Nowadays, encountering news stories about sexual crimes is a daily occurrence. But in the late 1970s, when the FBI noticed a marked uptick in reported sexual violence, such crimes were considered a strange new trend, which the agency decided they should address by educating all their agents.
However, as Ann Wolbert Burgess explains in her captivating and chilling A Killer by Design: Murderers, Mindhunters, and My Quest to Decipher the Criminal Mind, there was a major roadblock to the FBI’s mission. “None of the agents had the background or expertise to speak about issues of sexual assault, rape, sexual homicide, or victimology,” Burgess writes.
That’s where she came in. For several years, Burgess—a forensic and psychiatric nurse with a doctorate in nursing science, et al.—had worked on a major study of what was called “rape trauma syndrome.” When Roy Hazelwood, a new agent in the FBI’s nascent serial killer-focused Behavioral Science Unit, caught wind of her work, he asked her to share her methods for analyzing and finding predictive patterns among sexually violent crimes.
Burgess sees her ability to “ground an infinitely complex human trauma into quantifiable data and research” as a hallmark of her work, and she taught FBI agents how to apply her methods in order to establish a reliable foundation for their investigations. For starters, standardized questions for all suspects are key, as well as analyses of perpetrators’ childhood experiences and similarities across crime scenes.
Although the BSU toiled in underground offices without a dedicated staff or budget at first, as the unit employed Burgess’ methods, their successes grew. Delving into the minds of everyone from Son of Sam to the BTK strangler, they solved dozens of cases, eventually garnering press coverage—and subsequent respect via above-ground digs. Their work also sparked the popular fascination with profiling borne out in a seemingly never-ending stream of books, movies, TV shows and podcasts. In fact, Burgess inspired a character in the popular “Mindhunter” Netflix show, which is based on a book by her FBI colleague John Douglas.
With A Killer by Design, Burgess takes center stage at last, offering important, fascinating new context and details about the history of crime-solving in America. It’s an inspiring and meaningful story, too, with its up-close look at people who have dedicated their careers to catching murderers and pushing for justice. As Burgess writes, “My decades studying serial killers weren’t for the game of cat and mouse, nor because I found these killers entertaining. . . . For me, it’s always been about the victims.”