WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO BECOME A CRIMINAL PROFILER? AND WHY?
Well I am actually not a criminal profiler in the strictest sense but sometimes news outlets will add that term on their own after I have given statements to them which I will not see until the story is in print. Unbeknownst to most people, there is no employment opportunity or role that one could apply for under that name. Agents are promoted from within the FBI’s ranks and are only considered after amassing substantial investigative experience. Criminal Investigative Analysis, of which offender profiling is one component, encompasses a range of services such as threat assessments and interview strategies to indirect personality assessments and search warrant affidavit assistance and is carried out by Supervisory Special Agents of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime in Stafford, Virginia.
As far as how my exposure to this world began, I was quite lost in my first year at college but two seminal events occurred in close succession. The first was the crime spree of Gary Lee Sampson who murdered three people over the course of a week in July 2001. Up to that point I had never seen anything like that and wondered about the type of person that could carry out such crimes.
The second was my encounter with a book called Mindhunter which has since been popularized into a hit Netflix show. I became infatuated with the idea that John Douglas could surmise what had transpired in almost every serial homicide series he came upon using mere mental tactics and ingenuity. But of course there is always a mixture of truth and fabrication that goes into these accounts to build one’s own status as a legend. Over the years I came to find out just how much we did not know about serial killers aside from what had been reported by Douglas and Robert Ressler’s study of 25 serial killers. By today’s standards, the size of that cohort would have been criticized as well as the generalizability of their findings to all serial killers. Most of what is still repeated to this day is based in myths and stereotypes.
What remains elusive in most instances of serial homicide after the perpetrator is apprehended is the ‘why’ of the crime. Did the offender kill out of some unmet desire, be it money, lust or loyalty to a cause? I set out to uncover an answer based in data to that and other questions like “are serial killers really all white male loners?” and “what is the prevalence of serial murder in America?”
WHO ARE SOME OF YOUR MENTORS AND WHY?
My primary mentors are Tom Hargrove and Eric Hickey.
Tom and I met after he came up with the “serial killer detection algorithm” while he was at Scripps News Service. Tom needed evidence that the algorithm would work properly when applied to the Supplementary Homicide Reports that the FBI maintains. Finding clusters of homicide victims killed in a similar fashion is what alerts us to a potential serial killer operating in the area like we discovered recently in Chicago with upwards of fifty possible victims. That approach does come with a set of drawbacks in that not all serial killers use the same method of killing throughout their series. We are still working on improving the algorithm.
Dr. Hickey has been supporting my work since I met him through my supervisory agent at the FBI Academy. His book Serial Murderers and Their Victims is really the only source to find empirically based statistics on serial murder. I have been contributing data to his efforts for about fifteen years now.
HOW DID YOU END UP DOING AN INTERNSHIP AT THE FBI?
Northeastern’s co-op program propelled Yaksic into a series of internships, including at the Boston Police Department and the Attorney General’s Office. Then, during Yaksic’s senior year, he got his biggest break yet: The FBI selected him for a widely coveted internship at the bureau’s academy in Quantico, Virginia. The opportunity allowed Yaksic to make connections that would later prove crucial to the collaborative. He also got his first taste of an active investigation into one of the highest-profile serial killers of the 21st century.
While at Northeastern, I sought to do an internship at each level of law enforcement: local, state and federal. I started at the Boston Police Department and then went to the Attorney General’s Office. By the time I applied to the FBI, I had been researching serial homicide at Northeastern for about four years. I knew I wanted to try to gain access to the database where the FBI kept records of their investigations into serial killings but I came to find out that such a repository did not exist. It was a bit discouraging but also revelatory as I knew that I had to continue working on the database I had been creating.
WHILE AT THE FBI, WHAT ACTIVE SERIAL MURDER INVESTIGATIONS WERE YOU WORKING ON?
When Yaksic arrived at the FBI, numerous agents—including John Douglas—were hot on the trail of a strangler who dubbed himself BTK (short for “bind, torture, kill”), thought to be behind a string of unsolved murders in Kansas between 1974 and 1991. BTK had resurfaced in 2004, though, taunting the police and local media with a string of letters. Now the race was on to find the killer.
