Katherine Ramsland: Malignant Resentment – A Volatile Fuel for Violence

New PictureThe Washington Post reported that Elliot Rodger “flew under the radar” when police checked on him in response to his family’s concern. The ranting, suicidal college student who killed six people and injured thirteen last Friday in CA before shooting himself, was out to punish girls for rejecting him and guys who had a better life than he did. It was a “day of retribution,” he said.

People around him knew how much he blamed women for his loneliness. Some anticipated he might become violent.

Rodger’s earlier erratic behavior and refusal to get help or take medication had concerned his family and they’d asked police to pay him a “welfare” call. Sheriff’s deputies visited Rodger’s apartment on April 30 and found him to be polite, courteous, and quiet. He assured them he was not going to hurt anyone or himself, and they concluded that he did not pose a threat.

However, trying to assess danger to oneself or others from a single visit is generally pointless, unless the person is in an obviously psychotic state. Those who plot mass murder are secretive and will mask their intent from anyone who they think might stop them. An isolated visit cannot provide sufficient tools for determining the threat of future violence.

Reportedly, Rodger had seen several therapists, and a social worker had even contacted the police. He apparently did not get on well with others, but nevertheless did not like feeling so isolated and alone. He did have a record of personal difficulties that the visiting officers could have consulted, and his family knew that he had a mental illness. Even so, there is more to threat assessment than a loose collection of issues.

Predicting the potential for violence should draw on multiple domains of information. It’s not an analysis of just how one is currently behaving. No cop should bear the responsibility of making such a difficult judgment call.

The idea of “dangerousness,” or risk of violence, has been a central issue in the legal/mental health arena for years. Mental health experts once relied on their best clinical judgment, committing potentially violent people involuntarily. However, these assessments were correct in just one of three cases, so there were many “false positives” – people committed who would not be violent – and “false negatives” – people freed who then committed violence. The error rate was unacceptable.

During the 1980s, studies were undertaken to develop instruments to improve the percentage of correct assessments. Instead of focusing on dangerousness itself, they emphasized a variety of “risk factors.”

Actuarial prediction identifies the criteria used – age, gender, race, IQ – and assigns statistical weights to each in terms of which is most significant. Devices have been developed to determine such psychological conditions as the degree of psychopathy, impulsivity, paranoia, substance abuse, tendency to blame others, and reactive anger. Character and mental disorders are examined, along with school and criminal records, and a past history of violence or threatened violence. Some scales also evaluate attitudes about weapons.

For example, the Violence Risk Assessment Guide (VRAG) was developed at the Oak Ridge maximum security psychiatric hospital in Ontario, Canada. It’s an actuarial instrument for the prediction of violent recidivism, which means it has tested variables relevant to prediction in relationship to an outcome variable (any new violent offense). Predictor variables numbered around fifty and reflected those for which there was any empirical support for associations with violence.

The Historical Clinical Risk Management Scheme (HCR-20) offers a way to combine individual case analysis with an actuarial assessment. It uses a checklist of 20 items that identify historical and clinical risk factors to decide whether the individual is at a low, medium or high risk of violence. It improves upon actuarial approaches in tailoring an assessment to an individual, which allows for unique circumstances or conditions.

I’ve written a lot about mass murder. Studies I’ve looked at find that they are often rigid in temperament, they resent others and blame them for their own issues, they want to punish others, and they’re often self-defeating or suicidal (all of which were present in Rodger). Rarely do they have personal insight. Significant influences have been some form of mental instability, coupled with an inability to absorb and deal appropriately with life’s disappointments. Quite often, they feel entitled.

Usually they’ve made threats in the past and/or had fantasies about using violence to get their way. They arm themselves in preparation and think about the satisfaction of seeing others die. Some seek international fame. What they do is the result of long-term planning, with an ultimate goal. People around them have seen the red flags, but they will hide their specific plan. They want no interference.

