Dancing With Devils
A renowned forensic psychiatrist on spotting psychopaths.
By Anastasia Toufexis published May 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz has been shadowing the steps of America's misfits and monsters for 25 years. Listen to what he has to say about their bizarre deeds and twisted psyches.
When a fast moving pickup truck with plastic dice swinging from the rearview mirror pulls up behind him on the freeway, Park Dietz immediately heads over into the right lane. When a salesman with monogrammed cuffs, gold tie bar and diamond pinkie ring tries to start up a conversation at a party, he soon makes an excuse and leaves. When people get in line behind him to wait for a ride at Disneyland, he scans their arms and hands for jailhouse tattoos. It's all part of the game Dietz calls "Spot the Psychopath." "It's obvious when you know what to look for," he observes with a sigh. "And it's easy to play because there are so many around."
Dietz should know. He has spent the past 25 years shadowing the steps of society's misfits and monsters in an attempt to understand their bizarre deeds and twisted psyches. So adept has he become that, at age 50, he is America's most sought after forensic psychiatrist. FBI agents call him for help in capturing serial killers, bombers and mass murderers. Hollywood stars clamor for his advice on evading deranged fans. And Fortune 500 companies besiege him for aid in preventing angry employees from turning the workplace into a slaughterhouse.
Name any high-profile crime or incident of the past 15 years and chances are that Dietz has had a role. Among his "cases": the trials of would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley, Jr., Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Ng (Dietz turned down the O.J. Simpson criminal case); the Tawana Brawley investigation; the sieges at Ruby Ridge and Waco; the search for the Atlanta Olympics bomber (Dietz helped tie the explosion to two others in the city at a lesbian nightclub and an abortion clinic and to one at a clinic in Birmingham, and constructed a detailed "profile" of the bomber that led to the identification of Eric Rudolph as a suspect). Dietz is currently preparing for the criminal trials of Russell Weston, accused of killing two officers in the Capitol Hill shooting in Washington, D.C., and Michael Laudor, the schizophrenic Yale law school graduate charged with stabbing his fiancee to death, as well as civil suits surrounding the Jenny Jones show (one guest murdered another after being on the program) and the shooting at the Empire State Building.
Dietz, who earned an M.D., a master's in public health and a Ph.D. in sociology, all from Johns Hopkins, is credited with elevating the standards for the field of forensic psychiatry. Taking his cue from the study of accidents, which was undergoing a paradigm shift, Dietz pioneered stringent research of murders, sex offenses and bizarre behavior. "Accidents had always been regarded as sort of uncontrolled supernatural events," he explains. "But researchers were beginning to study them analytically, counting up the ways in which people suffered injuries and looking for patterns in the way accidents occurred. The goal was to prevent them from happening." Dietz has applied that exhaustive approach for classic studies of product tamperers, celebrity stalkers, sexual sadists and people who push waiting passengers onto subway tracks.
His preparation in cases is legendary; not only does he pore over police reports, photos, military records, employment documents, diaries, letters and books, he often will inspect murder and burial sites. Coupled with that thoroughness is a rare ability to translate technical jargon into simple terms that are clear to jurors and useful to police. In fact, FBI agents have been so impressed that they passed along tales of their consultant's exploits to visiting writer Thomas Harris. They joke that Dietz is the model for Harris' Hannibal Lecter—just the biting mind part, they're quick to add.
Dietz, who heads the Threat Assessment Group (TAG) and Park Dietz & Associates, both based in Newport Beach, California, recently sat down with PT's Editor-in-Chief for an incisive discussion of his work, crime and human nature.
AT: What attracted you to forensic psychiatry? Were there any early experiences that explain your interest in bizarre behavior?
PD: One summer during high school, a friend of mine was raped by a young man that I also knew quite well. I was away for the summer and when I came back, she told me about this guy having raped her. I remember the pain she experienced with that and the anger I felt toward him about it. I don't know if it's possible to determine whether an event like that influences one's choice of a career, but it's occurred to me that it could. But I didn't really gravitate to the subject until college. I didn't know there was such a thing to gravitate to.
AT: How did you find out?
PD: While I was in college, I stumbled on a text called Forensic Medicine by Keith Simpson. It had the most extraordinary photos. There was a young man who hanged himself from a tree with pornography strewn around, a trunk containing a disarticulated skeleton. There were pictures of infanticides, ghastly stab wounds and mutilations.
