Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing series about how different aspects of forensic science can help during death investigations. Learn about livor mortis, rigor mortis and forensic entomology.
By Jennifer Bucholtz, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice and Forensic Science at American Military University
In some murder cases, law enforcement does not have enough direct evidence to arrest a suspect at the beginning of their investigation. In such cases, it can be helpful for investigators to use information about how the murder was committed in order to determine the type of person most likely to have perpetrated such a crime. Identifying the psychological and behavioral factors of a killer can be a complex and challenging task for local and state law enforcement, so many agencies turn to the expertise of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU).
The FBI BAU was established in 1972, originally named the Behavioral Science Unit, to provide behavioral-based investigative support about complex, often violent, crimes. The BAU does so by applying prior case experience, in-depth psychological research, and training support to other law enforcement agencies.
How Behavioral Analysis Can Help Identify Murderers
The investigative process used by FBI experts of the BAU was originally coined “criminal profiling,” but today is referred to as “behavioral analysis.” One of the tenets of behavioral analysis is that a person’s thinking dictates his or her behavior; in turn, behavior reflects personality, so by analyzing the actions taken during a crime, behavioral analysts (also known as criminal profilers) may be able to determine what type of person committed the crime.
Countless law enforcement agencies have used behavioral analysis to successfully narrow the pool of suspects and identify the most likely characteristics of the offender of a particular crime or series of crimes. This analysis focuses on behavioral and personality characteristics unknowingly exhibited by an offender during and after the commission of a crime.
Behavioral analysis seeks to understand offender motivation (the “why” of a crime), and modus operandi (the “how”) by examining verbal and non-verbal actions and clues from a crime scene. Though behavioral analysis is useful for various types of crimes, it is particularly applicable to murder, which is the focus of this article.
In cases of murder, there are several behavioral clues inadvertently exhibited by the murderer during the commission of the crime. These can provide investigators valuable insight into the psychology, personality, and motive of the murderer.
Did the Murderer Exhibit Organized or Disorganized Behavior?
Once known facts and evidence are collected about a crime, a criminal profiler can begin to determine the broad category in which the murderer falls, disorganized or organized. Most offenders exhibit traits that fall into both categories (known as a “mixed” offender), but the majority of their characteristics usually fall on one side of the spectrum.
Signs of an Organized Criminal
Crime scenes indicative of an organized offender usually display evidence of premeditation and planning that can include:
Bringing a weapon to the scene
Physical restraint and successful control of the victim
Absence of biological evidence (such as DNA, fingerprints or hair) or other forensic evidence (such as fibers) that link directly to the offender
Successful concealment of the body
This type of offender usually: has average to above-average intelligence, is gainfully employed, is in a committed relationship, has no history of mental illness, and is socially competent.
Signs of a Disorganized Criminal
Crime scenes indicative of a disorganized offender often include:
An overall sense of disorder and spontaneity at the scene
A presence of biological or other forensic evidence left by the offender
Use of a weapon of opportunity obtained from the crime scene
Difficulty controlling or restraining the victim
Disposing the body in open view
These types of offenders often have: a history of mental illness, a low intelligence level, difficulty with intimate relationships, unskilled jobs, and lower social functioning.
Was the Crime Scene Staged or Masked?
There are two types of crime scene staging: (1) staging and (2) masking. Staging is present when a killer purposely poses a body in a way that is psychologically comforting, purposely demeaning towards the victim, or intended to send a message to law enforcement. Another type of staging occurs when a criminal alters a crime scene in an attempt to cover up the true circumstances of what took place. An example would be when a killer attempts to cover-up a homicide by setting fire to the scene of the crime hoping investigators will think the victim died as the result of an accidental fire.
Crime scene masking refers to actions taken to cover up the scene of a murder by cleaning and removing evidence and/or the body. The goals of masking are to add great difficulty and confusion to the investigation, avoid scrutiny by law enforcement, and, ultimately, avoid being convicted of the crime. Statistically, male perpetrators engage in staging and masking much more often than females.
However, masking is not without serious risk. It is a fact that the longer a perpetrator stays at a murder scene and the more items he or she touches, moves, or cleans, the more evidence they leave of themselves. Engaging in crime scene masking leads to more evidence of the killer rather than less.
Additionally, masking increases the killer’s chance of being caught at the scene by a family member, neighbor, or bystander because of the additional time it takes for the masking process.
When it’s determined that an offender attempted to clean up or mask the crime scene, investigators should immediately consider people who have the closest known connection to the victim or to the location where the crime took place. This is because only killers who perceive an obvious connection between themselves and the scene and/or victim clean up after committing the murder. It is extremely rare for a murderer who has a negligible connection to the scene or victim to stay to clean a crime scene; the risk is not worth the extra effort.
I consulted with a colleague who is a 24-year law enforcement veteran and retired Chief of Police because he has a wealth of experience in homicide investigations. He recalled several murder scenes he attended where a clean-up had been completed or attempted by the killer. In every single case, the killer was a known associate or, more commonly, an intimate partner of the victim and was usually a resident of the location where the murder occurred.
Significance of Moving a Body
Moving a murder victim’s body from the primary crime scene where the murder occurred to a secondary site is even riskier than masking. To do that, the killer must leave the primary crime scene with a dead body, load it into a vehicle, drive to another location, and unload the body.
If the killer chooses to adequately conceal the body at the secondary site by putting it in a hand-dug grave, for example, the killer increases the risk of being caught because of the time required to take this extra step of concealment.
