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Legal News
Canadian Psychiatrists Learn How FBI Identifies Suspects
Psychiatric News
Volume 37 Number 23 page 16-62
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FBI agent Gregg McCrary: "It is not magic. You drill down, look at this stuff, and pretty soon you get an idea of whom you are looking for."

Gregg McCrary of Fredericksburg, Va., is not a psychiatrist. Nonetheless, he has delved into criminal minds for many years—as an agent for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). His job was to psychologically profile criminals, work on crime scene analysis, and, in short, helping identify "the bad guys."

Thus, McCrary was invited to give a talk at the annual meeting of the Canadian Psychiatric Association in November on how the FBI goes about identifying offenders. The meeting was held in Banff, Alberta.

McCrary indicated that he found the invitation appropriate. After all, he pointed out, "We deal with the same clientele. We deal with them in the wild, you deal with them in captivity, but there is a lot of overlap."

So what are some of the tools that FBI agents use to identify transgressors?

Probably the one that the public is most familiar with is called "prospective profiling," McCrary said. That is where evidence that has been gathered about a particular type of offender is used to build a composite picture of him or her—say, a typical serial killer or a typical child molester. For example, FBI agents know that sadists often document their acts on video. They know that hard-core child molesters usually keep child pornography material in their possession all their lives. The goal of prospective profiling is to narrow the search for a suspect or even identify the suspect if possible. The problem with prospective profiling, however, is that it often leads to false positives, McCrary pointed out. In other words, there is no one-size-fits-all mold that always accurately portrays a particular criminal type. So on the whole, prospective profiling is not nearly as valuable as is retrospective profiling. Retrospective profiling consists of gathering evidence about a particular suspect to identify him eventually—in other words, what people usually think of as standard police investigations.

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Some of the best evidence for retrospective profiling, McCrary indicated, comes from minute details.

For instance, he and his colleagues were once in communication with kidnappers who wanted ransom money. The agents knew that the kidnappers were a man and a woman by their voices. But some smaller revelations gave the agents even more valuable insights into them.

The kidnappers said that they wanted their ransom money in 10 "Eddie Bauer" bags, indicating that they were, as McCrary put it, a "young yuppie couple." And golden retriever hairs were on one of their letters demanding ransom. Indeed, it turned out that the kidnappers were a fairly affluent young couple with a golden retriever.

Then there were a number of Austrian murder investigations with which McCrary was involved. All showed strangulation with an article of clothing, and the piece of clothing was always tied in a particular knot. McCrary deduced from this evidence that all the murders had been committed by the same person, which turned out to be the case.

Even with such evidence and good psychological profiling, though, FBI agents sometimes have trouble identifying offenders because the offenders are knowledgeable about the latest techniques for identifying criminals, McCrary admitted. For instance, "the high-end guys read publications from true-crime books to the professional literature," he said.

Also, because of their knowledge about DNA evidence, seasoned sex offenders are using condoms more than they used to.

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Still other transgressors, McCrary added, are tough to finger, not so much because they are knowledgeable as because they are wily. For example, a child molester pretended to be a witness in his own case in order to mislead FBI agents. A killer attempted to make it look as though he was disorganized, whereas he really wasn’t.

So sometimes to identify smart or tricky criminals, "we try to lay traps of behavior," McCrary said.

For instance, agents may use the "Columbo" trick—that is, the trick that television police detective Columbo used to use: He would intentionally appear stupid and bumbling to reinforce a transgressor’s sense of omnipotence and thus get the offender to divulge his identity. The FBI, in fact, used this trick recently in the Washington, D.C., sniper case, McCrary pointed out. It attempted to make the Montgomery County, Md., police chief look inept and frazzled, and this apparent incompetency helped reinforce the narcissism of the purported offenders and led to their identification and capture.

Or knowing that murderers sometimes visit the graves of people they have killed, FBI agents may use this information to trap them. For example, there was a father whom FBI agents suspected of killing his son. So they sent one of their agents in disguise to the father; the agent told the father that he was going to the grave site where the son was buried and asked whether he wanted to come along. The father said yes. And while at the grave site, the father broke down and admitted to killing his son—just the confession the FBI agents had hoped for.

And once FBI agents have a suspect in hand, McCrary explained, they may even use information they have about the criminal’s psyche and behavior to get the person to confess. For example, say FBI agents want to trick a rapist, who they know despises women, to confess. They might send a "bossy" female FBI agent in to interview and antagonize him. Then, after the female agent walks out, a male FBI agent might enter the room to calm him down, establish a rapport with him, and then elicit a confession. ▪

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FBI agent Gregg McCrary: "It is not magic. You drill down, look at this stuff, and pretty soon you get an idea of whom you are looking for."

Gregg McCrary of Fredericksburg, Va., is not a psychiatrist. Nonetheless, he has delved into criminal minds for many years—as an agent for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). His job was to psychologically profile criminals, work on crime scene analysis, and, in short, helping identify "the bad guys."

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