Robert K. Ressler


Robert K. Ressler and John Douglas were instructors at the FBI Academy at Quantico in the late 1970s when they began visiting prisons to interview notorious killers.

They squeezed in the work at night and on weekends while on assignment to teach police officers in cities around the country.

Fearful of what they called “analysis paralysis,” Ressler recommended they do the work without first seeking approval from headquarters.

“Bob would always say, rather than ask for permission, let’s do it and if they don’t like it, we’ll ask for their forgiveness,” Douglas said Tuesday as he reflected on the career of his former colleague.

Ressler, who has been credited with coining the term “serial killer,” died Sunday at his home in Spotsylvania County. He was 76 and had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.

Ressler’s and Douglas’ groundbreaking work resulted in creation of an investigative tool popularly known as criminal profiling. For decades, that tool has aided investigators worldwide. It also spawned a public obsession with television programs such as “Criminal Minds” and movies such as “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Though the term profiling is popular, it falls well short of accurately describing what the pair created.

Criminal profiles focus on the perpetrators of a crime and offer traits they might possess and actions they might have taken before and after the crime. It is just one facet of what, more accurately, is termed investigative analysis, Douglas said.

That analysis includes studying the crime scene, poring over forensic reports and learning about the victim to understand how the person fell prey.

FBI agents then serve as coaches to police in the field.

“What we did was so different from what they depict on television,” he said.


In the late 1970s, Ressler and Douglas were teaching courses such as applied criminal psychology to new agents, police officers and experienced agents when they realized they needed more than book knowledge to draw on for examples.

That’s what prompted them to “go to the experts—the people that perpetrate the crimes and find out why they do this,” Douglas said.

As they traveled from city to city training law enforcement officers, they considered which criminals were locked up in each area and asked the local warden if they could talk to those men.

“Let’s see if these bad guys will come out and talk to us” was the approach, Douglas said. “I don’t know that any ever refused to talk to us.”

Charles Manson, David Berkowitz, Ed Kemper and John Wayne Gacy were among the infamous killers they interviewed.

Getting into the minds of serial and sexual killers took its toll but their work gained a depth and breadth of knowledge that formed the basis of two textbooks still in use: “Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives” and the “Crime Classification Manual,” which was just released in its third edition.

“You started to see a pattern” from the interviews, Douglas said. “It really is like diagnosing an illness.”


Ressler began his law enforcement career during 10 years on active duty in the U.S. Army. He then spent two decades in the FBI, retiring in 1990.

He served as supervisory special agent in the Academy’s Behavioral Science Unit and in 1985 became the first program manager of the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program.

That program gathered data from crimes across the nation, feeding it into a computer to help identify crimes that may be linked.

Ressler’s and Douglas’ initial research on convicted killers led to research on sex crimes and crimes against children.

Kenneth Lanning worked under both men when he arrived at the FBI Academy in 1981 and specialized in researching crimes against children.

He said most of what he learned came from listening to their conversations across the makeshift space in the Academy’s basement that served as their office.

Ressler and Douglas were “the real fathers” of the investigative concept that merged the three normally separate fields of teaching, research and case work, Lanning said.

Two instructors in the Behavioral Science Unit—Howard Teten and Pat Mullaney—toyed with the idea of getting beyond the books but it was Ressler and Douglas who launched the effort, Lanning said.

“The fact that Ressler and Douglas were able to move that forward was a tribute to their genius, insight and skill,” he said.

Today, the FBI employs teams of agents to do what Ressler and Douglas started nearly 40 years ago, and its research has expanded to spies and terrorists.

Once they retired in the 1990s, Lanning said he did his best to help newer agents understand the duo’s critical role in blazing a crime-fighting path.

“I tried to communicate the kind of respect you should have for these people and what they did,” Lanning said. “I wanted to help them see you’re building on the foundation of people like Ressler and Douglas.”

After retirement, Ressler wrote the autobiographical “Whoever Fights Monsters,” as well as “Justice is Served” and “I Have Lived in the Monster.”

He also formed Forensic Behavioral Services International, a Spotsylvania-based consulting firm to offer training, crime scene analysis, threat assessment and expert testimony for civil and criminal trials.

Douglas, also an author and consultant, vividly recalls his time with Ressler.

“He left an everlasting legacy for investigators worldwide,” Douglas said.

“That is his major contribution to law enforcement, coming up with a new investigative tool for investigating violent crime.”

Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972

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