Friday, January 13, 2017

Open Letter to the Atypical Homicide Research Community

I have crafted this open letter to you – members of the atypical homicide research community – as a notification that I have resigned as a longstanding contributor to and promoter of the Radford/FGCU Database Project after being accused by its organizer of misappropriation.

In the interest of transparency, the charge came after users of the online data science platform Kaggle were provided with access to the collectively built serial homicide dataset in an effort to improve its limitations and gain answers to several outstanding research questions. A research space on the Harvard Dataverse was also established so that all collaborators could be credited for their contributions – for the first and only time in four years – via the following citation:

Aamodt, Michael; Fox, James Alan ; Hickey, Eric; Hinch, Ronald; Labuschagne, Gerard; Levin, Jack; McClellan, Janet; Nelson, Bryan; Newton, Michael; Quinet, Kenna; Steiger, Cloyd (HITS); White, John; Yaksic, Enzo, 2017, "Consolidated Serial Homicide Offender Database", doi:10.7910/DVN/4N0RND, Harvard Dataverse, V1[i]

I have since been instructed that I “must” dismantle these pages and remove all references to the citation. To placate my longtime colleague, I complied with the demands. But I came to realize upon reflection that my participation in an initiative that wittingly subsumes all other efforts while presenting a face-forward view of being a separate and unique entity cannot continue. Doing so directly conflicts with the principles engendered in me by my work in open science.

Encouraging open and wide collaboration among researchers has been my primary mission for more than a decade but I am now forced to confront the futility of this idealistic, foolish and Sisyphean errand. The exploration of the database on Kaggle was characterized as “damaging” even after ample evidence was offered that users created visualizations implementing programs like Python whose output featured statistical analyses serving to move our field beyond a reliance on the typical and somewhat limiting descriptive variety.

I can no longer endorse or contribute to the continual presentation of work as one’s own while this organizer has accepted hordes of information from sources that remain uncredited. This practice is not only unethical but dangerous in that it lessens the legitimacy of the parent dataset and, as a result, the validity of its contents. Warehousing data and constricting access and use of it to a band of hand-selected individuals and media contacts encourages bias and favoritism and, in turn, influences results and impacts research outcomes. Acting as an arbiter of freely available information and exercising total control over inclusion and exclusion calls into question the methods used to assemble databases and prevents the timely publication of academic articles.

Openness to critiques is a prerequisite for occupying positions as scientists and the nature of one’s assumed status as a subject matter expert. Triaging requests for access and granting less than .01 percent should rightly be seen as a protection of a product that may, under scrutiny, be revealed to be either a useful or worthless resource depending on how it responds to the techniques applied to it by those in the data science community. I wholeheartedly came to believe, in my naivety, that such are the risks and leaps we are required to take in the altruistic advancement of science and that improvement was predicated on building upon each other’s work. Instead, it was demonstrated to me that one individual could command an entire domain if their instinct to trump other efforts is strong enough.

It may be appropriate to create a record detailing the proper version of history in light of my recent experience as some members of this collaborative may be unaware of how the group came to be in its current form. This resource exists due solely to an unabashed hunt for data. Kenna Quinet shared her database with Jamie and Jack’s Extreme Killing research team eight years ago and shortly thereafter I disseminated a survey to thought leaders (many of you were respondents) in an effort to gauge how common of a practice it was to freely offer up ones work. It was summarily apparent that data was rarely traded, an unfortunate fact that many of you had been privy to and worked around that limitation for decades. In what can be described as a longshot, I began approaching all those that claimed to maintain serial murder data and, after trading the EK dataset, had received seven datasets. All collection efforts eventually shifted towards building out the Radford “brand” and the original consortium was abandoned to devote resources to the larger effort. Although I engaged in this process willingly as it felt like a natural progression at first, I can only equate the process to what founders probably go through after being acquired by a corporation – the slow dissolution of preexisting endeavors over a period of time.

Now and again it is good to review our current course while taking stock of achievements and how our attitudes impact others. The presence of my beliefs began to create strife for the creator of a product so it is only fair that I step aside so that business can continue unabated and without objection. I have resolved in this new year to attempt a return to a time when interesting projects were sought on their merit rather than as a byproduct of forwarding the stature of those with agendas that stray from open science. My reputation will undoubtedly suffer for choosing to break away from the pursuit of notoriety and media releases but I take solace in knowing that my integrity remains intact.

Although I report with regret that the larger data sharing effort within the realm of atypical homicide research has been an abysmal failure I would like to encourage folks to trust the process of open data science and direct attention towards a paper published in Nature Human Behavior just yesterday. The authors of the article advocate for the promotion of transparency and open collaborations in team science in the context of reproducibility. This message has delivered a measure of consolation to me at this difficult time in my career.

Please do not allow my experiences to dissuade you from engaging in an exciting arena filled with possibilities such as answering the Real-Time Forecasting Challenge or applying for the 2017 Risk Terrain Modelling Exemplar Award. There will be an Open Data Science Conference in Boston in May and as I rebuild the Serial Homicide Expertise and Information Sharing Collaborative database I will attend in the hopes of learning best practices in team building and establishing deep and truly collaborative relationships in conjunction with open data.

All the best,

Enzo Yaksic

[i] The relationship I had cultivated with agents of the FBI’s BAU-5 has gone unnoticed but I commend their willingness to dedicate time to correcting errors within the data and they should be acknowledged publically.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation Research Grant Application

The proposed project is a continuation of a systematic analysis conducted by Yaksic (2015) where it was discovered that research on atypical homicide is complicated by variations in definition, sample size, data sources and collection procedures. Almost three decades ago, Kiger (1990) highlighted the limitations of employing then existing data to study the social problem of serial murder and called for the creation of new sources to allow for quantitative assessments that used empirical data. In response, atypical homicide researchers that previously operated in ‘information silos’ were encouraged to contribute data to the Radford Serial Killer Database Project to build a comprehensive record of serial homicide offending. An ongoing data sharing initiative was also organized with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Behavioral Analysis Unit 5 and the Homicide Investigation Tracking System of the Washington State Attorney General's Office. Statistical evidence generated from these databases enables analysts to disprove ingrained myths and stereotypes about serial murderers. The broad term ‘multiple-event murderer’ was adopted after a Delphi expert panel proposed reconceptualizing mass, spree and serial murderers together under atypical homicide. This approach permits researchers to pursue knowledge unburdened by disagreement on time intervals between homicides or discordance about the shared methods and motives within each subset of offenders.
The primary outcome of the proposed research will be the creation of an electronic surveillance tool to detect and track instances of crime indicative of burgeoning atypical homicide offenders. One aim of the study is to supplant the underutilized Violent Criminal Apprehension Program as only 5,000 entries were made to the system which equals less than half of expected submissions. To ensure optimal functionality of the dashboard interface, the root causes of serial violence and aggression must be understood and codified for the program to effectively pinpoint factors symptomatic of the modern day atypical killer. To this end, a team of raters from Northeastern University’s Atypical Homicide Research Group will objectively assign a probability score to each offense, ranking the likelihood that a crime is part of an offender’s overarching design. This objective will be completed in the early stages of training a computing cluster to recognize acts that are potentially part of a larger criminal pattern. The cluster will be tested and implemented at three law enforcement organization pilot sites which will feed offender information directly into future iterations of the dashboard. Locating instances of burgeoning atypical homicide offenders of any type will surely lead to the discovery of others because mass, spree and serial murderers advance through similar pathways. Mass homicide is an urgent problem in the modern world but efforts are dedicated to funding programs aimed at predicting instances of terrorism or addressing fatal shootings by police. Financing for the aforementioned methodologies is unavailable through other sources due to decreased attention and support. This project may be the commencement of how we will learn to control violence and aggression by intervening at strategic points over the larger scope of an offender’s activities and will improve upon the extant literature by introducing the field of atypical homicide research to concepts from the realm of computer science.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Blurb for Arntfield and Danesi's Upcoming Book "Murder in Plain English: From Manifestos to Memes - Looking at Murder Through the Words of Killers"

“In Murder in Plain English, we accompany Arntfield and Danesi— pioneers of literary criminology—on an exciting odyssey to establish an über-tale that explains the motives and meanings of murder by binding fictional, forensic, and psychiatric domains. The authors deconstruct symbolic and imaginary interactions between public and private statements, writings, and expressive artifacts of serial and mass murderers; they arrive forthwith at vivid character archetypes and compelling narrative typologies. Arntfield and Danesi shepherd us by way of a revelatory humanistic approach through an exploration of homicide as a means to understand ourselves. They expertly exploit the multiple murderers’ desires to both document and rationalize their crimes, with diatribes discovered by the authors to be distorted teaching moments on an imagined stage. By grounding the comprehension of murder in the human experience, Arntfield and Danesi investigate a phenomenon at the intersection of historical, social, and emotional contexts. Since the days of Cain and Abel and the tragedies of Greek literature, untangling the connection between tales and real-life homicides delivers us to a period overrun by modern suburbia’s mass media. We are transported through dark fables and fairytales while unraveling the threads of Shakespeare’s, Edgar Allan Poe’s, and Alfred Hitchcock’s influence on megalomaniacs and their utterances. Detailed within these pages are the delusional omnipresence of Charles Manson, the cryptographic messages of the Zodiac, the satanic scrawlings of the Night Stalker, the intelligible ramblings of the Unabomber, the sanitized prose of Dennis Rader, and the lurid disorientations of the Son of Sam. The anonymity provided by social-media forums and chat rooms is now usurped by similar offenders spreading their vapid hatred across the memescape. Reliance on words, linguistic mannerisms, and the lexicon produced by these offenders contributes to a sense of urgency to unveil the linkage between the inborn ‘murder instinct’ and limbic triggers. Here, Arntfield and Danesi demonstrate immense foresight in translating the multiple murderers’ inherent ritualistic behaviors into stories, narrative mechanisms that reveal more about homicide than any scientific theory and that may allow criminologists to develop a predictive early-warning modeling system to put ourselves out of business for good.”

