Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Enigmatic Case of Robert Charles Browne

Trusting a Psychopath

It's not easy to know when to trust someone who has already exploited trust as a route to torture, rape and murder. Psychopathic killers view their victims as objects, useful only as pawns in their own personal game, and they thus have this advantage: they feel no remorse. They're callous, manipulative and resistant to therapy, and when they choose to communicate, they have their own agendas, formed in self-interest and calculation. What we may accept as a "confession," they may view as bait. Their motives take shape within a framework that has no equivalent in the normal world. That's why we can't just accept what they say at face value.

Gary Leon Ridgway
Gary Leon Ridgway

A special agent from the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit interviewed Gary Ridgway, who had initially confessed to 71 before settling on the official toll of 48. She had this to say: "I can't think of any behavior on its own merit that would indicate that someone is telling the truth or exaggerating. It's not that I wouldn't believe them, but I'd like to get basic verification first. In my opinion, many of these people have an egotistical need to control and manipulate, and some like to be bigger and badder than the other guy."

She points out that not only might they lie to exaggerate or dupe investigators, but, paradoxically, they might also conceal murders they committed. They don't want anyone to know about their early feeble, halting attempts or the mistakes they made. If they lose a potential victim, they claim they intended to.

It's hazardous to be gullible, especially for investigators hoping to close a case. They might inadvertently reveal details, allowing offenders to play them for fools. As well, they may expend limited resources. However, there are hazards in dismissing these offenders, too, notably that they may stop providing details that can solve crimes. The bottom line is this: even skilled investigators may not spot a clever liar with a selfish agenda. Detecting deception takes time, patience, a bit of sleuthing, and the corroboration of facts. Above all, it requires the ability to avoid a rush to judgment that may result in mistakes, such as those made with Lucas.

While psychopaths appear to use the same language as normal individuals, they have their own inner logic. They calculate the world around them in terms of self-gain. They are society's vampires. They may be intoxicated rather than repulsed by the idea of targeting humans and picking them off, because it makes them feel powerful. Their agendas have no analogues in the normal world. That means developing a careful mode of communication. In this person's perception, almost any response could be the "wrong" one.

John Wayne Gacy
John Wayne Gacy

Former FBI profilers John Douglas and Gregg McCrary have conducted prison interviews with psychopaths such as John Wayne Gacy, who killed 33 young men and buried them under his house, and Mark Hoffmann, a brilliant forger who tried to escape debt by killing people with bombs. These criminals have no sense of the damage they've caused. To urge them to express regret is pointless. They might do so, but only as a manipulative tactic.

There are three important things to keep in mind when talking with psychopaths: clear goals, firm boundaries, and awareness of their triggers. In other words, keep your purpose in such communications up front, while also watching for the psychopath's manipulative tactics (charm, deception, deal-making) and for what will keep him (or her) talking as opposed to shutting down. It's tricky, and getting it right generally requires extensive exposure to the person. No matter how many letters Hess or others write to a killer like Browne, only those who have lived with him on a daily basis know him well, and even they can be fooled.

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