Using actuarial data that have been affirmed with more studies, coupled with a case-specific assessment, is superior to intuitive judgment, although any prediction of a violent act must be qualified within a time period and set of circumstances. No one can predict future risk of violence with unerring accuracy, not even police officers, who see more violent incidents than most of us.

Still, even if Rodger had been erratic on April 30, when officers went to check, they could not have stated his level of danger a month hence. Even our best assessments cannot accomplish this. They can only provide the range of factors that put him at risk and identify those for which intervention might be helpful.

If Rodger refused such help, which he reportedly did, there isn’t much anyone can do until he clearly posed a risk of doing something now. That’s the state of our laws.

Perhaps our ability to prevent these incidents needs a re-adjustment of our cultural attitudes. Because a violent act of extreme aggression involves a complex interaction of factors, we cannot expect that a superficial observation by law enforcement will ensure our safety from a person with deadly intent. To assess danger to others requires a more sophisticated approach, which costs a lot more than we currently want to spend.

*     *     *

Dr. Katherine Ramsland has published 44 books and over 1,000 articles, and recently had a #1 bestseller on the Wall Street Journal’s nonfiction list. She teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania and offers trainings on psychological aspects of investigations. She writes a blog, “Shadow Boxing” for Psychology Today, speaks widely on serial killers and psychopaths, and is a frequent commentator on crime documentaries. She has appeared on 20/20, 48 Hours, Larry King Live, and numerous cable programs.

Read more
Criminal Minds: Where It Began

Criminal Minds: Where It Began

The FBI’s first profiles were basically shots in the dark that hit the target.

By Dr. Katherine Ramsland

They didn’t have computers when Howard Teten founded the initial efforts of what would eventually become the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. They didn’t have much in the way of a database. They faced resistance from colleagues who viewed psychology as silliness and muddle. But they had good instincts.

Howard Teten and Patrick Mullany are credited with making the earliest behavioral analyses for difficult cases.

“By about 1960,” Teten says, “I had developed a hypothesis that you’d be able to determine the kind of person you were looking for by what you could see at the crime scene.”

To compile a collection for analysis and comparison, Teten had reviewed unusual homicides from several police agencies, as well as from the California Identification Officers Association. To test himself and develop his approach, he’d set up an experiment.

“When I received the information,” he said, “I would examine all the data and prepare a tentative description of the perpetrator. Then I would look at the individual found to have committed the crime and compare the perpetrator to my description.” To check himself on the details of psychological disorders, he consulted with two psychiatrists.

In 1970, Teten offered his own first profile. The stabbing murder of a woman in her home had stymied local law enforcement. Teten considered the circumstances, looked at their documents, and said that it was the work of an adolescent who lived close to the victim. This boy would feel guilty and ashamed. When confronted, he’d immediately confess. To find him, they should just go knock on doors in the immediate neighborhood. This prediction turned out to be right.

Teten soon teamed up with Patrick Mullany, who specialized in abnormal psychology. Together, they initiated the criminal psychology program, a 40-hour course. They presented behavioral analysis as one among many investigative tools. As they acquired cases for demonstration, they were asked for assistance with a stalled investigation of a kidnapping.

Mullany describes the abduction of Susan Jaeger as their first real challenge. Despite how the TV shows and movies make this look easy, it was anything but.

Susan had disappeared during a family camping trip in Montana in June 1973. Someone had sliced through the tent fabric and grabbed the seven-year-old before she could cry out. It had been a bold abduction and the family was devastated, but the site had yielded no physical evidence to help with leads. When no ransom demand had arrived, local investigators had feared the worst. They’d called in the FBI. About 10 months later, Special Agent Pete Dunbar attended the psychology training and asked Teten and Mullany to take a look.

Mullany believed that the perpetrator was a local resident, a Caucasian male who’d spotted an opportunity. He would have an impaired history of relationships and would tend to stay to himself. He had military experience and he’d killed before, and possibly since. It was likely he’d taken Susan to kill her. He’d also collect trophies, i.e. body parts.