Monday, November 21, 2016

A Conversation with Enzo Yaksic: Embarking on a Journey to Address Misconceptions and Popular Beliefs in Multiple Homicide Research

The following was presented to students at Quincy College in November 2016:

I was invited by your professor to talk about my unique set of experiences in the field of atypical homicide research. There has never been a systematic analysis of the people that study this topic and I hope to provide a small window into our sometimes myopic world with this presentation. A colleague once told me that many of the folks in this field share qualities with the offenders they study. Over time, I would come to see firsthand how true that sentiment can be.

There have been some bright points in the career I have constructed, but also many unfortunate incidents that required a measured amount of tact and levelheadedness to triumph over. It is important to engage in introspection at an early stage to discover how far you are willing to pursue something, to what end and the type of temperament with which you are equipped. I came to find that my personal preference is for doing things the hard way. Perhaps I had adapted to the avoidant nature of some of my colleagues or the unsupportiveness of my family but playing the long game virtually guaranteed that I surpassed those taking the easy way out.

I intend to provide a brief overview of my experiences thus far and some guidance on how to realize that a path has presented itself and how to get in the mindset of staying on that course. Most would look at me and think that my career in this arena had just begun, unaware that I have been involved in the research of multiple murderers for fifteen years. Starting in my second year of college, I yearned to be apart of the narrative I saw playing out in both fiction and real life. I sought the attention of Dr. James Alan Fox, a professor at Northeastern University, to the point of borderline harassment, because I was so excited by a recent paper I wrote and thought it needed to be shared with him. The lengths I went to in getting his attention, whether it was print outs under his office door twice a week to sitting outside of it for hours should have been a clue of my collaborative spirit but I was too caught up to notice this aspect of my nature. Some measure of narcissism was also in play in valuing my work to that degree. I have found that a bit of self delusion is necessary to keep us following a path. Regardless of what factors combined so that I would end up at Fox’s office door, I was still unaware of the myriad of unexpected ways that my life would be due to change.

This picture was taken during a photoshoot for a story that ran in Boston Magazine back in April of this year. The photographer insisted on playing with the light to accentuate the two halves of good and evil that lurk within us all. This was a quaint idea - reiterating a theme often used to sell books and magazines - but I had expended a great deal of effort carving out the niche of attributing scientific rigor to a field drowning in blood and gore and dominated by an emphasis on that type of outlook. Because I envisioned the release of this story to be the end of an arch for me – beginning at Northeastern University and ending just down the street at Boston Magazine’s headquarters – I figured there was no harm in embracing their angle. After helping to build the largest database of serial killers in the world, aiding in dismantling many longstanding myths and assisting in the capture of a serial killer, I thought there was nothing else I could contribute to the field and was satisfied that my loop was about to close.

Once this magazine story ran, I was approached by a literary agent who convinced me that there is a grander story about my life that should be told. I ran through the usual coping mechanisms to help me neutralize any impending self-congratulatory thoughts. I feared that acknowledging my achievements would not only encourage me to rest on my laurels but would give others the perception that I should be placed next to other pompous former colleagues that have since been excommunicated from the field. I wondered why would anyone want to listen to me for insight on this topic. After all, I was spurred into this area by a mixture of reading the Hardy Boys and watching Get Smart, the Silence of the Lambs and The X-Files. I am someone that fanboyed over John Douglas’ visit to the Museum of Science and saved Robert Ressler’s voice message he left me at the FBI Academy on a recorder. After admitting that I found my nirvana while visiting Ressler’s house in Spotsylvania, how would anyone take me seriously? I wondered how the agent’s interest could be genuine if, as my father frequently told me when I was younger, that my life was worthless. What had changed? I continue to exist on the periphery, consuming information about offenders that challenge societal norms in the hopes of channeling my own experiences with subjugation into something constructive. In unraveling my own origin story I realized how ever present my father’s wonderful genetic contribution had been and that, in studying these killers, I had been hoping to learn techniques about how to keep my anger at bay.

On top of that, I spent much of my college experience in isolation. I was brainwashed early on by the old adage that to understand serial killers that you must think like one and I believed in the myth that they are loners. Avoidance served a purpose in aiding me from getting caught up in the antics of college life, something that would jeopardize my chances of landing an FBI internship. It also inadvertently manufactured an atmosphere that would allow me to self-actualize in an introspective haze. The author of the Boston Magazine story warned me when we first began speaking that an in-depth look at oneself is not something that everyone can handle. I thought quietly to myself about just how long of a journey this has been for me. I frequently wondered if I was merely the useless byproduct of a stern father and sometimes violent upbringing or if I could harness my anger, self destructive tendencies and criminal insight to help the world somehow? In thinking about how I sustained my presence in this field against great odds – such as not having the “proper credentials”, I understood for the first time that I was fueled by a motivation rooted in pain - something I have spent the greater part of a decade trying to uncover.

Let me be clear – I am not a crime fighting superhero with special powers of insight as some in the field purport to be. In fact, replicating this type of career would be difficult because this all came about mostly by chance. I spent very little time deciding which college to attend and essentially followed my “friends” to NU, an ironic twist since their relentless torment of me, my strange name and “rosy-red” complexion contributed to my disdain of most other people. If I had not been assigned to the wrong dorm at NU I may never have met the resident assistant that gave me the book Mindhunter and instilled in me a desire to become an FBI agent. Was it sheer happenstance that I would share the same grounds as Dr. James Alan Fox, a national expert on serial killers?

I had to come to terms with how much was fated to happen along this quest in order to take control and make things happen. Perhaps previous life events had primed me to quickly respond to incoming opportunities but I often struggled with understanding how my interest in this subject was different from those that consumed this material as a road map to eventually committing these crimes. I could not let anyone know what I was up to and I lived in secrecy for a number of years. It wasn’t until I convinced myself that I could make a worthwhile contribution that things started to fall into place. I seized an opportunity to inject an infusion of energy into an area of research that had stagnated.

I have yet to take the responsibility of spearheading future efforts in this area lightly, though. After combating certain people that took advantage of my eagerness for their own gain, I refused to languish for years doing their work for them. I began to wonder if there was a chance that people were embracing their psychopathic tendencies to profit off of my work. I swore to never adopt these qualities and decided to double down and work even harder to achieve a life balance. My wife hates my “we can do both” credo as I frequently enact it when attending a conference, trying to squeeze a vacation out of the experience. I came to realize this attitude is a reflection of my existence as two minds juxtaposed, operating the same body: one feverishly chasing the answers to his own identity and another trying to assemble a normal life. She has taken to labeling me as a severely conflicted person, likening me to several misanthropic protagonists on popular TV shows like Mr. Robot and Dr. House. My retort to her is always my go-to phrase, stated in a respectful tone – “those that are not confused by how humans treat one another are not paying enough attention to life”. I explain that my exposure to these offenders (and those that study them) has left me muddled on the overarching state of things to which she says that she understands. But can she, really?

Eventually, a system under these conditions will collapse upon itself. Long-term exposure to anything can be unhealthy but particularly the study of serial homicide offenders. Although the topic has been glamorized incessantly, the day to day aspects can be mind-numbing and actually damaging to how one relates to other human beings. If you spend the majority of your days believing that other people are objects that exist to be used on your quest for greatness, you might come to believe it. To counteract this damage and avoid burnout, I swore to abstain from the research for one to two week periods every now and again. For example, rather than attend the Felix Vail trial, an event I looked forward to for two years, I took a vacation. Being mindful of where you are mentally is vitally important, especially when your psyche is shared alongside such depravity.

When I first became involved in this area of research, I did not question why because I was simply fulfilling the requirements of a sociology class and wanted to do something different than my fellow students petitioning to lower the drinking age or arguing why marijuana should be legalized. I wrote about serial killers before it was part of the mainstream conversation on campus. I took unpaid internships with the Boston and Everett Police Departments, the Office of the Attorney General and the FBI Academy in Quantico Virginia, having a difficult time sustaining interest in the area as real life responsibilities called. During that time, I became obsessed with the Chandra Levy case due to our shared federal employment status, goals and similar age. I was convinced that a serial offender was responsible for her death. I slipped and let my interest be known accidentally one day to my supervisor at the FBI and she divulged that she worked alongside serial killer expert Eric Hickey on the Unabomber taskforce and that I should speak with him. She wondered why I waited so long to tell her what I had been working on. I began to wonder too. If I had reached out to her earlier I might have been more successful with my first foray into introducing myself to the field. I constructed a fifteen question survey to be sent to all of the criminologists for which I could find addresses but most of the responses poured in over the fax machine right as I was getting ready to come back to Massachusetts.

