Category Archives: Interviews
Today I welcome Dr. Richard Wenzel to The Writer’s Forensics Blog to answer a few questions about his new medical thriller Labyrinth of Terror. Dr. Wenzel is the former Chairman of the Department of Internal Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Dr. Wenzel, welcome.
Q: What inspired you to write Labyrinth of Terror?
A: I’ve always loved writing – and it has been a gift in academic medicine where publishing has been critical to success. But I wanted to reach out to a large audience, and fiction – especially a thriller – offers that opportunity. Labyrinth of Terror allowed me to combine an interest in three themes – the bio-terror threat in the 21st century, my love of Greek mythology, and my fascination for the city of London, where I lived for one year during a sabbatical. Of course, international politics forms a background for the story.
Q: What first sparked your interest in the field of infectious disease research?
A: I had three experiences that sparked my interest in infectious diseases: at age eight, as a climber of big trees, I fell twenty feet the day school had recessed for the summer and fractured the femur, the large bone in the thigh. I spent an extra 3 weeks in the hospital after a hospital- acquired infection developed at the entrance to the pin holding my bone in place. It was a Staph infection in my leg. That experience opened my eyes to medicine and helping people in general. In my third year in medical school, my microbiology professor at Jefferson arranged a three month visit to the Philippines where I helped treat 100 new patients a day with cholera – a deadly diarrheal disease. I felt useful during that epidemic and thoroughly enjoyed the international aspect of this field. In the second year of my internal medicine training at the University of Maryland, my chair of medicine arranged a 3 month visit to Bangladesh during a cholera epidemic there, and now I could take charge of patient care. During that same time I saw patients with leprosy, tetanus and smallpox. I knew that the field of infectious diseases was important to me!
Q: Describe some of the experiences you’ve had as a physician that awoke you to the reality of bio-terror and germ warfare.
A: After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, I began to read of that country’s many clandestine bio-terror laboratories scattered throughout the nation in different cities. Unknown to the rest of the world, the Soviets had been working for twenty years on deadly strains of anthrax, smallpox, tularemia and other pathogens. Later on, I met Ken Alibek, the number two scientist in the Soviet Union’s secret bio-terror program. He had defected to the U.S. And very coldly told me that he and his colleagues thought that they were doing something important for science and for their country. I was struck by his apparent lack of global perspective or a consideration of consequences or ethics while he worked in the Soviet Union. Terror arrived in the U.S. on 9-11, and at that time no one was initially sure that a release of bio-weapons had been a part of the plot. Soon afterwards, true bioterrorism came to the United States when the anthrax-laced letters began to arrive in post offices, the offices of journalists, and members of congress. Surely a large scale bioterrorist attack is possible.
Q: Labyrinth of Terror takes place in some exotic locales. Describe some of your more memorable travels, and how they figure in your writing process.
A: I mentioned my early experiences in the Philippines and Bangladesh. Since then I have traveled widely in continental Europe, Asia and South America. During a year in London in 1985-86, the Achille Lauro incident occurred when a group of terrorists attacked a pleasure cruise; several airline hijackings occurred, an airline office in London was blown up, and our children’s school was boarded up because of anti- American sentiment – especially after Reagan bombed Gaddafi. My family and I lived for six weeks in Taiwan, and my wife and I have spent weeks in Australia, New Zealand and Tanzania, and the Middle East. Travel exposes people to the rich histories and cultures of people who look and live differently from you. Their own views, family stories and myths are fascinating, mysterious and sometimes challenging to the views one had before the visits. As a result a person has to reexamine strongly held concepts, especially when listening to the stories that foreigners tell you about their beliefs, struggles, concerns and views of America?
Q: How much research did you do for Labyrinth of Terror, and how much of the book did you write from imagination?
A: Although I eventually had the key concepts of the book in my mind, I did a great deal of research to be sure that I had the facts down correctly. Especially the history of Palestine after 1948 and various attempts to resolve issues between Israel and Palestine. I also wanted to be sure I had details about Greek mythology and various histories. I looked outside of London for details that were important in the book, and even some details about London itself.
Q: What sets Labyrinth of Terror apart from other medical thrillers?
A: One of the key differences in Labyrinth of Terror is the critical role of both an epidemiologist and a microbiologist in solving the “who done it.” Usually the standard sleuths are detectives. Furthermore, the use of mythology in the book informs the motivation for the bio-terror. And without trying to overstate so, my own experiences and expertise in both infectious diseases and epidemiology makes the book knowledgeable and credible.
