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Tracking Atlanta's Phantom Killer of Children, An Expert Fbi Team Thinks It Knows His Type

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The killer is one of the most grimly prolific in criminal history, yet he or she has moved through Atlanta like some kind of phantom. In the nine months since the city first became aware that its children were being stalked by a calculating mass murderer, no witness has been found who could provide a description. Still, the FBI believes it knows the kind of person to look for. It is being guided by Special Agents John Douglas and Bob Ressler, who in 1978 set up the FBI Criminal Profiling Program in Quantico, Va. Using 57 pages of questions, the two men interviewed more than 50 notorious murderers now in prison (“They cooperate because they’re egomaniacs,” says Ressler). By studying the answers, the agents have been able to draw psychological and physical profiles of killers at large simply from the evidence at the scene of the crime.

On Douglas and Ressler’s advice, the Atlanta police now seek one killer who is thought to be responsible for 11 of the 20 killings. Three other murders may have been committed by a copycat killer, Douglas says, while the rest were probably individual crimes. “People are linking unrelated murders to this one serial killer,” says Douglas. “We have strong suspects in some of these other cases. There may be as many as five killers in all.”

The principal Atlanta killer, Douglas says, is black “because in the black neighborhoods where the victims lived a white person would be spotted in a second.” He is a quiet, methodical man, under 35, who drives an official-looking automobile but not a police car (serial murderers sometimes flash fake police badges or have served as security guards) and was the product of a broken home. “None of the murderers we interviewed had a decent family background,” observes Ressler. A fascination with childhood, not sex, seems to preoccupy the Atlanta killer. Because he has had no verifiable contact with police, as most mass murderers do, Douglas suspects the killer is inarticulate and has a high school education at best. The agents theorize the killer may begin striking more frequently and recklessly if not apprehended. On the other hand, the killing could halt suddenly. “Murdering a child is the equivalent of suicide,” Douglas maintains. “These people don’t feel good about what they do. They’re depressed. Some commit suicide.”

Both the Brooklyn-born Douglas, 35, and Ressler, 44, a Chicago native, are 11-year FBI veterans. The premise underlying their profiling is that criminal behavior is surprisingly consistent. “An abnormal person like a killer becomes ritualized,” explains Ressler. Given enough information, the agents claim they can pick out an offender’s age, sex, race, marital status, family background, emotional state, education, body type, even how far he lives from the scene of the crime—with 80 to 90 percent accuracy.

To construct their profiles, the agents draw on a blend of statistics, psychology and personal experience. Soon they will computerize their findings so police departments nationwide can punch in details of a crime and within minutes be provided with a profile of the perpetrator.

The agents’ key conclusion is that murderers who act with no apparent motive can be divided into two groups. There are, first, the plotters (“These guys are con men; no one can see the monster underneath”) and, second, uncontrolled killers who strike out in a frenzy and are less careful about being caught. The Atlanta murderer, they believe, is a plotter.

Though Douglas and Ressler have learned to interpret clues such as a killer’s choice of weapon and the way he abuses his victim (severe blows to the face indicate familiarity), they emphasize that the primary value of profiling is that it helps investigators narrow the field of suspects and avoid time-consuming blind alleys. But even with their computerized data bank, they point out, the day of push-button crime solving has not yet arrived.