The real-life model for Thomas Harris' serial-killer expert psychs out the O.J., Ramsey and Dahmer cases -- and David Byrne, too.

Published July 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Retired FBI agent John Douglas is the genesis of pop culture's fixation on psycho killers. Douglas was the first law enforcement officer to make a study of psycho-ology in order to catch the average serial killer by figuring out what makes him tick. Hannibal Lecter, the infamous fictional cannibal, was created by Thomas Harris, who was an unofficial student of Douglas'. Harris modeled his fictional G-man, Jack Crawford -- mentor of Clarice Starling -- after Douglas.

I interviewed Douglas at his publisher's office in Midtown Manhattan, in a windowless room that felt very much like an interrogation cell. Douglas was in town to promote his fifth nonfiction book on "mindhunting," "The Anatomy of Motive." He is in his early 50s. Trim enough. Possessing most of his hair. He appears to have J.C. Penney's taste in ties. The second we sit down he starts talking. Douglas is fascinating, but one wound-up guy. In just 45 minutes, I will learn of the Unabomber's black heart and the secrets of the Jon-Benet Ramsey killing, and realize that J. Edgar Hoover wasn't the only male FBI agent who had a thing about wearing dresses.

Also, John Douglas has interviewed over 5,000 maniacs, and I don't make him sweat. Not a bit.

Welcome to psycho killer summer. Thomas "Hannibal" Harris based one of his FBI agents on you, right?

Yes. Jack Crawford. A lot of TV shows were based on me as well: "The Profiler," "Millennium." What they've done is misinterpret my books. If I watch "The Profiler," it drives me crazy when she [actress Ally Walker, who plays Dr. Sam Waters] gets this look on her face, and she has these flashbacks and starts seeing blood and gore. If I had to go through that every time I did a profile, I'd be wearing a blue chiffon dress, smoking a cigar.

What I attempt to do when I get a case is do an analysis of the victim and the overall crime. Then develop a profile of the unknown subject if I can.

How many times does it work in reverse -- the cops have suspects and ask you to check them out?

All the time. They use your experience to help establish probable cause for a search warrant. For example, there was a case in Alaska I wrote about in "Mindhunter" where the subject would abduct women when his wife was away -- have sex and torture them. Then strip them naked and hunt them down like wild animals. Kill them. Over the course of two years, two victims escaped. But they were never believed because they were prostitutes. And this was a baker in the community. He couldn't do something like this. They brought me in to do an assessment. I told them, "There's a pattern here. Plus his background -- he has some prior history of arson. He basically fits." They used me in a search warrant. And in his house they found jewelry belonging to a dozen woman he killed, along with a map with X's on it that showed where each victim was buried.

In New York City, it's tougher -- years ago they called me on the Dartman, the guy who was blowing darts into backsides of women. I said, "If I have to provide a profile of Dartman it will fit about 20 to 30 people per block."

True story: I was doing a lecture on arson for the NYPD and I said, "Arsonists are often in the crowd watching the fire. Photograph that crowd. Look for people who are urinating or masturbating." So I go back to Virginia, then come back here. They tell me, "Douglas, that profile may fit down in Virginia, but up here it doesn't work." I say, "What are you talking about?" They tell me, "Here's a five-alarm fire. And we did what you said. We photographed the crowd. On one side of the crowd we see half a dozen urinaters. Over here we have a couple of masturbators. They don't have to set the fire -- they just come out of the woodwork and enjoy it."

Can you profile me and say, "He's safe"?

That you're never going to be a killer? No, no, no. That's the problem: People expect that killers look a certain way -- they have a third eyeball in the middle of their head or they're drooling. There are some disorganized killers -- weird kind of guys. But you catch them very quickly. It's the ones that are generally above average in intelligence -- like chameleons they can blend into the crowd. As an example, Ted Bundy -- killed college co-eds. Very attractive, good looking guy. His modus operandi was that he used a phony cast on his arm. He'd wait outside libraries. When the right victim came by, he'd drop the books. The girl would come over to help pick them up. The next thing you know -- boom! Like in the movie "The Silence of the Lambs," Buffalo Bill with the cast on his arm -- hit the girl and take her away.