Before I left, I reminisced about getting lost in the woods behind the FBI Academy facility where the majority of my free time was spent thinking about killers and the time I woke up early one of the mornings of the three months I spent in my hotel room to watch the press conference announcing the capture of the BTK killer. That was an eerie experience because I had just been shown the case file days earlier. In movies and TV shows, where my first exposure to profiling came from, it had been depicted to be an activity one engages in by themselves. This was a stark contrast to how I was accustomed to contributing.

For much of my life, I had been the assistant. When my father needed help in the yard he always forced me to complete the tasks while my brothers played video games upstairs. He maintained control over me with constant negative statements about my worth and having to prove it to him. I remember always looking up at their window and cursing them and wondering why this was my burden. When I got older, my placement among the menial continued with a job at Stop and Shop that was, much like Dwight on The Office, literally assistant to the assistant grocery manager.

Perhaps that is why I fell so nicely into my assumed role as data gatherer and proofreader, working in the background in the early days of my efforts to make a mark on the field. But after many years of these routines I began to wonder how to break the cycle of abuse rooted in the relationship I had with my father. I knew I would have to strike out on my own and generate my own ideas to prove my worth once again.

Unfortunately, credentials are everything to most in the professional realm. Due to being financially strapped after attending Northeastern I saw graduate school as an implausible course. I came to shun the nature of academia in that colleagues willingly hand the power to direct their futures over to others that may not have their best intentions at heart. Mentors command heavy reliance on their guidance and look down upon self-started projects unless their name is clearly visible. Their endorsement of old ideas reimagined is a typical occurrence as fresh takes are considered risky gambles. My involvement compounds efforts since I would be someone with only a bachelor’s degree leading the charge.

Given these limitations, I thought that transitioning from a research assistant to a legitimate colleague would be a near impossible task to accomplish, given how close to the chest researchers in this field were with their work. I knew I would have to commit to the long game. I came up with a set of guiding principles that I would work hard to never compromise. I tried to start projects with many unwilling people before I teamed up with Tom Hargrove to file a Freedom of Information Act request against my former employer, the FBI, for data that we suspected they had. These mantras would be invaluable as I encountered the pettiness of those that would soon become my nemeses.

I took a job as a research assistant at a local hospital and wondered toward what future was I headed? As if by some cosmic sign, the Grim Sleeper serial killer, Lonnie Franklin, had been arrested on my first day at work. I sat and wondered if I should click on the link to the CNN story. Should I risk what could be stable employment just to feed my addiction? I had already lost one job during college because I has so concerned that another researcher had published a paper on African American serial killers, a topic I was deeply invested in at the time, that I actually dropped everything and drove to the New York Public Library so I could get access to the paper. I knew I had the tendency to let my obsession overtake me and fought hard to stop it from bleeding into my life any further. I thought that my decision here would enlighten me about what I should be doing with my life. I clicked the link. After I made that choice I decided to dedicate whatever time I could spare to this path. But if I was willing to risk a stable future to keep my true passion ignited, why not chase after it with full force? I thought long and hard about what my aging mentor Eric Hickey said to me, “after Fox and I are gone, who is going to assume the mantle?” I fought back my abject narcissism to ask myself, “do I dare disturb the universe?”, a line from T. S. Eliot featured on a poster in my favorite book from high school called the Chocolate War. I began to realize that I was at war with myself and my two halves for too long.

A formative experience occurred shortly after this moment where I thought Kenna Quinet used my data for a paper without crediting the source. I was initially upset because I viewed this action as a serious breach of ethics. After a lengthy conversation, I had seemingly negotiated a truce where Kenna agreed to share her data with me. From this interaction, I was inspired to reach out to other folks to replicate my success. I began by contacting all of the authors of any article in the literature who stated that they either maintained their own dataset of were given access to data by another party. Because I had already amassed a great deal of information on my own for Dr. Fox, I thought that combining this data with Kenna’s and others from the field would lead to new advancements.

I encountered issues early on in the process from people that have since become longtime colleagues. Prominent author Katherine Ramsland told me directly that no one would contribute to such an initiative, especially to a no-name person like myself. I figured that I would have to offer something to entice others to part with their work. From then on, I attached a copy of my own work to each email correspondence and highlighted that there was no pressure to participate in the data gathering initiative. By extending this type of good faith effort, I immediately began to see results. After about a year of back and forth with these folks, we agreed to combine the data with the Radford Serial Killer database, the largest effort of its type. I was finally on my way to combating my deeply entrenched feelings of imposter syndrome, as being an interloper that did not belong. From that point, I began to shed my blue collar background and tendency to think life was a linear experience and bought into the idea of fated events.

After our data sharing concluded, I attended a conference and met the late Leonard Morgenbesser, a truly admirable man. I became known as the data guy to him but I wasted no time introducing him to the idea of creating a collaborative group where we could bring together people from the field to communicate through an email listserv. I quickly realized that there were some folks that refused to be a part of any project if certain others were involved. Catering to these individuals had me questioning my own resolve but their inclusion almost ensured that others would join up so I had little choice but to do what they asked. Excluding others directly conflicts with the collaborative spirit I was trying to instill in the homicide group so confronting this disparity was disheartening. In growing the group, I had to fight back against feelings of desperation to simply reach out to anyone I could think of, regardless of their reputation, because I understood that the people I formed alliances with now may indirectly influence the course of my career.

Along your journey, there will be what seem like insurmountable obstacles. What happens when you run across those that challenge your reputation?

In the early days of the homicide collaborative group, I encountered issues on a weekly basis with the coordinator that inserted herself in the initiative that I began with Leonard. Because the email listserv was hosted by Binghamton University, her home institution, she felt that ownership belonged to her alone. She wished to command all aspects of the group but provided no guidance on who could join or even what our mission statement was supposed to be. As we spilt off into factions, I ran across a deluded cold case detective chasing the glory of being a TV star. He called me a joke after I confronted him about using the Atypical Homicide Research Group’s member list without permission to recruit for his own cold case group. This man literally stood on the graves of others to launch a persona of being the leader of a group he dubbed the “Super Friends”. Despite the hype, he has yet to solve a cold case with his team of “the greatest group of investigators in the world”. He created Ken’s Corner where he uses criminal profiling to battle famous criminals, a process akin to catching a rare Pokemon on PokemonGo. A member of the Atypical Homicide Research Group defected to his outfit and I was struck by the urge to remove him from our group. I caught myself curating and excising people, potentially reigniting the rivalries of legend. I justified my actions with the knowledge that his magazine was singlehandedly keeping the old myths and stereotypes about serial killers alive with titles like Fatal Fetishists, Body Harvest and 21st Century psychos.

Another example of how underhanded some in this field of research can be is how we initially treated Clare Allely. My mentor and I thought Clare had used the Radford database in an inappropriate manner and engaged with her to try to determine if she had. I was instructed to obtain this information from Clare through means bordering on deception. While I did follow my mentor’s instructions, I regretted the way we interacted with Clare. I decided that I would get to know her as a person, rather than just another resource to be used. We are great friends to this day.

Even when I started to amass some successes, I kept a day job and conducted my research at nighttime. I thought that functioning in this nocturnal state would help to establish a deeper connection with serial killers and tap into the duality that they exercise on a daily basis to deceive others to their true intentions. I wanted to know how hard it would be to live both lives without intertwining the two and experiment with secrecy to experience the same strain as these offenders.

I would soon find the breaking point as some relationships I had built would push me to my limits.

Relationships will forever be in a state of flux: some are tenuous and will fade, break or be broken intentionally. Coming to grips with those loses is difficult, especially when your role was to be used towards another’s ends for their own gain. Part of being successful in this space is knowing which battles to choose, what boundaries can be crossed and when.

Shown here are some examples of instances where, like Mains on the previous slide, someone tried to take sole credit for another’s work.

The first two images are from an exchange between my mentor and I about an associate professor from Drew University we had previously worked with that plagiarized a piece he wrote. When I discovered this had happened I was forced to confront the reality that this person would be excommunicated from the field, as had happened at least three times in the past. I struggled with what to do for some time but elected to inform my mentor about it. He swiftly instructed me to remove the plagiarizer from the homicide collaborative and cease further contact with him.

The image on the right side occurred a few months ago when my second mentor took advantage of a relationship I had built with an agent of the Behavioral Analysis Unit. I got over it by justifying my expensive trip to Florida, having paid for the conference in full because of my apprehension of profiting from my work. During the Homicide Research Working Group meeting in June of 2015, I came to know the FBI BAU agent after sharing an elevator with him. He asked about my work and told me that he was a profiler and new a little something about serial killers. My mind raced with calculations of the odds of meeting him like this as I was overtaken with feelings of serendipity. I provided a demonstration of my work on the Radford serial killer database in the hopes that the BAU would be interested in collaborating on future projects. This, I thought, was a foolproof way to gain access to the data that Hargrove and I sought four years earlier. After a year of obtaining internal approvals, the BAU agent returned and asked for a memorandum of understanding from the Radford database team. My mentor responded with the letter seen here, removing my name from the correspondence even though I was responsible for this opportunity.

