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Top 10 Tricks Used By FBI Profilers In Serial Killer Interviews

by Cheish Merryweather
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Since Netflix released its popular series ‘Mindhunter’, there has been a renewed fascination with criminal profiling. The lead characters are loosely based on real-life special agents John E. Douglas and Robert K. Ressler; their research assists local police in focusing their investigation to help draw out the cold-blooded killer.

Following an arrest, they use a particular strategy to reveal the serial killer’s true personality so this can be on display during the trial. Douglas and Ressler were the first criminal profilers to interview some of the most notorious serial killers in history including Edmund Kemper, David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Donald Harvey, and Gary Ridgway.

Interviewing serial killers requires many years of training and preferably a psychology degree, however, there are some tips the experts have shared over the years about how to get inside the mind of a serial killer. In their own words: “If you want to understand the artist, you have to look at the painting.”

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10 Never Go In Blind

Photo Credit: The Other Dan / Flickr

When dealing with some of the most violent and complex personalities on the planet, the key to getting the most out of an interview is extensive preparation. Before interviewing the serial killer, every case file must be researched fully and the individual’s crimes studied intensively.

There are no two serial killers who are the exact same—despite how similar some of their crimes might appear to be. In ‘The Killer Across the Table’ by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, the retired special agent explains, “The offenders we’ve examined were all killers, yet they were all different. Every killer and predator represented many layers of subtle distinctions.

There are a number of reasons why a serial killer would agree to talk to a special agent; some of them enjoy participating in a psychological study of their own minds; some are law enforcement buffs and enjoy being around police; some assume that in “cooperating” with the agents they might receive special treatment; some wish for a welcome break from mundane prison life and for others they simply enjoy recounting their murderous fantasies in gruesome details.[1]

9 Play To Their Ego

Former FBI Agent Explains Criminal Profiling | Tradecraft | WIRED

One of the quickest ways to get a serial killer to open up about their horrific crimes is to play to their ego. Many of these criminals have a very deficient superego which means they suffer little anxiety, they are violently aggressive and often sadistic in their criminal behavior. They will also most likely have a low-resting heartbeat which allows them to commit such unimaginable crimes and then sit down with their partner for dinner the following evening as if nothing happened.

So how can you persuade a criminal who is highly functional in high-pressure situations to finally drop their guard? Play to their ego, of course. Robin Dreeke is in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s elite Counterintelligence Behavioral Analysis Program, he recommends not disagreeing with any opinion and to “Make it all about them!” Dreeke further explains, “Validate every opinion non-judgmentally. If you don’t happen to agree, simply ask ‘That’s a fascinating/insightful/thoughtful opinion… would you mind helping me understand how you came up with it?” Again, their brain will reward them on multiple levels for this.’”[2]

8 Put Yourself In The Position Of The Hunter

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Criminal profiling is like working on a complex puzzle in an attempt to understand the crime and the person who committed it. If you want to solve this puzzle efficiently, it is recommended by the experts that you place yourself in the mindset of the hunter.

If you are uncomfortable with visualizing yourself as a serial killer then imagine yourself as a lion on the Serengeti plain. There is a herd of antelope and you are looking for subtle signs of weakness; training your eye on those vulnerabilities to determine which of the herd will become your next victim. This is the same way many serial killers hunt their potential prey, it’s in the thrill of the hunt itself that motivates them.

In ‘Mindhunter: Inside The FBI Elite Serial Crime Unit’ by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker, Douglas writes, “I have to put myself in the position of the attacker, to think as he thinks, to plan along with him, to understand feel his gratification in this one moment out of his life in which his pent-up fantasies come true and he is finally in control, completely able to manipulate and dominate another human being. I have to walk in that killer’s shoes, too.”[3]

7 Never Write Anything Down

Photo Credit: Mindhunter / Netflix

One of the most difficult obstacles conducting an interview with serial killers can bring, is these conversations can last anywhere from 2 to 6 hours and you are unable to write anything down. There is also a 57-page document that needs to be completed after the conversation is over so the criminal profile can later be constructed; so, a great memory is certainly required for the job.

Douglas learned early in the interviews that recording subjects will keep them in stuck defensive mode, he said, “I won’t be playing a tape recorder. So what you see on television maybe in the show Mindhunter, which is based on me… they’re going in with these big tape recorders. We did that initially, and it really turns them off. Because you’re dealing with very paranoid individuals—because of where they are now, who they are, for safety they don’t want to be perceived as a snitch.”

Adding, “If you’re taping it (they’re thinking) who’s gonna be hearing this tape. If you’re writing notes, (they’re thinking) why are you writing notes?”[4]

6 Sometimes You Have To Come Down To Their Sinister Level

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When talking to serial killers you might have to lower yourself to their sinister level in order to gain their trust. Richard Speck was a mass murderer who systematically butchered seven student nurses at the South Chicago Community Hospital in 1966. He miscounted the number of victims and one of the nurses was able to hide until he left. Two days following the murders, Speck attempted to cut his own wrists, and whilst being treated at the hospital a doctor recognized his “Born To Raise Hell” tattoo, which had been mentioned by the survivor.