Q: Should people be afraid of impending bio-terror attacks? What can the average person do to be prepared for that possibility?
A: People should be aware of the possibility and even likelihood of bio-terror attacks, not necessarily be afraid. With luck and the dedication of curious clinicians, the expertise at CDC and early response teams, we will prevent or minimize their impact.
Q: Greek mythology plays an important role in the plot. What led you to incorporate myth into a primarily scientific narrative?
A: Myths are a part of every culture, and Greek mythology is rich with interesting stories. Myths provide people with hope, especially if they are poor or weak, or unattractive or victims of fate. Myths orient us to how we view life and the world around us and through which we interpret day to day challenges. I purposely used myth to help explain the motivation behind the bio-terror plot in the story. In the title of the book, the word labyrinth reflects the importance of Greek mythology.
Q: What plans do you have for future novels?
A: I have just begun to outline a few ideas for a sequel to Labyrinth of Terror. Of course I will have many of the characters meet up again but in a totally new location, facing totally new greats. I am very excited!
Tess Gerritsen is the best-selling author of the Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles novels. She has an extremely loyal following for one simple reason: Tess writes great books. The latest is titled ICE COLD, and like its predecessors will certainly be a bestseller. But there is even bigger news from Tess: Rizzoli & Isles is a new TV series coming to TNT on July 12th.
To discuss her new book and TV series, Tess graciously agreed to answer a few question for The Writer’s Forensics Blog.
DPL: Wow. Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles make it to the screen. How did that come about? Was it your idea or did the studio come to you?
TG: About three years ago, my characters were optioned by producer Bill Haber at Ostar Enterprises. Since I’ve had my books optioned or bought outright several times, and nothing ever came of it, I did not let myself get too excited by this particular option deal. I signed the contract, cashed the check, and went back to writing my books. A year later, after the option ran out, Haber renewed the option. That was nice, but again, I didn’t let myself get too excited, even though Haber called me several times to express his continuing commitment to turn my books into a TV series. Then last year, after he hired Janet Tamaro to write the pilot, things began to happen quickly. The script came in, and everyone loved it. TNT issued a “talent-contingent” order for a pilot. A few weeks later, Angie Harmon signed on to play Jane Rizzoli, and the rest of the cast fell into place. The pilot was filmed, and a month later, TNT ordered ten episodes. Once the ball started rolling, it just picked up speed. I certainly never expected it to reach this point!
DPL: I assume you will serve as consultant for the new series. True? Will you write some of the scripts?
TG: I won’t be writing any of the scripts. For that, they have a terrific team of six writers, and they are crafting all the episodes. Every so often, they’ll shoot me an email asking for suggestions on a particular plot issue, but other than that, they are the ones writing this show. And I’m very happy that they’re using so much from the books.
DPL: Will Rizzoli and Isles change in any way for the TV series or will they hold true to the novels?
TG: Their personalities are very true to the books. Jane is still the tough, aggressive, blue-collar cop. Maura is still the elegant and logical “Mr. Spock” scientist. The biggest change is in their physical appearance. Angie is far more attractive than Jane, and Maura Isles is now a blonde (perhaps to contrast with Jane.) But when it comes to the way they behave and think, they are definitely my characters.
DPL: When does the series debut? How many episodes can we expect in the first season?
TG: “Rizzoli & Isles” will debut on TNT July 12 at 10 PM (9 CT). TNT has ordered 10 episodes.
DPL: Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little about the first episode?
TG: The plot is based on my book THE APPRENTICE, which is the second book in the Rizzoli series. It introduces all the major characters and sets the foundation for their relationships.
DPL: As the series unfolds, will we see any major changes in either Jane or Maura or in their relationship?
TG: Jane and Maura are much closer to being real friends in the TV series than they are in the books, where their relationship is a bit more distant and wary. The show plays up the contrasts a bit more too, with Jane being more tomboyish and Maura being more girly. There’s a great deal more humor in the TV show, and the interplay between the two gals had me laughing out loud when I watched the pilot — this despite the plot was about a gruesome serial killer.
DPL: Your latest book in this series is ICE COLD. By my count that will be the 8th novel in the series. Can you tell us a little about this story?
