John Douglas the ‘Mindhunter’ Details His FBI Career Tracking Criminals

News Story: October 1, 2011
Former FBI Profiler John Douglas

The capture of criminals, some of whom commit the most heinous acts, requires the use of a simple, yet tedious, formula – Why + How = Who – according to the renowned “mindhunter,” former FBI agent John Douglas.

Douglas spoke as part of the Student Affairs Lecture Series on October 25 at Sacred Heart University’s Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts. Now retired, he was the founder and chief of the FBI’s Investigative Support Unit, which has delved into the worse violent crimes in the United States. During his 25 years of service in the bureau, he was credited with developing a new approach to crime analysis and criminal profiling.

He has interviewed and studied numerous notorious serial killers, including Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, Richard Speck, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz and Theodore Kaczynski. He has consulted – for both the defense and prosecution - on a multitude of cases, among them O.J. Simpson’s civil trial; the murder of Jon Benet Ramsay, which remains unsolved; the murder conviction in Italy of Amanda Knox, who was recently exonerated and freed; and the West Memphis 3, who are three men convicted for the murder of three boys in 1993. On the last case, Douglas said law enforcement “got the wrong men.” He is the author of several books, including “Mindhunter,” “Obsession,” “The Cases That Haunt Us” and “Journey Into Darkness,” which also was the title of his presentation at SHU.

In addition to his deep involvement into investigating crimes and studying the minds of killers, Douglas was directly involved in the making of the 1991 movie “The Silence of the Lambs,” from the book of the same name, acting as a technical adviser. The character of FBI Agent Jack Crawford was modeled after Douglas, who also was the original choice to play the role. Scott Glenn eventually took the part opposite Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. In the book and movie, FBI agents are on the trail of Buffalo Bill, who Douglas said was a composite of three murderers – Ed Dean, Ted Bundy and Gary Heidnik, the last of whom actually kept women in a pit, filled it with water and tortured and electrocuted them.

As he contemplated the criminals he has encountered, he asked, “Are they born this way? We are not born bad.” Instead, Douglas believes that many killers and serial rapists experience humiliation, rejection, inadequacy, loss and powerlessness, all of which can trigger their aberrant and deadly behavior. Their crimes, he said, are all about “power and control.”

He talked about the case of Joseph McGowan, who was a 27-year-old New Jersey high school teacher in 1973 when he raped and killed 7-year-old Joan D’Alessandro, who went to his house to sell Girl Scout cookies. Douglas said McGowan, who lived with his mother and grandmother, felt isolated by his colleagues and had trouble at work. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, but was up for parole. Enter Douglas, who received permission to interview him. After doing considerable research on McGowan, Douglas embarked on a “fact-finding mission.”

“My goal was to take him back and turn on that CD in his brain,” said Douglas, adding that criminals remember the finite details of their offenses. The jail cell was cold, Douglas recalled, but as they spoke McGowan started to tremble and sweat. It was then, Douglas said, “I knew I got him.” On that day in 1973, McGowan heard a knock on the door and when he approached it and saw the young girl, he told Douglas, ‘“I knew I was going to kill her.’” After he raped her, he knew he had to murder her and dispose of her body.

Douglas said he had made McGowan feel comfortable during their discussion and he opened up to the agent. “I leave there with this guy thinking I’m the most wonderful guy in the world,” said Douglas, who followed up by appearing before the parole board and telling it that McGowan, now in his 60s, would surely kill again. He was denied parole, but may be eligible for it in the future.

“Interviewing the experts,” as he called it, is crucial to determining how their criminal minds work, thereby giving law enforcement greater tools to investigate a crime and apprehend offenders. He also described the “products of criminal investigative analysis,” which include developing a Super Cop, a law enforcement officer with whom a suspect communicates; probable cause search warrants; ritual activities or “signatures”; pre- and post-defense behavior; unknown offender profiles; and various other techniques and procedures. “Put it all together and you might be on the right track,” said Douglas, in trying to come up with the most probable offenders.

Investigators must determine the “whys” of the behavior and then how the crime was committed, he said. Understanding the victim – or “victimology,” as he termed it – is a key to crime analysis and can help to reveal the why and how of the offense, including determining if he or she was a target or the criminal saw an opportunity.

During Douglas’ slide show presentation, the audience viewed several graphic images of crime victims and scenes. Douglas explained that some might think displaying such images is a kind of re-victimization but he believes it is important for the public to understand by seeing the viciousness of the crimes, such as the case of Dennis Rader, also known as the BTK Strangler, who bound, tortured and killed his victims. Douglas co-authored “Inside the Mind of BTK: The True Story Behind the Thirty-Year Hunt for the Notorious Wichita Serial Killer,” published in 2008.

From 1974 to 1977, Rader killed seven people, then stopped for about eight years. Three more people were killed from 1985 to 1991. Douglas wanted to know why the killings ceased, and he got his chance later when he interviewed him. Rader, who was married with two children, worked various jobs, including as a compliance officer in his city. “He looked so normal but when you start talking to him, he’s not so normal,” said Douglas. Rader communicated with police about his crimes, describing in detail the scenes and the offenses. Then, he started to talk to a Super Cop and eventually gave police a communiqué on a CD, which contained his name and that of his church, where he was a deacon. Then, the components of DNA from one of his daughters were linked to one of Rader’s victims, leading police to believe he was the killer.

In his 24-hour interview with Rader, Douglas told him, ‘“The father of your children has BTK DNA,’” to which Rader was stunned. In 2005, Rader pled guilty to his crimes and was sentenced to 10 consecutive life terms.

So why did he stop killing for those eight years? Rader was a cross dresser, said Douglas, and into auto-eroticism and bondage. His wife came upon him one day while wearing women’s clothing, the discovery scaring him into stopping his murderous spree. Interestingly, Douglas said, Rader’s wife one time told her husband that the handwriting on the letters by the BTK Strangler looked like his own, but she never mentioned it to the police.