I was assigned to a research unit and spent much of my time in the library working on the serial killer database that I had begun at Northeastern. I was lucky enough to connect with an agent that took me on a tour of the NCAVC where the investigative arm of the Behavioral Analysis Unit resides. It was there that I sat down with Jim Fitzgerald who opened up the file on BTK - the ‘Bind, Torture, Kill’ killer. He showed me the drawings that had been found that depicted individuals fully bound in different erotic poses. Jim was also working on using linguistic techniques on a poem BTK had written to tease out the type of person BTK was.
HOW DID YOU BEGIN TO WORK ON A HIGH PROFILE CASE LIKE BTK?
Yaksic observed from the sidelines. At one point, however, an agent slipped him some BTK files to read. Sitting in his hotel room near the academy, he decided to try the immersive technique espoused by Ressler and Douglas. He wasn’t just trying to get inside the head of a killer; he was searching for a place within himself where he wasthe killer. What was it about some offenders’ life histories, he asked himself, that launched them on a trajectory toward unspeakable evil? Yaksic recalled how it felt to be bullied in school. “I was trying to feel it—the murderous rage, or the coolly calculated drive to kill,” he says. “But it never happened. I still to this day don’t understand it.”
I did not engage in the case in any official capacity but instead used it to try to envision what the killer went through to bring him to the point of engaging in a campaign of violence against his community. I tried to connect with the feeling of sustained anger that drives many serial killers. It did not work at the time but from then on I became interested in serial homicide from the offender’s point of view versus just analyzing what they had done to victims or left behind at a crime scene. It was an important step in my growth towards becoming a serious researcher in the area of serial homicide.
DENNIS RADER, KNOWN AS THE BTK KILLER, WAS ARRESTED MIDWAY THROUGH YOUR INTERNSHIP? WHAT WAS THE REACTION AT THE FBI? WHAT WAS THE GENERAL REACTION TO A “MODEL CITIZEN” EVADING DETECTION FOR SO LONG?
Rader was really the first time that the FBI began to admit that things needed to change. The discovery of such a family man stymied a lot of people, particularly those at the FBI that had worked the case for decades. The idea that serial killers “hide in plain sight” was common knowledge by 2005 but it had not been seen to this degree before where the killer was so engrained in their community having served as a Boy Scout leader, in the U.S. Air Force, as the president of his church and employed as a local government official. No one understood that serial killers could placate themselves without killing and actually substitute in other activities that are pleasing to them in order to ward off the quote unquote “need to kill”.
It is ironic that a lot of people thought of the typical serial killer as someone like Sam Little who lives a nomadic existence and drives all around the country looking for victims but the data does not support those beliefs. Most are like Rader: married with children, acclimate into society and kill locally. Little is truly an outlier. He could not find a place he fit in so he roamed around looking for others like him. Perhaps that is why he felt most comfortable around sex workers and drug addicts as they are people that society has rejected in some way.
YOU’RE NOT AN FBI AGENT OR A PSYCHOLOGIST, BUT YOU’VE BEEN REFERRED TO AS “PROFILER 2.0” BECAUSE LIKE THOMAS HARGROVE OF THE MURDER ACCOUNTABILITY PROJECT, YOU CAN IDENTIFY PATTERNS OF SERIAL MURDER IN CRIME DATA – IS STATISTICAL ANALYSIS THE FUTURE OF CRIMINAL PROFILING?
I believe statistical analysis is the future of criminal profiling and so does the FBI. Two years ago I arranged a meeting with members of the BAU and representatives from Radford University where a large amount of the data we have been able to collect resides. The FBI is now in possession of that work and aims to use it to bolster future profiles.
But this is not a foolproof technique. The database was used to correctly estimate the race and approximate age of the alleged Seminole Heights Killer Howell Donaldson but was wildly off when used to guestimate the age of the Austin Bomber. That’s because we have done a poor job of keeping up with the changing face of multiple murder. We are starting to see a decline in serial killing due to technology, better law enforcement, and a vigilant society which is forcing offenders to adapt and evolve. We need to do a better job of keeping up with the variety of ways that serial killers are evolving.
WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO CHANGE THE WAY CRIMINAL PROFILERS ANALYZE SERIAL MURDER IN TERMS OF STATISTICAL ANALYSIS? WHY IS THERE SUCH A NEED FOR THIS? OR WHY HAVE TRADITIONAL METHODS FAILED?
I did not set out to do so. It was more of a natural progression of wanting to operationalize the data that had been collected. We are seeing an influx of what had at one time been known as spree killers and an increase in the number of aspiring and probable serial murderers. A new database had to be created to incorporate these offenders who desire to kill serially but have yet to be successful in doing so due to their own incompetence or better prepared law enforcement who can now recognize the signs of serial homicide far sooner than before. As a result, these would be serial killers are getting captured before they are able to complete their series. Most researchers exclude them from their studies so we have not gotten a clear picture of who they are just yet. I will continue to advocate for the study of these subgroups of offenders.
I WANT TO TALK TO YOU ABOUT THE SAM LITTLE CASE – AUTHORITIES ARE TRYING TO CLOSE COLD CASES NOW THAT HE’S CONFESSED TO KILLING 90 TO 100 PEOPLE FROM BEHIND BARS. GIVE ME SOME OF YOUR IMPRESSIONS OF THIS SERIAL KILLER? AND WHY HE WENT UNDETECTED FOR SO LONG?
Sam Little represents a serial killer from what some of us call the “golden age”, that time in the late 1970s and 1980s before the recent decline in the phenomenon. Little was able to take advantage of all the aspects that went into the recent drop-off in serial killing but way before they started to coalesce together to bring about the decline.
He operated in a time where law enforcement was just starting to understand serial murder and when departments rarely communicated with one another like they do today. The use of DNA was practically non-existent back then. Potential victims had no idea that people like Little existed and could not be trusted. He was highly mobile which made linking his alleged homicides together very difficult. Oftentimes the deaths of victims that engaged in sex work were not investigated back then as thoroughly as others. Little is also African American which aided him in being able to avoid become the target of FBI profiles stating that all serial murderers would be committed by Caucasians.
IT’S BEEN SAID THAT SAM LITTLE IS ONE OF THEA DEADLIEST SERIAL KILLERS IN MODERN HISTORY. WHAT STANDS OUT TO YOU ABOUT THIS CASE?
"Little is unique in that modern day serial murderers rarely travel the distances he claims to have traversed and instead select vulnerable victims from their own communities," Yaksic said. "This behavior, paired with his selection of vulnerable people, no doubt contributed to his longevity. Most serial killers in today's society kill two or three victims and are caught within a few years."
Some of my resent research focuses on what allows serial killers to achieve longevity in their careers. Serial killers that are resilient after failed attempts, open to improvement, aware of police practices and forensic procedures, receptive to the victims’ vulnerability, respond to opportunity, con themselves and others, regulate their emotions, remain adaptable across multiple styles of attack, neutralize their fear and rely on luck are more successful. It really is just their own acceptance of who they are and a willingness to move forward knowing they are a lifelong killer that separates them from other murderers. I think Little used a mixture of these factors to ensure his longevity.
To me, Little is a good example of what happens when apathy towards an ignored population is allowed to fester in society. His crimes are a lesson to those that turn a blind eye towards the plight facing sex workers and all vulnerable women, something that society is just now taking a more aggressive stance against.
One thing that stands out is Little’s recall of events which is really quite good for the crimes having taken place so long ago. To him, these homicides are his greatest accomplish and something that he is most likely very proud of so it makes sense that he remembers very small details.
SAM LITTLE WAS CONVICTED IN 2014 FOR 3 MURDERS BY A LOS ANGELES JURY, BUT HE’S BEEN CONNECTED TO 34 OF THE 90 OR SO THAT HE CLAIMS HE HAS KILLED. HOW CAN LAW ENFORCEMENT BEGINNING TO CONNECT HIM TO SO MANY OTHER MURDERS WITH SO MANY COLD CASES?
