“I’ve been reading about sex murders and profiling. I think either our guy is a disorganized lust killer, or he wants us to think he is. He lived in the area. He’s into kinky sex. Sadism. He hides it. The [REDACTED] injuries were to dehumanize her. He’s probably sexually dysfunctional in some way.”
Okay, we’re not profilers so the above could very well be a bunch of crap. We don’t know who killed Janette Roberson. But this is typical of the kind of message I’d get from my research assistant, Jen Carlson, on a daily basis. They weren’t all about crime scene profiling, but you get the idea. We’ve spent a couple years working on this every day—often all day, in between whatever else we were doing in our personal lives like cooking dinners and contracting roof repairs after a tornado, and dealing with kids’ IEP meetings (mine), or a kid that wasn’t put on the bus home after school on his first day (hers). We did a lot of debating that would sound a lot like bitching and/or arguing to the untrained ear.
But that’s the kind of stuff that would float into my instant messenger app on my phone accompanied by a little ding. We were talking murder—a fairly brutal, horrific murder—so the conversation topics were usually unpleasant.
Again, let me repeat, we don’t know who murdered Janette Roberson, but we do have a copy of the fourteen page autopsy report and enough details about the scene to know that there was a sexual component to this crime. From day one, almost every newspaper article about the murder included the phrase “partially clad body,” so it had to be clear to everyone that a sexual assault was involved. Nobody spends their workday partially clad. I can also say with a fair amount of certainty that Janette did not remove any clothing on her own.
I suppose now is as good a time as any to have a chat about the sexually motivated criminal. I’m sure you’re just as averse to discussing such matters as I, but after reading the ME report, it’s one of the things that’s almost always rolling around inside my head, even in quiet moments—what was done to Janette, what she had to endure.
The evidence in the report suggests that the perpetrator was probably known to the victim, though perhaps indirectly. Random psychos don’t tend to make the kind of effort that was made here. If we were to give that kind of effort a name, it would be Rage. Vengeful; brutal; overkill.
I’ll break it down further: this guy is a real nasty piece of work.
That’s not stranger danger. That kind of danger lives a little closer to home.
Because this is an open investigation, I don’t feel comfortable outlining specific details of her injuries, nor is it integral to your understanding of the case to have a measurement and graphic description of each injury. But it has been widely reported that she had multiple wounds and there were multiple weapons.
From a profiling perspective, we’re probably talking about someone with issues around women, anger, and very likely a disturbing fantasy life which propelled the action that was to follow. What kind of person does this sort of thing? Who gets up one morning, and before the evening news has time to air, has so brutalized someone, the injuries were described as “beaten beyond recognition?”
Who ties their shoes after brushing their teeth and somewhere between there and dinner—because our guy got away, so he actually got to have dinner that night, whereas Janette did not—so how does someone go from teeth brushing, to dinner, and somewhere in between, end up so brutally assaulting someone, a trained Emergency Technician is unable to complete her duties, such was her shock on seeing the body?
Who is this person that police have so far been unable to apprehend? Well, he’s not someone you want living next door, that’s for sure.
Profiling is an art more than a science, and just one of the things that can be used as a tool during an investigation. First, you have the clues and evidence – those hard facts in the form of items found at the scene that become your jumping-off point for the investigation. You also have statistics and the study of crime itself, which help investigators put together commonalities between crimes, as well as make assumptions based on the frequency with which they find certain acts. Then you have the study of the psyche of the perpetrator, himself.
What we call criminal profiling today harkens back to the 1800s when two doctors named George Phillips and Thomas Bond used clues from the crime scenes to make educated predictions about Jack the Ripper and his personality. There is a lot you can learn about a crime based on the evidence, and there is also much to be learned from the scene about the perpetrator.
In the 1970s, the FBI formed the Behavioral Science Unit, which was established to investigate serial rape and homicides. For a period of years, a handful of agents interviewed serial murders to help them develop theories and categories for different types of offenders based on the things they repeatedly encountered.
This is where the “organized” vs. “disorganized” crime aspect comes from.
Organized crimes are generally found to be premeditated and planned. Little evidence is found at the scene. According to the classification, organized criminals are antisocial, but do know right from wrong. They are not insane. They show no remorse.
Disorganized crimes are not planned, and as such, evidence is often found. Weapons, in the case of disorganized crimes, are usually weapons of convenience (found at the scene), rather than brought along with them. Generally speaking, disorganized criminals are young, often under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or are mentally ill.
The organized offender is usually above average in intelligence, methodical, and his crime is carefully planned. He likely owns a car and his crime is usually committed out of his area or place of employment. He’s considered “mobile” and travels more than the average person as far as miles.
