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.”
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.
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.”
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