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Beyond ‘Mindhunter’: How the FBI Catches Serial Killers

The FBI’s profilers still have their work cut out for them.

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It’s too hot, too damp for any kind of jacket but he’s walking briskly through Tampa’s Seminole Heights neighborhood wearing a hoodie, looking at his phone. He has a distinct gait, a little hitch in his walk. As black and white surveillance cameras track him they capture everything and nothing. His face is smudged. He could be any man of any color. He’s just a shape in the night, and he may have randomly murdered four innocent victims.

In the 1970s, the FBI realized the nature of homicide had changed. A certain rare kind of killer wasn’t so rare anymore. There were killers out there who no longer needed a reason to take lives. Sometimes, like that shape on the Tampa streets, he just hunted in the night. So, agents like John Douglas and Robert Ressler got together with psychologist Ann Burgess and began constructing the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU).

In Netflix’s runaway hit Mindhunter, Douglas, Ressler, and Burgess are Holden Ford, Bill Tench, and Wendy Carr. Some of their real-life actions and experiences are fictionalized, but the show ably illustrates those early days when Douglas and Ressler traveled to prisons across the country, interviewing serial killers—a term which was coined by Ressler.

The BSU and the profiling project that formed the basis for Mindhunter—based on a book with the same title by Douglas and Mark Olshaker—were both intended to provide law enforcement with tools that could help them define, track, and apprehend human apex predators. Men (usually) for whom death was a hobby. One of those tools was profiling, psychological sketches based on signature behaviors—habits and tendencies such killers often shared.

The BSU was fulfilling a need that may be more crucial than ever. As homicide researcher Thomas Hargrove told the New Yorker in a recent article titled “The Serial Killer Detector” there may be as many as many as 2000 serial killers at work in the United States today. Hargrove told the New Yorker he arrived at that figure with help from the FBI. The Agency found that 1400 unsolved homicides in its records were linked by DNA–about two percent of the murders they had on file. And that’s “just the cases they were able to lock down with DNA,” he said. Then he pointed out that DNA evidence isn’t that common. So, he feels “two percent is a floor,” for the number of serial murders, “not a ceiling.”

Chilling revelations about serial crimes previously undetected give Hargrove’s assertions some weight. There was the discovery in 2001 that one assailant—dubbed the Golden State Killer by the late true crime writer Michelle McNamara—had committed a series of rapes in northern California then several sexually-motivated homicides in the southern part of the state. Then in 2011, a man named Israel Keyes was arrested for kidnapping and murder in Alaska. In custody he revealed that he’d been covertly crisscrossing the US for years, killing at random. His real death toll is still unknown.

And those are just two examples.

While reporting on these crimes is a little less overheated than in the 1970s and 1980s, there are still areas in the U.S. where the public–and sometimes the police as well–believe there’s a serial killer walking the streets right now.

Tampa Bay, Florida—Police investigating four murders in Tampa’s Seminole Heights believe they have all been committed by one man. They’re offering a $100,000 reward for information that leads to his arrest. The killer roams at night and shoots his victims in the street. He wears a hoodie on hot, humid Tampa nights. He’s been described as a slim black man with an unusual walk, and he’s been captured by surveillance video near several crime scenes—but his features are always frustratingly blurred, just shadows for his eyes and mouth.

Northern Colorado—In the spring of 2015, someone randomly shot Johnny Jacoby then later William Connole. Each man was found by the road, and their murders occurred in the middle of a series of random shootings along I-25—shootings later linked to Jacoby’s murder. The Interstate shootings caused everything from simple damage to critical injuries. Police have had very little to go on, but the Coloradoan reports they refuse to call it a cold case.

Nelson County, Kentucky—Bardstown, in the heart of rural Nelson County, is home to famous bourbon distilleries, My Old Kentucky Home State Park, and quite possibly a killer or killers responsible for four unsolved murders and a disappearance. Most media reports about the homicides avoid the word “serial,” but there has been a great deal of speculation as to a relationship between them. The dead include state trooper Jason Ellis, shot as he pulled brush from the road in 2013. Almost a year later, someone killed Kathy Netherland and her daughter, Samantha. Then in July of 2015, Crystal Rogers vanished without a trace. And in 2016 her father, Tommy Ballard, was shot to death while on a hunting trip. His murder remains unsolved.

Long Island Serial Killer—Police in Nassau County, New York have been chasing LISK since the late 1990s. There is no ambiguity about the case; one man is behind the murders of up to 16 sex workers, ten of whom he left near Gilgo Beach. There have been multiple suspects including a police chief and a doctor (who was later ruled out), but no arrests. LISK last struck in 2013, but as far as investigators are concerned, he’s still out there, somewhere.

Delphi, Indiana—Abby Williams, 13, and Libby German, 14, were hiking a trail in Delphi on Valentine’s Day 2017 when a man killed them both. Before she was killed, German had the presence of mind to capture images of a man nearby and what police believe was audio of the killer’s voice. Their deaths could have been a horrible isolated event and not evidence of a serial criminal—Delphi police have even pointedly said as much. However, the arrest of registered sex offender Daniel Nations in Colorado for menacing hikers with a hatchet has raised questions. Nations, who has been called a person of interest in the Delphi case, was driving a car with expired Indiana tags and was homeless in Indiana when the girls were killed.

That’s just a few examples. There is no accounting for killers like Keyes, who was only caught once he killed close to home, or confessed South Carolina serial killer Todd Kohlhepp, who masked his second life as multiple murderers with a career as a relatively successful realtor. Once arrested, Kohlhepp even helped police solve a quadruple homicide that had left them frustrated for years. They’d never connected him to the crime in any way.

Thomas Hargrove’s serial killer detection program and the FBI’s profilers has their work cut out for them.