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Thriller Thursday: Profiling Dark Minds

Due to this post from Roni Loren (thank you for the warning, Roni) I’ve decided to remove most photos from Thriller Thursday. I hope you’re still able to enjoy them!

Television shows like Criminal Minds and Bones have made profiling criminals mainstream, but coming up with a psychological sketch of an offender isn’t as easy as an hour of T.V. makes it look. Although they are trained to look at crime scenes and victimology with keen eyes, criminal profilers aren’t mind readers. They don’t practice voodoo or make lucky guesses. Experience has taught them to use a combination of intelligence, observation, and perseverance to outwit the offenders they chase.

One of the grandaddies of profiling is famed FBI Agent John Douglas. Profiling was in the very early stages when Douglas took over the FBI’s Investigative Support Unit and began interviewing incarcerated serial murderers.

The inspiration (and original actor) for the part of Jack Crawford in Silence of the Lambs, Douglas has interviewed and profiled dozens of serial offenders including Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Wayne Williams (Atlanta child murder), Gary Ridgeway (Green River Killer) and San Francisco’s Trailside Killer.

Douglas believes that interviewing the experts – the criminals sitting behind bars – is crucial to figuring out how criminal minds work.

I learned as I went, conducting face-to-face interviews with Ed Kemper, Charles Manson, David Berkowitz, Richard Speck … whose single positive contribution to society was the window they gave me and my colleagues into the criminal mind. By talking with and observing them, we learned how they thought, from the escalation of their violent acts to victim selection. We learned how to predict their behavior. Most importantly, we learned how they revealed themselves through their crimes. That’s the basis of profiling. You look at the evidence – from crime scene to forensics to victimology – and find in the thousands of pieces of information the behavioral indicators from which you put together a picture of the perpetrator. —John Douglas

No killer has been more prolific in modern times than Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer. On November 30, 2001, after more than two decades of killing, Ridgway was arrested and charged with the murders of four women: Marcia Chapman, Cynthia Hinds, Opal Mills, and Carol Christensten. To avoid the death penalty, he pled guilty to all forty-eight murders attributed to the Green River Killer from 1982-1998.

He’s taken investigators to more than fifty dump sites and corroborated his confessions with intimate knowledge of the scene. While many victims were known, four new victims have been discovered during these trips.

The Profile

Back in 1983, Douglas knew the Killer targeted prostitutes and runaways along a section of highway between Seattle and Tacoma. The first victim was found along the Green River, and four more bodies surfaced in the next month. After he and his team looked at the crime scene and victimology, they presented a profile that turned out to be eerily accurate. The profile missed only one key point: Ridgway wasn’t underemployed but held the same job for twenty years.

The Profile (Courtesy of

  • White male
  • In his twenties to thirties
  • Physically strong
  • Familiar/ comfortable with the river
  • Inadequate personality
  • Would consider it his mission to rid the world of prostitutes, and be self-righteous in this mission (Ridgway went door-to-door in his neighborhood, campaigning against prostitution in the area.)
  • Would collect souvenirs from the victims (He took jewelry from victims but did not give it to any woman in his life, instead leaving it in the ladies’ room at work—he got a kick out of seeing women wearing the jewelry at work.)
  • Would inject himself into the investigation (more on this below)
  • Would follow the press closely
  • Would feel no remorse

The Ridgway case has been controversial for all involved because Ridgeway was brought in during the beginning years of the investigation and cleared. But as Douglas points out, the profile is simply a thumbnail sketch of the UNSUB (unknown subject) and many people will fit the profile. One of the key parts of developing a working profile is behavioral clues and victimology. With very little idea of the victim’s lives, it was difficult to walk in their shoes.

Douglas also told police they were looking for someone who could be lured into contact with the law enforcement and suggested staking out the crime scenes because he believed the killer would revisit. The media made this impossible, but it’s important to know that Ridgeway would later confess to going back to the sites, often bringing women such as his wife and other prostitutes to have sex near the bodies (the women were of course unaware of them).

Like Douglas predicted, Ridgeway injected himself into the investigation. He gave information about a particular victim, one Douglas surmised the killer knew because she was killed differently than the others, and because she was posed after her death. Ridgeway knew this particular victim and came forward because he was likely afraid police would make a connection.

So how did Douglas come so close on Ridgeway’s behaviors?  His years of experience with other criminals–men he spent hours listening to–helped hone his instincts and create a new field of criminal investigation, giving police and FBI agents an inside track to the criminal mind.

For more information on Douglas and his books, including Mindhunter, visit his website.

What do you think? Is criminal profiling a guessing game or meticulous, observant science? Do you watch Criminal Minds? Is it an accurate representation?

25 comments on… “Thriller Thursday: Profiling Dark Minds”

  1. I understand that TV series do not represent an accurate picture of profiling criminals, but they have spurred the public interest in this aspect of crime fighting. That, in turn, has helped those of us who write fiction geared toward criminal behavior find a better market for our work. Interesting post, Stacy.

    • That’s very true. Without the interest generated by television, crime fiction probably wouldn’t be as popular as it is today. Thanks for the comment, and glad you enjoyed!

  2. beverlydiehl

    Profiling is interesting – yes, definitely a science.
    I think when it comes to science, we learn more and build upon what we already know all the time, like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. The pioneers match the corners and a few of the edge pieces, others build out from there. But there are always some loose pieces in the middle, and some bits they thought were a match, that were actually a mismatch.

