AFG: Tell us about your latest book.
The Killer’s Shadow is about the hunt for Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist serial killer who roamed the country with the self-imposed mission of killing African Americans, mixed-race couples and Jews, all with the intent of fomenting a race war in the United States. My first encounter with Franklin came early in my profiling career when I was directed by the FBI’s Civil Rights Division to do a fugitive assessment on him to help locate him. He had already killed more than 20 people and there was tremendous fear in official circles that his next target would be President Jimmy Carter, whom he had previously threatened in a letter. This was a particularly difficult case because Franklin’s crimes had occurred over a wide geographical area and though he was an expert sniper, he did not confine himself to one method of killing. He was also a bomber and face-to-face shooter as well. The clock was certainly ticking and this was a make-or-break moment for the Behavioral Science Section. Once Franklin was apprehended, I was involved with interrogation and prosecution strategies, and it all came together nearly 20 years later when Secret Service Special Agent Ken Baker and I sat across the table from him in at Marion Federal Penitentiary and we could take a deep dive into the mind of this monster.
AFG: Are you ever surprised what you find you find out about serial killers, or have you reached the no surprise zone?
I’ve certainly seen a lot at this point, but there is almost always some new insight to be had. For example, when I conducted a prison interview with Dennis Rader, the “BTK Strangler who terrorized Wichita, Kansas, for so many years, I thought I understood him pretty well going in. The one thing I couldn’t figure out was why there had been such long intervals between some of his crimes. The confrontation with him revealed the answer and gave me an additional data point to consider in any criminal investigation.
AFG: Who was the most chilling serial killer you ever came across?
They can be chilling in very different ways. Men like Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris, and Leonard Lake and Charles Ng were among the most chilling in terms of the sheer sadistic pleasure they took in torturing their victims to death and recording the scenes so they could relive them later on. On another level, Joseph Paul Franklin was perhaps the most chilling because he was not only a remorseless killer in his own right, but he became a hero to so many right-wing bigots and racist haters. Most serial killers are not going to inspire many others to follow in their footsteps. Franklin has actually had books dedicated to him.
AFG: Is there a common denominator in all of their lives? Such as being abused as children.
Almost all of them come from bad backgrounds of one kind or another. Franklin was definitely abused by both his parents. Mark Olshaker and repeatedly confront the balance between nature and nurture in our books and research, and in for just about all serial killers, both elements come into play.
AFG: If our knowledge of serial killers, if we looked at it as a trip from New York to LA where do you think we are?
We’re not sure we understand the question. If you’re referring to how much do we know versus how much we’d like to know, I would say it is like medical science. We are learning more all the time, but we have a long way to go in our understanding. Fortunately, there are enough common denominators and we have done enough research and have enough experience that in many cases, we can predict behavior through our profiles and recommend proactive strategies for apprehension, interrogation and prosecution.
AFG: Do you think we might discover that their brains are diseased and that we can control their mind through psychology and medication in the future?
This is a question that comes up all the time and we have consulted with many forensic psychiatrists and neurologists on the subject. If you take a completely reductionist approach, then all of our actions have some sort of physical origin. Yet if some time in the distant future science was able to pinpoint the electrochemical processes that created each thought, what does that say about the kind of moral universe we inhabit? We make a distinction between mental illness, which just about every killer or predator has to some degree or other, and delusional thinking, which is a detachment from reality. Almost all of the serial predators I‘ve encountered had the ability to control their actions. They chose to do what they did because it gave them great satisfaction, was the most important thing in their lives and they had no feeling for the victim. We cannot stress the word choice enough.
AFG: Profilers pride themselves on being able to predict the moves of serial killers. Does that speak to a trait where they are able to get away with more than one killing by having a certain discipline which in the end is predictable?
Some serial killers are lucky. Also, the more crimes they get away with the more they learn. But the more crimes we see, the more behavioral clues we have to analyze. In our business, the ultimate success is when you can keep a first-time killer from becoming a serial killer.
AFG: It must be depressing to research this all, how do you maintain faith in the world when you see so many monstrous acts?
This is a good question and there is a lot that is depressing about our work. However, I’ll say two things: What makes serial killers and repeat predators stand out is that they are not like most other people, so we can say they don’t represent most of the world. Second, we are always working for the victim and the victim’s survivors. That is a scared trust and what keeps us going. One of the things that always upsets and angers us is when we see killers portrayed as heroes or glamorous figures. They are invariably immoral losers who are trying to overcome their own low self-esteem. We are always careful to keep our values straight. And what we are always writing about is the human condition – but writ large and at the extremes – why do people do the things they do? That is the question we are always trying to answer.
AFG: Is there a geographical area that is more conducive to having serial killers? I lived in Athens, Greece a country of 10 million inhabitants and it seemed we only had one serial killer. Could it be that a weak family unit has contributed to this?
A serial killer can emerge anywhere, but it is more likely to happen in a less homogenous society. We also don’t believe serial killers are a new phenomenon. Long before Jack the Ripper and his ilk, we believe that tales of witches, wizards, werewolves and other folktales probably had their origins in serial killers of previous eras.
AFG: What are you working on now?
We are working on a new book about a completely different kind of killer, no less sadistic, and a victim who was among the most heroic I have ever encountered. The fact that we were able to catch him after two murders was a great triumph of the combination of profiling, forensic science and classic detective work all working together.
AFG: In terms of Joseph Paul Franklin could you ever see a shred of any redeeming quality or did you feel he was pure evil?
I would be hard pressed to find any redeeming quality in Joseph Paul Franklin. I feel badly for the terrible childhood he had, and when I interviewed him, he did seem to have some feeling for the daughter he hardly knew. But he remained a walking hymn of hate, as some of the letters he wrote me from prison attest. Evil is a concept better left to philosophers than law enforcement people like me, but he would certainly fill my definition of evil.
AFG: What inspired such hatred and racism?
I think Franklin was typical of white supremacists and neo-Nazis who grow up with deep-seated feelings of personal inadequacy and want both some other group to blame it on and others to feel superior to. Franklin took it to the extreme of channeling this resentment into violent action, and that is a lot of what our book examines.
AFG: How can we protect ourselves in this digital age from stalkers and criminals?
We have to be eternally vigilant, especially in this era when there is so little privacy. The internet has been a great boon to hate groups, and good people must not be silent.