The images in the lower left corner reference a set of events that have been four years in the making. I became involved in the investigation of suspected serial murderer Felix Vail in late 2012 and was asked by an investigative reporter to assist in gaining the attention of law enforcement. The goal was to have the death of Annette Craver Vail reinvestigated after she was allegedly murdered in 1962. I was unaware that the investigative reporter teamed up with 20/20 and USA Today to release a packet of stories on the case beforehand. When I watched 20/20 and read the packet of stories, I realized that the investigative reporter had excluded my contributions from both efforts. After a protracted set of conversations, I was able to have the proper set of facts added to the packet of stories to reflect that I contacted Armin Showalter, acting chief for the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, which specializes in serial homicide investigations. This was an important aspect of the case because the investigative reporter had tried numerous times to get Calcasieu Parish Deputy Randy Curtis to read his original story on Vail back in 2012. After Curtis spoke to Showalter, he agreed to reinvestigate the death of Vail’s wife. Vail was arrested five months later. The investigative reporter admitted that without my involvement, the case would not have been reopened so I was disheartened to learn that the stories were written in a manner to insinuate that the case was reopened in direct response to his original story. I spent many hours entangled in thoughts of this being done on purpose to bolster his own fame and how I was used and discarded, yet again. In a rather anticlimactic conclusion, the investigative reporter said he simply forgot about my input. I decided to come away from this exchange thinking that one should never assume that the other has malice intention. These thoughts of demonizing others can often be a projection of how you would handle the situation if roles were reversed.

Some lessons that I learned over the years proved helpful in mediating these situations. I knew I needed to be a self-advocate but also strike a balance between pettiness and protecting any legacy I had the hope of maintaining. It seemed as if I was spending a lot of time functioning as a historical archive and having to recall for others how events actually transpired in order to keep the record accurate. I again had to tap into my duality to cope with remaining a faithful colleague while making demands of them.

The majority of the efforts you see here are self sought and pursued without oversight. For each of the eighteen things listed here there are an equal number of failures and ignored emails. There are also a number of projects that I passed on as they were out of line with my portfolio, skill set, interests and the image I was trying to project as a junior researcher. I am proof that with enough desire anything can be accomplished, even when faced with the “only a bachelor's degree” limitation, a major disqualifier in academia. But I have learned that it is imperative to approach this topic with professionalism as most serious folks would have discounted me immediately if my motivation for getting involved was to gain access to crime scene pictures or a fascination with death.

The key is to keep forward momentum and never stand still for too long. This is an area ripe for disruption with plenty of areas to explore. We still need to focus on the interplay between a genetic predisposition to violence and environmental factors and the roles depression, emotional regulation and mental illness play in the lives of atypical murderers. Pioneering work must be done to deduce the likelihood that the decrease in serial homicide is correlated with an observed increase in spree and mass homicides.

Even after all I have detailed in this presentation, I still wonder about how far I have really come. After all, most of my important life events have taken place on Huntington Avenue. Within two miles from one another, I went to school at Northeastern, saw my wife for the first time and started work at the hospital. In the end, it is reassuring to know that all of these projects and choices, roadblocks and hurdles have brought me here, to this moment, to share it all with you.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Massachusetts Association of Criminal Justice Education 2016 Award for Innovation in Criminal Justice Speech

The program for the MACJE "Expanding the Boundaries of Criminal Justice Education" conference can be downloaded here.

I am proud to share the history of the Serial Homicide Expertise and Information Sharing Collaborative with you today as I accept the MACJE Award for Innovation in Criminal Justice. This award demonstrates that those functioning quietly in the background can make an impact and is an important acknowledgment of the influence one can have on the direction of a field. The collaborative was a game changer in the criminal justice community, the result of combining various novel ideas in a unique way. To realize a vision for the future through better solutions applied more effectively using processes and technologies utilized in other industries is the essence of innovation. I am gracious of your recognition of my work in the field of serial homicide research and humbled by your attention to this story about finding a way along divergent paths.

Setting forth on the road to implement this innovation has been an incredibly rewarding experience but not one without its fair share of obstacles and pitfalls, nemeses and false starts. The first trial I overcame was my own cognizance that my desire to be a cartoon animator should be put aside in search of accomplishing something grand, akin to my father’s emigration here from Chile. For years, I also searched voraciously for a way to set myself apart from my overachieving and widely praised younger brother. I came to realize that aspiring to professionally draw superheroes was a way of coping with early adversity and familial dysfunction by attaching myself to their greatness but felt primed to seek out the life histories of those that endured toxic stress. I began to recognize an inherent interest in the duality of others surfacing within me. Questions also arose about the origin of the dissonance that contributes to one’s false representations and differences in public and private personas. I fell upon the topic of serial homicide accidently after a chance meeting with a resident assistant at Northeastern University in which I was handed John Douglas’ book Mindhunter. I thought it was worth exploring how to harness the negative outlook I received as a consequence of my upbringing. Only after a period of introspection did I seriously consider pursuing this research, a process that irreversibly bonded my psyche to this work. Once I met Professor James Alan Fox, happenstance gave way to what I now perceive to be a fated outcome. From then on, I decided to devote my time and energy to this outlet and fully pursue my newfound area of interest.

It became apparent early on that the entire field of serial homicide research was built on a foundation of lore and stereotypes. Dismantling this institutionalized mythology became my primary goal and served as a means to differentiate myself from others that were deeply invested in psychoanalyzing the archetypes of Bundy, Gacy, Berkowitz and Dahmer. Without a PhD, though, I struggled to be taken seriously during this now sixteen-year journey and worked hard to ward off the degrading pull of imposter syndrome. Attempting to disrupt the status quo put me in direct opposition to the men now promulgating these myths to maintain the remnants of their own legend. This decision was a weighty one as it guaranteed my quest would be loaded with false starts, periods of despair and loneliness. While consumed with grief over Chandra Levy’s death - due to my belief that a serial killer was responsible and our shared goals and similar age - my mantra to follow the trail to the end regardless of the costs was formed. A principle component of this maxim was a challenge line ensuring that I approached this topic with professionalism and integrity. Paramount to me was making my idol Joi Ito of the MIT Media Lab proud of my ongoing endeavor to transform into a “now-ist” as I shunned the educational complex as he had done in his success with “just” a bachelor’s degree.

Combating antiquated viewpoints required hordes of data that existed in many disparate formats across researchers that worked in silos without interacting with one another. Because the standing perception is that men researching these crimes desired to emulate the offenders, collecting data was the most practical way to remain equitable and legitimize my interest to those questioning my intentions. Convincing staunchly territorial folks that often disliked each other and were twice my age to buy into a reliance on technology to aid in understanding serial crime and mass violence through information sharing and discussion was critical but I became known as the “data pest” to many that openly criticized the use of such techniques. Since my own personal history contains the ingredients consigned to the offenders I study - torment from classmates, adverse childhood experiences, personality disorders and broken relationships - I was equipped to absorb the insults. Comments of this nature simply fueled my swelling blue flame but the potential exposure of my dual role as both hospital employee and serial homicide researcher by my enemies has introduced some measure of risk in going public with my involvement in what was once a well-kept secret. Regardless, I carried on with the process of transforming my grief and anguish into a tangible force for good.

I learned that the state of research into serial killers and criminal profiling needed an infusion of elevated purpose after petitioning to construct and disseminate a survey to gauge the further usefulness of criminal investigative analysis in the 21st century. I applied the concept that came natural to me - open collaboration - to the problem of diminished validity and scope after being afforded the opportunity to contact several thought leaders by a supervisory special agent at the FBI during an internship at their academy. Echoes of this intentionally open design have remained constant throughout my work across several disciplines and varying personalities. I pledged to never unduly profit from my work and assembled a group of likeminded researchers, practitioners and law enforcement officers to assist in my cause of furthering serious inquiries into a realm often characterized as being “more art than science”. Given the poor reception of the recent Jon Benet Ramsey CBS special, my instincts were correct in that FBI survey ten years ago as it appears that criminal profiling has fallen from prominence.

We must turn instead to rigorously collected data if we hope to unlock the remaining unknowns about serial killers. I was inspired to found the Northeastern University Atypical Homicide Research Group after participating in a virtual breakthrough series put on by the Department of Veterans Affairs. This experience solidified my belief in the power of mixed methods, translational research and the notion that bold ideas can arrive during the pursuit of larger discoveries. Combining the Serial Homicide Expertise and Information Sharing Collaborative’s data with Mike Aamodt’s Radford Serial Killer Project would aid in my vision to create the largest repository of serial homicide data available. After years of relationship building, we got to work. Our labor proved almost immediately useful in confirming some of my early findings. We now know that every other serial killer since 1995 has been African American and only eighteen percent of offenders match the dubious FBI demographic profile. The percentage of serial killers with domestic violence arrests in their history was a statistic that helped close the Felix Vail investigation. Our next venture is opening the database to all over the Harvard University Dataverse to recruit scientists to help us cull out significance from the data and attribute meaning to it. In practice, one such project arose from efforts to prove or disprove the Smiley Face Killer theory. We enlisted the expertise of a local researcher maintaining a database of men that have drowned under suspicious circumstances and are in the process of attributing statistical analysis to tease out any anomalies.

