Serial Killers Part 2: The Birth of Behavioral Analysis in the FBI
Friday, October 25, 2013
|Behavioral analysis seeks to understand the behavior, experiences, and psychological make-up of criminals and suspects for insights that could solve cases. It played a role in the case of serial killer Ted Bundy.
In the final days of 1977, a man now known as one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history—Theodore “Ted” Bundy—cleverly escaped from a Colorado prison while most of the staff was away for the holidays.
FBI agents quickly joined the search. In early February 1978, the Bureau placed Bundy on its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Among the information shared by the FBI with law enforcement during this time were details on his “M.O.” (modus operandi or method of operation). Bundy typically looked for victims at places where young people gathered, such as colleges, beaches, ski resorts, and discos, the FBI explained. And he preferred young, attractive women with long hair parted in the middle.
A Founding Father of Behavioral Analysis
Howard Teten’s fascination with criminal psychology started early in his law enforcement career. A Marine Corps sergeant and photographer during the Korean War, he took a job with the Orange County (California) Sheriff’s Department in 1956. His budding interests in photography and criminal investigations quickly brought him into contact with the area crime lab, which encouraged him to pursue the study of criminology. Taking a position as a police officer in San Leandro in 1958, Teten began studying criminology at the University of California and earned a degree in 1960.
It was at Berkeley that the psychological aspects of criminal behavior caught Teten’s attention. “Here I am at school, taking courses in abnormal psychology, criminal psychology—and [also] working crime scenes on a daily basis,” he later recalled, “and I’m beginning to see parallels.”
Teten accepted an appointment with the FBI because it offered better advancement opportunities for the young family man. He entered new agent training in April 1962 and was assigned to the Oklahoma City Field Office. He was transferred to Cincinnati in 1963 and Memphis in 1965. There, he ran the office’s police training program and worked on his master’s degree in social psychology at Memphis State University. He gained the attention of the FBI’s Training Division and took a job as an instructor in Washington, D.C. in July 1969. The rest, as they say, is history.
The synopsis was pulled from a psychological assessment of Ted Bundy prepared by two FBI agents—Howard Teten and Robert Ressler—at the Bureau’s Training Academy.The two men were part of a groundbreaking behavioral analysis unit set up five years earlier for precisely this purpose: to study the behavior, experiences, and psychological make-up of criminals and suspects for patterns and insights that could help solve cases and prevent future crimes, especial serial murders and other forms of violence.
Criminal behavioral analysis wasn’t a new concept. In the 1940s and 1950s, for example, George Metsky—the so-called “Mad Bomber”—planted explosive devices around New York City until a behavioral profile developed for the police by a local criminologist and psychiatrist helped lead to his capture in 1957. But in the coming years, the FBI would take this innovation to a whole new level.
At the center of this evolution was Teten. He had joined the FBI as an agent in 1962, already with an interest in the psychological aspects of criminal behavior (see sidebar). In 1969, he was recruited by the Training Division to be an instructor, and around 1970, he convinced his supervisor to let him teach a workshop in “applied criminology.” His first course was a four-hour lecture to New York police; it was a hit. Next, he gave the course at a regional police training school in Texas, expanding it to four days. By about day three, students were bringing up unsolved cases. Based on insights from a class discussion, one student interviewed a suspect—and the man confessed.
Word spread, and interest in the course skyrocketed. So Teten borrowed FBI New York Special Agent Patrick Mullany, who had a master’s degree in educational psychology, and the two began teaching together. Teten would outline the facts of a case, and Mullany would show how aspects of the criminal’s personality were revealed in the crime scene. According to Teten, “Patrick really made a difference, because he was a fully qualified psychologist, where I was a criminologist.” Soon Mullany was reassigned to Quantico permanently.
In 1972, the FBI stood up a behavioral science unit to advance the concepts the pair were teaching throughout the FBI and across law enforcement; it was led by Supervisory Special Agent Jack Kirsch and included Teten and Mullany (Ressler joined in 1975)—and their growing education, research, and service responsibilities. As the unit developed, so did the FBI’s study and understanding of serial killers.
And Ted Bundy? Five days after landing on the FBI’s Top Ten list, he was caught by a Florida policeman. He was ultimately convicted of multiple murders and executed in 1989.
- Serial Killers, Part 1: The FBI’s Role Takes Shape
- FBI Files on Ted Bundy
- More on FBI History