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"I Have Only One Objective-- to Catch a Killer"


It was late, the tree-lined street quiet, the house silent. His wife and children were asleep, all safe and warm in their beds. John Douglas, the man who hunts serial killers for a living, put down his pen, pushed back his chair, and walked out of his study. He needed a break, a few minutes away from the intensity he brings to his work—on this night, the search for a man who raped and murdered teenage girls. As he made his way down the hall toward the bedrooms of his two daughters, teenagers themselves, he noticed one door slightly ajar. He hurried his step and pushed it open. The bed was empty, and a sense of unease took hold. Douglas ran down the hall steps toward the front door and found it unlocked. The unease now turned to fear. The killer had been sending threats. And now those threats had been brought to life. The hunter’s daughter was missing.

“The first thoughts that crossed my mind were he had reached out and grabbed my kid, touched my family,” Douglas says now. “I grabbed my gun, jumped into the car, and drove through the streets of my neighborhood. I spotted her a few blocks from home. She had just gone out for a walk with a young boy she liked…That’s the fear these killers put in you. None of us are beyond their reach.”

John Douglas is the most famous and proficient profiler of serial killers in the world. He has dedicated a large portion of his life to bringing mass murderers to justice, often working dozens of cases at a time. He helped begin the FBI Behavioral Science Unit in the early 1970s and has spoken one-on-one with every serial killer put behind bars (Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, and Jeffrey Dahmer, to name a few; see sidebar below) to learn why they did what they did and to use that knowledge to track down killers still on the loose.

You may not realize it, but you already know who John Douglas is: He has been portrayed in a number of feature films. He was the model for Scott Glenn’s Jack Crawford character in The Silence of the Lambs. Dennis Farina brought him to life in Manhunter, Harvey Keitel portrayed him in Red Dragon, and HBO is currently developing a series based on Douglas’ first book, Mind Hunter, to be produced and directed by David Fincher. In 1990 Douglas himself was profiled on a CBS series, Top Cops. The executive producer, Sonny Grosso, a highly decorated NYPD detective whose real-life casework was the basis for The French Connection, says of Douglas, “I don’t think I could do what he does. Very few can. But I’m damn glad he’s out there doing it.”

We Are Who We Are 
Douglas was born in working-class Brooklyn in 1945 and initially sought a career path very different from the one that brought him fame—veterinarian. “I didn’t get into Cornell and joined the Air Force instead,” he says. It was during those Air Force years that Douglas was approached by the FBI, through a mutual friend of the base commander. He was accepted when he was 25—the youngest in a class of 50.

The notion of an FBI unit dedicated to the search for serial killers first came to him on Super Bowl Sunday in 1972. He was part of a team conducting a cross-country gambling raid, looking to rope in 1,000 bookies and shut down as many parlors as possible in one day. “I made three arrests that day,” Douglas recalls. “One of them turned my life around. His name was Frank. He was in his early 30s, sitting in the backseat of the unmarked, me next to him. He was staring out the car window, heavy rain pouring down.

“I asked, ‘Why do you do this shit? Every year or so you get arrested, sometimes end up doing a few years in jail. What’s the point?’ He smiled. ‘You don’t get it,’ he said. He turned back toward the window, raindrops streaking down the sides of the glass.

‘Pick out one of those raindrops and I’ll pick another, and I’ll bet you any amount that mine makes it to the bottom before yours. See my point? We don’t need a Super Bowl. All we need are two raindrops. We are who we are, and not you or anybody like you is going to change us.’

“That was it,” Douglas says. “¿‘We are who we are.’ If it was true of the gambler, then would that mind-set be true of any other type of criminal? Would that thinking fit all types of criminal? That’s what I needed to find out.”

He worked with the Behavioral Science Unit and spent hours watching homicide detectives and medical examiners go through the paces. He studied criminal patterns, looking for similarities in motives and actions. “You need to walk in the shoes of both the victim and the killer,” he says. 

“You imagine what the victim experienced. Then you imagine the criminal committing the crime, and look for the pattern. The more bizarre the case, the easier it is to break down. The focus is always on behavior. What made him go out and do what he did. If and when you find the answer to that, you can then focus on the suspect and hunt him down.”

He accelerated his learning curve by traveling the country, working short-term out of the Chicago, L.A., and Portland, Oregon offices. “We were presenting the Charles Manson case around that time,” he says. “But no FBI agent had ever talked to him. I went to talk to him. I’ve interviewed them all—from the Son of Sam to Jeffrey Dahmer—and learned as much as I could while I was in their company,” he says. He goes with full knowledge of their crimes and talks to them not as a cop, not as a psychologist, but as what they want: a fan. These men seek adulation for the crimes they have committed. Douglas gives them that. He walks into that room, confronting the most evil among us, bolstered by all his professional experience—years as a hostage negotiator, member of an FBI SWAT team, creator of the FBI’s criminal profiling program, chief of the investigative support unit, criminal psychology instructor—and puts those skills to the test. “I let them control the room,” Douglas says of his interviews. “I let them face the
door or the window, allow them to fantasize their escape. You listen and then restate the content back to them, let them hear their own words, reinforce their message.”

