- The history of behavioral profiling offers a startling case that challenged law enforcement's calculations for criminal psychology.
- True crime author Ron Franscell reveals how the FBI uncovered the developmental degeneracy of a seemingly ordinary young man.
- The Meirhofer case was a watershed event for the Behavioral Science Unit.
During the early 1970s, a team of FBI special agents, Howard Teten and Patrick Mullany, devised a course for law enforcement that applied research from abnormal psychology to crime scenes. This course evolved into the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) with its method of behavioral profiling. Their early effort was largely academic, with some applied brainstorming with detectives, until a case came along that demanded a field test.
Seven-year-old Susan Jaeger was abducted from a tent while her family was camping in Montana in 1973. Her abductor got away. Eight months later, a young woman, Sandra Smallegan, disappeared. Her car and some pieces of bone were found on an abandoned property, mingled with bone fragments from a child. Special Agent Pete Dunbar from the FBI’s local office set out to make sense of this puzzle. After many vexing dead-ends, he attended a course at the FBI. Then he asked for assistance.
People who know the history of the BSU have heard of this case, but never before have the full details been collected and published. In ShadowMan, true crime author Ron Franscell, with 18 books to his credit, has done his usual thorough research. Along with a solid sense of time and place, he pulls readers into the crushing pressure of Dunbar’s frustration and doubt about this new psychological tool. The investigation progressed slowly, due to minimal resources and little physical evidence.
Mullany and Teten, along with new BSU recruit Robert Ressler, worked up a likely set of characteristics of the type of person who might be responsible for both murders. Among them: He was a local Caucasian male, operating alone. He’d probably taken the child to kill her and might brag about it to someone. From Dunbar’s list of suspects, the profilers picked David Meirhofer, a 23-year-old Vietnam veteran, as the type of person they had in mind.
Dunbar didn’t buy it. Meirhofer was polite, articulate, and helpful. He’d dated Sandra once, but that’s all. He was considered a little odd but nothing about this clean-cut guy who’d served his country signaled a coldblooded killer. Meirhofer agreed to be questioned, even with a polygraph and truth serum. Each time, he successfully denied having any role. Dunbar ruled him out. But these results didn’t dissuade the BSU agents, who’d studied aberrant psychopathology and understood how a facade of normalcy can hide unimaginable depravity. They thought Meirhofer could be a callous psychopath who lied easily.
“We met a lot of opposition from the FBI agent and the local police department,” Mullany would later write in his memoir. “The opposition was reasonable because he had passed both truth tests.”
As the investigation progressed, the profilers offered strategies based on expected behavior. Franscell documents every move, every painstaking calculation, and every disturbing revelation. A master of description and pace, he offers a highly accessible history of the FBI’s evolving technique. Viewing it through the eyes of a doubting but earnest investigator proves highly effective.
Suspense arises from the need to bridge the divide between faith in a unique application of criminal psychology and resistance to where it leads. We feel Dunbar’s aching frustration along with the erosion of his confidence in his own gut instinct as he surrenders to the profilers’ notions. What they’ve proposed is a singularly cruel fiend in the form of an ordinary young man.
“For a long time, the outside world saw a friendly, well-dressed, articulate, slightly awkward but harmless fellow. It was just a mask. He removed the mask only in the dark.”
Such shadow people populate our worst nightmares. They can shield themselves in ways for which we have no defense. This book depicts the lawman’s stunned realization, even as he exposes wickedness he can’t fathom. But an arrest and shocking confession don’t end this narrative. Like embedded scenes in the credits of some movies, Franscell adds unsettling twists no one knew before. That’s for readers to discover.
Former FBI profiler Mark Safarik supplied the afterword in which he describes how the BSU became the Behavioral Analysis Unit as investigative training became more prominent. He’d spent 13 years in the unit before partnering with Ressler. Safarik offers a perspective on the early days. Teten and Mullany, he points out, had a significant challenge: no prior successful profiles as models, no fresh crime scenes to visit, no bodies or autopsy reports to study, no weapons, no witnesses, no computer databases, two significantly different victims and MOs, and plenty of doubt from officers on the case. But the profilers did have a good grasp of the psychology of a psychopath, years before the first formal diagnostic instrument was even published. To their credit, they stood by their assessment of this psychopath and continued to offer helpful advice.
Note: Howard Teten passed as the book went into production, making Franscell one of the last people to have interviewed him. "Howard was a pioneer,” he says, “and pioneers always have a special courage. His work with Pat Mullany broke new ground in crime-fighting and we're all a little safer because they did. Howard and I talked many times and I was always aware that I was talking to an exceptional man."
The Meirhofer case was a watershed event for the BSU. The psychological analysis, though primitive by today’s standards, was innovative back then. Rather than contributing to formulas, as happened in later years, the untested psychological process spurred investigators to think outside their typical frame. In fact, this case would still challenge linkage analysis today. ShadowMan makes an important contribution to the history of profiling as well as a more gripping true-crime narrative than the popular fiction we see about profilers today.
Franscell, R. (2022). ShadowMan. An Elusive Psycho Killer and the Birth of FBI Profiling. Berkley.
Mullany, P. J. (2015). Matador of murder: An FBI agent’s journey in understanding the criminal mind. CreateSpace.