What's novelist Thomas Harris like?

He's not exactly Mr. Personality or the life of the party. You wouldn't want to be a drinking buddy with this guy. He's just very quiet, more of a loner. Kind of an asocial guy. He's very thorough, though. He would sit in on classes in my criminal psychology class at the FBI Academy. I was just beginning to develop profiling at that time, going into the penitentiaries -- not to ask Hannibal Lecter, "Help us catch someone." Nothing like that. Just going in and conducting interviews about individual crimes. No one had ever done that before. A lot of people who deal with criminals and who are making decisions for probation and parole don't want to know about the crime. What I've always said is, "To understand the artist, you must look at the art work."

Harris saw this kind of stuff. And then what he did was he took a composite. Hannibal Lecter does not really exist. There is no one, thank goodness, like him. I think it's more scary that there are people like Buffalo Bill. He is a composite of three killers who Harris learned about in a lecture: Ted Bundy. A guy from Plainview, Wis., who killed a couple people. Dug up the graves of a couple more. And he'd skin them. And preserve the flesh in motor oil. Then he would slip them on himself. Face masks. He had half a dozen of them.

Ed Gein. Isn't "Texas Chain Saw Massacre" as well as "Psycho" based on him?

Yes. And the third one was a guy from Philadelphia. He kept women in a pit about five and a half feet deep. His lawyers argued that he was insane, but he had over half a million dollars in his bank account. He selected stocks with his little disability check through Merrill Lynch. So Merrill Lynch testified, "We would like to say it was through our strategy that he got so much money, but he did this on his own." The guy was found guilty. [Gary Heidnik, 55, was executed Tuesday at Rockview state prison in Pennsylvania.]

In your book you say pornography doesn't make sex criminals. In the same way, books like "The Silence of the Lambs" don't stimulate unhinged people to go out and kill women, do they?

People who are unhinged will gravitate to violent themes. That's a given. They tried to say Bundy was driven to kill because of pornography. That's nonsense. The studies that I've done show that 83 percent of offenders were into pornography. But so what? Maybe if I did a search of FBI agents it could be 90 percent are reading pornography. If you get into sadomasochistic types of pornography -- that stuff doesn't take a normal person and then make them abnormal.

So "Hannibal" will not make a guy who loves steak consider chowing down on a plate of ribs that once belonged to his neighbor?

Ha! No, no.

Have you read Harris' new one?

I just started it. Friends tell me about it -- that it is so bizarre. The ending is so bizarre.


I get knocked off too, I understand.

I think you just die naturally.

I nearly died in '83. That's how Harris got his character. I was on a murder case. I was 38 years of age. I was so burned out from working so many cases that my body was giving out. I had a tremendous headache on Wednesday. I went before the task force, the people I was with, and told them, "Don't check on me until Friday when we head back to Washington, D.C." I collapsed that night in my motel and was on that floor for two days. When they kicked in the door they found that my body temperature had gone up to 107, causing my brain to split. They packed me in ice. I was in a coma for a week. I came out of it paralyzed. I had to go through five months of rehabilitation.

At the time, my personal life was turning into a disaster. Harris cashed in on all these kinds of things. I was drinking too much. I was exercising too much. I wasn't socializing at all. No religion. My work wasn't the kind of stuff I could come home and tell my children. "Tonight it's not the Three Little Bears it's Jack the Ripper."

It was tough on my family. I was the only one doing this work. I'd get calls 24 hours a day, like you're on duty all the time. Most of my human guinea pigs were in local law enforcement because the FBI would not embrace my work.

Hoover died in '72. I joined in 1970. Now it's '77, '78, '80, and I'm doing this stuff, but the Hooverites are still around. They want to deal in blacks and whites, and I want to deal in grays.

Did you know Hoover?