TG: Yes, it’s the 8th book in the series. I take Maura out of Boston for this tale. She heads to Wyoming for a medical conference, and takes a spur of the moment ski trip with some friends. A snowstorm, and misplaced faith in their GPS, sends them up a mountain road where they become stranded and must seek shelter in a remote little village called Kingdom Come. There they find abandoned houses, meals still on tables, and dead house pets. What happened to the inhabitants? That mystery — and their ever more disastrous attempts to reach safety — send Maura on a harrowing adventure.
Visit Tess’s Website
If you look up underachiever in the dictionary you won’t find Lee Goldberg. One of the most prolific writers I’ve ever known, Lee has published more than two dozen books and has written and produced for TV such varied shows as Spenser: For Hire, Nero Wolf, Martial Law, Diagnosis Murder, Monk, SeaQuest, and even Baywatch.
It is my pleasure to welcome my good friend to The Writer’s Forensics Blog.
DPL: You wrote the tie in novels for Diagnosis Murder and now for Monk. Many people aren’t exactly sure what a tie in novel is. How do they differ from other novels?
LG: A tie-in novel is an original book based on a pre-existing media property, like a TV series, movie or game. The books are written with the approval and authorization of the creator, studio, producer…basically, whoever actually owns the underlying characters and concept. I wrote eight original DIAGNOSIS MURDER novels and am now working on my 12th original MONK book. There are about 40 original MURDER SHE WROTE novels and there must be a couple hundred STAR TREK books out there.
DPL: How did you get started in this arena?
LG: I was an executive producer and principle writer of DIAGNOSIS MURDER. A year or two after the show was cancelled, Penguin/Putnam (the publisher) and Paramount Studios (the copyright holder) contacted me with a three-book deal to write books based on the series. It was too good of a deal to pass up. And since I was the executive producer of the show, I only had to answer to myself as far as approvals go (on most tie-ins, you need to get approval on the story, the manuscript, etc. from the rights holder). Paramount certainly wasn’t going to second-guess me on what made a good DM story…and never tried.
When Andy Breckman, the creator/showrunning of MONK, was approached about doing original novels based on his series, he immediately thought of me. That’s because he was already a fan of my DM novels and I’d written several episode of the MONK, so he knew he trusted me with the character and he knew I could write books.
DPL: What’s the hardest part of writing these types of novels?
LG: Capturing the feel of the show, and the voices of the characters, while also kicking things up a notch. You have to offer the reader something more than they are getting from simply watching the show (or the reruns). It’s also difficult, particularly with a long-running series, to come up with stuff that the writers haven’t already tackled.
DPL: You have a new Monk book coming out July 3rd. What can you tell us about it?
LG: The book is MR. MONK IS CLEANED OUT and it’s the last book set before the finale of the TV series. This one is set in the midst of the current national economic crisis. The SFPD has to make draconian cutbacks to save money… so they fire Monk as a consultant. Monk figures he can live off his savings for a while. Then Natalie learns that Monk invested his money some time ago with Bob Sebes, the charismatic leader of Reinier Investments, who’s just been arrested on charges of orchestrating a massive $100 million fraud. All of Sebes’ clients, including Monk-are completely wiped out. Monk is broke…he can’t even afford to pay Natalie. So they end up taking all kinds of odd jobs. Meanwhile, when the key witness in the government’s case against Sebes is killed, Monk becomes convinced that Sebes did it, even though the man has been under house arrest with a horde of paparazzi in front of his building 24/7. I hope people have as much fun reading it as I had writing it!
DPL: You also wrote an episode for the new A&E series The Glades, a series I’m looking forward to. What’s the premise of the series? Can you give us any hints about the episode you wrote?
LG: The show is about a Chicago cop who gets fired and gets a job as a detective in a fictional town in Florida. The character has a certain Jim Rockford kind of charm and a Sherlockian gift for solving murders. It’s a light-hearted, blue-skies kind of show, very much like the sorts of stuff the USA Network has been doing so well. My episode is about women involved in “the girlfriend experience,” a new class of escort/call girl who offer more than just sex for money…they also wash your car. Okay, I made up the bit about washing cars. You’ll just have to watch the episode to learn more..
DPL: You’ve also ventured into e publishing some of your older books. How is that going?
