“I told the FBI, let me go into the prisons and talk to Charlie Manson. Let me talk to Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz. I sat across the table from them and used techniques to make them open up to me.”
This is John Douglas, 73-year- old ‘serial killer whisperer’ and retired FBI criminal profiler, instrumental in implementing the ground-breaking technique of violent criminal profiling by going straight to the source.
When Douglas, pictured above, introduced this technique in 1977, the FBI was using traditional ‘by the book’ methods and were highly sceptical of what turned out to be an extremely useful tool for the capture of criminals.
At the time of criminal profiling’s conception, Douglas began to travel around the US and interview serial killers and other violent sex offenders at various prisons.
He has been instrumental in creating an insight into deciphering psychopathy.
Joining the FBI in 1970 and transferring to FBI’s Behavioural Science Unit in 1977, the information he amassed from the interviews allowed him to build profiles of suspects in a criminal investigation at crime scenes which he examined.
This helped him form a picture of the perpetrator’s habits and psyche and predict their next move.
The author of a myriad of acclaimed books on true crime, proffering insights into the psyche of the serial killers, Douglas is the model for the character of Jack Crawford in Silence of the Lambs and Netflix’s series Mindhunter is adapted from Douglas’s 1995 book of the same name.
He is in London this month with a new book: The Killer Across the Table.
He will be speaking at London’s Hammersmith Apollo at the ‘True Crime In Conversation’ event which features a panel of US and UK law enforcement and criminal psychology specialists.
Talking to me from his home in Virginia, he talks with fervent passion and insight into serial killers’ psychology; his face to face meetings with them, how he has helped countless police forces in the USA and UK-as consultant to Yorkshire police investigating the Yorkshire Ripper, he was the first person to advise them that the recorded messages sent to the police from the ‘Ripper’ in 1978-79 were a hoax and not the from the perpetrator of the murders.
Does Douglas believe there is such a thing as a natural born killer? Certainly not.
“I don’t believe there is a killer gene. People are able to make choices and the subjects we talk to, know what they were doing, the nature and consequences of their actions.
“Just because someone comes from that background doesn’t mean they go on to perpetrate those violent crimes. People handle things differently. It is the psychological make-up of that individual who is being neglected and abused, abandoned at an early age. So a lot of it is displaced anger.”
When it comes to similarities shared by the majority of serial killers, Douglas names sadistic behaviour towards animals.
He explains: “We have found that animal cruelty is the big one. In fact the SPCA in Canada have an investigative arm and they had me speak several times about the connection with animal cruelty in children who go on to commit violent crime in adult life, and I told them that we came up with that in the ‘80s.
“So now if they report a kid pouring gasoline on a dog-they didn’t know what to do with something like that before and reporting it would come under ‘other’- now there is a special category of ‘animal cruelty’, and they keep track of it.”
From building up a profile of the psychology of the perpetrator, Douglas was able to put together a strategy for interrogating. For example with the 5ft 2in tall Manson, he took a seat and positioned himself in such a way that he would be looking up at Manson throughout the interview to give him the psychological edge of feeling superior.
Douglas explains in his new book: ‘Manson climbed up onto the back of a chair at the head of the table so he could lord over us from a superior position, the way he used to sit on top of a boulder to preach to his ‘family’ of followers, lending him an air of natural and biblical authority.’
The author then reveals how he uses body language to get what he needs from serial killers.
“Because I am manipulating the environment, I am manipulating the lighting. In there I am manipulating the furniture. I am going to put them in a position of power and at ease to give them the feeling that they are dominating me.
“I am gonna go in there with no paper, not gonna be taking notes or making audio tapes. I am trying to bring them back to the crime, to see their body language and physical reaction.”
I get the sense that despite the macabre nature of his work, the deeply upsetting details of the subjects he has steeped himself in, he lives and breathes this work. The distressing nature of his work culminated in Douglas becoming seriously ill with brain inflammation- under immense pressure at work, he contracted viral encephalitis – and fell into a coma.
And even though doctors said he would be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life, he recovered and was soon back to his work, hunting killers. In the end though, he felt he had to retire, aged just 49, turning in his badge in 1996.
A question that has always gnawed at me is why so many women are sexually infatuated with serial killers like Ted Bundy, Richard Ramirez, Charles Manson and Peter Sutcliffe
“Because many of these women wanna be a somebody. They like the attention they are getting. It gives them a sense of power. But these women would wet their pants if that person was released from prison tomorrow.”
*John Douglas is speaking at the ‘True Crime in Conversation 2019’ event at Hammersmith Apollo on June 8.
*The Killer Across the Table by John E. Douglas, Mark Olshaker, is published by HarperCollins.
Featured image courtesy guildfordpix.com