Professional profiler convinced of innocence of West Memphis Three
John Douglas has crawled inside the minds of some of the nation's most notorious murderers, but he says the West Memphis Three aren't among them.
John Douglas doesn't get paid to be popular.
He riles police and unnerves communities -- among them West Memphis.
A national pioneer in criminal profiling, the former FBI supervisor says his only loyalty is to the truth.
For a quarter of a century, when police across the nation encountered hard-to-solve murders, he was the go-to guy. As the first full-time profiler at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., his mission was to get inside the minds of killers to determine who they were and why they took lives.
He has his own theory about the motive and type of person who killed three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis in 1993. Hint: He says it's not the West Memphis Three.
Douglas is the inspiration for the character Jack Crawford, the sage sleuth who teaches Clarice Starling and other new FBI profilers techniques to hunt serial killers in "Silence of the Lambs."
West Memphis Three
He turned down a role in the movie, but in real life he's accepted as many invitations as possible to help track some of the nation's most menacing and elusive predators.
He developed the psychological profile that ultimately helped nab the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, though his fellow agents were initially skeptical of his unorthodox methods.
Douglas discovered that by analyzing crime scenes, reports and autopsy photos, he could decipher personality traits of the criminal and predict the type of victim the killer would be hunting next.
He also tries to get into the minds of the victims, including reliving their final moments.
He even works in his sleep, trying to dream about cases in hopes that some clue might pop up in his subconscious mind. He keeps a notepad by his bed in case he jolts awake with ideas.
That often leads to sleepless nights and horrifying nightmares. For Douglas, it's part of the job of hunting the most savage among us.
Douglas said other agents, trained to gather facts through traditional interviews, viewed his mind-probing techniques as "voodoo science" or "BS." When he was promoted to take over the operational side of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime's Behavioral Science Unit, he changed the name to the Investigative Support Unit, to remove the initials "BS."
Retired FBI agent Bob Campbell, a polygraph expert, said he was among those leery of profiling to get into the mind of a killer.
"The sociopath is really hard to get a grip on," said Campbell, who worked in New York and in the Southeast. "If you're depending on your instincts, they're probably going to beat you most of the time because they're reading you better than you're reading them."
"Investigation is really the only go-to standard that we have. I mean, facts are facts."
Campbell, an agent for 33 years, pointed to the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing case in Atlanta. Investigators labeled security guard Richard Jewell a suspect, based on his matching a criminal profile by an FBI agent other than Douglas.
"The profilers were saying: 'You got the guy,' " Campbell said of Jewell. "That's a good example of rushing to judgment."
Years later, Jewell was vindicated with the confession of Eric Robert Rudolph. But Jewell's reputation was damaged, while Rudolph had time to kill a police officer and injure six more victims.
Investigations consultant Vernon Geberth, a retired NYPD homicide commander, said he trains officers from all over the country to be skeptical of profiles.
"It's a tool, but there have been profiles that have been absolutely wrong," said Geberth, who spent 23 years with New York's police force.
"I'm a real murder cop," said Geberth, who oversaw thousands of homicide investigations in the Bronx. "When you're actually standing at a homicide scene, talking to victims' families and suspects, it's a helluva lot different than analyzing photos after the fact."
Douglas has heard it before. His techniques and conclusions, heralded by some, have long angered many prosecutors and his brethren in blue. His findings can shatter confidence in an arrest or conviction.
Atlanta police who were hunting a serial killer of children thought Douglas was way off base. And, Douglas said, his opinions on the JonBenet Ramsey murder case made him "the most hated man in America."
Still, he doesn't waver.
When defense attorneys for Arkansas death row inmate Damien Echols asked Douglas, now a private consultant, to analyze the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old West Memphis boys, he put them on notice. He would accept a consultation fee, but his opinion couldn't be bought. He would be blunt and unyielding -- even if he concluded that Echols and his co-defendants, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., are appropriately behind bars.
Ultimately, Douglas became convinced of the innocence of the so-called West Memphis Three, all teenagers when convicted in 1994.
"What I do know is that there are three teens who are now in their 30s sitting in prison who don't belong there," Douglas said during a recent interview. "It really disturbs me."
He said he has several reasons for believing a lone killer has gotten away with murder.
In 2007, he trekked through the crime scene, examined police and autopsy reports and crime scene photos, and interviewed several people, including relatives of all three victims.
He had dreaded approaching the parents. As he drove across the bridge from Memphis toward West Memphis, he remembers thinking: "They're going to kick me in the pants and kick me off the porch."
One victim's parent, John Mark Byers, restricted Douglas to the porch for hours before trusting him enough to allow him inside. Byers now admits he didn't want to believe the real killer was still at large.
Douglas went over all of the evidence and his findings, and now Byers, who once shouted for Echols to go to hell, is one of Echols' supporters.
Prosecutors still contend that Echols, then 18, Baldwin, then 16, and Misskelley, then 17, teamed to sexually abuse, beat and mutilate the boys, whom they didn't know, in a planned satanic ritual. The medical examiner has testified that Christopher Byers bled to death after being sexually mutilated, while Stevie Branch and Michael Moore drowned.
