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Criminal profiling in serial homicide investigations

A woman’s body has been discovered in your precinct – and it’s the third one this year. As an experienced homicide investigator, you understand that murder or suspicious death necessitates an established protocol to assure the preservation of the crime scene and the integrity of the evidence. If you were the detective or law enforcement agent assigned to a serial homicide case, here’s what you’d do.

The crime scene

Much of the useful information you will obtain about the serial homicide case will be gathered at the crime scene, which is why it is vitally important that this be done correctly. Much of what we know about crime scene analysis comes from the work of Vernon Geberth and his colleagues.

Preliminary steps. In reality, working a crime scene begins even before you get there. Ideally, the first officer on the scene should initiate the preliminary steps of the investigation, and then you, the detective, will assume control of the case when you arrive on the scene.

You’ll probably get the call by radio or phone from an officer who has discovered the crime scene or been led to it by a citizen. Even before leaving for the scene, instruct the officer(s) on duty to preserve the crime scene and, if possible, hold any witnesses or suspects for questioning. Instruct the on-scene officer to begin initiating a log or timeline, accounting for all activities at the scene and the people and vehicles who have had access to the scene.

Initial procedures. Don’t just barrel into the crime scene, but assess boundaries and consider your approach, including entry and exit pathways. As you approach, observe the area as a whole to take in the “big picture” – neighborhood, roadways, pedestrian pathways – before focusing on the crime scene itself. You may have to take control of the scene in order to conduct your investigation. For an indoor crime scene, securing the location may be as simple as closing a door or blocking off a hallway. If the crime scene is outdoors, a wide area surrounding the body should be cordoned off; here, the biggest problem is often removing unauthorized people from the scene and keeping them away.

When you arrive, confer with the on-scene officer and have him or her escort you on an initial survey or “walk-through” of the scene. While doing so, mentally absorb the crime scene and start to develop a preliminary mental image of plausible events. At the same time, begin taking photos and ascertain if there is any fragile or perishable evidence that needs to be collected right away. Take notes or use a personal recorder to maintain a running time line of events as you examine the scene. This may be crucially important in establishing the cause of death and documenting it later during testimony. Note taking also forces you to slow down and be more deliberative in your observations.

Describing the scene. A complete description of the victim should be recorded, including sex, age, build, hair color, clothing or missing clothing, positioning of the body, evidence of premortem injury or postmortem mutilation, and any evidence that could yield clues as to cause of death. Describe the immediate surroundings as well as the location and position of the body in relation to objects and furnishings in an indoor setting, or items or landmarks at an outdoors scene.

Note the presence of any obvious weapons in the vicinity, including firearms, blades, bludgeons, garrotes, etc. Equally important, be alert for common or unusual objects that could be used as potential weapons, such as workshop tools, cooking utensils, electrical cords, heavy furnishings, and so on. If a weapon is nearby, take detailed notes but don’t yet handle it. Look for obvious signs of violence such as bullet holes, shell casings, blood stains, or the presence of vials, bottles, or syringes. Don’t collect evidence at this stage of the investigation, but observe and document anything of relevance on the scene. In major cases, personnel from the evidence lab will arrive to implement collection procedures. In smaller departments, you may have to do this yourself after you’ve thoroughly assessed and documented the crime scene.

An important aspect of on-scene investigation of serial homicide is an analysis of crime scene staging, in which the offender manipulates the crime scene in an attempt to confuse or misdirect law enforcement investigators from the true cause of death or motive for the killing. Common scenarios include street homicides staged to look like suicides or accidents, or domestic homicides staged to look like robbery. But many serial killers are more likely to stage murder the scenes precisely to shock and/or taunt police and the media. Thus, when examining a murder scene, be sure to consider who would benefit from the scene being staged as it is.

Preliminary interviews. Obtain a detailed account of what the on-scene officer(s) have seen and done. Many officers will be only too happy to wax eloquent on their theories about the cause, manner, and circumstances of the death. Note these observations and opinions, and use them to guide – but not bias – your own observations and opinions of the case. Although all fields of expertise rely on quick recognition of patterns, each homicide case is unique and may require a fresh approach or perspective, so keep an open mind. Also remember that crime scene investigation is always a team effort so take information where you can get it.

Any potential witnesses should be interviewed at the scene to take advantage of their fresh memories and the opportunity for witnesses to guide investigators to evidence that might otherwise be overlooked or destroyed. Some witnesses may be transported to the department for further questioning or revisited at another time. Since many serial killers tend to specialize in specific types of victims, one key aspect of developing a serial homicide profile is an understanding of the killer’s victim(s).