AT: Most people would be repulsed, but you weren't.
PD: I was amazed and mystified. I went to my professors in psychology, sociology and anthropology and asked them, "How do you explain this with your theories of group behavior?" They could account for delinquent gangs by pointing to absent fathers but that didn't explain why a woman would flush her infant down a toilet bowl or a man stab his partner 50 times. I thought studying why people did these things would be a lot more interesting than studying calculus or chemistry. I also liked the esoteric quality of it.
AT: What do you mean?
PD: Well, this is perhaps a flaw that I'm confessing, but I like to have success experiences rather than failure experiences. So I'm more likely to compete in things I'm good at, and more likely to spend time on the things I expect to succeed at. And the more esoteric a thing is, the greater your chances of conquering it. There will be fewer rivals and less to learn.
AT: You're almost always identified as a prosecution witness. Do you have a bias against defendants?
PD: No. I don't believe that defendants are automatically guilty. I have been a witness for the defense, but it's rarer. In part, that's because of the way I decide which cases to take. The one rule at our office is that if the client won't agree to show us anything we want to see, we won't work for him. That turns out to be a problem that limits what cases we can take, because the ethics of law are different from the ethics of science or medicine or psychology in that only prosecutors have a duty to disclose everything that helps find the truth.
Neither side in a civil suit has such a duty, and the defense in a criminal case actually has a duty not to do so. Their duty lies with their client only, and where the truth hurts their client, they need to fight to conceal it. So it takes either a genuinely innocent defendant for the attorney to want to share the truth—and that's incredibly rare—or a sophisticated attorney who realizes that he's better off giving his own experts the bad news so they can take it into account and not be surprised and torpedoed in court.
AT: But isn't there a philosophical difference, too? Many defense attorneys argue that sick deeds are born in sick minds, and you have difficulty with that.
PD: With rare exceptions, people are responsible for what they do. Killers seldom meet the legal standard for insanity, which is quite different from the way most people use the word every day. Killers may be disturbed, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they can't tell right from wrong or are compelled to maim or murder.
AT: But what about someone like Jeffrey Dahmer? People say, "If he wasn't crazy, who is?"
PD: He was certainly disturbed, but he knew what he was doing was wrong. He tried to conceal his victims' bodies. He also wore a condom while having sex with the corpses, which indicates that the intensity of his sexual urge was less than many teenagers experience in backseats with their girlfriends.
AT: Still, doesn't that elude the bigger issue, his frame of reference? If I believe that little green men are descending from outer space and the only way to get rid of them is to sprinkle blue cheese on the lawn, and I go out and sprinkle cheese, that would be logical rational behavior given my overarching belief.
PD: And if that were a crime, you'd be insane for it.
AT: But Dahmer doesn't fall into that category? It seems to me that while his separate actions may seem rational, he's operating under the idea that he can turn strangers into companions by killing and eating them. Why isn't that insane?
PD: If Dahmer had had the delusion that he'd have companions for life if he killed them and ate them, and that that was somehow a good thing and not criminal, that would make him insane. But those weren't the facts at all. Even the defense experts agreed that Dahmer knew it was wrong. In fact, Dahmer was so offended by the idea of killing that he had to get himself drunk to overcome his aversion to doing the killing. It's that point that proves that he did not have an irresistible impulse to kill.
AT: What creates sexual killers like Dahmer or sexual sadists like Charles Ng? Is pornography to blame as some killers like Ted Bundy have claimed?
PD: It depends how you define pornography. I do think a lot of sexual violence stems from experiences in childhood or at puberty. Some people become sadistic after suffering early abuse at the hands of parents, relatives or friends. But for others, the seed is planted in the formative years by the conflation of images of violence with those of sexual arousal. Magazines, TV shows and, especially, slasher movies are masters at doing this. You condition a vulnerable boy at puberty to become aroused by brutality. It's the violence, not the nudity. Frankly, I wouldn't mind if every teenage boy had a subscription to Playboy. They'd be looking at attractive naked female bodies while they masturbated, not eviscerated female bodies.
AT: Are there any studies that back you up?
PD: Not yet. One of the problems with studies that examine the effects of violent imagery is that they typically use mentally healthy psychology students. If you want to do a meaningful study, show movies like Body Double and Copycat to a group of sexual psychopaths the day before you release them.