They looked at other murders and missing persons cases in the general area, but none was similar.

An anonymous caller had suggested David Meirhofer, a 23-year-old Vietnam veteran, but when questioned, Meirhofer had been polite, articulate, well-dressed, and helpful. He seemed an unlikely candidate to local investigators. Under the influence of truth serum, he’d taken a polygraph and passed.

Still, he had many of the traits and behaviors that the agents had described. Mullany and Teten were convinced Meirhofer was a cold-hearted psychopath who could lie easily.

“Pat and I discussed his profile,” Teten recalls, “and then advised the Montana agent that this type of personality can pass a polygraph. For this reason, he should still be considered a suspect.”

Their belief in Meirhofer’s guilt failed to find support, even with Dunbar, who’d invited them into the case. Still, they were determined to see it through.

They urged the Jaegers to keep a tape recorder by their phone, and this hunch was solid. On the first anniversary of the abduction, a man called the Jaegers to say that Susan was with him. Mrs. Jaeger surprised him when she forgave him, provoking tears. The trace failed and voice analysis indicated that this caller could have been Meirhofer, but it was not definitive.

A 19-year-old woman, Sandra Dyckman, disappeared in 1974 and Meirhofer was again named as a suspect. (She had refused a date with him.) Human bone fragments discovered on an abandoned ranch near where Meirhofer had worked launched a more thorough investigation.

In an attempt to throw him off balance, Mullany urged Mrs. Jaeger to travel to Montana and confront him.

She did so. Although Meirhofer still denied involvement, he called her again, pretending to be someone else. She recognized his voice and called him David. This greatly upset him. But the FBI had traced the call and was able to arrest him.

They now had enough evidence for a warrant to search his home, where police discovered human remains wrapped in packages labeled “Deerburger.” One contained a hand that was identified as Sandra’s.

The day before Meirhofer committed suicide, he admitted to four murders, including Susan’s. Teten and Mullany believed that his motive had been the thrill of killing for sport. They thought he’d had a comorbid condition, schizopathy – a mix of psychopathy and simple schizophrenia.

Despite doubts about Teten and Mullany’s behavioral profile, their approach was vindicated.

*     *     *

Dr. Katherine Ramsland has published 44 books and over 1,000 articles, and recently had a #1 bestseller on the Wall Street Journal’s nonfiction list. She teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania and offers trainings on psychological aspects of investigations. She writes a blog, “Shadow Boxing” for Psychology Today, speaks widely on serial killers and psychopaths, and is a frequent commentator on crime documentaries. She has appeared on 20/20, 48 Hours, Larry King Live, and numerous cable programs.

Read more
Dr. Katherine Ramsland: Serial Killers Only

Serial Killers Only: A new digital quarterly on serial murder promises to entertain but also educate.

By Dr. Katherine Ramsland

One of my colleagues, Lee Mellor, got it into his head that someone needed to create a quarterly magazine devoted exclusively to serial murder. So, he did it, and it’s a stunner. Beautifully designed, this debut issue features case histories written like short stories of such people as Col. Russell Williams and the enigmatic Israel Keyes. Lee, the editor-in-chief, even wrote a feature about the final words and meals of these offenders.

The first issue comes out today! To introduce it, I asked Lee some questions, which he graciously answered below:

1. Please describe the concept for Serial Killer Quarterly and tell us what’s in the first issue.

Serial Killer Quarterly is an e-magazine, the first publication by Grinning Man Press. This issue includes the killers you named above, plus the DC Snipers and the Internet’s first serial killer, John Edward Robinson. We’ve also included some lighter sections to break things up, such as “Killer Flicks,” where we review films featuring real or fictional serial murder cases. Mr. Brooks is in the hot-seat this quarter.