Not just for serial homicides, but even for singular murders, when there are no viable suspects, when witnesses cannot provide productive leads, and when the crime scene yields too few clues to make a definitive determination, sometimes the only way to get a handle on the causes and circumstances of the homicide is to develop a thorough understanding of the victim, a process described by Tom Joyce as victimology awareness.

Purposes of Victimology. A thorough understanding of who the victim is, where she lived and worked, her background and social relationships may the vital first step in ascertaining why she was victimized, who the killer was, and who is his preferred type of victim. Aside from investigative considerations, victim identification allows the victim’s family to obtain closure on the fate of their missing loved one [see The worst possible news: Death notification and body identification for law enforcement officers].

Victim data collection. Sometimes, clues are as obvious as finding the victim’s wallet or some other form of identification at the crime scene. In most cases, obtaining clues to the victim’s identity may involve good old-fashioned gumshoe work – taking photos of the victim’s face and canvassing the area to see if residents or merchants recognize her. An accurate description of clothing and any other personal effects at the scene is also essential. Try to obtain viable fingerprints. If the body is autopsied, the medical examiner will document any distinguishing features, marks, scars, tattoos, piercings, and so on. All of this information will prove useful in checking against any Missing Person/Unidentified Body reports. But remember that any high-tech computer search and cross-matching is only as good as the data put into it, and this data comes from a careful analysis of the crime scene.

Evidence collected. The following pieces of data are important in developing a comprehensive victimology.

Injuries sustained: Actually, this information will overlap with general crime scene data collected. In an indirect way, the pattern of injuries may yield clues to the motives and identity of the killer which may, in turn, offer clues to his relationship with the victim and, thereby, to the victim’s identity. For example, a level of extreme violence usually indicates that the perpetrator purposefully wanted to make sure the victim was dead; alternatively, it may indicate someone prone to go into an explosive psychotic rage.

Location: Many homicides, including serial homicides, occur because a particular victim was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Thus, once investigators have gotten a sense of the demographics of the victim, and possibly previous victims, an important part of victimology is assessing whether the victim belongs where the body was found. What was the preppie college student doing in the seedy red-light bar district – was she trying to buy drugs? Why was the usually workaholic business manager not in her office, but at home in her apartment at 3:00 in the afternoon – was she meeting someone? Who?

Since many homicides occur inside a car, where the vehicle is found may be an important piece of data, along with whether that type of car fits in that particular neighborhood. For homicides that occur inside a private residence, look for evidence of forced entry, lack of which may indicate that the victim knew her killer or that the perpetrator used deception to gain entry (e.g. posing as a repairman or police officer); alternatively, it may have involved a domestic quarrel between the woman and a current or former lover. When commercial locations are the homicide site, robbery, drug deals, or worker-manager disputes are usually the main factors to consider.

In many cases of serial homicide, the victim’s body is deposited many miles from the location where she was abducted or killed. Such scenarios, indecorously termed “dump jobs,” are notoriously difficult cases to solve because it almost impossible to trace the victim’s last steps.

Occupation: What did the victim do for a living and what kinds of people would she be likely to come in contact with in the course of her work and social life? This in turn might yield clues as to important characteristics of her killer. For example, a univeristy professor or corporate office manager is likely to encounter men in a more upscale demographic than would a cocktail waitress or hotel housekeeper. The key is to look both for patterns that make sense and those that just don’t fit.

Family and friends: Interviewing these collaterals is important for two reasons. First, most interpersonal violence, including murder, occurs between people who know each other. Thus, speaking with friends and relatives may well uncover clues to the perpetrator’s identity. Serial homicide, however, tends to be a crime committed against strangers, so ruling out familiar suspects may, along with features of the crime itself, point to a killer who was heretofore unknown to the victim. Second, the victim may have confided in close friends or relatives and this may give investigators a clue to her whereabouts shortly before she was killed. In addition, the victim may have been engaged in a “secret life” that put her at risk for victimization and she may have only told a few close confidantes about this.

Legal history: Don’t overlook the obvious. Check computer databases to see if any victim features match subjects in the database with a criminal or civil litigation history.

Developing the victim profile

Now, you use your training, experience, intuition, and powers of logical analysis to put the data together to form a victim profile (Douglas et al, 1986; Geberth, 1990; 2006; Palermo & Kocsis, 2005). Especially in serial homicide investigations, knowing who the victims are is often a vital first step in apprehending their killer.