Fantasy and ritual are important to him, thus he selects victims by a certain type, then gains control through manipulation or just pure strength. Though his victims will share common traits, they are usually strangers. The manipulation would include average to good verbal skills and he is socially adept. He is fully aware he is committing crimes and revels in his ability to thwart police. The organized offender is the type to keep souvenirs from his kills—often to relive the event—and would follow news reports, perhaps even return to the scene of the crime. This guy likes cruelty, enjoys torture, and sexually controlling his victim. He tries not to leave evidence behind and will usually bring his own weapon. He is aware of police procedures—though, these days, isn’t everyone? He often removes the body from the scene of the crime, whether to taunt police, or prevent the crime from being discovered for some amount of time.
By compare, the disorganized offender is usually below average intelligence, often a loner, often not married, and lives alone or with a relative, often in close proximity to the crime scene. He is socially inept, not good with interpersonal relationships, acts impulsively under stress, and usually picks his victims from his area. In many cases, the disorganized offender will not own a vehicle but often has access to one. Unlike the organized offender, he is often sexually incompetent and incapable of meaningful sexual relationships. His favored type of attack is the blitz style, catching his victim off guard because he is not socially able to manipulate like the organized offender. Because of this, the spontaneity required doesn’t allow for planning or a thought of being caught, which is why his scene will be disorganized, often called by investigators a “clustered” crime scene, where most of the activities take place in one location, including the confrontation, assault and sexual assault. Facial destruction or overkill are usually the marker of a disorganized offender trying to depersonalize his victim, as well as mutilation of the genitals, rectum, breasts, neck, throat and buttocks – which would have strong sexual significance to him.
While these are the major differences between the organized and disorganized offender, rarely are these offenses mutually exclusive. Both the organized and disorganized offender are capable of any and all type of behavior, depending on the circumstances. These are generalizations.
In fact, most homicides have elements from both.
“The fact is that different offenders can exhibit the same behaviors for completely different reasons,” Brent E. Turvey (PhD - Forensic Scientist & Criminal Profiler) who’s been highly critical of the FBIs approach, said in an interview with The New Yorker magazine in 2007. “You’ve got a rapist who attacks a woman in the park and pulls her shirt up over her face. Why? What does that mean? There are ten different things it could mean. It could mean he doesn’t want to see her. It could mean he doesn’t want her to see him. It could mean he wants to see her breasts, he wants to imagine someone else, he wants to incapacitate her arms—all of those are possibilities. You can’t just look at one behavior in isolation.”
Profiling the offender is a way to identify a perpetrator based on the nature of the offense, as well as how and where it was committed. Just like everything to do with personality traits, aspects of the criminal’s personality end up determining their choices before, during, and after the crime. When investigators combine these things with the physical evidence found at a crime scene, as well as all relevant details, timeline, and witness statements, and then compare it with the characteristics of known personality types, it is possible for them to develop a working description of the offender. In some cases, it is very general; age, possible relationship status, type of employment.
It is stated repeatedly by profilers that behavior reflects personality, and that is what criminal profiling is based on. For a homicide case, insights about the perpetrator can be found in the following areas:
- Antecedent - Prior to the act, did the murderer have any plans in place? What may have triggered the violence? Often violence is triggered by a rigorous fantasy life that the perpetrator then transfers to the victim.
- Method and manner – This includes the choice of victim, the manner, IE: stabbing, strangulation, shooting, etc.
- Body disposal - Was the body hidden or left out in full view? Did the crime take place all in one location or are there multiple scenes?
- Post-offense behavior - Injecting himself or herself into the investigation. Often perpetrators will contact media, react to media reports, or even contact investigators.
So the approach is basically this: if behavior reflects personality, by examining behavior of the offender at the scene—things that were done, things that were not done, things that were taken or left behind—investigators can glean certain information about the perpetrator. But it only works when used in conjunction with the totality of the evidence and information learned during the investigation.
Criminal profiling has been found to be particularly useful as far as serial sexual homicides. These crimes can appear random for various reasons, including how a perpetrator evolves over time, gets better at covering their tracks. Also because the motive in such cases often remains unclear, since it is only known to the perpetrator. Often, sexual serial killers commit their heinous crimes based on a rich and violent fantasy life, so their motives are known only to them. Victims of serial murders can seem random because the killer did not know them, when in fact the perpetrator chooses them for various traits. Often their significance is only symbolic and ends up being the transference of rage onto a random person.
When there is no readily reliable motive like jealousy, family issues, or the murder occurs during the commission of another crime, investigators must entertain the possibility that the perpetrator is acting out his aggression on a victim or victims based on opportunity and possible symbolic reasons known only to them within their sadistic fantasy life. As noted earlier, profiling is more of an art than a science, and its success or lack thereof depends on a great deal of things, not the least of which is the person doing the profiling and the information given to them by law enforcement.