2. What motivated you to found this magazine?

I was inspired by the true crime/detective magazines of the 20th century. Though popular in the first half of the century, by the 1970s, most had been forced out of print due to the high overhead costs of printing and distribution, along with competition from television and cinema. With the advent and increasing popularity of electronic books, Grinning Man Press wants to take advantage of the lower cost of e-publishing to resurrect the genre. We’re focusing exclusively on serial murder cases due to the immense and enduring public interest in the topic. Research has shown that 40% of true crime publications feature cases of serial killing.

That said, there were some elements of earlier true crime magazines that we do not wish to replicate. One example is the ubiquitous cover illustrations of scantily clad women being bound and gagged by hulking males. Not only are these images dangerously misogynistic and insulting to our female readers but many serial killers have admitted to having used them pornographically in late childhood and adolescence.

The last thing Grinning Man wants to do is foster a new generation of Ted Bundys, so we take a more subtle, ominous approach to our illustrations. For example, “21st Century Psychos” features an image of Alaskan serial killer Israel Keyes unearthing his “hit kit” on a moonlit night. We’ve also replaced the earlier magazine’s tacky bright colors with a grittier more noir aesthetic.

3. What’s your vision for it?

Artistically, we aim to bring our readers nail-biting true life page turners that make for compelling reads without resorting to sensationalism. For readers who are interested in criminal psychology or criminology, we have also included a number of sidebars with descriptions of concepts such as psychopathy, sexual sadism, victimology, etc. However, this content is supplementary, and readers who are simply interested in a gripping story can ignore it. So the magazine is both entertaining and educational.

Also, I think there is a certain unwarranted stigma attached to reading true crime publications. Where I personally don’t mind sitting on the subway thumbing through a paperback on Richard Ramirez (great way to stop people from sitting beside you), I feel that a lot of curious readers are very self-conscious about how this would be perceived. By bringing true crime to our readers’ tablets, laptops, cell phones, and e-readers, they can enjoy this genre in public without having to worry about being unfairly judged by workmates or fellow commuters.

4. You’re laying out some issues by themes. What can we expect in the near future?

This year’s line-up is already finalized, and I am incredibly excited about it. Following our Winter 2014 issue “21st Century Psychos,” will be “Partners in Pain.” This issue focuses on serial murderers who kill in teams, including male-male couples (Burke & Hare/Duffy & Mulcahy/Lake & Ng), male-female (Clark & Bundy/Bernardo & Homolka), female-female (Golay & Rutterschmidt), and murderous teams of three or more people (Corll, Henley, and Brooks).

Issue #3, “Unsolved in North America,” will be published in the summer of 2014, with features on the “Servant Girl Annihilator” by the legendary Harold Schechter, with whom I had the pleasure to dine in NYC last summer, and Michael Newton’s look at the compelling case of the “Cleveland Torso Murderer,” which left a black stain on the career of the celebrated detective Eliot Ness.

The year will end with Fall 2014’s “Cruel Britannia” – an issue devoted to British serial killers. Burl Barer will write a feature piece on the infamous “Yorkshire Ripper” Peter Sutcliffe, Carol Anne Davis returns with a story about the grotesque Robert Napper ripper-murders, and you’ll be there with the horrific crimes and philosophies of “Moors Murderers” Ian Brady and Myra Hyndley.

5. What fresh angle on the topic does your publication bring?

As Serial Killer Quarterly is an electronic publication which can reach the world, we’re striving to build a magazine which truly reflects and respects our international readership. By the end of the year we will have featured killers from the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Russia, and Mexico. So we’re hoping to broaden our reader’s knowledge of multiple murder as a truly international phenomenon.

We will hold off on the more notorious cases until at least 2015, as Bundy, Dahmer, Gacy, Gein and Jack the Ripper have already been done to death (no pun intended). Serial Killer Quarterly will present cases that are equally as fascinating, but have, for whatever reason, flown under the radar of the general public.