So much that is accomplished in the realm of serial murder relies on the offender’s confession. There have been several offenders that boast about killing far more victims than they are in fact responsible for so step one is verifying if even a handful of claims are true. The use of the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) should be highlighted as a huge success in linking Little to additional homicides. That team turned the tables on Little and capitalized on his request to switch prisons. It was interesting to watch a serial killer who took advantage of the needs of others for so long have the same thing happen to him. Future investigators should take note that the Little case was only opened wider because of the hard work of all those that came before and voluntarily entered information into the underused ViCAP system.
Publicizing images of Little’s paintings was a smart move as it is often members of the public that will aid in identifying unknown victims. It is important to acknowledge that investigations can only progress so far without actionable information from a variety of sources. Members of the public assume that law enforcement officers that hunt serial killers have special abilities or heightened senses that make them more attuned to the presence of serial killers but that is mainly just a dramatization by the entertainment industry.
CAN YOU TALK ABOUT DATA POINTS – SUCH AS SAM LITTLE’S M.O. – HOW CAN THAT BE USED TO IDENTIFY PATTERNS OF SERIAL MURDER?
Once a competitive boxer, he usually stunned or knocked out his victims with powerful punches before he strangled them while masturbating. “With no stab marks or bullet wounds, many of these deaths were not classified as homicides but attributed to drug overdoses, accidents, or natural causes," the FBI said.
Little was alleged to have left no stab or bullet wounds making cause of death difficult to quantify which lead to many of the homicides misclassified as overdoses, accidents or natural causes. At that time, coroners and medical examiners were inundated with bodies brought upon by the crack epidemic of the 80s and 90s and it is easy to see how some victims were misidentified to ease their burden.
There was another recent case, that of alleged serial killer in Texas Billy Chemirmir, where police are now reviewing hundreds of deaths for signs that the victim died during a criminal event as the majority of his known victims are elderly and the cause of death was listed as natural. It is difficult to say until the case unfolds to know if this was purposefully done by the offender or if he benefited indirectly like Little did.
What we are coming to learn by amassing so much data is just how variable the behaviors of a serial killer can be from crime to crime. We have found that this is not just a byproduct of intentionally trying to throw investigators off. The variability comes from being unable to plan for every single aspect of a crime. The most successful serial killers seem to be able to adapt to changing circumstances and most serial killers are aided by a hefty amount of luck. Gone are the days where we attribute a long series of murders to the killer’s enhanced intelligence, skills or abilities. Most of the time there are other factors in play that allow them to remain free to kill.
Unfortunately sometimes the more data we collect on the behavior of serial killers shows us that what we thought we knew is antiquated. Serial killers rarely always leave a calling card or signature or abide by a set pattern. There is a strong resistance for criminologists to admit that it is time to update our thinking on the subject since they have been repeating the same things for decades.
TALK ABOUT SAM LITTLE’S DRAWINGS – CAN THEY BE USED TO CONNECT MISSING PERSONS OR COLD CASE VICTIMS TO UNSOLVED MURDERS?
"Little remembers his victims and the killings in great detail," the FBI said. "He remembers where he was, and what car he was driving. He draws pictures of many of the women he killed. He is less reliable, however, when it comes to remembering dates."
That is exactly what has been happening, yes, and it has already worked at least twice so far. This process is painstaking and can take several years. Even when women have been photographed it can still lead to dead ends as in the Grim Sleeper investigation and in the Rodney Alcala and William Bradford cases. The thing about Little is that he is cooperating. It is not an altruistic gesture, mind you, since this experience allows him to relive his crimes and makes him the most important person in the room. These homicides were essentially Little’s life’s work and he is reveling in the attention detectives are heaping on him now. Unfortunately there is little other way to obtain the vital pieces of information Little holds other than by playing into his need to satiate his ego and essentially deal with the devil. The hard part here is that Little is in poor health so investigators are against the ticking clock to get all the information they can out of Little and he undoubtedly has picked up on their desperation.