Defense attorneys have since consulted with five medical experts who say the boys were not sodomized or stabbed and, instead, animals had torn at their bodies after they were tossed into a muddy reservoir. They say all three boys were struck in the head, causing lethal skull fractures, and two of the victims drowned.
The victims were naked and their wrists were tied to their ankles with their shoe laces. Their clothes were hidden in the muddy water, wrapped at the end of large sticks -- something Douglas believes shows criminal sophistication, not teenage impulse.
Douglas believes a lone killer -- someone the boys knew -- attacked them in a fit of rage.
He believes the murders were unplanned. His theory is that the killer didn't feel respected by his boss, his co-workers, his wife or his children, and then the victims didn't respond to his orders -- unleashing a mounting and powerful rage.
"I think the anger was from the kids not following instructions," Douglas said.
The afternoon of the murders, Christopher was supposed to be at home picking up trash in the yard. Michael was due at home for supper at 6 p.m. Stevie was told he would be grounded if he wasn't home at 4:30 p.m. But all three were seen riding their bicycles as late as 6:30 p.m.
"This is not a sexually motivated crime," Douglas said. "This was more of a punishment, a degrading act to teach a lesson."
He believes it would have been easy for an adult, a figure of authority, to control three kids. Once they were made to strip, they would be reluctant to run.
And once they were tied up, there would be no escape.
He believes the killer used the butt of a gun or end of a closed knife to strike the boys in the head.
"Perhaps one of the kids was struck too hard and would go home and tell," he said. "Now you've gotten to the point of no return."
Douglas thinks the killer has a violent history and likely feels no remorse. According to Douglas, he is a skilled liar, who has justified the killings in his own mind and would pass a lie detector test with ease.
Douglas has a suspect in mind whom he believes merits further investigation.
"I feel certain" that it isn't Echols, he said. "That's the easy part. The hard part is getting the perpetrator, getting the evidence and convicting them."
Justice hasn't been satisfied yet in one of America's best-known unsolved cases, that of JonBenet Ramsey, killed in the basement of her Colorado home on Christmas, 1996.
Douglas' conclusions in the case have pitted him against local police and even a fellow former FBI criminal profiler.
Douglas said others were fixated on the 6-year-old child beauty queen's parents, John and the late Patsy Ramsey, citing the statistical probability that a child, especially a young child, is most likely to be killed by a family member, particularly a parent.
Attorneys for the victim's father flew Douglas to Boulder, Colo. He concluded that the culprit or culprits were likely seeking revenge on John Ramsey, a wealthy executive.
One of Douglas' most controversial findings was in Atlanta.
In the 1980s, young black children and teens were being snatched off streets and even from their homes and strangled, shot or beaten to death. Body after body piled up and Atlanta area police were stymied, sending the community into a panic. Theories began to surface that it was an act of racial hatred by the Ku Klux Klan.
Not so, according to Douglas.
Many local cops wanted the Brooklyn-born, big-city federal guy to leave town fast. Few wanted to hear what he had to say: that one of their own was to blame, a cunning but unsuccessful black man from the area, not a white stranger motivated by hatred.
"It was a case that so engulfed everyone in the community," said Paul Howard, Atlanta's top prosecutor.
"People, including law enforcement, said he didn't know what he was doing, that he was crazy," Howard, then a fledgling prosecutor, said of Douglas.
"He was really out on a limb when he released his findings."
Police eventually took Douglas' advice to stake out area bridges, anticipating the killer would start tossing bodies in water. That's how police nabbed Wayne Williams, an intelligent but unsuccessful local black man -- as Douglas had predicted.
The veteran prosecutor credits Douglas with helping to stop a serial killer whom he blames for at least 30 murders, though Williams was only prosecuted for two.
Williams, serving back-to-back life sentences, insists he is innocent and still has many followers.
That doesn't faze Douglas.
In one of his books, "The Cases That Haunt Us," he wrote: "A criminal investigator has only one responsibility.... It has only to do with the silent pledge made by the investigator to the victim ... that he or she will do everything within his or her power to uncover the truth of what happened and bring the offender to the gates of earthly justice."
So when Echols' attorneys recently lobbied the Arkansas Supreme Court for a new trial, they got a new ally. Douglas, who spent the majority of his career aiding police and prosecutors, joined the defense team.
Echols' lead attorney, Dennis Riordan, argued that he has new DNA evidence and witnesses -- and Douglas' 19-page analysis.
In a rare move Thursday, the high court ordered an evidentiary hearing, a mini-trial, for Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley. Douglas could be one of the witnesses.
Douglas retired in 1995 after 25 years with the FBI. He was the unit chief for the operational side of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, overseeing more than 40 agents, including a dozen profilers.
Annually, Douglas was supervising profiles in about 1,000 major crimes, including dozens of child murders.
By comparison, West Memphis police had investigated six homicides in 1992, the year before the boys died.
At Echols' new hearing, defense attorneys are hoping Douglas' extensive experience will be a trump card.