In the summer of 1973, seven-year-old Susie Jaeger was snatched from her tent in the middle of the night while camping with her family in Montana. The following February, her remains were found near an abandoned ranch, alongside those of a missing 19-year-old woman.
The lead FBI agent on the murders, stymied and frustrated, attended a lecture by FBI special agents Patrick Mullany and Howard Teten, who, that same year, founded the Bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) to examine criminal psychology. The agent convinced the pair to create a profile of the unidentified subject (“unsub,” in FBI parlance). Jaeger’s case became the first in which the Bureau used a profile to apprehend a suspect.
The years since have brought many tales of criminal profiling, including The Silence of the Lambs and the Netflix series Mindhunter. The coming months see three books that document the advent of the technique.
Ron Franscell’s Shadowman (Berkley, Mar. 2022) delves into Jaeger’s case, which the author calls a turning point in forensic history. Mullany and Teten’s profile, he says, “proved to be a useful forensic tool” in the case, despite the fact that “other cops and deputies on the team believed it was voodoo.” The final profile of Jaeger’s killer contained 20 elements describing the unsub. Among them: that he was a white male in his 20s who grew up fatherless, that he had a military background, and that he would contact the victim’s parents on the anniversary of her death.
When a man named David Meirhofer was arrested a little over a year later, 19 of the 20 components, including the phone call to the grieving parents, proved to be accurate.
Franscell believes the fascination with serial killers and criminal profiling stems from the human urge to make sense of the senseless. “Our rational minds want to put things back in order,” he says. And though he has a “visceral” response to true crime–as–art, he says series such as Mindhunter have shown audiences that violent offenders are often indistinguishable from everyday people.
“Now we know they live next door, have families, coach Little League, take vacation,” Franscell says, “and that scares the hell out of us.”
Mindhunter, which premiered in 2017, is a fictionalized adaptation of John E. Douglas’s 1995 memoir of the same name, in which the author recounted his work studying serial killers for the FBI. In February, Douglas, writing with Mark Olshaker, will publish When a Killer Calls (Dey Street), the second in a series about his landmark cases.
In When a Killer Calls, Douglas revisits the crimes of Larry Gene Bell, who was convicted of the 1985 killings of 17-year-old Shari Faye Smith and nine-year-old Debra May Helmick, both of South Carolina. Disturbingly, Bell forced Smith to write a farewell note to her family and taunted them after her abduction and death in phone calls.
Douglas chose to return to the case now, he says, because it’s a “near perfect alignment of behavioral profiling, forensic science, and determined police work.” He adds that the case was “extremely emotional” for him, as it involved two young girls at a time when his own daughters were small.
The note Bell compelled Smith to write and his phone calls to her family became crucial components of the criminal profile, Douglas says. They also factored into Bell’s eventual trial for the murders. “We were able to help prosecution strategize how to convince a jury that this seemingly bizarre and out-of-control individual actually knew what he was doing,” Douglas says.
Ann Wolbert Burgess, Douglas’s former colleague, recounts her early career in the BSU in A Killer by Design (Hachette, Dec.), cowritten with Steven Matthew Constantine, her colleague at Boston College, where she is a professor.
In the late 1970s, Burgess, then a forensic nurse, coauthored a paper that, according to her, challenged the “prevailing cultural attitude toward rape as a blame-the-victim mentality.” It caught the attention of the FBI at a time when it was combating a rise in violent sexual crimes.
“They weren’t making much progress since none of the agents had any expertise,” Burgess says. The FBI flew her to Quantico for a meeting with Douglas and his fellow agent Robert Ressler, both of the nascent BSU.
“The two of them were working on a not-so-by-the-books study of their own at the time that aimed to understand the minds and motives of serial killers,” Burgess says. They asked if she’d be willing to help by applying her methods of research. “I became part of the club just like that.”
Burgess was one of the first women to work with the FBI to solve cases involving serial killers. In the ensuing two decades, she helped to track down some of the country’s most notorious criminals, including Ed Kemper, Dennis Rader, and Henry Wallace.
“Since a lot of the cases I wanted to cover were so haunting, so unforgettable, I was able to jot down those pretty quickly,” Burgess says of writing the book. “It’s been interesting to see the evolution of public fascination with serial killers over the years. There is something compelling about staring into the darkest aspects of humanity. It’s an unmasking in a way—a glimpse into the rawest fringes of human psychology.”
Clare Swanson, a frequent PW contributor and former news editor at the magazine, is a journalist and editor in New York.