WHAT INFORMATION DID YOU GET FROM THE DATA YOU OBSERVED? WHO ARE THE VICTIMS? WHAT DOES THE VICTIMOLOGY TELL YOU ABOUT THE CASE?
Sam Little targeted vulnerable women who were often involved in prostitution and addicted to drugs – people “nobody would miss.”
Serial murderers are uncannily adept at identifying those in need, be it a desire for money, drugs or attention. They capitalize on the victim’s needs an exploit them to their own ends. In that regard, Little is pretty typical among the roster of serial killers. The victimology tells me that Little was unable to get close to his victims using a ruse like posing as a photographer like Alcala or Bradford. His use of a power punch to incapacitate his victims is very telling of his rudimentary interpersonal skills as he could not convince his victims to come to another location with him without the use of force. Little was not confident enough in his own abilities to kill and escape detection without searching for addicts and people nobody would miss.
WHAT DOES THE VICTIMOLOGY TELL YOU ABOUT HOW, AS A SOCIETY, WE SHOULD BE TREATING VICTIMS OF VIOLENT CRIME?
Victims of violent crime, especially sex workers, should always be listened to and be believed. They are often the first witness to the types of behaviors we have been talking about. They are on the frontlines in an ongoing battle against men who believe some women exist to serve their every whim and assist with living out their perversions. I think we are doing a good job of tackling toxic masculinity as a society but we clearly have a long way to go.
WHAT DOES THE INFO FROM THE MAPPING TELL YOU ABOUT THE INVESTIGATION INTO SAM LITTLE’S MURDERS? HE TRAVELED FROM EAST TO WEST WORKING HIS WAY FROM FLORIDA, MISSISSIPPI ALL THE WAY TO CALIFORNIA IN SAN DIEGO AND LOS ANGELES WHERE HE WAS EVENTUALLY SERVING TIME WHEN HE WAS CAUGH THROUGH A DNA MATCH.
Little reminds me in some ways of a case I worked on, that of Felix Vail. Vail was highly transient as he often disappeared when his plans fell apart, to escape responsibility or after he had killed someone. Tracking Vail’s movements across the country was made easier given that he victimized those close to him but we still do not know and may never know the full extent of his crimes.
In Little’s case, building a timeline of his movements has been a massive undertaking for the FBI and falls on their shoulders along with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Texas Rangers, and dozens of state and local agencies. In the end there will still be victims that remain unaccounted for which will be difficult for those families to come to grips with. In cases of this magnitude there inevitably will be loose ends that cannot be tied up just given what comes with the passage of time, such as the death of relatives and witnesses that could provide useful information.
WHY DO YOU THINK SAM LITTLE WENT UNDETECTED FOR SO LONG? WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THIS CASE?
Little seemed to tap into a vast distain for others and coupled that with a lack of fear of consequences. He ran rampant at a time when the conditions were set up for someone to do as they pleased. His quote unquote “success” is not really a reflection of his superior skills but rather a sign of the times. Thankfully, it would be very difficult for someone like Little to exist today in our highly connected world. People are much more wary of strangers and most of us come equipped with cameras in our pockets and are willing to interject if we see someone in trouble.
We can learn that petty offenses like shoplifting, fraud, drugs, solicitation, and breaking and entering can be the beginning of an expansive criminal career that culminates in multiple murders. It is important to take such offenses seriously and be aware that serial killers often begin testing the waters of the criminal justice system with minor offenses as they learn how to navigate though the system.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR YOU ENZO? ARE YOU WORKING ON ANOTHER PROJECT? OR A BOOK?
I am continuing to write academic papers on serial murder and gearing up for two conferences, the American Society of Criminology annual meeting and another at the Henry Lee Institute of Forensic Science. I am working with an investigative reporter on a possible series of homicides in Panama at the moment and continuing to work on trying to find serial killers in the data generated through the Murder Accountability Project. Of course there is always more data to collect in our quest to learn more about multiple murder.
WHERE CAN PEOPLE GO TO LEARN MORE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO? IS THERE A WEBSITE?
For those interested, you can visit my ResearchGate profile or blog at serialhomicidecollaborative.blogspot.com/