LG: It’s going great! Almost all of my out-of-print books are now available on the Kindle and the iPad…and it’s astonishing to me how many copies I am selling. My book THE WALK has done far, far better on the Kindle than it ever did in hardcover. The Kindle is breathing new life… and generating new royalties… from stuff that I thought was dead.
DPL: What’s next for the always prolific Lee Goldberg?
LG: I am writing my 12th MONK novel, a western movie, and it looks like my feature adaptation of Victor Gischler’s GUN MONKEYS may soon be going into production with an Oscar-winning Star in the lead role. But I can’t say more about that just yet.
Lee, thanks for being with us.
Visit Lee’s Website at: http://www.leegoldberg.com
And his blog A Writer’s Life at: http://leegoldberg.typepad.com
My guest today is Dr. James C. Whorton, author of THE ARSENIC CENTURY. Dr.
Whorton is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Bioethics and Humanities at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He has written extensively on the history of medicine. It is my great pleasure to welcome him to The Writer’s Forensics Blog.
DPL: Dr. Whorton, thanks for being with us today. Tell us a little about arsenic and how it affects those unfortunate enough to ingest it.
JCW: First, the ‘arsenic’ we all think of as a deadly poison is not the element arsenic, which is relatively innocuous, but the compound arsenic trioxide, a substance that can be taken into the body not only by oral ingestion, but also by inhalation, through abraded skin, and by absorption through the mucus membranes of the rectum, vagina, and urethra. It can also be conveyed through the milk of nursing mothers. Once in the body, it produces a sharp, burning sensation in the stomach and esophagus (usually about 30 to 60 minutes after ingestion), and then profuse vomiting and diarrhea lasting for hours. Ultimately, the poison damages the heart and other viscera, but typically death comes only after 12 to 24 hours, or even longer. Statistics from the 1800s suggest that about half of those poisoned died.
DPL: What is it about arsenic that has allowed it to remain an effective method of murder even in this day of toxicological sophistication?
JCW: Arsenic is colorless and tasteless, easily confused for sugar or flour. This allows it to be mixed into foods and beverages without arousing suspicion, and also conduces to accidental poisoning. In the nineteenth-century, when arsenic was the most common substance used to poison rats and mice, it was present in most households and frequently mistaken for harmless white foodstuffs. Accidental deaths from arsenic greatly outnumbered those from homicide and suicide. Restrictions were placed on the sale of arsenic in 1851 in Britain, and accidental death became less common.
DPL: When was the earliest known use of arsenic for murder and when did
testing for it first enter the forensic arena?
JCW: Arsenical compounds known as orpiment and realgar (both sulfides of arsenic, but less toxic than arsenic trioxide) were used for murder in antiquity: Nero is believed to have murdered a political rival with one of the sulfides, for example. With the appearance of arsenic trioxide during the middle ages, however, a much more effective agent became available, though it was used mostly by the aristocracy to eliminate political opposition. With the expansion of mining in the eighteenth century, supplies of arsenic (a byproduct of the smelting process) became much greater and its price dropped to the point anyone could afford it. By the nineteenth century, arsenical murder had been democratized; during the 1800s, in fact, most arsenical homicides were committed by the laboring classes. There were tests for arsenic dating to the 1700s, but they were unreliable when applied to organic material (food, vomit, feces). A reliable method came along only during the 1830s, with the introduction of the Marsh test (accomplished by an English chemist named James Marsh). The Marsh test made it easier to detect murder, so brought about a slow decrease in arsenic’s use. Arsenic murder became much less common in the twentieth century, but is still occasionally used to kill.
DPL: Your book deals with accidental, suicidal, and homicidal arsenic poisoning during the 19th century. What were the most common sources of accidental poisoning at that time and do any of these remain a concern today?
JCW: Besides the accidents resulting from mistaking arsenic for flour or sugar, there were numerous cases of death and sickness caused by green arsenic compounds that became popular in the 1800s as pigments used to color all manner of domestic products: wallpapers, wrapping paper, candies, candles, even many articles of clothing (it was arsenic IN old lace that was the true problem). These pigments are no longer used, having been replaced by synthetic organic compounds during the second half of the nineteenth century. The chief threat from arsenic today is chromated copper arsenate (CCA), used as a wood preservative (decks, playground equipment) into the early 2000s. There is also a severe problem with arsenic in water supplies in some parts of the world, particularly Bengal and Bangladesh.
