Criminal profiling has its fair share of supporters and detractors. Also known as behavioral analysis, this aspect of the field of psychology offers law enforcement practical tools with which to apprehend serial criminals. It was used to aid FBI and local agencies’ investigations as early as the 1940s but only formalized in the mid-1970s. Serial offenders are often difficult to track due to their high intelligence, the disconnected nature of local law enforcement, and other factors. Behavioral analysis creates a profile, which is then used to connect seemingly unconnected incidents. In the article below, we’ll review five of the most notorious serial killers caught thanks to criminal profiling.
1. George Metesky
Known as the Mad Bomber of New York, Metesky managed to fly under the radar of the NYC police for 16 years. He is responsible for more than 30 bombs planted around the city, which caused damage to property and injury or death to nearby people. Finally, frustrated by their lack of success in apprehending the culprit, police consulted James Brussel, the assistant commissioner of Mental Hygiene for New York State. Reviewing crime scene photos, he built a psychological profile of the perpetrator, which led police right to Metesky and a confession of guilt.
2. Ted Bundy
His killing spree spanned years and hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. In 1978, two FBI specialists utilized their profile of him to place him on the top 10 most wanted list. Using this assessment of his methods, psychological makeup, and known movements, the Bureau pinpointed his victim selection and killing patterns. Bundy favored venues that attracted the young, beautiful women he targeted—discos, college campuses, and resorts. Because the FBI carefully analyzed Bundy’s style of killing and had a firm understanding of his psychological makeup, canvassing the public and posting information about him led to his final capture in February of 1978.
3. Joseph Paul Franklin
Franklin offers a perfect example of what behavioral analysis experts call escalation. His violent killings appear chaotic, and his victims share only one factor in common—they are not white. Following an abusive childhood, Franklin gravitated to the control and dominance that white supremacy offered. He was an often-violent supporter of this ideology and eschewed most organized groups because he felt they did not take their philosophy far enough. Labor Day 1976 marked his first violent attack, but his pattern would continue for several years, with crimes of opportunity escalating in severity. He drifted across the country, robbing banks to support himself and taking the lives of those who met his violent criteria. Because he was highly mobile, only the criminal profiling of the FBI enabled his capture in 1980.
4. Wayne Williams
Serial murderers can be found in every culture and demographic, something we know because of criminal profiling. Beginning in 1979 and stretching for 22 months, a series of apparently connected murders occurred. Behavioral analysis indicated that these high-risk victims fit a certain profile—young, African-American males taken in public areas during daylight. Because of the analysts’ insights, law enforcement excluded unrelated murders that also occurred during that time. Those perceptions also led to the capture of Williams in the spring of 1982.
5. Andrew Cunanan
His chaotic killing spree in the late 90s culminated with the murder of the fashion baron, Versace, in Miami Beach, Florida. However, the FBI was on his trail long before that. Cunanan was highly intelligent and driven by a need to live a life of luxury. Before beginning the spree, Cunanan engaged in homosexual prostitution to supplement his income, but a swift devolvement of opportunistic theft and flight followed his abrupt escalation to murder. The FBI followed his trail from Minneapolis to Miami. Pressure from the intensifying manhunt led to Cunanan taking his own life shortly after that of Versace.
Serial offenders fall into a variety of categories. Behavioral analysis can assist law enforcement by providing insight into the motivations and psychological makeup of these individuals, whether they set fires, perpetrate sexual assault, commit theft or take life. Because murder is an extreme crime, serial killers may be motivated by all of these factors in addition to committing repeated murders. Often, they are brought to justice only through a keen understanding of behavioral patterns and traits common to crimes, which is a major component of criminal profiling.