Begin with the information you’ve painstaking gathered at the crime scene through your notes and photos, including information about the general location, traffic patterns, and ease of access for various types of individuals. It also includes all physical evidence gathered at the scene, such as footprints, blood spatters, and objects possibly used as weapons or bindings. An autopsy of the victim will usually provide vital clues in reconstructing the sequence of the crime, method of death, and injuries sustained while alive.

Developing the offender profile

The FBI's Crime Scene Analysis consists of six steps:

1. Profiling Inputs. All potentially relevant evidence is collected from the crime scene, including physical evidence, photos, investigator notes, and reports of witness interviews.

2. Decision Process Models. Evidence is organized, studied, and analyzed to discern patterns and commonalities that can link the crime to other and yield clues to offender detection.

3. Crime Assessment. From this pattern analysis, investigators attempt to reconstruct the crime scene, including a time-line of events and the role each person present, whether perpetrator, victim, or bystander.

4. Criminal Profile. Steps 1-3 are combined to create a criminal profile incorporating the motives, physical qualities, personality, and behavioral tendencies of the perpetrator. This profile is also used to guide interview strategies for different types of suspects.

5. Investigation. The working profile is distributed to active investigators on the case and to any other individuals and organizations that may have databases or information pertinent to identifying the suspect. If few useful leads are turned up, new incoming information may be used to revise and update the profile.

Apprehension. If and when a suspect is identified (in about 50% of cases), he is interviewed, investigated, and compared to the profile. If a reasonable suspicion exists that the subject could be the perpetrator, a warrant is issued for his arrest. At trial, the careful presentation of evidence by law enforcement agents, forensic laboratory analysts, forensic psychologists, and others is what proves critical in making the case against the offender.

In creating your profile, try to give as complete a description of the perpetrator as possible, including gender, age, race or ethnicity, intelligence level, education, military service, job status, living circumstances, nature of interpersonal relationships and social contacts. Regard these descriptive statements as hypotheses that you will test against accumulating information. Many of these hypotheses will simply be generalizations based on your training and experience, while others may be more intuitively arrived at by mentally playing out the crime in different scenarios and imagining what sort of person would be involved. Then, match these alternatives to your local and regional criminal databases to see if any further identifying leads come up.

Depending on the volume of the data and nature of the case, your final written profile may range from a few paragraphs to many pages. Finally, disseminate your profile to investigators and local law enforcement. If no useful leads or clues develop, be willing to update and revise the profile as new data come in. Training, experience, creativity, and flexibility are the keys to effective case solving.

A Note from Dr. Miller:

This month I become the editor of the International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and I'd like to invite PoliceOne writers and readers to submit material to the journal.

Call for Papers


The International Journal of Emergency Mental Health is a practice-oriented resource for active professionals in the fields of psychology, law enforcement, public safety, emergency medical services, mental health, education, criminal justice, social work, pastoral counseling, and the military. The journal publishes articles dealing with traumatic stress, crisis intervention, specialized counseling and psychotherapy, suicide intervention, crime victim trauma, hostage crises, disaster response and terrorism, bullying and school violence, workplace violence and corporate crisis management, medical disability stress, armed services trauma and military psychology, helper stress and vicarious trauma, family crisis intervention, and the education and training of emergency mental health professionals.

The journal publishes several types of articles:

- Research reports: Empirical studies that contribute to the knowledge and understanding of traumatic disability syndromes and effective interventions.

- Integrative reviews: Articles that summarize and explain a topic of general or specialized interest to emergency medical, mental health, or public safety professionals.

- Practice guides: Reports of existing, developing, or proposed programs that provide practical guidelines, procedures, and strategies for working emergency service and mental health professionals.

- Case studies: Clinical or field reports of professional experiences that illustrate principles and/or practice guidelines for crisis intervention and emergency mental health.

- Book and media reviews: Reviews of books, films, DVDs, or electronic media of relevance to emergency response and mental health professionals.

- First person: Personal accounts of dealing with traumatic stress and crises, either as a victim or caregiver, that provide insight into coping and recovery.

The International Journal of Emergency Mental Health is your place to say something that can make a difference in the lives of victims and helpers and have a real-world impact on the daily practice of emergency medical, public safety, and mental health services.

Complete Instructions for Authors can be found on-line at: www.chevronpublishing.com/authorinfo.pdf

Submit manuscripts in English, in APA style, and in Word format to:

Laurence Miller, PhD, Editor
International Journal of Emergency Mental Health
Plaza Four, Suite 101
399 W. Camino Gardens Blvd.
Boca Raton, Florida 33432


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Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice. 

NOTE:  If you have a question for this column, please submit it to editor@policeone.com.

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