The Meaning and Process of Psychological Autopsy

Back to World War II...Well, Almost...

Profiling as it exists today became a fixture in law enforcement due to the long-term efforts and dedication of a number of FBI agents in the late 1970's and early 1980's. However, the first profile using the same insight and technique was applied to a rime scene in New York in the 1950's.

Psychiatrist Dr. James Brussel was contacted by the police to help in apprehending the city's "Mad Bomber." The Unknown Subject (Unsub) had planted bombs all over the city from 1951 to 1956. Sometimes he sent notes with them and there was always a sock at the scene. Dr. Brussel studied the available evidence and gave his profile of the man they were looking for. The Unsub would be a middle-aged paranoiac of Eastern European descent. He would be living in Connecticut with an unwed aunt or sister. Dr. Brussel also indicated that the perpetrator would attend church regularly, behave politely, be soft-spoken, and would have a serious illness like Tuberculosis. The good doctor additionally predicted that, when the police went to pick him up, he would be wearing a double-breasted suit with the buttons all done up.

This was a rather thorough and exacting portrait of an Unsub considering the prevailing theories of criminal psychology at the time. Dr. Brussel couldn't have been more accurate in his assessment. The Mad Bomber turned out to be George Metesky, a polite Polish bachelor aged 54 years who lived with his spinster sisters in Connecticut. He attended church every week, suffered from Tuberculosis, and was severely paranoid. He was wearing a blue double-breasted suit when the police arrested him. The suit was buttoned.


What Profiling Is

First and foremost a profile is a tool, not a magical formula. It is to be used in conjunction with other tools of investigation to guide law enforcement to a particular type of perpetrator. Profiles provide a strategy for the police to generate detailed information or leads about an Unsub. Each one is a sketch of behavioral patterns, trends, and tendencies that will be unique to the man who committed the crimes being investigated.

FBI legend Russell Vorpagel likens behavioral analysis, profiling, to a doctor's prognosis of a patient's disease. The tendency toward sociopathic homicide can be identified through a logical series of behavioral diagnoses. In other words, the analysis of the behavioral indicators left at a crime scene can lead back to a specific type of person. One example given by Vorpagel in his lectures is that of a bomber. He may design his device so that it ignites through an altimeter on a plane, but uses homemade black powder for the explosive. Trained personnel can look at the bomb and reverse engineer the psychology behind its construction. In this case, they would be looking for a perpetrator who is adept at physics, because of the mechanics and the design, but not at chemistry, because he used basic black powder.

A psychological profile of an Unsub begins at the crime scene. The scene is the direct aftermath resulting from a predator acting out his deepest desires and fantasies upon another human being. He uses his kills as a method of overcoming his internal demons. The scene is a snapshot, if you will, of the internal workings of the killer's mind. That mindset, if properly analyzed, will tell us all about the habits, appearance, and background of the Unsub.


How Profiles Are Compiled

In the investigation of a homicide, motive usually helps police to generate a list of potential suspects. In a sexual homicide, however, the crime appears random and motiveless. The crime itself will present few clues regarding the perpetrator's identity and the underlying sexual dynamics can be difficult to detect. These crimes are often reported as a homicide, motive unknown. For these offenders, aggression and sexuality become a single, psychologically fused experience. It is important to note that the behavior of criminals is a result of the individual's thinking, not their environment. There are specific thinking patterns present in these perpetrators that separate them from the society at large.

It is necessary, therefore, to be more creative in the assessment of motive and concentrate on the behavioral characteristics present at the scene. The victims are random in the sense that their killer is unknown to them, but are usually selected for specific attributes the perpetrator perceives them to have. Determining the commonalities between victims can reveal much about a killer's motivation for choosing his prey.
A profile is constructed based upon presenting characteristics at the crime scene. Then behavioral indicators found at the scene are then compared to known offender types.

A crime scene analysis is so vital to the creation of a profile because the scene reflects behavior and personality in the same way that interior decor does about a homeowner. When compiling a profile from a crime scene, several factors are taken into account. First you must evaluate the criminal act and the specifics of the crime scene. Then the victim(s) must be analyzed and the police reports and autopsy protocols are evaluated.

Part of evaluating the criminal act is assessing the organization level of the scene. This is an indicator of the offender's sophistication. Investigators must look at how well the victim was controlled, the circumstances of the weapon, and what degree and type of premeditation were involved in the crime. A disorganized perpetrator will confront, assault, and leave the body in one location. An organized offender, on the other hand, may use a separate location for each phase of the crime. Therefore, the number of scenes involved in any individual murder are a good indication of the nature of the Unsub.