During Speck’s interview with Douglas and Ressler, the killer decided not to co-operate and instead ignore both of the agents. Douglas then changed tactic and spoke about Speck as if he wasn’t in the room, he turned to a counselor and said, “He took eight pieces of ass away from the rest of us. You think that’s fair?” Speck then broke his silence and laughed, “You guys are crazy. It must be a fine line, separates you from me.” He then opened up to the agents with more information about his crimes.[5]

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5 Learn How To Cut Through The BS

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When interviewing serial killers you don’t want the majority of your time wasted on the subject spinning a bunch of lies to feed their own ego. Especially as the criminal profile itself needs to be an accurate insight into their own mind and motivations. Despite many of these criminals being interviewed whilst they are on death row, they will still attempt to control the situation by embellishing an event that they have played over and over again in their own minds. In short, serial killers are often total fantasists.

In the summer of 1976, David ‘Son of Sam’ Berkowitz shot and killed six people in and around New York City. Berkowitz claimed his neighbor’s dog named Sam was possessed by a 3,000-year-old demon that forced him to kill. However, during his interview with Douglas—he wasn’t buying it. When Berkotwize recounted the possession story, Douglas told him, “Hey, David, knock off the bullshit. The dog had nothing to do with it.” Berkowitz laughed and nodded and agreed the agent was right which meant they were able to move on to the real motivating factors behind the crimes.[6]

4 Don’t Ask Them To Feel Remorse Or Guilt

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The ability that most of us morally well-adjusted human beings have is to feel distressed when we witness the distress or suffering of another person. We should also feel moved enough to do something to alleviate that person’s suffering. There is cognitive empathy which is the ability to know what other people are feeling and emotional empathy where you feel what they’re feeling.

Many serial killers understand another person is distressed, they recognize the fear, they just don’t feel moved to respond other than with predatory behavior. This allows them to take advantage of the tearful child who has been separated from their parents or the young girl who is walking home alone. Once they have acted instinctively as a predator, it is near impossible to ask to feel bad about their crimes.

Mary Ellen O’Toole and Alisa Bowman in their book ‘Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Instincts Betray Us’ write, “Asking a psychopath what remorse or guilt feels like is like asking a man what it feels like to be pregnant. It is an experience they have never had. If you keep asking a psychopath about their feelings (such as ‘How do you feel about those victims?’), they’ll become irritated. They see (emotions) as problems, not something worth having.”[7]

3 Set Your Body Language As If You Are On A Date

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Body language is 55% of communication according to recent stats, therefore, in an interview environment, how you hold yourself is extremely important. Many serial killers are made to feel as comfortable as possible for the interview process which can take many hours—they will often have their cuffs and chains removed before sitting down.

Your body language should be set as if you are on a date—facing the individual, arms should not be crossed, keep eye contact, have a relaxed voice, and have your feet facing forwards. It is also recommended that words like ‘killing’, ‘murder’, and ‘rape’ are also avoided as this can flip the serial killer back into defensive mode.

Another tip is you should position yourself so you are looking up to the serial killer. Douglas recommends, “I would be looking up at him slightly throughout the interview. I wanted to give him that one psychological edge of feeling superior to me.”[8]

2 Stand Guard Of Your Own Mind

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Serial killers are often highly manipulative individuals who have the ability to read people well enough to know exactly how to get under their skin.

In ‘Whoever Fights Monsters’, Ressler writes that nearly everyone in his unit fell victim to situational stress and many special agents quit profiling after a few years because of the horrific nightmares they endured at night. He also recalls how he witnessed one agent fall under the spell of a cold-blooded killer who he’d passed on Bureau-developed information in order to assist the murderer’s appeal against his own death sentence. Ressler recommends stability in your own personal life will help avoid these manipulators taking control of your emotions.

Douglas also explained, “You’re dealing with the victims of violent crimes, which is emotionally gut-wrenching, and you’re talking to the people that perpetuate the crimes, who really could care less about the victims. And then, you’re conducting an interview with them as if there’s nothing wrong with the guy. You may even indicate that you have empathy toward him when you really don’t. But you have to do this acting.”[9]

1 Never Go Into An Interview Alone

Photo Credit: Mindhunter / Netflix

Edmund Kemper was labeled by investigators as a ‘natural born killer’ as he stood 6ft 9″ tall and weighed more than three hundred pounds. He offered Douglas and Ressler many valuable (and very frightening) insights into the mind of a depraved killer.

Ressler spoke with Kemper again but this time the agent was alone. At the end of the four-hour interview, Ressler pressed the call button to signal the guard—but nobody came. 15 minutes later, he pressed the call button again and this time Kemper picked up on the agent’s anxiety. Kemper told him, “If I went apeshit in here you’d be in a lot of trouble. I could screw your head off and place it on the table to meet the guard.”

An agonizing 30 minutes passed where Kemper and Ressler both tried to dominate the other in a battle of words. Ressler told the serial killer there would be consequences if he killed an FBI agent and Kemper scoffed, “What would they do, cut off my TV privileges?” Finally, when the guards opened the door, Kemper told the shaken agent, “You know I was just kidding don’t you?” Ressler made an important note never to conduct an interview on his own again.[10]

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fact checked by Jamie Frater
Cheish Merryweather

Cheish Merryweather is a true crime fan and an oddities fanatic. Can either be found at house parties telling everyone Charles Manson was only 5ft 2" or at home reading true crime magazines. Founder of Crime Viral community since 2015.

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