DPL: Wasn’t arsenic called Inheritance Powder during Victorian times?
JCW: Arsenic became known as ‘la poudre de succession,’ or inheritance powder, in France in the 1600s after a rash of poisonings by several noblewomen. It continued to be used to accelerate inheritances into the nineteenth century, but mostly by the lower and middle classes to cash in on life insurance.
DPL: What famous poisoners employed arsenic as their chosen weapon?
JCW: Lucrezia Borgia is perhaps the name people most readily associate with arsenical murder, though it was actually her brother Cesare who was the guilty one (fifteenth century). In the sixteenth century, Catherine de Medici was the most famous, while in the seventeenth century, it was a Sicilian woman named Toffana (who was believed to have killed hundreds, if not thousands, with a special preparation she sold to women eager to get rid of the men in their lives). The prevalence of Italian poisoners resulted in the coining of the verb ‘to Italianate,’ i.e., to murder with arsenic, in the 1600s. During the nineteenth century, the most famous arsenical killers were England’s Mary Ann Cotton, who killed three husbands and a dozen or more of her children in the 1860s and 1870s; Madeleine Smith, a Glasgow woman who likely killed her lover in the 1850s, but who was not convicted; and Florence Maybrick, an American woman living in Liverpool, who was accused of poisoning her husband but probably didn’t–she was convicted anyway, but eventually pardoned.
DPL: What drew you to this subject and led to your writing this book?
JCW: I did my doctoral dissertation, in 1969, on the public health problem of pesticide residues on foods in the days before DDT, i.e., 1860-1945. The most popular insecticides during that period were arsenic compounds (lead, copper, and calcium arsenates). In doing research on those early insecticides, I came across a good bit of discussion on the presence of arsenic in other products and decided that one day I would get back to the topic. It only took me three decades to do so. In writing the book, I decided to concentrate on Great Britain because the problem was most severe there (for a variety of reasons), and because I am a great fan of British beer and pubs–doing research in London and Edinburgh was thus a lot more fun, for me at least, than doing it in America.
DPL: Any other cool things about arsenic you want to share with us?
JCW: I would only add that the description of arsenic symptoms given in the first question applies to acute poisoning. That was the common form of murder before the nineteenth century, giving a lethal dose of three or more grains at one time. During the nineteenth century, slow poisoning became more popular, killing by repeated doses none of which was great enough to kill by itself, but that cumulatively finished off the victim over a period of weeks. That was a form that was more difficult to detect, so improved the killer’s odds of escaping. It was a matter of how big a risk-taker a person was versus how much patience she or he had (I put ‘she’ first because the majority of arsenic poisoners in the nineteenth century were women; men tended to rely on brute force rather than the subtlety of poison).
DPL: Thanks so much for being with us today. I’m sure my readers will employ
some of this new found knowledge in their stories.
It is my great pleasure to have Katherine back for Part 2 of our interview.
DPL: Welcome to the second round of Writer’s Forensics Blog. Let me start with this: When is a psychological autopsy employed and what can it tell investigators?
KR: This is one of my favorite activities in forensic investigations, because psychologists get to do a little detective work. In death certifications, there are three important matters: the cause, mechanism, and mode or manner of death. The cause is an instrument or physical agent used to bring about death (gun, knife, poison, rope), the mechanism is the pathological agent that resulted in the death (bleeding, loss of oxygen), and the manner of death, according to the NASH classification, is labeled as natural, an accident, a suicide, or a homicide. However, sometimes the factors for deciding on the manner of death are not clear. Thus, it becomes an “undetermined” death, or if an investigation is still ongoing, it’s “undetermined pending.” (Some death investigators add suicide-by-cop as yet another category, but I think that’s a form of suicide.) A psychological autopsy, which involves an extensive victimology, may assist the coroner or medical examiner in clearing up the mystery about manner of death. Psychological factors, such as the deceased person’s state of mind prior to death (anger, depression, anxiety, fear), can make the difference.
DPL: You have a chapter in your book on Prospective Profiling. What is that and how does it work?
