“To understand the artist, you must look at the artwork…to understand the criminal, you must look at and study the crime itself.” - John Douglas
As an innovator at the FBI in the late 1970s, John Douglas developed new investigative techniques for hunting serial killers, sex offenders, and other violent offenders. 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.
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, VA. 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. Douglas led his team at Quantico in uncomfortable research. From cult leader Charles Manson to the so-called “Son of Sam” serial killer David Berkowitz, the Unit interviewed serial killers, rapists, child molesters, assassins, and other violent criminals.
Identifying patterns among their research subjects, Douglas’ team believed that common traits, ages, habits, and other demographic detail 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. Ultimately convicted of two of the crimes was Wayne Bertram Williams, a 23-year old black male who drove a surplus police car and owned a German shepherd. 22 of the other cases were closed by the Atlanta PD after the Williams’ conviction, however Douglas believed there were other killers responsible for some of the homicides.
Immersion in these cases has 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 that both he and the 12 FBI profilers, who he affectionately referred to as “The Dirty Dozen,” would on work tirelessly.
Since his retirement from the FBI in 1995, Douglas 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's theory and added 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, and he conducted a complete analysis of the Meredith Kercher murder case in Perugia, Italy, concluding that Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were completely innocent. As a result of his work in West Memphis, director Peter Jackson engaged him to consult on the movie The Lovely Bones and advise actor Stanley Tucci on playing a sadistic predator. Douglas is also prominently featured in Peter Jackson-Sony Classic Pictures' documentary West of Memphis. His book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit inspired the Netflix Original Series Mindhunter. The series debuted worldwide on Netflix October 13, 2017 and has been renewed for a second season.