As a Board Member of the Murder Accountability Project, I work to ensure that data helps to identify potential serial murder victim clustering. We are currently partnering with the Western University Cold Case Society to investigate a cluster of homicides in Atlanta, an initiative that may produce actionable leads for detectives or provide closure for families. A true highlight of my career was contributing to the Globe and Mail’s inquiry into the murders of indigenous women and helping them to identify the factors contributing to their victimization. Some definite low points came after uncovering a plagiarist in the collaborative and then encountering a now rival who unabashedly stole the Atypical Homicide Research Group’s roster log to create his own cold case group, one that he comically refers to as a group of “crime fighting super friends”. From this interaction, I learned that becoming a caricature and making empty promises to victim’s families in the hopes of signing on for your own television show should never compromise one’s values. Defying the internal conflict about profiting from the misery of others and giving into the entertainment sphere is almost as abhorrent as the actions of these killers themselves. Sometimes the things we reject say more about us than the projects we undertake. My refusal to allow the actions of this one individual to damper other opportunities led to some great experiences. During my recent technical advisor role on A&E’s upcoming “The Killing Season” docuseries, I strove to attain a sense of realism and helped ground a group of Northeastern University graduate students I advised during a seminar titled Special Topics: Serial Offending. These young women reaffirmed my faith in the junior scientist as I greatly admired their work with the serial homicide data.

As the world moves towards a future guided by artificial intelligence, I have tailored my recent work to create an electronic surveillance dashboard and adapt the technologies of Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing to better help locate serial homicide offenders. Human relationships will still be a vital aspect of these efforts, though, and remain at the forefront of my mind. Along that vein, we recently partnered with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit and the Homicide Investigation Tracking System of the Washington State Attorney General's Office. The data resulting from these sharing initiatives will be monumentally important in increasing the validity of the Radford database. Although the future holds great things for our research, continuous exposure to these offenders and their crimes has admittedly taken a psychological toll over the years.

This award comes at a time when I contemplate walking away from this research after burning out surrounded by mentions of heinous acts. To maintain some semblance of a normal life, I question my own continued ability to contribute to the field and waver towards a breakneck commitment to my passion but also teeter towards an active separation from what mutated into an obsession. There exists an unending push and pull in me while splitting my time between a day job and to what I once playfully referred as my “other life”, a byproduct of my reluctance to give myself completely to an area of research I understand to be all-consuming. To those willing to engage with someone that might be retired within this current decade I will be a colleague, mentor and friend while grappling with questions about my role in the scheme of things. Part of me considers my work building the homicide researcher network to be a selfish endeavor, one that might result in the torch passed to the next group of academics. Thankfully, I may be relieved of making a conscious decision to vacate my post as my connection to this research could be severed artificially due to the steady decline in serial homicide we discovered. Although this decrease signals a lessened need for analysts like me to continue tracking and reporting on the activity of serial murderers, your acknowledgment of my work has reaffirmed the desire to hone my focus and answer the call from my mentors to assume the mantle once they retire. Perhaps once a dashboard requiring no human input to collect and catalog all instances of serial homicide is built and a firm understanding about the reasons for the decrease in serial homicide is established I can rest easy. Until then I shall allow myself to be drawn even deeper still into the expanding abyss.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Novel Techniques to Detect the Multiple-event Murderer: An Exploration of a Researcher’s Field Notes

Expansive fictional depictions of prolific atypical murderers sustain our collective fascination during their near absence from police blotters (DeSpirito, 2016), permeating all aspects of society while appearing in cultural conversations centered on artists (Caldwell, 2016; Ellwood, 2015; Wolcott, 2016), comedians (Everett, 2012; Kimble, 2015) and politicians (Tiffany, 2016). We have become a nation of #Fannibals (Hall, 2013), satiated by the deeds of what are now known as multiple-event murderers (MeMs) (Aamodt & Yaksic, 2015; Yaksic, 2015). Although Warren, Dietz, and Hazelwood (2013) surmise that these atypical murderers do not alter behaviors after learning from public sources, some believe them to become more adept at crime through this exposure. The utilization of multiple murderers as educational devices to entice students reinforces ingrained myths and damages efforts to dismantle them. Why We Love Serial Killers, a recent effort to co-mingle entertainment media with academic insight, resonated as a vapid attempt at garnering fame and profitability (Yaksic, 2014a). This chapter examines deficits exposed during systematic analysis of past work in homicide research (Yaksic, 2015). Detection of the modern day MeM requires forward propulsion stimulated by “anti-disciplinary” thinking and adapting concepts from disparate arenas into the criminological perspective.

Detecting the Devil in the Details

A recent Boston Magazine article titled Profiler 2.0 (Halber, 2016) redefined how criminal justice practitioners are expected to operate in a world saturated with data. We have remained entrenched in arguments about definitions and exclusion criteria in the domain of atypical homicide research (Yaksic, 2015) while efforts to create typologies of different killers are called a popular tactic (Shanafelt & Pino, 2013) and unhelpful in solving crimes (Mark Safarik, personal communication, 20 May 2016). Trepidation in advancing beyond descriptive statistics may be a strategic maneuver, one permitting us to avoid operationalizing data. Studying all criminal offenders with mainstream theory and methods (DeLisi, 2015) is met with apprehension as scrutiny of probabilistic genotyping and predictive algorithms – advancements recently applied to the criminal justice system – (Angwin, Larson, Mattu & Kirchner, 2016; Davey, 2016; Shaer, 2016) continues. Many relationships have been frayed in the struggle to build databases cataloging atypical homicide offenders. Comparably, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist found himself at odds with colleagues after claiming credit for amassing data on the subject of fatal shootings by police even though similar databases had been built (Swaine, 2016).

Today, much of the criminal justice field has accelerated their effective use of data, evidenced by the National Institute of Justice employment posting for a ‘groundbreaking crime statistics analysis initiative’ (McGough, 2016), the existence of forecasting tools such as PredPol and HunchLab (Chammah & Hansen, 2016) and the Law Enforcement Advancing Data and Science Program (National Institute of Justice, 2016). Still, access to data with appropriate sample size and statistical power is the primary impediment to generating models meant to answer empirical questions about atypical homicide. Data can help determine if commonplace offenders invested in a criminal career behave like serial killers while interspersing murder into a range of offenses. Employing the Radford Serial Killer Database (SKDB) – consisting of 4,274 records across 170 variables (Boyne, 2014) – may aid in resolving queries about the differences between atypical murderers and ordinary criminals experimenting with duality (DeLisi, 2015).

Foraging for the Furtive Few

Some are confronting the false promises of “Big Data” even though exploiting this approach evokes a sense of boundlessness. Yaksic (2015) has proposed creating a dashboard that would apply data mining techniques to the task of identifying discernable patterns in the SKDB data but there may be danger inherent in surrendering ourselves over to a world run by algorithms (Davey, 2016). The aspirations of those interested in weaponizing data to combat the scourge of missing persons[1] (Joshua Zeman, personal communication, 14 May 2016) and unsolved homicides (Michelle Katz, personal communication, 18 May 2016; Sacha Thorpe, personal communication, 19 May 2016) currently outweigh the capabilities of databases because basic details within them, such as the manner in which offenders are apprehended, are often missing. This limitation fosters a reliance on findings from studies that either disregard subgroups within the population of atypical murderers (Kurkjian, 2016) or focus on the broad category of sexual murderers (Beauregard & Martineau, 2016). In response, atypical homicide researchers created an incubator designed to address serial offending (Office of the University Registrar, 2016) and formed a collaborative enterprise with the Homicide Investigation Tracking System (HITS) of the Washington State Attorney General's Office (Tamara Matheny, personal communication, 22 July 2016) and members of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) 5 aiming to use research, strategy, and instruction to close the missing data gap (Sarah Craun, personal communication, 2 March 2016).

The culmination of interventions – police investigations, actions taken by the victim, or the involvement of witnesses (White, Lester, Gentile & Rosenbleeth, 2011) – result in the apprehension of MeMs but they sometimes reveal themselves via confessions or miscalculations. Murders can be linked by happenstance as in the “Black Widow” killings where one detective overheard another talking about a similar case (Associated Press, 2008). The transcript of serial murderer James Childers’ statements (United States Department of Justice, 2009) details a decision making process confirming that small choices lead to unanticipated paths (Shanafelt & Pino, 2013). Most serial homicides contain incidents occurring independent of the offender’s ingenuity: escaping capture by way of external situational factors beyond their control – known in common parlance as a ‘lucky break’. These episodes amount to unwarranted political involvement (Yaksic, 2014b), lapses in investigative strategies due to erroneous thinking (Kramer, 2016) or corruption that prevents official inquiry (Schram, Algar, & Tacopino, 2015).