AT: You've been highly critical of the entertainment media—as well as the news media for its crime coverage—contending that it can recite people to copy crimes like product tampering, yet you serve as a consultant for movies and TV programs, most frequently Law & Order. Isn't that a contradiction?
PD: I try to pick the projects carefully and to make sure that they don't perpetuate common misperceptions. For example, I consulted on Primal Fear. I felt that the original ending, which had the Edward Norton character suffer from multiple personality disorder and stalk his lawyer Richard Gere, was unrealistic. It made more sense to make Norton's killer a malingerer who was faking having multiple personalities. And one of the reasons that I'm willing to lend my name and energy to Law & Order is that they never show the murder itself. The story opens with the corpse. The rest of the show is process, and it's accurate.
AT: Law & Order features a forensic psychologist who assesses many of the accused and testifies at trial. In the real world, there's been a lot of criticism of psychological expert witnesses, that they're simply guns-for-hire. Is that a valid criticism?
PD: Our job should be like any other forensic scientist's—we should be truth seekers who are not partisan, who do not have any interest in the outcome, who call it as we see it no matter the consequences. But it seems a lot easier for chemists and anthropologists and pathologists to take that neutral role than it does for psychiatrists.
AT: Why is that?
PD: The innocuous reason is that psychiatrists are usually very well imbued with the clinical role, where helping the sick person is the goal. And that's quite incompatible with the truthseeking role. That's probably true of the other fields, too, but maybe more so of the personalities that gravitate toward psychiatry. They tend to care about people and wish to be helpful.
An embarrassing reason is that at least the old school of forensic psychiatrists includes a lot of people who wish they'd been lawyers and want to do some of the lawyering because they have an amateur interest in it. That fact is one of the reasons I discourage students from pursuing a law degree if they're going to do forensic psychiatry.. It just encourages that kind of behavior.
AT: A lot of your work is sort of after the fact, after a crime has been committed, but you're also involved in trying to prevent crimes.
PD: Yes, it's actually the reason I started TAG. I felt we could do more to help avoid harm being done to people. We've been particularly involved in the areas of stalking, workplace violence and product tampering.
AT: What advice do you give celebrity clients about being stalked?
PD: I can't go into details, but, in general, one of the biggest mistakes celebrities make is being overly friendly. They allow photo shoots in their homes, even their bedrooms and bathrooms; they send fans autographed pictures. All that serves to support viewers with a delusional relationship with the celebrity. One of the interesting things we've discovered is that, counter to the public's thinking, the celebrities who attract the largest number of stalkers—and typically it's not "if" a celebrity has a stalker, it's "how many"—are neither the most glamorous nor obnoxious, but rather the ones who seem the sweetest and most wholesome. They appear approachable.
Celebrity stalkers also are not necessarily fixated on one person as the public thinks. Rather, they tend to switch targets, going from, say, an athlete to an actor to a politician. Hinckley, for example, also stalked President Jimmy Carter in addition to Ronald Reagan and Jodie Foster. And here's another common fallacy. People think Hinckley tried to assassinate Reagan to impress Jodie Foster. What he really wanted to do was become famous. I spent 23 hours interviewing him and he came across as just a smart-mouth kid who was proud of what he'd done. The ultimate brat.
Publicity is also a common motive of mass murderers. They want to have the biggest body count in history. I interviewed one who was furious that his gun jammed and he couldn't set a new record.
AT: What do you think of Hinckley getting out of the hospital on supervised visits? Do you think he still a threat?
PD: The best indicator of future behavior is prior behavior. And on those grounds, I wouldn't want to see him out.
AT: What sort of workplace cases do you deal with?
PD: The cases that come to us are a third verbal threats that a current employee has made to co-workers or supervisors. A third are cases in which the fear is that the employee's abusive lover is going to harm her in the workplace, and perhaps others who are in the vicinity. And a third are a mixed bag of bomb threats, product tampering threats, anonymous letters, psychotic letters, consumer threats, vandalism, sabotage, suicidal behaviors in the workplace, bogus threats in which people send themselves threat letters or animal parts in order to gain attention and the benefits of being a victim.
AT: That's quite an assortment. How do you decide what to do?