As with masking, the longer the killer remains with the body, the greater the chances of a bystander discovering them. Generally, killers take the enormous risk to move a body only if they believe they will be the most logical suspect if law enforcement finds the body at the primary crime scene.
My colleague mentioned above also discussed with me the issue of perpetrators moving bodies and he made an important point regarding the psychology behind this process. It is quite difficult for most people, he said, to bring themselves to purposefully make contact with a bleeding or dead body. It’s messy, both physically and psychologically. It takes a killer with a great deal of mental tenacity and self-control (e.g., not vomit) to touch a dead body, let alone to perhaps dismember it, wrap it up, carry it to a vehicle, drive it to a secondary site, and unload it. Most people cannot overcome the mental stress and physical disgust to do any of this.
As with masking, law enforcement responding to a murder scene where the victim has been moved away should first consider the person who has the most direct and obvious link to that primary murder site. Additionally, the act of moving a dead body is nearly always carried out by someone who was living with the decedent. That person is most likely the perpetrator.
The Importance of Studying Victimology
Behavioral analysts study not only the evidence collected from a crime scene but also all the known facts and information about the victim. This is a key step in the behavioral analysis process. There is always a reason why a particular victim is killed. Knowing as much as possible about the victim’s social circle, intimate relationships, lifestyle, daily habits, occupation, attitudes, and frequented locations can assist investigators in determining the motive behind a murder.
This information often reveals how the victim and killer crossed paths, how the killer gained access to the victim to commit the murder, and who in the victim’s life had the most pronounced motive to kill.
Determining Modus Operandi and Signature
Modus operandi (MO) and signature are two concepts often confused and interchanged by the media. Though these concepts overlap, each is a separate category of individual characteristics which can provide insight into a killer’s methodologies and motivations.
MO refers to the actions a killer takes during the commission of the crime. In premeditated murders, a killer will usually bring a weapon, such as a firearm, to the scene that will enable him to effectively control his victim. The offender may also survey his victim’s residence ahead of time to learn about the victim’s and other residents’ daily habits. This allows the perpetrator to pick the ideal time with the least risk to attack his victim. All of these actions are part of the killer’s MO that assists him in successfully carrying out the crime.
The absence of evidence of planning provides clues about the circumstances which led to the murder. Furthermore, the manner in which a victim was killed and the weapon used still provide information to investigators about the killer’s relationship to the victim.
A killer’s signature is indicative of a fantasy or psychological need. Not all killers leave evidence of a signature and it is most commonly found among serial murderers. A signature is absolutely not essential to the successful commission of a crime. It is an action a killer takes above and beyond what is necessary to kill a victim.
Examples of signature behaviors include posing the body in a certain manner, taking an item from the victim, or taunting the police as the Zodiac Killer did by writing goading letters to law enforcement.
The Importance of Determining Motivation
Though it is not required that a prosecutor have proof of a killer’s motive to charge a suspect, it is certainly useful. In cases where a killer has engaged in masking behaviors and moved the body, there are two aspects to determine: (1) the motive for the murder and (2) the motive for post-offense cleanup and removal of the body from the primary murder scene.
Motives for homicide are almost countless, but most fall into one of these general categories: anger/emotion, profit/greed, attention-seeking, or mental illness/psychological need.
Motives for masking a scene and moving a body fall into one of two categories: self-preservation or embarrassment/shame. Self-preservation is linked to killers who clean the crime scene in an attempt to re-direct the investigation and avoid scrutiny and suspicion by law enforcement.
The embarrassment or shame motivation is not relevant in homicide cases, but usually is in cases of suicide or accidental death. This motive is most commonly observed where a family member or loved one discovers the victim in a compromising position or circumstance and attempts to change the scene to remove the victim’s perceived embarrassment.
Applying Behavioral Analysis Concepts to Homicide Investigations
The above categories of behavior are pertinent to investigating a homicide. Identifying and scrutinizing each piece of evidence and behavioral clue are critical in developing a criminal profile of an unknown killer. Without consideration of the actions and behaviors that the killer engaged in during and after the commission of a murder, an investigation will be incomplete at best. Generally, the more post-offense behaviors a perpetrator engages in, the more clues he leaves about himself.
I previously wrote a series of articles on the unsolved murder of Rebekah Gould. In my next article, I will apply the behavioral analysis concepts covered here to assist in narrowing the suspect pool in the Gould murder.
If readers have any information about the murder of Rebekah Gould, no matter how inconsequential they believe it might be, please call the Izard County Sheriff’s Department at (870) 368-4203 or Arkansas State Police at (800) 553-3820. Tips can also be sent to email@example.com. Anyone reporting information has the right to remain anonymous.
About the Author: Jennifer Bucholtz is a former U.S. Army Counterintelligence Agent and a decorated veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. She holds a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice, Master of Arts in criminal justice and Master of Science in forensic sciences. Bucholtz has an extensive background in U.S. military and Department of Defense counterintelligence operations. While on active duty, she served as the Special Agent in Charge for her unit in South Korea and Assistant Special Agent in Charge at stateside duty stations. Bucholtz has also worked for the Arizona Department of Corrections and Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City. She is currently an adjunct faculty member at American Military University and teaches courses in criminal justice and forensic sciences. Additionally, she is an instructor for the Department of State’s Office of Anti-Terorrism Assistance and a licensed private investigator in Colorado. You can contact her at Jennifer.Bucholtz@mycampus.apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.