Multiple-event Murderers as Human Beings: Exploiting Resilience and Collapse

Most of the work done in breaking serial killer stereotypes (Kuhn & Coston, 2005; Walters, Drislane, Patrick, & Hickey, 2015) stops short of considering atypical homicide offenders as individuals operating within a set of ‘normal aberrations’, shared cultural and psychological processes or in terms of what motivate our actions as people (Shanafelt & Pino, 2013; Yaksic, 2013). The portrayal of atypical murderers as monsters imbues offenders with fantastical powers, convincing them that they are advanced predators with exceptional abilities and expertise (Wiest, 2016). Adapting the conceptual framework provided by the ‘9 Principles’ (Copeland, 2012) summarizes how atypical murderers remain adaptable in changing terrain. By allowing failure to encourage adjustments in routines, not planning for everything in the beginning, taking risks instead of focusing on safety, fully embracing unexpected changes and events, being imaginative, practicing over theorizing, choosing disobedience over compliance, disallowing authority to limit potential and keeping vision and thinking open and flexible, MeMs can remain resilient and successful. It can be argued that a failure to abide by these principles has contributed to a decline in instances of serial homicide (DeSpirito, 2016; Yaksic, 2015).

Resiliency is ignored during debates about what makes MeMs successful. Because network science can provide a framework for capturing regularities in atypical homicide (Marcos Oliveira, personal communication, 23 June 2016), we can use this concept to conceive the tipping point between offender resiliency and collapse. Modifying the ideas posited by complex network researchers Gao, Barzel, & Barabási (2016) can help us understand how enterprising killers calibrate their actions to maintain base level functionality when environmental changes occur. Thinking about atypical homicide offenders as multi-dimensional systems consisting of a large number of components interacting through a complex network and adjusting to dis­tur­bances in order to remain functional is certainly a paradigm shift. Doing so could allow the prediction of the atypical murderer’s collapse under the weight of errors and internal failures.

The Utility of Criminal Investigative Analysis (CIA) in the 21st Century

What is being done today to uncover undetected, offending MeMs? Discussions about the methods utilized to discover MeMs are often superseded by endeavors to reveal the genetic outlier or negative experience thought to help aid in discovering other such murderers early on in their maturation (Parshley, 2016). The development of processes meant to assist in apprehending these offenders is a popular focal point due to their perceived dangerousness. CIA is often favored as an investigative suite of tools over other conventional techniques – such as linkage analysis programs like Crime Linkage International NetworK (2016) or the use of Bayesian modeling (de Zoete, Sjerps, Lagnado, & Fenton, 2015) – due to the lore surrounding the FBI’s success rate with the program. Shanafelt and Pino (2013) astutely call use of CIA inadvisable while Branson (2013) outright accuses the FBI of creating a matrix devoid of any social or cultural context while they revel in the “magic of the methodology”. Some are inspired by Agent Cooper’s mystical Tibetan Method from the television program Twin Peaks (Blassmann, 1999) and imprudently wield profiling as an armament in a battle of good versus evil (Mains, 2015).

The divide between perceptions and the practical use of CIA was evidenced by Yaksic (The Practicality of CIA in the 21st Century, Survey, 14 March, 2005) in a survey purposed at ascertaining CIA’s further usefulness. While each respondent understood that the perspectives surrounding the definition of CIA vary widely (Scherer & Jarvis, 2014) and knew it to be a useful contrivance, researchers felt that CIA has not adapted to the modern age and is based on an outdated dataset while the inverse was believed by the profilers. These rifts contribute to problems where faulty views and disparaging tones lead to research gaps and limit our scientific understanding of atypical offenders. Northeastern University’s Atypical Homicide Research Group (NUAHRG)[2] was formed to accommodate all viewpoints and reduce the strain of dichotomous relationships among law enforcement professionals and researchers. DeLisi (2015) categorizes these opinions as errors of social construction – a failure to acknowledge that serial murder is an area deserving of study by serious scholars – and stagnancy – a lack of innovation in scholarly thought – and recommends reclaiming this area of inquiry from true crime authors.

The advent of the serial murder entertainment industry has ushered criminal profiling into a sacred space as the cornerstone of forensic science courses. Academic institutions capitalize on university students convinced that becoming a “criminal profiler” is an immediately attainable goal. Although the objective of these programs is to instill a sense of wonderment regardless of how implausible the course, students should be actively discouraged from pursing ‘profiling’ as a career choice due to the abysmal state of grant funding dedicated towards this area of study (Angela Williamson, personal communication, 15 April 2016). The work of Muller (2000) might inspire students to redirect their energy towards other impactful fields of inquiry. Because individuals explain atypical homicide in the terms related to their profession (Shanafelt & Pino, 2013) they can tangentially connect their work to the pursuit of atypical homicide offenders. Environmental scientist Nigel Raine used geographic profiling to look at patterns of bee foraging and perfect the technique (Raine, Rossmo & Le Comber, 2009), electrical engineers Simkin and Roychowdhury (2014) suggest that the likelihood of successive killings is higher soon after a murder than after a long period has passed, physicist Neil Johnson developed a statistical model aimed at identifying behavioral patterns among online supporters of ISIS and used this information to predict the onset of violent events (Johnson, Zheng, Vorobyeva, Gabriel, Qi, Velasquez, Manrique, Johnson, Restrepo, Song, & Wuchty, 2016), Allely (2016) asks if we can predict who will become a mass shooter and the hacker Jester uses IBM's Watson AI to create a monitoring tool, called iAWACS, to analyze a user's "trustworthiness, propensity toward violence [and] openness" (Fung, 2016). The following vignettes comprise efforts by citizen sleuths, journalists, engineers and information technology professionals to create MeM detection tools and use novel approaches to understand how they interact with the world around them.

Utilizing New Tools to Locate MeMs in the Information Age

These ingenious efforts avoid preoccupation with apprehending MeMs so that attention can be redirected to detecting their presence using pattern recognition on characteristics of the victim and offender. The world of data science is fertile ground for folks outside of criminology to make an impact, especially as technical advances outpace practitioner’s understanding. Several projects underway heed Leetaru’s (2016) warning that the big data revolution is being driven by computer science with the majority of sentiment mining tools coming from that area rather than the disciplinary fields whose questions they are attempting to answer. Each platform detailed herein asks ‘where are atypical murderers hiding?’ as their originators were confounded by the findings of Beauregard and Martineau (2016) stating that strategies used by organized sexual murderers may increase the likelihood of detection by police. These architects considered a former FBI BAU 2 Unit Chief’s view that serial murder research has not “identified any radical new ideas over the past few years”[3] to be unsatisfactory and deemed current methodologies to be insufficient for prospectively locating MeMs. Each has committed to gathering data, designing algorithms and combining the efforts of those in the world of data science and engineering with criminal justice practitioners, an approach referred to as translational criminology or research with the potential for real-world implementation (Laub, 2012). Their guiding research question required supporting one of two schools of thought about the prevalence of multiple murderers where either hundreds of serial killers are actively trolling on an unending search for victims or their presence among the ranks of MeMs is steadily declining (Yaksic, 2015). These platforms were designed under the assumption that, aside from those cataloged in the SKDB as captured each year, a great number of active atypical murderers are unaccounted for in the United States.

The Murder Accountability Project (MAP) is an outgrowth of a 2010 national reporting project conducted by Thomas Hargrove at the E.W. Scripps Co. that aimed to investigate the declining homicide clearance rates in the United States (Crawley, 2015). MAP seeks to improve public awareness of the problem of unsolved homicides and identified bodies. Accurately accounting for unsolved homicides and making FBI murder data more widely and easily available to police, journalists and the general public is of importance as more than 216,000 homicides have not been solved since 1980. MAP seeks to improve the quality of reporting by police by using Freedom of Information laws to obtain information from state and local governments about unsolved homicides that many major police departments decline to supply to the FBI’s voluntary Uniform Crime Report (UCR) and Supplementary Homicide Report (SHR).

During the national reporting project, Hargrove created the Serial Killer Detector, a computer algorithm that flags potential serial killings within the FBI’s SHR (Editor & Publisher, 2010). This tool is now accessible on MAP’s interactive website (Hargrove, 2015) where the user can consider if a serial killer may be active within a specific community. The Scripps study identified an alarming number of unsolved killings of women in 161 clusters nationwide involving 1,247 deaths of women of similar age who were killed by similar means. Serial murderers are known to operate in a tight geographic area, selecting, killing and disposing of their victims within this zone. The SHR data available on the "Search Cases" tab of the MAP website can be helpful to homicide investigators testing their theories about homicide suspects who may have killed across multiple jurisdictions or within the same jurisdiction over time.

Hargrove used multivariate analysis on data reported to the FBI to calculate that at least one multiple-victim killer had operated in Indiana (Hargrove, 2014). Hargrove provided the names of fifteen potential serial homicide victims to the chief of police in a letter four years before serial killer Darren Vann was arrested. So far, one killing on the list is being investigated as part of Vann’s series. Next, a trend was spotted on the MAP website among the FBI’s case-level homicide data by selecting the “Search Cases” tab, “Atlanta” under metro areas, “Female” under victim’s sex and “strangulation” under weapon –  indicating that strangulation deaths of African American women occurred in Atlanta until the pattern abated in 2007. Hargrove turned to the NUAHRG to introduce the existence of this series to a member of the BAU. An analyst at the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) is reviewing the findings[4].

