FBI pioneer of criminal profiling John Douglas to visit Penn State Berks

READING, Pa. — John Douglas, a former special agent with the FBI and author of many books, including "Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit," will speak at Penn State Berks at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 22, in the Perkins Student Center Auditorium. This event is sponsored by the Penn State Berks criminal justice program and is part of a student research experience. The lecture is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. A section of the auditorium will be reserved for Penn State Berks students and faculty.

While traveling around the country providing instruction to local police, Douglas and his colleague, Robert Ressler, began interviewing serial killers and violent sex offenders at various prisons. Some of the most notable violent criminals in recent history were interviewed as part of the study, including David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Edmund Kemper, Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan, Richard Speck, and others. The result was the book "Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives," followed by the "Crime Classification Manual: A Standard System for Investigating and Classifying Violent Crime."

Douglas has been so influential in the science of criminal investigation — criminal profiling in particular — that two well-known fictional characters are based on him: Jack Crawford, a major character in the Thomas Harris novels "Red Dragon" and "The Silence of the Lambs," and FBI profiler Jason Gideon, a character in the TV show "Criminal Minds."

In the late 1970s, John Douglas developed new investigative techniques for hunting serial killers, sex offenders, and other violent criminals. Advancing the use in investigations of the procedure known as criminal profiling, Douglas became widely recognized as its top authority. A mix of psychology, pattern recognition, and inductive/deductive reasoning, criminal profiling allows investigators to make educated guesses about suspects — sometimes accurately predicting their age, background, personality, and other identifying characteristics from the barest of clues. While leading the FBI’s Investigate Support Unit, Douglas used profiling in numerous prominent cases.

“To understand the artist look you must look at the artwork … to understand the criminal you must look at and study the crime itself,” explains Douglas.

An Air Force veteran with a doctorate degree in education, Douglas began as an FBI special agent in the Detroit and Milwaukee field offices in the early 1970s. Assigned to bank robberies and fugitive investigations, he spent time post-arrest talking with offenders about their craft.

By 1977, convinced that investigators needed to understand the criminal mind better, he joined the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit at Quantico, Virginia. At 32 years of age, he was the youngest instructor, and his outlook was far from popular. The prevalent view of psychology and behavioral science was that they were nearly worthless for catching criminals, as he recalled in his memoir, "Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit." Douglas became unit chief of the Behavioral Science Unit, which was later changed to the Behavioral Analysis Unit.

Identifying patterns among their research subjects, Douglas’ team believed that common traits, ages, habits, and other demographic details could be used to construct accurate profiles of criminals simply from the evidence at hand. Everything from the location and appearance of a crime scene to the arrangement of a victim’s body was relevant. They identified key characteristics of certain criminals, ranging from a personality afflicted with feelings of inadequacy to the tendency by some to indulge in fantasies.

One noteworthy use of Douglas’ techniques came in Atlanta, where 29 murders of African-American children began in 1979. In 1981, Douglas stunned investigators and the public with his theory that the killer was a young African-American male with a fixation on police culture who owned a German shepherd. Wayne Bertram Williams, a 23-year-old black male who drove a surplus police car and owned a German shepherd, was ultimately convicted of two of the crimes. Twenty-two of the other cases were closed by the Atlanta Police Department after the Williams’ conviction, however Douglas believed there were other killers responsible for some of the homicides.

Immersion in these cases affected Douglas not only mentally, but physically as well. In 1983, Douglas nearly died from viral encephalitis while working in Seattle, Washington, on “The Green River Murder” case. Doctors later attributed his illness as a result of the heavy workload he carried and dealing on a daily basis with crimes of violence. Although diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, Douglas continued to oversee 1,000 violent crime cases annually on which both he and the 12 FBI profilers, who he affectionately referred to as “The Dirty Dozen,” would work tirelessly.

Since his retirement from the FBI in 1995, he has remained active as an author, speaker, and independent investigator. His work on the 1996 JonBenet Ramsey murder case in Boulder, Colorado, led to a completely different conclusion than the police, district attorney, and FBI theory, adding to the national controversy over the crime.

He has conducted extensive prison interviews with violent predators for various law enforcement agencies and parole boards. Douglas was a key member of the defense team whose efforts led to the release of the "West Memphis Three." As a result of his work in West Memphis, director Peter Jackson engaged him to consult on "The Lovely Bones" and advise actor Stanley Tucci on playing a sadistic predator. Douglas is also prominently featured in the Peter Jackson-Sony Classic Pictures documentary "West of Memphis." Currently, his book "Mindhunter" is under option for film production with director David Fincher.

Brenda Russell, program coordinator for the criminal justice degree and professor of psychology at Penn State Berks, was recently awarded a Penn State Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence 2015-16 teaching grant for her project titled, “A Visit from John Douglas: The Criminal Justice System: Law and Disorder.”

Criminal justice includes the study of the agencies and procedures used to manage crime and the persons accused of violating criminal law. Faculty from the Penn State Berks criminal justice major will use the presentation from Douglas as a springboard for classroom discussion and assignments such as case studies and debates, investigating the impact of media on investigative procedures, trials, and punishments. According to Russell, most students and the general public understand criminal profiling in the context of television shows, which influences what jurors expect to see in criminal cases and their decisions.

For more information about this event, contact Russell at 610-396-6014 or blr15@psu.edu.

Media Contacts: 

Brenda Russell

Work Phone: 
610-396-6014

Professor of Psychology, Program Coordinator of Applied Psychology at Penn State Berks

Last Updated September 24, 2015