Too easy to criticize a difficult manhunt
By Dr. Katherine Ramsland
There's no such thing as a typical serial killer, and when one behaves as the Baton Rouge killer did, catching him is doubly difficult.
Yet in retrospect it always seems as if catching the killer should have been quicker and simpler than it actually was. Such is the domain of nitpicking armchair detectives who can unfairly demoralize those who did the work.
On May 27, Derrick Lee Todd was arrested in Atlanta on suspicion of his involvement in the rape/murders of five women in Louisiana. Already, one hears criticisms of the investigation. But the criticisms - and the blithe insistence that investigators somehow "should have seen" how simple it all really was - underestimate the difficulty of the investigation.
It was in July 2002 that Baton Rouge police first linked three murders. By September, they had an FBI profile and had assembled a multiagency task force. The public was informed about DNA findings, statements by witnesses, and the killer's behavior. In the third murder, witnesses had described a white male and helped with a composite drawing.
Information was shared around Louisiana agencies. In April 2003 the task force learned of a viable suspect from another area. By now there were five victims and numerous reports of suspicious white men. But this new suspect was black. His DNA analysis was expedited with telling results.
Former FBI profiler Gregg McCrary knows that in high-profile cases, charges of mishandling are inevitable: "Whether you capture a killer after 11 homicides or after two, it's never quickly enough. Those who criticize the most typically have the least appreciation for the daunting complexity of this type of investigation."
The task force did a lot: It ran informational billboard ads, performed an expensive DNA sweep, released details to invite tips, investigated numerous men with shady backgrounds, and had dogs sniffing crime scenes. They changed focus as the evidence dictated. Still, according to critics, they did not do enough.
Lee "has been right under their nose for the past 11 years," victim advocate Geri Teasley said to reporters. "He was doing all kinds of stuff that made him a prime suspect for this type of thing."
People also complain that it was not the task force that identified Lee but a detective from an unrelated investigation. Some find fault with the use of the FBI profile. "A profile is not a crystal ball," says Lt. Richard Peffall of the major crimes unit at the Montgomery County Detective Bureau in Pennsylvania. "It's just a tool to help investigators. You can't easily say what was the right or wrong thing to do. You have to look at the end result. I've been investigating crime for 29 years, and I haven't yet conducted the perfect investigation. None of us have. But thanks to television, the American public believes that these crimes can be solved in an hour. It's not that easy."
The task force did collect more than 1,000 DNA samples (there were many men to process, and it takes time) and investigated those who refused. They sent information to other agencies, and the detective who saw their new sketch immediately moved his suspect to first in line at the lab. Thus, the task force had a hand in the arrest.
Complaints about the profile are also unfounded. Eyewitnesses had described a white man before the FBI arrived, and there was no reason to discount those statements. With better information, the task force did shift its focus.
Then again, some claim that if only investigators had attended more closely to the profile's description of the killer's criminal record, Lee would have been investigated sooner.
In other words, when the profile hits, use it; when it misses, don't.
Only after a killer is caught can anyone tell a hit from a miss. And we don't yet know whether Lee is the man. (Because his DNA markers make him a strong suspect - one in 4 billion, in fact - the media and public alike have assumed this case is closed, another assumption that has more to do with the TV show CSI than the way things really work.)
Much after-the-fact grousing happens at the expense of professionals who did their best. In this case, we have a strong suspect - and that's a good thing. People should consider that before they censure.
Katherine Ramsland (Revisions@aol.com) teaches forensic psychology at DeSales University and writes about serial killers for Court TV's Crime Library.
Press Release: Too Easy To Criticize by Dr. Katherine Ramsland | Posted on: 6/4/2003
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