*     *     *

Dr. Katherine Ramsland has published 44 books and over 1,000 articles, and recently had a #1 bestseller on the Wall Street Journal’s nonfiction list. She teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania and offers trainings on psychological aspects of investigations. She writes a blog, “Shadow Boxing” for Psychology Today, speaks widely on serial killers and psychopaths, and is a frequent commentator on crime documentaries. She has appeared on 20/20, 48 Hours, Larry King Live, and numerous cable programs.

Read more
Dr. Katherine Ramsland: Compliant Journalism

I recently published an academic article about cold cases that featured the investigation of a family mass murder from 1959. This past December, the unsolved case had launched the exhumation of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the infamous killers of the Clutter family as featured in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

My co-authors were Sally Keglovits, an expert on the Clutter case, and Gregg McCrary, a former FBI profiler who has taught seminars on cold case investigations.

To summarize, in 1959, all four members of the Walker family were killed in their home near Sarasota, Florida. During the half-century that has passed, numerous suspects were considered. Among them were drifters Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, who’d murdered the Clutters in Kansas the month before and who’d been in Florida during the time of the Walker assault. Their denial, supported by polygraphs and fingerprint comparisons, eliminated them.

However, in December 2012, they were exhumed from their graves in Kansas. Detective Kim McGrath had inherited the Walker case investigation and she’d zeroed in on Hickock and Smith as the most viable suspects. She hypothesized that Hickock had met the family in town and decided to rape Christine Walker, so he went out to their house and killed the whole family.

“I think my gut tells me that we’re on the right track,” McGrath stated. With her details in an affidavit, Florida officials persuaded the Kansas Bureau of Identification to exhume the remains and extract DNA for comparison with DNA from the scene. For some reason, this affidavit was sealed.

Still, some details were offered to news media. The case for exhumation seemed to have been made with a few items of class evidence and sketchy eyewitness memory, neither of which provides much substance. Reports also indicated that an unidentified polygraph analyst had dismissed 1960s-era polygraphs, so this had dissolved one hindrance to reconsidering Hickock and Smith. In light of more precise DNA analysis techniques, law enforcement decided that an exhumation was justified.

The samples were sent to a lab in Kansas last December, and a week ago, the KBI announced that the results were inconclusive. Thus, the Walker case remains open.

Since Hickock and Smith were not the only possible suspects, or the best, we wondered why they’d been singled out. As we looked at the available facts of the Walker case, we thought that still-viable candidates had been overlooked.

The decision to go forward with a cold case investigation, according to Gregg McCrary, is based on assessing likely risks and consequences to the community. These consequences may include the level of risk for additional violence if the violent offender(s) are at large, but they also include pragmatic considerations, such as a cost projection that includes methods, objectives, and manpower needs.

Costs are weighed against the probability of success, which depends on solvability factors, such as a good suspect, witnesses with new information, new evidence, or a once-intact relationship that has broken up. In some cases, new technologies can move a case up the solvability scale, as can something that was not utilized in the original investigation.

Top priority cases would have well-developed suspects and preserved evidence on which a new technology can be used. Cases with many unknowns, or those with high expenses and little foreseeable payoff, are relegated to the lowest priority.

So, during our research, we were puzzled that the news articles we found seemed to accept the viability of this exhumation without much probing. For example, I asked several reporters who the “expert” was who’d dismissed polygraphs from the 1960s. No one seemed to know. They also didn’t know if this expert had actually seen the polygraphs done with Hickock and Smith. Yet they accepted the “expert opinion” as reliable.

Even a friend of mine in forensics stated in print that evidence against Hickock and Smith was “good,” although he hadn’t seen the affidavit or evaluated the case. He’d read a reporter’s opinion.

I asked a Florida-based reporter whether the cost of such an investigation had been disclosed to the public, since I knew it would be considerable. She didn’t understand why cost was relevant. I sensed that she hadn’t researched cold case protocols and/or did not view herself as a protector of public interest.

