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Criminal Profiling: How It All Began

An unsolved kidnapping proved the value of psychology in crimesolving.

They didn’t have computers when Howard Teten launched the initial efforts of what would 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.

The Birth of the Profiler

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 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 says, "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 first profile. The stabbing murder of a woman in her home had stymied local law enforcement. Teten considered the circumstances, looked at the 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.

His prediction turned out to be right.

Teten soon teamed up with Mullany, who specialized in abnormal psychology, and together they initiated the criminal psychology program, a 40-hour course for officers in which they presented behavioral analysis as one among many investigative tools.

As the team acquired cases for demonstration, they were asked for assistance with a stalled investigation of a kidnapping. Mullany describes the abduction of seven-year-old Susan Jaeger, as their first real challenge. Despite how popular TV shows and movies make profiling look easy, it was anything but.

Proof of Profiling

Susan had disappeared during a family camping trip in Montana in June 1973. Someone had sliced through the tent fabric and grabbed the girl 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 arrived, local investigators had feared the worst and 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 at the case.

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 (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. To local investigators, he seemed an unlikely candidate. 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 their 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 the caller by forgiving him, provoking tears. An attempted trace of the call failed and while voice analysis indicated that the caller could have been Meirhofer, it was not definitive.

Then, in 1974, a 19-year-old woman, Sandra Dyckman, disappeared, 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 Meirhofer off balance, Mullany urged Mrs. Jaeger to travel to Montana and confront him.

She did so.

Although Meirhofer still denied involvement, he later called her again, pretending to be someone else. She recognized his voice and called him David, greatly upsetting him. This time, 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 profiling, their approach had been vindicated.

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