KR: Generally, behavioral profiling is done after a crime is committed, to read the behavioral clues at a scene. This is retrospective profiling. However, in rare cases, certain categories of offender are so behaviorally consistent that you can actually do a risk analysis for this behavior if a specific person appears to fit the category. Healthcare serial killers, for example, tend to behave in similar ways for similar reasons. However, you have to be careful with this method, because it encourages investigators to think there’s a blueprint for certain offenders and they might then try to measure suspects against it. That’s not a wise approach in most cases. I probably shouldn’t even refer to it as profiling, since it[‘s actually risk or threat assessment, but since it was on the TV series, I discussed it in the book. Too often people think there’s a “profile of a serial killer,” as if we have a distinct pattern a priori that will identify the bad guy, There’s no such thing. This is an idea spun by news media and some crime novelists or film-makers, and it has created a lot of confusion.
DPL: Psychopath, sociopath, or borderline personality disorders? I’ve heard these terms used almost interchangeably. Is there a difference or are they interchangeable?
KR: I hesitate to respond, since they’re all being re-organized and redefined as we speak (not to mention that it would take a lot of time and space to fully address it). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which offers the diagnostic criteria used in the U.S., is going through changes for its fifth edition, so I refer people to that site. It’s all there – how we currently diagnose these conditions and how we will probably make changes. The word “sociopath,” is simply a throw-back from earlier decades and it’s not in the manual, but psychopathic type will be in the next one, and the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised is the best diagnostic tool for it. Again, it would take a while to untangle all the conceptual intricacies in the way in which these two labels have crossed paths over the past fifty years, so I’ll pass, or refer readers to my writing on it for the Crime Library, now part of TruTV. By the way, borderline personality disorder should never be used interchangeably with the other two. It’s not that similar, aside from the manipulativeness. Psychopathy is much closer to narcissistic personality disorder, because its care is narcissism.
DPL: Doctors, nurses, and others who work in the healthcare industry are in a unique position to do harm to helpless patients and there are many cases of serial killers within the healthcare profession. What do you believe is the driving force behind these killings? Are these people different from your run-of-the-mill serial killer, if there is such a thing, or are they simply different chapters of the same book?
KR: A healthcare serial killer (HCSK) may be any type of employee in the healthcare system who uses his or her position to murder at least two patients in two separate incidents for self-centered purposes, with the psychological capacity for more killing. (The HCSK generally does kill more than two people.) This makes them like many other serial killers in a basic sense. The offender might be a physician or nurse, male or female, or any of the support staff who work closely with key medical personnel (or even a team). The first comprehensive study of HCSKs indicated that between 1975 and 2005, there were over seventy-five such cases in civilized societies (half in the U.S.), with more suspected and several that cannot be fully investigated. A rare few enter the profession as predatory “angels of death,” because they see the system’s vulnerability, not to mention the patients’. Most transform into killers on the job, sometimes via initially benign motives. Coworkers and potential patients want to know how to spot dangerous nurses before harm is done, but often these killers do not stand out. They may even be exemplary at their jobs, and thus they garner little suspicion.
The available cases indicate that doctors who commit serial murder often kill from the desire to feel a godlike sense of power over patients or from experimental curiosity. They view themselves as superior, and thus their decision to kill is often narcissistic and fueled by their fantasies of power and entitlement. Nurses, on the other hand, often feel put upon and undervalued—especially the males. Their killing sprees appear to have other motives, such as gaining attention, finding a small realm of power in an otherwise powerless world, assuaging depression, paying back an unfair system, and acting out to relieve frustration or workload. A few female HCSKs have been diagnosed with Munchhausen syndrome by proxy, or with severe depression. The occasional HCSK is just someone who feels overburdened and kills patients to ease the workload, and a few have been nurses merely to enrich themselves with life insurance payments or other government subsidies.
DPL: Thanks for being with us. You’ve given us a lot to think about.
If you write crime fiction, I strongly recommend you read The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds. It provides a wealth of thought-provoking information.
Dr. Katherine Ramsland chairs the Department of Social Sciences at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, where she teaches forensic psychology and graduate-level criminal justice.
Visit Dr. Ramsland’s Website
Want to know what makes the really bad guys tick? How they think? How they plan their deeds? What’s behind the scenes of the hit TV show, “Criminal Minds”? If so, you must read Dr. Katherine Ramsland’s new book The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds.
As the first half of a two part interview, it is my great pleasure to have Katherine as my guest today
DPL: Welcome to the Writer’s Forensics Blog. My first question has to do with fantasy. It is well known that fantasy is an important driving force for many serial predators. How do these fantasies develop and what factor or factors pushes the predator from fantasy to action?