    • I agree. Profilers have spent too much time and been too spot on to be called anything but a science. Obviously nothing is perfect, but they have been a tremendous help to law enforcement. Great comment. Thanks!

  3. I love criminal profiling. If I had it to do all over again, I would go into this field of study in school. I do not at all thing it’s a guessing game – it is clearly a science, just as brilliant as chemistry, biology, and physics. I absolutely LOVE Criminal Minds and Bones. They are two of my favorite shows on television today. GREAT post, Stacy!

    • LOL, me too! I think it’s psychology, and the study of human behavior. Some people are just gifted in observing others and understanding what those behaviors mean. And spotting the patterns – that’s the grunt work of criminal profiling. Years of study. Thanks so much, glad you enjoyed!

  4. I think criminal profiling is very much a science and is instrumental to police investigations.
    Fantastic post Stacy – wow. Love the info and the way you write it. Fabulous!

    • I do, too. If I’d been smarter – and it had been as popular as it is now when I was in college – I would have definitely gone into that field. Thanks so much!

  5. When my husband was conducting investigations years ago, he’d been accused of being racist, sexist and all kinds of names when profiling in on a very low key level. People don’t understand that they need to categorize certain behaviors along with sex, race, age and even religious information. Sensitivity is out the window when it comes to crimes, especially serial killings. When there is no connection otherwise, profiling is a very effective tool.

    • Absolutely! John Douglas talked about that in one of his books, actually. For whatever reasons, most crimes are committed against people of the same race. And as you said, sex and age, and sometimes even sexual orientation, all play an important part in criminal profiling. Thanks for sharing and commenting!

  6. This is so interesting. Some time ago, they had the Ridgeway interviews on TV. Chilling stuff, to be sure. Criminal Profiling is fascinating to me–the process, the conclusions, all of it.

    • Ridgway is fascinating. No remorse whatsoever, only sadness because he got caught. The fact that he was able to keep going for so many years right under the nose of investigators is just unbelievable. I’m the same way. I certainly wish I was smart enough to do it, lol.


  7. Great article! I just today found you randomly on Twitter while looking for True Crime sources. I intended to follow your tweets for awhile and check your knowledge and content to see if I wanted to continue. It appears that I found a great source with my first try.

    I think profiling is a meticulous, very observant science. People of certain personalities do tend to follow similar habits. Of course the reality is that there are also ways that people veer from the norm, and there lies the challenge in using profiling flexibly.

    As far as TV is concerned. Several things are involved. One, they can’t possibly cover the meticulous detail and time it actually takes for a professional to figure out the results the characters do in one hour. Two, TV may give close to the details of how crimes are done, but they hold back on or change some details in the name of not allowing anyone to utilize the information in successfully executing a crime. Three, it at least gives the profiling field visibility, brings interest to it, gives a base understanding of it to viewers, and gains respect for what the professional crime investigators do which is not always the case in Law Enforcement.

    • Well, thank you. I try to research as much as possible, so I’m happy to hear you say that. And yes, meticulous is a great way to describe profiling. I also think being able to pay attention to detail without jumping to conclusions is a big part of it too. No matter how much of a pattern they’ve seen, a profiler always has to keep an open mind.

      Agree on all your points about television. It’s done wonders in bringing the field to the mainstream, and I’m sure law enforcement has seen an increase in enrollment because of that.

      Thanks so much for your well thought out comment!

  8. Fascinating, Stacy. And very well written. Profiling has come a long way since it first began. I love shows that highlight how it’s done.

    • Thank you, Cynthia. This was a hard one to write because there is a lot of info to comb through. So glad you enjoyed it:)

  9. Stacy, this is such a fascinating topic to debate that I wish I knew more about. I can see it being a game though, even with all the tools ar your disposal you are still left with one thing for certain – it’s not an exact science. And there is always human error. That Ridgway – horrific! 50 women killed.

    • Yes, it is a fascinating topic. Douglas’s book, Mindhunter, is really great because he takes you on his journey into profiling and how he perfected it. He goes through several cases, too. Glad you enjoyed, and thanks!

  10. Great coverage of the topic. My thanks to men like Douglas who were willing to interview these horrific killers to that we can better prevent crimes in the future. I can’t imagine being in the same room with Manson or Ridgway and keeping my cool.

    I think profiling is completely legitimate. I have a psych background, and some things really are predictable. Yes, it’s not a perfect science, but little is. It’s almost like making a medical diagnosis. Sometimes doctors get it wrong, but it’s amazing how often we get it right and can treat the problem. Surely we want to do everything we reasonably can to treat the problem of murderers in our midst.

    • Thanks, Julie! Yes, Douglas and his colleagues have sacrificed a lot of their lives to figure out what makes these criminals tick. I can’t imagine the horror stories they’ve heard, or what it’s like to look these people in the eyes. How awful.

      I didn’t realize you had a psych background, very cool. I can see how some things would be predictable after seeing it so many times. Thanks for such a great comment!

  11. I don’t think it’s guessing at all. I think we each have specific personality traits and habits that can be identified by our patterns.

  12. Pingback: Thriller Thursday: Mass Murder in Ohio | Stacy Green – Turning The Page

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