Enzo Yaksic: Profiler 2.0
For Yaksic, the road to becoming a serial-killer expert was paved by a difficult childhood. He recalls growing up in working-class Everett, the oldest son of a Yugoslav-Italian immigrant father who had what Yaksic refers to as “a temper.”
While his home life was fraught, school was hardly better: Bullies taunted Yaksic about his blotchy face—a skin condition made his pale cheeks a humiliating red. Yaksic found refuge in more solitary pursuits, spending afternoons immersed in the 8-bit fantasy worlds of Nintendo games such as Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. Though he also spent much of his formative years watching The X-Files—idolizing lead character Fox Mulder, an FBI agent working on the fringe of accepted science—Yaksic wasn’t thinking about law enforcement when he enrolled in college; instead, he planned to study psychology, hoping to make sense of his turbulent childhood.
Yaksic’s decision to attend college in Boston was mostly chance: When the few friends he had at Malden Catholic High School applied to Northeastern, he followed suit. “I was kind of lost when I first got here,” Yaksic says. “I was very naive, and scared about going to college.”
His first day on campus, Yaksic learned that the university had mistakenly assigned him to a women’s dormitory. When a resident assistant led him to the nearby Huntington Avenue YMCA, Yaksic walked through a set of metal gates that separated the men’s makeshift dorm rooms from the rest of the turn-of-the-century building. He was happy to have a single.
Yaksic’s life changed forever when a resident assistant handed him a copy of Mind Hunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, a book devoured by true-crime fans when it was first published in 1996. Written by former special agent John Douglas, a forefather of criminal profiling and the inspiration for The Silence of the Lambs’ Jack Crawford, Mind Hunter offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse at Douglas’s gruesome career among the depraved—Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz—and his attempts to “get inside their minds; to understand their motives, motivations, and methods.”
Many of the felons profiled by Douglas had been victims of abuse. Struck by the way they turned their pent-up frustration and anger toward others, Yaksic became, he says, “totally absorbed by the criminal mind.” He quickly changed his major to criminal justice.
When it came time to pick an adviser, Yaksic set his sights on James Alan Fox, Northeastern’s so-called Dean of Death. An esteemed professor of criminology, law, and public policy, Fox has also authored more than a dozen books, including Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. By the time Yaksic had enrolled at Northeastern, Fox—with his shock of dark hair and wire-rimmed glasses—was a familiar fixture on national TV and a fan favorite among true-crime groupies. “Getting his attention was borderline impossible,” Yaksic recalls. He took Criminal Homicide twice before Fox even learned his name.
At first, Fox kept his distance from Yaksic: “He knew more than any other student I’ve ever met [and] I was a little hesitant,” Fox says. “Why would he be so interested? I frankly thought he was a little too obsessed with it.” Over time, though, Fox became convinced that Yaksic was interested in serial killers from a scholarly perspective rather than a macabre one. “If it was just his knowledge about these cases and the fact that he loves reading about it, I wouldn’t have continued a relationship,” Fox says. “It was when he started wanting to develop a database—well, then, that seems to be serious work.”
Fox entrusted Yaksic with researching the 2006 edition of Extreme Killing, and Yaksic started spending hours in the fourth-floor computer lab in Churchill Hall, labeling fields in a spreadsheet: name, date of first kill, and number of victims, which included codes for identifying victims. Another field, dubbed “kill method,” had its own numerical codes for stabbing, strangulation, or shooting. Yaksic found himself fully immersed in the data collection—especially when it came to cold cases.
Northeastern’s co-op program propelled Yaksic into a series of internships, including at the Boston Police Department and the Attorney General’s Office. Then, during Yaksic’s senior year, he got his biggest break yet: The FBI selected him for a widely coveted internship at the bureau’s academy in Quantico, Virginia. The opportunity allowed Yaksic to make connections that would later prove crucial to the collaborative. He also got his first taste of an active investigation into one of the highest-profile serial killers of the 21st century.
When Yaksic arrived at the FBI, numerous agents—including John Douglas—were hot on the trail of a strangler who dubbed himself BTK (short for “bind, torture, kill”), thought to be behind a string of unsolved murders in Kansas between 1974 and 1991. BTK had resurfaced in 2004, though, taunting the police and local media with a string of letters. Now the race was on to find the killer.
A star-struck 22-year-old, Yaksic observed from the sidelines. At one point, however, an agent slipped him some BTK files to read. Sitting in his hotel room near the academy, he decided to try the immersive technique espoused by Ressler and Douglas. He wasn’t just trying to get inside the head of a killer; he was searching for a place within himself where he was the killer. What was it about some offenders’ life histories, he asked himself, that launched them on a trajectory toward unspeakable evil? Yaksic recalled how it felt to be bullied in school. “I was trying to feel it—the murderous rage, or the coolly calculated drive to kill,” he says. “But it never happened. I still to this day don’t understand it.”
Midway through Yaksic’s internship, Dennis Rader, a man who’d been a pillar of his community—a Boy Scouts volunteer and a leader at his church—was arrested as the BTK killer. Criminal profilers suddenly had to explain how BTK had evaded detection for so long. Yes, Rader had many things in common with the serial killers detailed in books like Mind Hunter, but in many ways, he diverged sharply from the classic profile that experts such as Ressler and Douglas had helped develop.
If the Chase case was an early example of profiling at its best, BTK was a stark reminder that profiling at its worst can act as an invisibility cloak, shielding a killer from detection—perhaps for decades. “If the public ever knew how certain ideas [about serial killers] came to prominence and persisted,” Yaksic insists, “they would be shocked.”
After graduating from northeastern in 2005, Yaksic hoped to go into law enforcement, but he lasted only a few weeks at the Lowell Police Academy. He worked odd jobs, met his future wife, Rose, and moved to Malden. Eventually, he took the job as a project manager at a local hospital.
Over the next several years, Yaksic stayed in touch with his mentor, Fox, and plugged away on his database. He also decided to test the waters and see if any of the people he’d met through Fox and the FBI would be interested in sharing information.
In 2010 he sent emails to a list of serial-killer researchers across the country. The response was less than encouraging. Many asked, “Who are you?” or simply didn’t respond. The following year, when Yaksic attended a sexual-homicide conference in Binghamton, New York—on his own dime, as usual—he got up the nerve to approach one of his heroes from the FBI. Yaksic says he had tried in vain to talk to the agent about the benefits of sharing information with other criminologists for years. Now, finally in the same room, the agent didn’t seem pleased to make Yaksic’s acquaintance. “So you’re the data pest,” Yaksic recalls the agent saying before watching him turn on his heels and walk away.
Yaksic recovered and pushed on, his collaborative growing to more than a hundred members interacting daily on a listserv. He’d even managed to unite researchers Fox and Hickey—rivals for years, but now working together.