time six trials were over, all with guilty verdicts, the other jurisdictions awaiting their chance at him decided not to get into line. DeBardeleben had two life sentences on top of all the others, which amounted to 375 years. He'd be over 100 years old before he was eligible for parole. That meant that he wouldn't face charges for murder, and would not be brought to court in a death-penalty state as the agents had hoped.

It appears to have been 18 years between the time he committed his first murder and when he was ultimately caught for another crime altogether. It turned out that he was wanted in nine states, and that was only for crimes that they managed to tie to him. Most of those involved in the investigation believe that he's done far more than they could uncover, both in number and degree of evil. He became the primary suspect in four murders and a likely suspect in several more, as well as the principal suspect in numerous rapes.

Foos, Mertz, and Stephens believe that he did not get what he deserved. Having listened to the harrowing tapes of his victims and having seen the damage that DeBardeleben had wreaked in their lives, the officers believed this predator should have faced the ultimate penalty, and for them the case was never really closed.

Yet because he had written so extensively and had kept so many tapes and photos of his victims, DeBardeleben proved to be a fascinating subject for those experts who studied this kind of perversion.

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