Rebecca Kramer and other citizen sleuths suspect that it may be advantageous to manually collect homicide event data. They understand that reliance on government information obtained from the noncompulsory FBI UCR/SHR may have limited the scope of MAP’s objectives. Kramer set out to investigate the ostensible murder of scores of college aged men in or near bodies of water in the hopes of identifying a pattern in the data. Kramer has persisted in collecting information on 400 instances of this phenomenon despite general opinion that these stories cannot be substantiated. The working theory, that men are being drugged at bars or lured to bodies of water whereby they are drowned and left at the homicide scene by at least one male or female serial murderer, can be investigated using advanced mapping technologies and sophisticated analytical approaches in Risk Terrain Modeling (RTM). Because the risk of crime is both place-based and situational – since victims often encounter offenders because of the activities they pursue and the environments they occupy – it is important to take note of the clustering of environmental risk factors and their spatial influences (Caplan & Kennedy, 2016).

RTM is a diagnostic technique that accounts for the different factors contributing to the spatial and temporal dynamics of illegal behavior, identifies the risks inherent in features of a landscape and models how they co-locate to create unique behavior settings for crime. Here, to assess the possibility that these drowning deaths are homicides, the co-location of bars and water was explored as contributing to conditions suitable for the victimization of unwitting men. The interaction effect can be used to compute a probability of criminal behavior occurring in the future. Because the data points within these programs are human beings moving in structured environments, it is critical to consider spatial factors of the topography as influential and enabling to criminal behavior. Swarm Intelligence – the idea that humans perform actions based on cues taken from each other (Forman, 2016) – should be surveyed in conjunction with RTM. Swarms are thought to occur as one event but they can be a series of people visiting a location over time, each making decisions based on physical cues left by those who have been there before. Marrying RTM and Swarm Intelligence makes logical sense as criminals operating independently can target the same places, evident in South Los Angeles where the bodies of 55 victims of five serial killers were located between 1984 and 2007 (Los Angeles Times, 2010).

Citizen sleuths like Kramer can be a productive member of the investigative team (Halber, 2013; Peters, 2013) but are often overlooked as a resource. Resultantly, Kramer turned to the NUAHRG to conduct outreach to secure cooperation from law enforcement and refine the project’s inclusion criteria. Modifications to the data collection procedures would require re-reviewing thousands of online records but, as a benefit to Kramer’s ongoing efforts, data scientist Peter Brendt is creating a method to collect and collate records from millions of news websites simultaneously. Brendt (2016) writes that previous efforts to connect human investigators with computers meant to aid in solving crimes have failed due to the idiosyncrasies inherent within both systems. The FBI’s ViCAP, the most widely available resource for those investigating potential linkages across crimes, is an application predicated on the idea that entry of all homicides or sexual assaults is not necessary for the program to be viable (United States Department of Justice, 2016). FBI analysts request that “cases of a serial nature” are prioritized for entry into ViCAP, providing autonomy to local law enforcement officers to select cases for upload to the platform. The onus to determine, prima facie, the likelihood that a case appears to be a part of series is a major limiting factor as it falls to those with little or no experience working a series of murders. ViCAP represents a true intersection of Brendt’s (2016) point that humans are hampered by how they react to a lack of resources, political affiliations, jurisdictional conflicts and distrust of others while computers are limited by data models not designed for complex comparisons, lack of granularity for attribute comparisons and variable weights of attributes of crimes that change by area, cultural predominance and victimology.

Brendt is developing a “knowledge-based” system with the LAMP software bundle of the Linux operating system, Apache HTTP Server, MySQL relational database management system (RDBMS), and PHP programming language designed to search for intersections in unidentified bodies, unsolved homicides and missing persons datasets. This ‘Weather Map’ may identify linkages using website screen scraping, data corroboration, deep learning and automatization. Brendt is motivated by the belief that these data constitute “hallmarks of a serial killer” and that their victims lay somewhere within it. The ambitious scope of this homicide offender forecasting tool would require working with incomplete and overlapping data of differing granularity, thousands of man-hours, top shelf hardware and algorithms “on the edge of technology”.

Brendt stresses that for this system to work, it would need to be as adaptable as atypical murderers have been and change along with their evolution. Current convention surrounding definitions must be ignored because, as Brendt states, “a serial killer can become a spree killer during his endgame”. The amount of data needed for the project would increase perpetually along with the demand for its quality because datasets become more limited, volatile and uncontrollable as they swell in size. The software system is being built modularly due to the necessary combination of techniques with parts dedicated to data entry, analysis and automatic data reading. While a full productive system is slated for future release, twenty potential serial homicide series have been detected by the ‘Weather Map’ across the United States to date.

Detecting MeMs using the ‘Weather Map’ will locate only those offenders that are well into their careers and kill frequently. Highly mobile serial murderers (HMSM) and burgeoning offenders are beyond the bounds of search parameters as they spread their victims outside of the time and geographical horizons. Further development of the recognition patterns must be completed to make the rulesets more logical in order to surpass the spatial and chronological restrictions. Because Donoho (2015) posits that coping with large scale cluster computing is hampering our ability to make appropriate judgements and holds us back from data analysis strategies that we would otherwise eagerly pursue, Joseph Johaneman, a student dual majoring in data analytics and applied mathematics, plans to build on Brendt’s work by constructing a small computing cluster from single-board computers (SBC) with the aim of locating homicide victims of HMSM (i.e. long haul truckers). Patterns in the SKDB will be used to train the cluster and design a mechanism to track HMSMs by creating a probabilistic function on the central hub of their movement based on multiple drop sites, hotzones and victim locations. The Manhattan Distance formula and buffer zones used in Kim Rossmo’s geographic profiling tool (Rossmo, 1995) are replaced by Mahalanobis Distance, the space between two probability distribution sets. Anchor points are used and based in the space and time of a trucker’s routines along established routes. Incorporating a temporal element, the constant range of the semi-trailer truck’s speed and assigning weights to favored body dump locations to ascertain their selection probability will enhance current strategies. SBCs allow for good performance per watt, the ability to conduct deep learning activities essential to the project and for police departments and newspapers to build their own systems due to their low cost (Baun, 2016). Johaneman will address whether the isolation and anonymity of driving invites the violence-prone (Strand, 2016) and provide what he learns to the FBI’s ongoing Highway Serial Killings Initiative (HSKI), a program implemented to attribute more than 500 murder victims from along highways to some 200 potential suspects.

Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Intelligence Analyst Terri Turner, the inspiration for HSKI, arduously identified a series of seven homicides in late 2003 which victimized truck stop prostitutes and encompassed multiple states and jurisdictions. She coordinated case information between all the agencies involved and monitored law enforcement and open source information for new incidents. Turner partnered with ViCAP and the BAU to facilitate the exchange of case information and provide investigators with “best practices” in working these cases. Johaneman hopes to use his work to identify future killer truckers like Bruce Mendenhall or Adam Leroy Lane before they are able to wantonly victimize others.

The Importance of Debunking Ingrained Myths

The search for atypical murderers among the incarcerated may seem counterintuitive but many unidentified victims result from an offender’s self-imposed silence. Angela Williamson plans to obtain the DNA of HMSMs and enter those genetic details into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) (Angela Williamson, personal communication, 15 April 2016) to retrospectively match offenders to victim’s remains (White et al., 2011), a method used to no avail during the East Area Rapist-Original Nightstalker (EAR-ONS) investigation. Many of the legacy axioms included in the EAR-ONS criminal profile (D’Ambrosia, 1998), such as those surrounding race and gender, must be controverted to approach this project without cognitive bias. The stereotype of the Caucasian male serial killer allowed groups of offenders to continue victimizing others as African American serial murderers have historically been discounted by criminologists who thought them incapable of enduring through a career of serial murder. Yaksic (2006) normalized the notion that African American MeMs are as abundant as their Caucasian counterparts while Farrell, Keppel, and Titterington (2011) demonstrated the differences in characteristics between male offenders and their underestimated female equivalents.

White et al. (2011) and Hickey (2014) call for the study of offenders that kill less than three victims since they are excluded from databases. Offenders that spread their victims outside of the capabilities of the ‘Weather Map’s’ time horizon could theoretically continue to evade detection (Brendt, 2016). SKDB data indicate that the majority of two-victim offenders kill for financial gain while those killing three or more victims normally do so for enjoyment. The severity of the offender's crimes concomitantly increases as their victim count rises. The odds of two-victim offenders committing a third murder escalates if they are white, use multiple methods, kill for enjoyment and commit the first two homicides close together in time.