I just saw him when he came before the class as a new agent. It was a little like a cardboard placard. It was just so unusual to see him. The thing that amazed me is that he seemed like a loosey-goosey sort of guy, and there was such fear in the organization. When I got to Detroit [my first office], and later Milwaukee, old-timers would be fearful of an inspection. There would be inspectors who would come in every two years and someone would get whacked.

You mean fired?

Disciplined. You could be demoted or reprimanded -- where you don't get promotions on time.

Where were you when you heard J. Edgar Hoover like to wear dresses?

You'll laugh about it. In my office in '83 I had dresses. I told you the blue chiffon dress joke. I'd say, "If I don't get any help here, you're gonna find me one of these days behind my desk wearing a blue chiffon dress smoking a cigar." So for my 20th anniversary in the FBI, two different people gave me blue chiffon dresses. So I hung them in my office on a coat rack. "60 Minutes" was down with Lesley Stahl. When she saw my dresses, I told her the story. She said, "That's great." They wanted to film them, but the public relations people said, "No! Don't go there." I said, "What are you talking about? I'm just going to stand next to the dress. I'm not going to wear it." But they said, "No. No. This could come out wrong." I said, "Look, they're my dresses. If they want to take a picture of me with the dresses they can take a picture of me with the dresses."

Did Hoover make you feel personally embarrassed for the FBI?

I thought it was funny. Some of the old-timers were angry as hell. But the younger guys thought it was funny. What embarrassed me was Hoover keeping book on people like Martin Luther King.

After you retired, you investigated JonBenet Ramsey, right?

I was brought in by the family.

Can you hypothesize who killed the kid?

I know who didn't do it: the parents. That's the controversial part. If you take a survey in Colorado, seven out of 10 people say they did it. When I go around speaking and people disagree, I ask. "Where are you getting your information? I know where you're getting your information -- in the grocery line from the tabloids."

So the Star was saying, "Any day now the brother will be accused."

The brother?

Yes. He was a kid. He was 9 years of age. Today he's 12.

Is he guilty?

Hell, no. What happened was he went before the grand jury and was removed as a suspect. The Star is now doing a Michael Jackson moonwalk trying to get out of what they wrote because once someone is eliminated as a suspect, it's liability time.

If the parents didn't do it and the brother didn't do it, who did?

They have their own suspicions, but I eliminated them through analysis. If two people are working together after a crime they stay together like glue because they don't trust each other. The Ramseys went to separate places, which reinforces that they probably didn't do it. The hardest part I had with the crime was the way the girl was killed. There was such anger directed at her. The blow to her head was so forceful it could have taken down a 300-pound man. And she was also digitally sexually assaulted. And mixed in with her own blood is DNA evidence. I said way back when, "It's probably not semen." And two years later, they proved it's not semen. It may be saliva. The reason I said, "It's not semen" -- to me it was more of a vengeful kind of crime.

I couldn't understand: How do you go from a Christmas Day party with neighbors and friends and on the way home, "Goodbye, we're going to Charlevoix, Mich., tomorrow." What happened that would cause the parents to just lose it that night and kill a child -- wetting the bed? That didn't jibe.

I only know what I read in the tabloids. Based on what you said, somebody at that party hated the Ramseys and wanted to hurt them before they split for the holiday.

It can't be a stranger. It has to be someone who has some knowledge.

Do you have a suspect?

There are several. I can't discuss it. But there are several who look good.

Has anyone investigated them?

I don't know. When I went out there in the first week of January '97, people thought, "Here's the hired gun." Believe me -- moneywise, I got hardly next to nothing. And the hours I put in all these years ... I stopped taking any money once I saw the Ramseys were not responsible. They were victims. The Boulder Police -- I thought I was somewhere down in the deep, deep, Deep South. Good ol' boys smoking cigars. I said, "If you don't like me -- if you think I'm a turncoat -- go to the FBI. Go to my unit and get them involved. Be proactive." What do you mean "be proactive"? I said, "Look at the Unabomber case. Had we not publicized the manifesto, he'd still be living in Montana." Here you have a so-called "ransom note" -- I'd like a guy like you [meaning Bowman] to look at it. With your background, you'd see: Would parents write a note like that? It has statements in it from current movies. What parent would have the presence of mind to write something like that?