KR: Well, Doug, as you know, there’s no single factor or typical progression, but it does seem to be true that fantasies offer a hideout for kids who have difficulty with stress, abuse, disappointment, and depression. Fantasies also offer an arena for sexual stimulation, closure, mastery, and narcissistic satisfaction. Thus, they become part of a person’s development. In the case of offenders, the way that certain fantasies acquire content appears to be a factor in motivating crimes like rape and sexual homicide. Violent fantasies often involve associating pleasure with torture or death and the way a crime plays out indicates the fantasy’s pattern, i.e, exactly what arouses the offender. Once successfully acted out, the fantasy becomes a strong motivator to repeat it, and this usually means adding more details and intensity, possibly more victims. Some victims are selected in virtue of having traits that fit the offender’s fantasy scenario, while others might just be victims of opportunity.
We see a lot of evidence among offenders, especially of serial crimes, of what we call a “compartmentalized” self. They have developed a persona that makes them seem ordinary, responsible, and socially appropriate, while covertly they can nurture a darker side through a vivid fantasy life. As rapists and killers get away with their crimes, they learn how to deflect others from discovering their secrets and they devise different sets of values for their compartments. Because their secret lives are generally more exciting and satisfying, fantasies grow more perverse. Through imagined scenarios that allow them to create an alternate identity – a mental avatar, if you will — offenders can participate in acts that lack accountability. As Ted Bundy once described it, this private arena is entirely separate and controlled. It’s their secret source of power and pleasure, and they often get addicted.
DPL: MO versus signature. What’s the difference and when investigators attempt to link crime scenes to one another, which of these is most useful?
KR: The modus operandi, or the way a perpetrator decides to commit a crime, may change as the offender learns and perfects his crimes, or as different circumstances dictate. However, the core motivating structure of a signature tends to remain static, because it arises from personality factors rather than what is necessary to kill. Signature crimes have not had many systematic studies, and the myth has arisen that the “ritual” at the basis of personation always presents in the same way, but in fact, as many as fifty percent of offenders will experiment with their rituals. What drives the ritual might be a primal compulsion, but different victims and different situations present new opportunities to tinker. Thus, you may see a trend in the signature, but it won’t always manifest in exactly the same way.
The study of signatures is fascinating. We’ve had killers who bite, who tie specific types of knots, who drink blood, who remove the eyes, who take shoes, and who stick items into orifices. A serial killer in India always left beer cans next to victims, while in Greece, another stabbed each of four elderly prostitutes exactly four times in the neck. Signatures are often compulsive, but some are done for effect. Many offenders have posed a corpse in a provocative sexual position, carved something on a body, or taken a souvenir to aid in reliving the thrill of murder. Some force a victim to read a script. Anything goes, really, because there is no limit to what an offender can fantasize. In addition, killers who keep up with investigative advances plant “signatures” to try to deflect the investigation. Gary Ridgway, the “Green River Killer,” admitted to doing this.
DPL: Some serial killers are collectors. I know the objects that they collect are often used later so they can relive the crime. What are some of the most unusual collected objects that you have run across in your career?
KR: Some of them have been mentioned above, because they’re part of the signature: I’d say the eyeball collector was among the most gruesome. I’ve also heard of pieces being cut from genitalia, and several serial killers have removed internal organs, tongues, teeth, hunks of flesh, and lips. One killer collected the voices of his victims on a tape recorder, making them read a script. A few kept photographs of their victims being torture or terrified. Another collected locks of hair. Typical items include rings, shoes, necklaces, and underwear. One of the weirdest was a necrophile who would watch the papers for obituaries of young girls and then go dig them up and keep the bodies with him as long as he could stand it. Of course, Dennis Nilsen, Ed Gein, and Jeff Dahmer also kept bodies and body parts.
DPL: I often read stories where the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program comes into play and in many of these stories it seems as though almost anyone can pick up the phone and get the information they need. How does ViCAP really work? Who can add to the database and who can retrieve the data?