The environment, time, and place of the murder help to assess the offender's risk-taking level, motivation, and behavior patterns. His comfort level is obviated by how much time he spends at the scene. Lingering at the scene indicates familiarity with the area, therefore, he will know of private locations and the times of day when the location will be least trafficked. This type of comfortability suggests an Unsub who lives or works nearby.


The circumstances of the weapon are also a great help. A disorganized person will use a weapon of opportunity and leave it at the scene when he is finished. A higher level of organization is represented by the use of a choice weapon which would have been brought to the scene as part of a 'murder kit' and will be absent from the scene at the time of investigation.

Victimology and the presentation of the body are also extremely important to behavioral analysis and the development of an accurate profile. Organized offenders will go to great lengths to hide the body and may even perform additional mutilations in order to prevent identification of the victim upon discovery. Disorganized sexual homicide is characterized by a possibly intentional display of the body, flaunting it for the purpose of discovery, and potentially in an unusual or unnatural position. Victimology is a complete history of the victim which is used to evaluate the possible connection or relationship between victim and perpetrator as well as the level of risk involved for the offender in committing the crime. Included in this analysis is the risk-level of the victim and looks at whether they live alone, keep regular hours to and from home, or spend time in unsavory places or around people of questionable character.

If a victim is positioned "comfortably" or covered up, it is evidence of psychic erasure. This is evidence of remorse, a way for the Unsub to make restitution for his actions. Perhaps the clothing or personal effects of the victim will be folded and placed in a tidy fashion near the body. This sort of behavior is almost exclusive to obsessive-compulsive psychologies. If items personal to the victim are removed from the scene, the perpetrator could be collecting souvenirs. This can be useful, not only in assessing motivation or understanding the fantasy, but also can be searched for when the police are investigating suspects. These souvenirs will directly connect a perpetrator to one or multiple crime scenes. In cases where there are multiple victims but only concrete evidence to link a suspect to one or two of them conclusively, finding items belonging to all the victims in possession of the suspect strengthens the case against him.

All of these elements of a scene can tell investigators a great deal about the psychology behind the crime. Since sexual homicides are perpetrated as a direct expression of the offender's fantasy world, this analysis is like taking a fingerprint of the mind.


Signature vs. Modus Operandi

It is important to understand the difference between these two components of a murder. The signature of a killer is what fulfills him emotionally. It is his ritual, the acting out of his innermost fantasies. The M.O. of a crime includes the aspects of the attack that were required to carry out the crime. Using an arm cast and a sling to abduct women is M.O. Killing and flaying women to use their skins for some form of continued personal gratification is signature. Sometimes an aspect of the crime may not be clearly presenting itself as one or the other. For example, keeping victims in a pit in the basement can be either one. The difference is always in why the action is taken. If a killer puts a victim in a pit in order to hold or control them, it is part of the M.O. Perhaps the killer is not very physically strong or is inexperienced and this is a way to make his victims manageable. On the other hand, if a perpetrator puts a victim in a basement pit to degrade them, humiliate them, and keep them pleading in fear, that is signature. This predator's gratification is solely derived from watching and hearing his victim suffer. This is a step of the crime he must perform in order to fulfill his fantasy construct. Because it is essential to his commission of the crime, every crime he successfully completes will contain this element. It is his psychological fingerprint. Modus operandi will change as the killer gains experience and hones his skills, signature is burned into his mind. It is the root of his compulsion and it is unique to each offender alone. The underlying reason for committing murder, his signature, never changes. It is constant and therefore reliable.


Verifiable Anomalies in Killers

16% of known serial killers have been identified as adoptees. It is an interesting point to consider as a potential contribution to the factors that work together in creating a serial killer. Several people believe this may be an indicator in favor of a genetic predisposition in some children to become killers. Given the extremely young age that some behaviors present themselves, this is compelling. More important to the existing information, however, is that the revelation to a child of their adoption can call into question their sense of identity. In the fragile mind of a developing child, this can provoke excessive fantasizing about the identity of his "real" parents. Many adopted children go through this phase of soul-searching, but in a child with sociopathic characteristics, this will only feed and expand an already extensive fantasy world. Such information about his identity may even affirm the delusions of the fantasy construct and provide the proverbial nail in his psychological coffin.