Thus, as we researched the case ourselves and decided there were too many holes for a coherent narrative, let alone enough support for a double exhumation, we also noted the lack of probing journalism. It seemed to us that few reporters had tried to get the affidavit unsealed or had evaluated whether a detective’s “gut feeling” about the evidence supported the costs. There would be stonewalling by law enforcement, or course, but doesn’t good journalism demand finding ways around this?

Sally Keglovits’ father had been a crime reporter for many years, so she’d witnessed investigative journalism at work on a regular basis. “He believed that having a relationship of mutual respect does not preclude the press from asking the tough questions and demanding full information,” she said. “I remember hearing about a press conference where the police tried to escort him out of the room because he kept asking questions they didn’t want to answer.”

She spoke with several reporters, some from small papers and others from outlets with the clout to expose secrecy and demand details. She was surprised by the lack of assertiveness. Most published reports had just incorporated information from other publications – an easy thing to do in the Internet age.

“Journalism is not about accepting press releases as source information!” Keglovits asserted. “This is the fatal error in the Walker investigation. Interviews with lead detective Kim McGrath seemed little more than giving her an opportunity to expound on her beliefs. I didn’t see evidence of probing, follow-up questions about the investigation, such as why the affidavit was sealed or how to make sense of items that did not support the theory of Hickock’s involvement.”

Regardless of whether this investigation could have become a significant story, we were mystified by the passive acceptance of locked doors and vague data. There were many opportunities to at least try to dig deeper. Some journalists to whom we spoke were frustrated, to be sure, but most seemed to just accept the press statements from law enforcement.

Even with “inconclusive” results, we still want to know why this exhumation was worth the cost and effort. Surely NOW the affidavit can be unsealed. Citizens of Sarasota and relatives of the Walkers aren’t the only ones with an interest in this case. Anyone who has read In Cold Blood wants to know.

*     *     *

Dr. Katherine Ramsland is a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, where she also teaches criminal justice. She holds a master’s in forensic psychology from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a master’s in clinical psychology from Duquesne University, a master’s in criminal justice from DeSales University, and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Rutgers. She has been a therapist and a consultant. Dr. Ramsland has published over 1,000 articles and 46 books, including:

Snap! Seizing Your Aha Moments

Paranormal Forensics

The Mind of Murder a Murderer: Privileged Access to the Demons that Drive Extreme Violence

Inside the Minds of Serial Killers

The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds

The Forensic Science of CSI

The Criminal Mind: A Writer’s Guide to Forensic Psychology

True Stories of CSI

Beating the Devil’s Game: A History of Forensic Science and Criminal Investigation

Inside the Minds of Healthcare Serial Killers

Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers

The Human Predator: A Historical Chronology of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation

Psychopath

The Vampire Trap

The Ivy-League Killer

Piercing the Darkness: Undercover with Vampires in America Today

Dr. Ramsland’s background in forensics positioned her to assist former FBI profiler John Douglas on his book, The Cases that Haunt Us, to co-write a book with former FBI profiler, Gregg McCrary, The Unknown Darkness, to collaborate on A Voice for the Dead with attorney James E. Starrs on his exhumation projects, and to co-write a forensic textbook with renowned criminalist Henry C. Lee, The Real World of a Forensic Scientist.

For seven years, she contributed regularly to Court TV’s Crime Library, and now writes a column on investigative forensics for The Forensic Examiner and a column on character psychology for Sisters in Crime; offers trainings for law enforcement and attorneys; and speaks internationally about forensic psychology, forensic science, and serial murder. She has appeared on numerous cable network documentaries, as well as such programs as The Today Show, 20/20, Montel Williams, NPR, Larry King Live and E! True Hollywood. For ID, she spoke as a recurring expert on the series, American Occult and Wicked Attractions.


Read more