Enzo Yaksic: Profiler 2.0

For decades, the FBI has relied on a flawed criminal profile to identify and catch serial killers. Now a Boston data geek thinks he’s found a better way.
Enzo Yaksic

Photograph by Toan Trinh

FBI agent Robert Ressler thought he’d seen it all. A member of the bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit, he had spent years tracking killers and trying to understand the nation’s most bizarre and chilling murders. But in 1978, a series of gruesome slayings put Ressler to the test. Over the course of a month, someone near Sacramento, California, had butchered six people and drunk their blood. His job was to determine what kind of person would be capable of such evil.

Ressler had never seen crimes quite like these, but his previous experience led him to believe that the murderer was likely a young white male with a history of mental illness; a loner who’d had trouble holding a job. Turned out, his hunch was right.

Ressler’s description and a well-timed tip led police to Richard Chase, who was living in an apartment teeming with rubbish and human body parts. An unmarried, unemployed white man who’d spent time in an institution, Chase fit Ressler’s sketch to a T. “When the murderer matched the profile,” Ressler later wrote, “that gave [the FBI] more information on how to… identify the characteristic signs that murderers leave behind.” The case, he added, helped refine the art of criminal profiling. “And I do mean the art,” he wrote, “because it had not yet approached the status of being a science.”

While the history of criminal profiling can be traced to Jack the Ripper in 1888, the idea of the serial-killer profile as we know it largely began with Ressler. To better understand these types of crimes, he and colleagues at the FBI spent several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s conducting jailhouse interviews with 36 serial and sexual murderers—including Chase—who had killed a combined total of 118 victims. Based on what these men—and they were all men, nearly all white—said about their childhoods, their modi operandi, and their motivations for killing, the FBI flagged patterns and similarities. Among them, the feds reported, were “major relationship deficiencies…in their interaction with men, perhaps stemming from the absent, cold, and unavailable father,” as well as “excessive involvement in solo sex,” fetishes, voyeurism, and pornography. The profilers concluded that the “low social attachment” and a “dominance of a violent, sexualized fantasy life sets into motion the attitudes and beliefs that trigger the deviant behavior of rape, mutilation, torture, and murder.”

That single study by Ressler and his colleagues carried enormous weight, spawning decades of widely consumed and highly embellished “facts” about serial murderers: They are white, male loners; they travel the country killing multiple victims for sexual gratification; their violence ratchets up over time; they attempt to engage the police in dialogue and learn about the investigation; once they start killing, they can never stop. For decades, investigators referred to that profile to help identify and capture the nation’s most prolific murderers. The study also created a cottage industry of serial-killer profiling that provided the basis for dozens of TV show and movie plots.

Lately, however, the legitimacy of the classic profile—and the methodology Ressler helped pioneer—have been viewed with increasing skepticism. In recent years, the FBI itself acknowledged that its original study was faulty: The sample size was too small, the information anecdotal. But elevating the art of profiling from gut instinct to hard science takes facts, stats, and replicable results. And that’s where the field has fallen short.

Data-driven research has evolved dramatically since serial killers first started capturing the public’s imagination, but academics and law enforcement officials continue to work in silos, hoarding their information. Meanwhile, criminologists estimate that at least 200,000 murders throughout the country have gone unsolved since the 1960s, with as many as 90,000 missing-persons cases active at any given time. No one knows how many killers have slipped through the cracks undetected because of the time-honored—yet flawed—practice of profiling.

In Boston, though, a 33-year-old Northeastern University graduate named Enzo Yaksic is determined to find out. Over the past several years, he has quietly helped create the largest existing nongovernmental database of serial-homicide offenders, and his work is poised to change everything we think we know about serial killers.

 

Yaksic is not an academic or a cop, but “an incredibly gifted amateur” criminologist, says Thomas Hargrove, director of the Murder Accountability Project, in the Washington, DC, area. In 2010, Yaksic founded the Serial Homicide Expertise and Information Sharing Collaborative, which helped develop a database containing detailed information on 11,000 serial-murder cases—potentially more than the FBI. Yaksic hopes it will bring an end to the shortsighted practice of profiling and change criminology for good. So far, his obsession has yielded surprising results.

While Ressler’s model contained an extraordinarily limited amount of information from only a few dozen subjects, Yaksic’s shared database is enormous. And numerous cases within it point to a number of outliers: Gwendolyn Graham smothered elderly women; Mexican sisters Delfina and María de Jesús González recruited young women as prostitutes before dumping more than 90 bodies behind their brothel; African-American couple Alton Coleman and Deborah Brown raped and murdered numerous victims.

By looking at data instead of worn-out stereotypes, Yaksic says he was the first to assert that African-American serial killers are as prominent as their white counterparts—a conclusion that was later cited by famed California criminologist Eric Hickey and has since become more widely accepted among academics. What makes Yaksic’s collaborative groundbreaking is not simply the sheer volume of data it has amassed, but also the power it has to unite criminologists. A self-described “advocate for the open exchange of information,” Yaksic wants to coax the community of profilers out of their insular worlds and into a new era of statistical analysis. The collaborative is Yaksic’s attempt to synchronize and standardize serial-homicide data collection—and to make the information more widely available on the Internet for academic researchers and law enforcement. “Enzo,” Hargrove says, “is a national treasure.”

Until recently, though, extracting closely guarded information from homicide experts hasn’t been easy. “It has been an uphill battle trying to convince [everyone] that I belong,” says Yaksic, who makes his living as a project manager at a local hospital, while his efforts on the collaborative go entirely unpaid. “The way I frame these past few years is being a person working in the background trying to emerge into the foreground. Some folks respect that, while others would prefer if I remained in this background role forever.”