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.

Eventually, Yaksic’s collaborative caught the attention of fellow data geek Thomas Hargrove. As founder of the Murder Accountability Project, Hargrove is parsing more than 20,000 murders never reported to the FBI, looking for clusters of unsolved killings that might be the work of serial killers. In 2011 he teamed up with Yaksic to request access to the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime’s research database under the Freedom of Information Act.

One of the first to weigh in on Yaksic’s often-contentious listserv—devoted to such topics as how to define a serial killer—was Kenna Quinet, an associate professor of criminal justice, law, and public safety at Indiana University. Now, dozens of emails and phone conversations later, Quinet feels she knows Yaksic. “I’ve never seen a lone person, through perseverance, get all sorts of folks to turn over their lifetime of work,” she says.

In 2013 Yaksic’s collaborative received a major boost: After years of discussion, Yaksic finally convinced criminal justice powerhouse Michael Aamodt, a professor emeritus of psychology at Virginia’s Radford University, to share a hefty stockpile of information on serial murderers that he and his students had been collecting since 1992. That combined repository of hard-won and carefully vetted details on more than 4,000 serial killers and 11,000 victims further reinforced the idea that the conventional notions of profiling can be dangerously shortsighted.

The combined data at Yaksic’s fingertips, he says, now shows that serial killers rarely stick to a recurring and identifiable MO. They do not, contrary to TV wisdom, consistently leave “calling cards” or display signature behavior patterns. They are not all white men—half of all serial killers since 1995 have been African Americans. For decades, profilers believed that thoughts of serial murder dominated an offender’s life, but some can, in fact, control their desire to kill. Certain serial murderers even display remorse. Motives can vary, and victims are not necessarily substitutes for someone the killer once knew; instead, they are often selected based on availability, vulnerability, desirability—and even financial gain.

Is it possible, then, that a serial killer would strike only once a decade? In Louisiana, a newspaper reporter was looking into a case that revolved around that exact question. Ultimately, he turned to Yaksic for answers.


In 2012 a woman reached out to investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell at the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi: Her daughter had disappeared more than 20 years earlier, and she suspected that her former son-in-law—a spooky, charismatic man named Felix Vail—knew more than he was letting on.

Mitchell, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient, had made a name for himself by helping put four Klansmen—including Medgar Evers’s murderer—behind bars. Domestic disputes and missing people weren’t really his thing, but he listened as Mary Craver Rose described how her only child, Annette, had married Vail—a man more than two decades her senior—when she was only 17. From the start, Rose didn’t like Vail or the strange hold he seemed to have over Annette. After her striking, dark-haired daughter inherited almost $100,000 in insurance money, she disappeared.

That wasn’t all. Rose had done some investigating of her own and discovered that Vail’s longtime girlfriend, Sharon Hensley, had also mysteriously disappeared more than a decade before Annette vanished. Rose never believed Vail’s story that Annette ran off to start a new life—a story oddly reminiscent of the one Vail had told Hensley’s relatives about Sharon. Rose also learned that in 1962, Vail’s first wife, Mary Horton Vail, drowned in a suspicious boating accident in the Louisiana bayou.

Could Vail be responsible, she asked Mitchell, for all three women’s disappearances?

Looking for answers, Mitchell contacted famed Northeastern criminologists Jack Levin and James Alan Fox, who told him it would be hard to calculate the odds that Vail’s two wives and longtime girlfriend would just happen to die or disappear. Instead, Levin suggested that Mitchell reach out to a young man in Malden who kept this kind of data and might be able to help.

When Yaksic received an email from Mitchell about Vail, he didn’t know if he could contribute to an actual investigation. “What [Mitchell] said was, ‘I’m having a problem getting any type of law enforcement attention,’” Yaksic recalls. “So I said, ‘Well, I have this network of people.’ So he said, ‘Yes, see what you can do.’”

Yaksic got to work. He fired up his database and ran the numbers on a subset of offenders starting from 1960. His data dive revealed another case that closely resembled Vail’s—that of Drew Peterson, currently in prison for the murder of his third wife. “From the allegations of infidelity and abuse during their relationships to the collection of insurance payouts after the deaths of their wives, Felix and Drew are strikingly similar,” Yaksic told Mitchell. “Both chose relationships with women decades younger, allowing them to claim an alibi in which their youthful spouse impulsively left them for another man.” Yaksic also turned over his data to the FBI in an attempt to convince agents that they should consider Vail a serial-murder suspect. As a result, Yaksic says, “The FBI called Detective Randy Curtis [in Louisiana] and suggested that he take our request to reopen the investigation seriously.”

Thanks to Mitchell’s digging, along with Yaksic’s data and connections to law enforcement, the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office in Louisiana did reopen the investigation into Mary Horton Vail’s death in late 2012. Roughly six months later, authorities tracked Vail to Canyon Lake, Texas, and arrested him for the murder of his first wife. A Louisiana state district court judge has since ruled that evidence related to the disappearances of Annette Vail and Sharon Hensley is admissible in court. Vail’s trial for second-degree murder is expected to start this summer.

Without Yaksic’s relentless efforts, the past might have remained buried. “You have to wonder,” he says, “are there more people out there like this who are going undetected?”

It’s been more than a decade since Yaksic began collecting serial-killer data, yet he still has trouble convincing himself—and everyone else—that he’s legit. But it is getting easier, and Yaksic’s list of projects grows daily. Currently, he is advising criminology graduate students at Northeastern, publishing a paper in Crime Psychology Review, and, of course, continuing to build his database. “I think [the collaborative] is extremely important,” Fox says of Yaksic’s project. “For a long time serial murder as a topic was shunned by most criminologists because it was anecdotal stuff. The more it becomes data-driven, the more respect it gets.”

Yaksic is thrilled that professional criminologists are now acknowledging his life’s work, but believes his lone-wolf status leaves him free to continue breaking new ground. “They’ve written the books and have to continue to say the things they’ve said in the past” about profiling serial killers, Yaksic says. “I think it took someone like me to come onto the scene in order to disrupt it.”