What lines are from movies that were playing Boulder at the time?

"Don't grow a brain, John"

What was that from?

"Speed." And "Ransom" was the other one.

Did people at that party go to those movies?

It was a very small party. The problem with the case is we may know in a week or two what's going to happen. Patsy and John Ramsey want to testify for the grand jury and they haven't been asked. That DNA is the puzzle. The DNA doesn't match them. It doesn't match anyone who was there that morning. Also, there is a bootprint right next to the child's body that doesn't match anyone. There is a palm print on the door leading to the wine cellar. It doesn't match anyone at all.

If the Ramseys are innocent, I guess it behooves one to consider the ironic possibility of O.J. Simpson being innocent as well.

I assisted on that case.

You believe that he did it?

Oh yes. The O.J. Simpson case is easy -- you have classic signs of domestic violence. I had never seen a case with so much forensic evidence.

How did Marcia Clark goof up?

She was outclassed. The DNA came way too early. It's very difficult to understand DNA to begin with. Basically, Marcia Clark knew that they did a survey with African-American jurors: They didn't really like her. They should have taken her off the case. Johnny Cochran was just spinning a web. And she was changing her hairdo. She was just flying around like a little bumblebee as he was spinning the web and she just flew right into it. Then he has Simpson try on the glove over a latex glove and then comes the famous words --

[Bowman and Douglas together:] If it doesn't fit, you must acquit.

But they all have their own TV shows now. They got millions of dollars for their books -- some books the publishing industry lost a lot of money on.

I would like to ask you a question about the Talking Heads. Do you know that group?

No. The Talking Heads? What kind of music?

They were a new wave group in the 1970s and '80s. Their first hit was called "Psycho Killer."

I know that song! Yes. I remember that song.

David Byrne, the singer, is a very intense guy. He decided that a psycho killer would say, "I hate people when they're not polite." And he would also speak in French because he'd imagine himself as very refined.

That's what Byrne thought? He is walking the line.

Does his projection of a psycho killer sound accurate?

Yes. This is the way that Byrne is?

No. That's in the song.

But how is Byrne normally?

He's an artist. And artists are ... different.

Yeah. Going back to Harris. Harris deserves all the credit if you want to call it that. You give him a basic foundation and his mind goes wild. And it's very, very dark. Some of the stuff he comes up with in his creativity ... It sounds like this guy [David Byrne] is the same way. Is he expressing feelings that he may have? Could he find himself in the position when he could whack somebody?

If I were going to be a psycho killer, I would like to be the angel of justice. Are there any psycho killers who just kill the people that really deserve it?

Many think they're the "angel of justice" when they're killing bums or prostitutes. A guy in Long Island called himself the Angel of Death. He was working out in a hospital killing the elderly.

But is there anyone who kills the truly evil, like drug dealers? Or depraved businessmen?

That would be a different take. There haven't been any like that.

Or environmentalist psycho killers who kill loggers and strip miners?

Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, thought he was doing that. But when I started analyzing the case, I said, "Forget his hatred of technology. He don't give a shit. He just wants to kill. He enjoys killing. And wants to dominate. And control." There's the Oklahoma bombing that gets the front page. Two or three days later we have a professor killed on the East Coast. That's Kaczynski saying, "I'm the big guy here. Who's this Oklahoma City bomber?"

What is the difference between killing women in a pit and blowing up a building?

One is much more personal, up close between subject and the victim. Where the bomber is much more passive and asocial. Much more of a loner. The other guy wants to see the tears streaming down the victim's face.

So one last Hannibal Lecter question. Do you think it tastes like chicken?

[Pause.] You mean people? Ha ha ha.

Aren't you curious?

I am curious why are they doing it. Like Jeffrey Dahmer -- he was into totally consuming the victim. It's one thing to dominate the victim, but cannibalism is like becoming a part of the victim. I'll say this about Jeffrey Dahmer: He was doing these insane acts, but he wasn't really insane. That's why it took so long to identify him.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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