Take, for example, the profile created by criminologist/psychiatrist James A. Brussel for NYCs Mad Bomber—a sixteen-year investigation that eventually named George Metesky the perpetrator.
“Look for a heavy man. Middle-aged. Foreign born. Roman Catholic. Single. Lives with a brother or sister. When you find him chances are he’ll be wearing a double-breasted suit. Buttoned.”
His assessment turned out to be frighteningly accurate, other than the fact that Metesky lived with two single sisters. When questioned, Brussel explained it this way: The job of the psychiatrist is to study a person and make reasonable predictions about how they may react to a specific situation, as well as what they might do in the future. According to Brussel, profiling does the reverse. By studying someone’s actions, the type of person the individual might be can be deduced.
In real life, as opposed to Sherlock Holms or exciting crime fiction, a crime is rarely deduced by one piece of evidence in an Aha! moment that leaves everyone in the vicinity breathless. Sure, a hit on fingerprints might cause that type of moment, but a lot must go into an investigation to get to that point.
From Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “At one end of the inquiry there was a murder, and at the other end there was a spot of ink on a tablecloth that nobody could account for. In all my experience . . . I have never met with such a thing as a trifle yet.”
There are no trifles, not in criminal investigations. Everything matters.
As Chief Golnick of the Cadillac PD told me, when training his officers to document the scene, “It’s not just what’s there. Sometimes it’s what isn’t there. You have to get it all.”
Criminal profiling is an educated attempt to suss out specific information about a certain type of suspect using all of those, as well as patterns of behavior based on leads and evidence obtained by trained, perceptive investigators.
To understand all that is required to formulate a criminal profile, see the chart below from Criminal Profiling from Crime Scene Analysis (John E. Douglas, Robert K. Ressler, Ann W. Burgess, Carol R. Hartman - U.S. Department of Justice, provided by the FBI’s Training Division and Behavioral Science Unit at Quantico, Virginia. Originally published in 1986.)
Though criminal profiling certainly has its critics—those who cite the lack of empirical or scientific evidence suggesting its relevance—it is hard to undermine the fact that having gathered all the information in the chart above, a well-seasoned investigator couldn’t come up with some helpful supposition. Obviously you want everything you can get from the crime scene, as well as related police reports and forensic information, if you want an idea of who may have committed a murder.
Victimology, though, is also important. The study of the victim or victims of a particular offender is of significance.
Brent Turvey summed it up well: “In the rush to examine a criminal’s behavior, it is not difficult to become distracted by the dangling carrot of that criminal’s potential characteristics and forget about the value of understanding his victims.”
Victimology is essentially victim profiling. According to Turvey, the following information would be essential to victim profilers in working a case:
- Physical traits
- Marital status
- Personal lifestyle
- Medical history
- Criminal justice system history
- Last known activities, including a timeline of events
- Personal diaries (if known and available)
- Map of travel prior to offence
- Drug and alcohol history
- Friends and enemies
- Family background
- Employment history
Other important questions you would seek to answer regarding a victimology are as follows:
- Why was this person targeted?
- How were they targeted? Were they a victim of opportunity, or random?
- What risk was taken by the perpetrator to commit the crime?
- How was the victim approached, restrained, and/or attacked?
- What was the victim’s likely reaction?
Combine the answers to these questions with the perpetrator profile, and investigators may get valuable information about the motive and MO of the offender, as well as other information like their background or knowledge of police procedures, occupation, social skills, and personal characteristics. Armed with this information, the profiler can make inferences about the offender that, when added to witness accounts and crime scene information, help narrow down the suspect field.
The method of attack, or degree of force used is also revelatory.
As in the case of Janette Roberson, for example, overwhelming physical assault and excessive use of force speaks to rage on the part of the assailant.
If we were to get all Jungy with it (Jungian) and you were to rule out deliberate mutilation to make victim identification more difficult, overkill can stem from a narcissistic rage and deep-seated hatred of women, and the perpetrator would be hard-pressed to recognize it in themselves, mostly because of their skewed sense of self-awareness.
Jack the Ripper, for example, mutilated his victims – who were prostitutes—as an expression of a suspected rabid hatred of women. Another example: Joran van der Sloot, who you might remember from the much publicized Natalee Holloway case, the student who went missing while on a school sponsored vacation in Aruba. Joran’s psychological evaluation from prison suggests an immature, selfish, self-centered man-child. Angry with parents, authority, God, angry with life.
