Understanding Perpetrator Profiling

1975 Utah mug shot of Ted Bundy.

1975 Utah mug shot of Ted Bundy.

News is escalating in Rocky Mount, as CNN and other news venues visit this North Carolina town to determine whether a string of recent murders is the work of a serial killer. According to one story, local authorities announced last month that the FBI was helping investigate the series of murders that date back to 2005. The bodies of five black women with similar profiles have been found partially clothed and abandoned in remote locations outside the city during the past few years, prompting national media attention.

Each of the five victims who have been identified were black women found in remote locations near the town of Rocky Mount, located approximately 60 miles east from Raleigh, and each had a history of drug or alcohol abuse and prostitution, according to criminal records. Each woman was found only partially clothed and at least two of the women were strangled.

The FBI is collecting more information on the victim’s profiles – but what about the perpetrator’s profile? According to another story:

Some say he is an ex-military man or an ex-police officer because he leaves no evidence. Others believe he is exacting revenge on local women after contracting HIV from a prostitute…Forensic psychologist Dr. Michael Teague said the killings are probably the work of one person. “You’re talking about a man who didn’t finish high school, probably doesn’t have a regular job, probably not married or in a stable relationship,” he said.

You may wonder how this psychologist arrived at his opinion. He probably uses perpetrator profiling, which categorizes offenders into three categories: Organized, disorganized and mixed offenders. According to Forensics for Dummies (a great book, by the way, to learn all the basics about forensics), the organized offender is more sophisticated in his or her MO (modus operandi, or method of operation), which shows signs of planning.

These types tend to be of average or better intelligence, employed, and in active social relationships such as with spouses and families. Even though they’re driven by their fantasies, they maintain enough control to avoid being impulsive. They prepare and even rehearse. They tend to target specific victims or types of victims and use control measures such as restraints to maintain victim compliance. They bring the tools they need to gain access to and control of the victim and avoid leaving behind evidence. As killers, they generally hide or dispose of the body and are likely to have a dumpsite already selected.

One example of an organized serial killer includes the Zodiac Killer, a person who was so careful about methodology that he or she felt safe enough to send taunting letters to the press. The Zodiac murders remain unsolved to this day, although the last known murder was committed in 1969. Another very organized killer, Dennis Rader (the BTK killer), was very meticulous about his killings. He was ex-military, married with two grown children, was a Cub Scout leader and president of his Lutheran church. Rader also felt compelled to contact authorities, but he was caught when a computer disk mailed to KSAS-TV was analyzed and found to contain a file from his church still on it.

The disorganized offender, on the other hand, usually lives alone or with a relative, possesses lower-than -average intelligence, are unemployed or work at menial jobs and often are afflicted with mental illnesses.

They act impulsively, or as if they have little control over their fantasy-driven needs. They rarely use ruses to gain the victim’s confidence, but rather attack with sudden violence, overwhelming the victim. The crime scene often is messy and chaotic. This type of offender doesn’t plan ahead or bring tools along, but rather uses whatever is handy. As killers, they typically leave the body at the scene and exert little effort to avoid leaving behind evidence. Some have sexual contact with the victim after killing him or her.

One fine example of a disorganized serial killer includes Jeffrey Dahmer. Dahmer was able to get young men and boys to come home with him, where he ritually murdered them, cannibalized some of them and kept body parts around his former home and in his apartment. He finally was arrested after one victim managed to escape Dahmer’s apartment and flag down police.

The mixed-bag offender, finally, leave mixed messages at crime scenes. They may show evidence of careful planning, but the assault may be frenzied, which may indicate some loss of control over the crime scene.

From the information about the perpetrator gathered from the second news story, you might see that the picture about the “perp” in the Rocky Mount cases is mixed – one states that the killer seems organized (re: ex-military), whereas Dr. Teague has described a disorganized perp. In other words, it appears that little or no information about this murderer – if, indeed, it is one person – is available.

If the perpetrator in this case is a serial killer, several known facts about this type of killer may throw the wrench into any profiling job:

  • Sometimes serial killers operate in pairs, such as Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, cousins, who were convicted of kidnapping, raping, torturing, and killing girls and women ranging in age from 12 to 28 years old during a four-month period from late 1977 to early 1978. They committed their crimes in the hills above Los Angeles, California, and were known as the singular “Hillside Strangler.”
  • Sometimes the killer or killers change the MO to confuse authorities. An MO also may evolve or devolve over time.
  • Sometimes, what is left at the scene of a murder may be as important as what is missing from the scene of the crime. These tactics may change over time as well as the location of the serial killings.

While profiling perpetrators sometimes does not work, this practice can be on target, and it can help lead authorities to suspects – any one of whom may be the actual offender. Profiling did not begin until authorities began to gather information about serial killer Ted Bundy in the 1970s. Although Bundy was caught at a routine traffic stop, according to the detective who took Bundy’s confession, the profile assembled for Bundy’s crimes was perfect, “even to the point where they predicted he’d have a step-brother and that’s what he had.”

If you know any information about this series of murders in North Carolina, including the location of at least three women who are missing in this case, please contact the Rocky Mount Police Department at 252-972-1411. Rocky Mount authorities are searching for Yolanda “Snap” Lancaster, 37; Joyce Renee Durham, 46; and Christine Marie Boone, 43.

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