PD: What's done depends on which of those kinds of cases it is. But it's gotten fairly simple. Most of these cases require one to two hours of expert time to totally resolve the problem.
AT: How can it be that simple?
PD: There are only so many strategies available. By going through an algorithm, it's fairly straightforward to determine: Is the person going to remain an employee? Is there a treatable mental disorder? How anxious are the people dealing with it? From that information alone, it's fairly clear which direction things are going to go. Then we discuss with the client how to proceed. We discuss scripts for various conversations that will have been had with the threatening person, and caution about bad advice the client is likely to have been given. There are some things that seem tight but can often make a situation worse.
AT: Can you give me an example?
PD: The three most common are restraining orders, calling the police and referral to a mental health professional. Those are all powerful interventions for good or evil, and you have to use them with the right cases. It's like prescribing a medication that's very potent. If you give it to the right patient, she recovers. If you give it to the wrong patient, she dies.
AT: Do you tell women being stalked to change their identity and move?
PD: Not exactly. I give the victim all her options. I'll explain to her directly, or through the employer, that in order to be totally free of risk, it would be necessary in certain cases to move and change identity. To be mostly free of risk it would be necessary to move and conceal home address and work location. To stay in town and work at the same job is to carry a much heavier risk and here's how to minimize it. Only the individual can decide what level of risk she can tolerate and what level of freedom she's willing to sacrifice for the sake of safety.
AT: So much of your life is spent viewing the worst of what human beings can do to each other, but you seem not to be affected by it.
PD: Well, I actually think that there are fewer people that could cope with the work load than could cope with the emotional aspects of the work ! do. If I were to suggest that I had some strength, it would be staying power and energy rather than being able to withstand the stimuli. I think it very much like dealing with anything that is inherently aversive. Consider surgeons and their work. It's unthinkable to put your hands in the warm blood of another human's gut. Even with rubber gloves on. Who'd want to do that? But surgeons get over it.
AT: But the intent there is to help, and what you're seeing is the result of an intent to hurt.
PD: If the question is why I don't get angry, I guess my answer's different from why I don't cry every time.
AT: I'm more interested in why you don't cry.
PD: Once in a while I do.
AT: You'd be sick if you didn't...
PD: It's really bad to cry in front of juries. [Laughter] And it would mislead people, too. The context is different.
It's one thing to come on the hot scene and realize that minutes earlier this young person was alive and had a future and now is dead and lifeless. That would be a highly emotive experience. But when a case comes to me, I'm more remote from the suffering. I've generally already at least heard over the phone the details of the crime and read many documents concerning the case long before I ever see a photograph.
AT: I've always had trouble in hospitals watching operations on live people, but I have no difficulty watching autopsies. Is it that difference?
PD: Exactly, and it's a better analogy than any I've come up with. One of the few times I'm hit emotionally is when I listen to the tapes sadists make of torturing their victims. There the person is currently suffering, you can hear them suffer, and that calls out for an empathic response. But when they're dead, when they're no longer suffering, when it's over, it's hard to feel empathetic for the corpse.
AT: With all that you've seen, how do you retain a positive view of human nature? Or do you believe that people are basically good?
PD: No. No. I think people are inherently self-aggrandizing, pleasureseeking, unempathetic, self-serving, greedy and lustful.
AT: Are you joking?
PT: Just a little.
Dietz in Brief
THEODORE KACZYNSKI The Unabomber
"The fact of the matter is that while he had all the non-diagnostic signs of schizophrenia, like social isolation and poor performance in society, we still don't know about the one diagnostic sign that matters: did he have delusions? His only alleged delusion was his political ideology about technology harming the environment and taking us further from Nature. And lots of sane people believe that."
TAWANA BRAWLEY Allegedly kidnapped/raped by police
"To this day, she's never talked to officials so no one is sure what happened. Actually, if you look at what she said, she never lied. She never made the claims that proved false; her advisers did. What site did was point at someone's badge when asked a question, but she never explained what that meant. She seems to have been caught in a situation that got away from her."
JEFFREY DAHMER Serial killer-necrophiliac-cannibal
"I really liked him. He's one of the few killers I've met who seemed to genuinely want to understand himself. He was cooperative and he saw the humor in some questions. To see if the cannibalism was part of a ritual, I asked him if he had done anything romantic, like eating by candlelight or with mood music. He said, 'No.'"