It’s almost a cliché at this point, isn’t it? The narcissistic psychopath or a criminal with a diagnosed antisocial personality disorder often demonstrates a low tolerance for frustration, emotional immaturity, a need for constant stimulation, and a hostile, dominating attitude toward women. These things are seen across the board with rage killings performed by males where overkill is involved, particularly when the victim is not a relation, but chosen for other reasons, or at random.
This narcissism often convinces perpetrators that they can outsmart or “game” the system. Van der Sloot, for example, had a reported compulsive gambling issue that likely reflected his highly narcissistic overconfidence that he could beat the casinos. Gambling is also something seen quite often as a way to compensate for the need for “constant stimulation.”
Lying, too, is common in the antisocial or psychopathically narcissistic offender. Again, “gaming” the system, because what is lying if not “gaming” life by forcefully altering the facts to suit your own needs? Some other sparkling traits of the psychopathically narcissistic offender are manipulation, deflection of responsibility, impulsivity, rationalization, deceitfulness, conning, lack of remorse, pervasive disregard for the rights of others, physical aggressiveness, sadistic cruelty, irresponsibility, grandiosity, absence of empathy, and malingering, just to note a few.
Malingering is lazy, idle, indolent. I had to look that one up. But it makes sense if you think about it.
You do it. I’m gonna sit over here and be right and justified about everything I do or say and if you challenge me, you won’t like the results.
So, yeah, not your basic hug-monkey. You don’t want to deal with the psychopathically narcissistic human if possible because they don’t feel the rules apply to them. In fact, they tend to get darned touchy when you suggest they do. Imagine what someone like this would do if he came on to you and you were a married woman who nervously chuckled in an effort to fend off his unwanted advances.
Maybe he thinks you’re laughing at him. That wouldn’t be good. Many an attack have started that way; a psychopath set off in a rage by a trifling offense that upset his delicate sense of it’s-all-about-me.
My wants and needs.
So, how does all of this relate to the murder of Janette Roberson, you’re probably asking. Well, for starters, the answer to the whodunit exists within the confines of all these questions.
Let’s look to victimology.
As far as physical traits, she was of small build and is regularly described as shy. She was married, had two children, and her lifestyle, according to everyone I spoke to, suggested nothing out of the ordinary that would cause her to be at great risk to be victimized. Essentially, she was a nice, normal housewife. Her occupation was that of a store clerk who was good with animals. She has no prior criminal history, her education was elementary at best, and no medical history to speak of that would play into her murder. By all accounts, her last known activities were working, although according to Flossie, her co-worker, Janette left the Gambles store at some point earlier that morning after what she said was a call from the school. She had no drug and/or alcohol history, no enemies that anyone was aware of, and her employment history in Reed City was noted as a short stint at Nartron before she was laid off and began working at the Gambles pet store.
As for family history, her parents were divorced, and at the time, the only relatives (other than her husband and kids) that lived close enough to be a day-to-day part of Janette’s life were her brother and mother, Marion Fisher.
Nothing about her history suggests any issues large enough to result in murder. She wasn’t a drug user, she didn’t work in a high-risk job—meaning she wasn’t surrounded with less than stellar folks on a daily basis like you would expect with, say, a prostitute. That’s the type of high-risk job that regularly puts you in harms’ way.
Where Janette worked was so off the beaten path that it pretty much rules out a random attack, in and of itself, but when you take into account the very personal physical assault, and the length of time it would have taken to inflict so many injuries, particularly given this occurred in a public place, the suggestion is that the perpetrator was at least somewhat familiar with the store and pet department.
That is not to say that the perpetrator planned the attack. Blind rage could have been the thing that literally removed the perpetrator from the immediate realities. He may not have considered anything other than meeting his need to violate. Maybe he knew the pet department wasn’t exactly a high-traffic area and that’s why he found himself down there alone with her in the first place, having taken the chance to be alone with her.
Every customer I spoke to who was in the pet department that day describes it as being slow and most of them never even ran into other customers, except for Jan Palumbo, who only recalls seeing other customers down there right as she and Venus were about to leave; a group that suddenly collected down there out of nowhere like they were all together.
This crime wasn’t a “knock her over the head and get the hell out of dodge” type of crime. It was much more than that, though the risk assessment would suggest the perpetrator did take a great deal of risk, given the attack occurred in a store in the middle of the day. This didn’t happen in a location where her attacker had complete control of the situation.
It is very likely that Janette was quickly incapacitated.
There was no screaming heard by employees, otherwise they’d have come running downstairs to her aid.
Having been down in that basement, one thing I can tell you with certainty is that if she would have screamed, someone would have heard. While I was down there, I could hear every word spoken upstairs, and every footfall on the creaky wood floor.
I don’t believe she expected the attack; I don't believe she had time to scream.
...to be continued...