Limitations of Programs on the Edge of Tomorrow

Each of these initiatives is informed by basic rulesets established from cataloged knowledge about how MeMs select and kill their victims. The assumption that atypical murderers abide by patterns, namely those where victims are clustered within a geographic location, is at the foundation of each program. Consideration should be given to findings that indicate differences between the planning behaviors of American and South African serial murderers (Sorochinski, Salfati, & Labuschagne, 2015) and that intervals between successive killings may be predictable (Lange, 1999). Relying solely on the presence of tightly grouped victim caches would make the task of MAP unsound but the algorithm also accounts for offenders using the same kill method over their series, a fairly consistent measure (Hargrove, Witzig, Icove, Harry, Arntfield, Yaksic, Lang, & Wolf, 2016). Kramer may be overestimating the prevalence of the serial murderer in modern society but some researchers subscribe to the belief that virtually anyone can emerge as a perpetrator of atrocities given the "right" combination of factors (Shanafelt & Pino, 2015). This logic dictates that large swaths of recovered bodies could be indicative of an unsolved serial homicide series. Yaksic (2015) argues that the phenomenon is declining, partially due to the attention that theories about MeMs receive before more logical possibilities are considered. Feedback from the NUAHRG highlights our preoccupation “with serial killers, which in reality are very rare”[5]. Because extraneous factors may prevent HMSMs from frequenting the same locations, Johaneman may encounter issues identifying the truck stops that drivers prefer. Researchers may be ‘censoring’ the data on offenders that claim two victims by failing to consider their burgeoning status and the further victims their discovery precluded them from amassing, disallowing their chance to evolve into a “traditional” serial murderer. Williamson may be unable to compel offenders to supply their DNA profiles. Brendt’s ‘Weather Map’ platform incorporates the ambiguous concept of escalation over a killer’s career and stipulates that offenders do not revert to previous routines in killing method. Educating the ‘Weather Map’ to detect patterns based in this logic will needlessly restrict the program by not accounting for the variability inherent in the decision making process of human beings. Premature capture always interrupts a MeM’s plans and negates any opportunity to learn if escalation is a well-founded concept. The ‘Weather Map’ program would overlook offenders altering their techniques dependent on their victim type.

The Blood Red Flag of Domestic Violence

The subset of multiple-method murderers contains a growing population of offenders that first practice violence on their spouse, brutalizers that choke their wives during domestic disputes before targeting members of the public. Rehearsals for these campaigns include instances of intimate partner violence and culminate in cruelty towards others (Shifman & Tillet, 2015). The precursory link between private brutality and public savagery is a crucial part of the MeM detection labyrinth, an unacknowledged corollary due to investment in thinking of these offenders as loners without families. Returning home to continue their vicious attacks is unsurprising because the phenomenon of atypical murder has been succinctly rooted in male dominance for millennia. Serial rapists, devoid of enjoyment, frequently eliminate the only witness to their crime as part of a scheme to avoid detection. Non-sexual serial killers have gravitated to melding their features with characteristics of spree offenders since aspects of the modern age have made it difficult to behave like their past counterparts (Yaksic, 2015). Deceit can be readily identified in the ‘Age of Authenticity’ and is infrequently tolerated which forces transparency upon atypical murderers, jeopardizing their ability to exercise the dual facets of their personality that contribute to success. MeMs adapted to a more open world by becoming proficient at sharing their contempt with others through outward displays of anger and revenge.

Broadening the scope of offenders comprising the MeM definition to include these unsparing men requires giving motive additional consideration. Anger is not considered a key component of the serial sexual homicide offender's motivation, according to Myers, Husted, Safarik, and O'Toole (2006), but adding ever increasing spree murderers (Kirby, Graham, Green, 2014) to the cohort of atypical murderers, calls for reexamining 'toxic masculinity' (Hamblin, 2016) in this context. The recent actions of Eulalio Tordil, (Alexander & Bui, 2016) Mainak Sarkar (Hamilton, Watanabe, & Winton, 2016), Cedric Ford (Sanchez, Berlinger, & Flores, 2016) and Edward Acquisto (Mettler, 2016) encapsulate the social issues and sentiments ongoing in American culture: male entitlement, hypermasculinity, stringent gender roles, unabashed sexual expectations, objectification, and unchecked rage – all coupled with flagrant use of firearms. These offenders reinforce antiquated viewpoints on manliness, an abstraction requiring a mixture of anger (Hayes, 2016), brute force and a domineering attitude towards others. Society at large has taken notice of intimate partner violence of late because of the tendency for offenders to pose a threat to others after harming or killing their significant other.

What we knew about atypical homicide in the ‘traditional’ sense has given way to hard-won realizations over the past decade: more impatient and incompetent offenders are acting out, often erratically, while leaving footprints on social media or electronic devices (Felton, 2016; Meyjes, 2016). Criminologists must resolve their misgivings on these changes because algorithms learn by consuming information upon which the system builds a model of the world. If a system is trained on faulty data, it will have a harder time generating the appropriate answer (Crawford, 2016). These learning systems must be aware of circumstances resulting in outcomes such as offenders killing freely due to apathetic enablers (Crimesider Staff, 2016) and law enforcement missteps (Holman, 2016), premature captures due to unforeseen handicaps (Alexander & Bui, 2016) or an inability to fulfill plans because potential victims alter their routine (Hamilton et al., 2016) so that accurate information is fed into the platform.

“One-off” intimate partner and familial murderers sometimes exhibit what investigators call hallmarks of serial murder activity (Truesdell, 2016) as in the killings perpetrated by Gregory Scott Hale (Radar Staff, 2014), John Robert Charlton (Carter, 2016), Blake Leibel (Hamilton, 2016), Hasib Bin Golamrabbi (Mejia & Rocha, 2016) and the killer of Karen Perez (Harris, 2016) which involved cannibalism, dismemberment, exsanguination, scrawlings, strangulation during rape or outward statements of idolization of other serial killers. These cases could prove problematic for the ‘Weather Map’ as they may be scraped and cataloged along with other serial killers as the program will assume these victims are part of a series of murders. The ‘Weather Map’ may also capture offenders like Vernon Primus due to his link as a person-of-interest in open homicide cases raised speculation of his ‘serial killer’ status (Murphy, 2016).

Welcoming Contributions from the Uninitiated

As the nation's crime monitoring system struggles to move into the 21st century (Rosenfeld, 2016) there are still many areas in which contributions can be made by those adjacent to the realm of criminology. Boyd (2016) stresses shunning the conventions of an academic infrastructure which compels the pursuit of acceptable lines of inquiry to obtain kudos, emboldening researchers to be aware of the context they finds themselves and to pay attention to the incentives and pressures that influence their decisions while developing impactful questions that matter regardless of funding battles or the fads and obsessions of their disciplines. Leetaru (2016) calls for understanding the nuances of data but warns that answering a question of interest may take more than plugging a dataset into an algorithm. Because deep-learning software recognizes patterns in digital representations of data (Hof, 2013) it can be used to overcome noted drawbacks and unite those with institutional knowledge about MeMs with those that understand how they actually behave. This reconciliation would place researchers on the forefront of an indispensable defense science for decades to come.

The variable demands of academic life have transformed higher learning into an unattractive pursuit for those looking for a career suffuse with field work. Defending new science to peers can create an atmosphere of animosity and study findings may take years to be adopted. The stress experienced by young academics was noted as one of seven challenges facing the sciences (Belluz, Plumer, & Resnick, 2016). The restrictive path of scholarship can be overcome when the study of atypical homicide is approached as a neophyte or outsider. Boyd (2016) characterizes academic disciplines as myopic and judgmental of those operating outside the acceptable boundaries and encourages those from diverse experiential, cultural and political backgrounds to contribute. This is an area ripe for disruption as important research findings can be made readily, such as the discovery that most partners in serial killer teams fit into one of three roles that aid the Principal Offender: the Enlisted Accomplice, the Witting Facilitator and the Idle Witness (Yaksic & Hargrove, 2016). Hester Brink (personal communication, 5 July 2016) is collecting the input of outsiders for use in the investigation of cold cases while other research avenues focus on the interplay between a genetic predisposition to violence and environmental factors (Parshley, 2016) and the roles depression (Levenson, Ransom & Crimaldi, 2016; United States Department of Justice, 2009), emotional regulation (McGinty, Kennedy-Hendricks, Choksy, & Barry, 2016) and mental illness (Eyster, 2012; Gelinas & Hadjistavropoulos, 2016) play in the lives of atypical murderers. Pioneering work is underway to deduce the likelihood that the decrease in serial homicide is correlated with an observed increase in spree and mass homicides. The projects outlined in this chapter have built on the work of Cai (2015) and demonstrate the need for engagement in practices that will enable the field to operationalize data for the social good.


This chapter could not have been completed without the contributions of the following individuals: Mike Aamodt, Dalal Alrajeh, Peter Brendt, Joel Caplan, Thomas Hargrove, Joseph Johaneman, Rebecca Kramer, Ravi Shroff and Angela Williamson. This chapter is dedicated to the memory of Michelle McNamara.


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[4] Hargrove, T. (15 April 2016). A prolific serial killer in Atlanta? Message posted to Northeastern University’s Atypical Homicide Research Group electronic mailing list, archived at Homicide@Listserv.NEU.EDU
[5] Harry, B. (31 May 2016). Drowning young men. Message posted to Northeastern University’s Atypical Homicide Research Group electronic mailing list, archived at Homicide@Listserv.NEU.EDU