The conversations with these killers are nauseating and troubling to Douglas. “They have no remorse,” he says, “so you work it to where he feels as if he’s talking to someone like himself. You laugh with him while your insides churn over the horrors this guy has committed.” His ability to think like these men led to a major breakthrough in the case of the Green River Killer, who murdered dozens of women between 1982 and 1998.

“With that case, it struck me that the police had their suspect,” Douglas says. “They interviewed Gary Ridgway a number of times and even gave him two polygraphs, both of which he passed. But I knew why he passed. He didn’t see what he did as criminal—murdering nearly 60 women, all of whom were prostitutes.

In his mind he was doing a public service by ridding the streets of these women. Once I explained my theory to the Seattle police, they went back at him, brought him in, questioned him, and got what they needed.”

There are the nightmares Douglas has paid a huge price to do his job as well as he does. While working the Green River case, he came down with viral encephalitis. His body temperature topped out at 107 degrees, and his pulse reached 220. His left side was paralyzed, and he was having uncontrollable seizures. Once recovered, he continued on and helped nail Wayne Williams, the Atlanta Child Murderer, tagging him as the first African-American serial killer. He was working in Alaska on the case of Robert Hansen, a madman who picked up prostitutes and flew them out into the middle of nowhere in order to hunt them like animals—as well as the Yorkshire Ripper case in England and the Trailside Killer case in San Francisco—when he collapsed. His body simply surrendered to the stress, the hours, the pressure of dealing with the deadliest of our species.

Aside from the physical, there’s the mental anguish. “There are the nightmares,” says Douglas. He is forced to think like the killer, to put himself inside the mind of a mass murderer, envision scenes of great horror and torment, scenes that come back to haunt him in his peaceful hours. He has a habit of waking up in the middle of the night and writing notes about the killers he often sees in his dreams, the visions as clear and real as if they were acted out in his presence. He needs to sense the killer, fully grasp his methods and motives, see him in action, feel him commit the crime, know how it happened, where, when, how. He has trained himself to feel the coldness, the sense of satisfaction the killer earns by committing an act of murder. In those dark moments, in the deepest recesses of his mind, he is the killer. It all plays out in front of him, covered by the silence of the night.

A Hero Among Us
“I’ve seen too many parents lose a child, lose someone they love to a horror they could never have imagined,” Douglas says. “I’ve done everything I can to bring these killers in before they
take one more life, cost one more father, mother, husband, or wife someone they love.”

Douglas retired from the FBI in 1995 and now travels the world, hired by police departments and legal teams in need of answers, who look to him to help them solve a complex series of murders. He is currently working to clear both the West Memphis Three (the three teens convicted of the satanic slayings of three children) and Amanda Knox (the American student convicted of murdering her roommate in Italy). “Amanda is innocent—I’m convinced of it,” says Douglas. “The Italian police completely contaminated the crime scene. Besides, behavior reflects personality, and there is nothing in Knox’s past behavior to indicate she is a murderer. In both cases—West Memphis and Knox—the police allowed theory rather than evidence to direct their investigations, and that is always a fatal error.”

He has never been proved wrong. (He took a then-controversial stance in support of JonBenet Ramsey’s parents, declaring their innocence in the death of their daughter long before DNA absolved them. He did it by once again stressing evidence—or, in this case, the lack of it— over theory.)

His ability to link behavior and evidence makes John Douglas the lawman serial killers fear. He knows their secrets. He has studied the monsters and learned the patterns of their bizarre rituals (one serial killer buried his victims and weeks later would take his wife and children to the site for a picnic). He knows the buttons that must be pushed to get them to admit their crimes. And then he makes his move, armed with the information needed for the police to put a grab on them and bring an end to another plague of vicious murders.

The FBI Behavioral Science Unit is the most useful tool against serial killers. The criminal profiling program is studied and copied by police departments around the world. John Douglas is the man responsible. “We will never eliminate them,” he says. “There are just too many with a need to kill, a thirst for murder. But we have the tools to bring the chase to them a lot sooner and bring them to an end a lot faster.”

His hair is grayer now, and though he keeps in shape, he might not be as fast out of the gate as he was when he first picked up that bureau shield. But the passing years have only increased his capacity for reading the criminal mind and reacting with the speed necessary to catch what at times must seem like an invisible prey.

John Douglas was the first profiler, and he is still the best. He is the constant in a serial killer’s disturbed dreams. He is the one who makes them taste the fear they cruelly inflict on others. He is the only one.