The FBI's Sessions with Serial Killers

Early efforts to understand serial murder involved face-to-face interviews.

Posted Jun 14, 2014

One of the pioneers of FBI behavioral profiling, Robert Ressler, passed away last year. I was inspired by someone’s commemorative post to look at an interview I had done with him. Ressler initiated the FBI’s prison interview program, which assisted with data collection, and it’s worth seeing the origins of that effort.

While on the road with John Douglas teaching local jurisdictions about the Behavioral Science Unit’s approach, Ressler thought it would be a good idea to use their spare time to visit prisons they were near to gain access to dangerous criminals. Douglas agreed. They wanted to interview known offenders to learn more about their criminal experiences. If the BSU could devise a protocol of questions to ask and get detailed responses, Ressler believed, the unit could start a database of information about traits and behaviors that these men shared in common.

“In 1978,” Ressler recalled, “I had come up with the idea of improving our instructional capabilities by conducting in-depth research into violent criminal personalities. I suggested we go into the prisons and interview violent offenders to get a better handle on them and formulate a foundation for criminal profiling. Initially, it was me and my partner who did this while we were on road trips for teaching purposes. If I was in California, I would contact the agent who was our training coordinator and have him set up interviews with people like Charles Manson or Sirhan Sirhan.”

They spoke with different types of offenders, from mass murderers to assassins (even failed ones) to serial killers. They did not want to ask questions that psychiatrists might have used during prison assessments. They were interested in practical angles for law enforcement.

To devise a protocol, data were collected on 118 victims, including some who’d survived an attempted murder. This helped to develop a questionnaire that covered the most significant aspects of the offenses. The goal was to gather information about how the murders were planned and committed, what the killers did and thought about afterward, what kinds of fantasies they had, and what they did before the next incident (where relevant). 

Among the interviewees was William Heirens, who in 1945 and 1946 had committed three murders in an area that Ressler had known growing up, and who was famous for writing in lipstick a plaintiff request to be caught before he killed again. 

“My father worked for the Chicago Tribune,” Ressler said, “and he would bring home the newspaper. I had heard that there was a killer loose in Chicago who was killing woman and leaving writings on the wall. It was a classic case and I started following it.”

Heirens was incarcerated in the Vienna Men’s Correctional Facility in southern Illinois, and one day Ressler came into the area. “It was weird, because kids have sports heroes and that sort of thing, and here I wanted to meet this serial killer. I told him I'd followed his case. He was about nine years older than me and he was kind of taken aback that he had a fan, in a sense. So I asked him to participate in our research.”

Other criminals who were willing to talk included Edward Kemper, the Coed Killer of San Jose who’d murdered eight girls, his mother, and her friend; Jerry Brudos, who’d killed and mutilated several women in Oregon; Richard Speck, who’d slaughtered eight nurses in their shared residence; and John Wayne Gacy, who’d killed 33 young men, burying most of them in the crawlspace beneath his home. Other offenders who were not killers were interviewed as well, such as Gary Trapnell, who had hijacked airplanes and committed armed robbery. 

However, the database was primarily for gathering information about serial murder.

As they went along, the agents kept refining their methods. Sometimes they had to be creative to get the information they sought. They soon learned about the issues with self-report interviews, when some offenders lied, played mind games, exaggerated their crimes, and bragged about brutal deeds. A few were mentally ill and somewhat inarticulate.

To get as much information as possible, the agents did extensive research on a target subject before talking with him. This was a way to show respect that the killer might enjoy, as well as to spot when his narrative deviated from the facts. Despite the brutality of many of the crimes, the agents realized that it was important to be nonjudgmental. Otherwise, the subject would not cooperate

The initial study, meant to include 100 convicted offenders, compiled data from only 36, and some were not serial killers. However, it still proved to be helpful. Afterward, the interviews continued at a slower pace and other agents got involved.

From this initial sample of subjects, the researchers gained information that was useful for developing profiles in the late 1980s. The sample was too small to make broad generalizations, and it was far from random, but the protocol offered important groundwork for future members of this unit. Ressler's idea was a good one.

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