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.