KR: ViCAP, or the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (sometimes spelled VICAP), is a national computer network used to link serious crimes, from rape to arson to fatal product tampering to murder. ViCAP arose from the need for a central database for linking diverse cases to a single offender, especially when offenders were highly mobile. ViCAP data are collected from police departments around the country, via several criteria: solved, unsolved and attempted homicides (especially involving kidnapping or suspected to be part of a series); unidentified bodies in which the manner of death is suspected to be homicide; sexual offenses, and missing-persons cases in which foul play appears to have played a part. With serial crimes, the key lies in finding distinct commonalities among incidents, and enhanced informatics has made it possible for more jurisdictions to acquire such data at a faster rate.
ViCAP was envisioned as a national clearinghouse for law enforcement, with a vast database of cases from around the country, although it did not quite turn out that way. Investigators did not like to fill out the long, time-consuming forms, and many investigators perceived ViCAP as just another part of the government bureaucracy.
Agents in charge revamped the software and the questionnaire, and fifty desktop computers, loaded with the software, were given out to agencies in each state. More analysts were hired to respond to cases and answer questions, and more applications for using ViCAP were offered to cold case squads. It became easier to query a case and learn if it was open or closed, as well as to acquire information about an offender or victim. There is also now a ViCAP summary report that offered a quick glance at pertinent facts, a better data retrieval scheme, and the ability to import maps or images into case reports.
DPL: Thanks for being with us. You’ve given us a lot to think about.
If you write crime fiction, I strongly recommend you read The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds. It provides a wealth of thought-provoking information.
Dr. Katherine Ramsland chairs the Department of Social Sciences at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, where she teaches forensic psychology and graduate-level criminal justice.
Part 2 coming soon.
David Corbett worked 15 years as a San Francisco based PI with the firm Palladino & Sutherland, a profession that has infused his many great novels. His writing is tight, gritty, and page-turning and has led to Anthony, Barry, and Macavity nominations. It is with great pleasure that I welcome him to The Writer’s Forensics Blog.
DPL: You were a PI for many years. What types of cases does a PI typically become involved with?
DC: There are several types of PIs. Some work internal security for corporations, dealing with fraud, computer security, embezzlement and “shrinkage,” i.e., employee theft, as well as obtaining evidence and interviewing witnesses in lawsuits in which the corporation is a party. There are PIs who work for insurance companies, again obtaining evidence and interviewing witnesses, now in claim situations, verifying the insured’s statements and investigating possible third-party liability. Then there are general litigation PIs, which is what I was. They obtain evidence and interview witnesses in civil and criminal litigations, everything from slip-and-fall cases to divorces (with No Fault, you’re usually looking for hidden assets) to ponzi schemes and murders.
DPL: What’s the most interesting or unusual case you’ve ever worked?
DC: The most fun was a series of cases stemming from federal prosecution of a group of San Diego navy brats who grew into the most sophisticated marijuana smuggling operation on the west coast. They were called the Coronado Company—that’s where they all grew up and went to high school together, the naval station just outside San Diego. These guys were wild but not evil, and my work on these cases greatly informed my first novel, The Devil’s Redhead.
The People’s Temple trial was the most tragic and demanding case I worked on. The survivors were often broken people, hanging on through sheer grit. Some had returned to the street, or prison. For those who had gotten their lives together, at least somewhat, being exposed as a former Temple member could be very threatening. Many feared losing their jobs, or suffering some other form of stigma. There were two trials—the first ended in a mistrial, hung jury—and the defendant was convicted the second time around. The appeal counsel, who was a second-echelon lawyer in defense circles, decided this was his chance to climb into the first tier, and he chose to do it by impugning trial counsel and the rest of the defense team—including me. In particular, he attacked the defense’s refusal to pursue a psychiatric defense. If he’d only bothered to ask, he would have learned that the reason the defense didn’t pursue this tack was because the defendant had confessed to one of the therapists who interviewed him. A psychiatric defense would make that confession relevant and admissible. Worse, by claiming inadequate representation of counsel, he opened the defense’s entire investigation to the prosecution. The defendant was looking at maybe two years until the AUSA got his hands on those interview notes. Then he realized the full extent of the defendant’s culpability, sought a much harsher sentence, and won. The client was miserably represented by this lawyer, and the appeals judge stated in a published ruling that not only had the defendant received adequate representation of counsel, from what he’d seen, the defendant received exemplary representation. We were vindicated, but it was a long, hard slog.
Oddly, though, the one case that took the biggest toll on me involved transporting a transvestite junkie from San Francisco to rehab in Beaumont, Texas. He’d gone through two million dollars in eighteen months and his mother had decided to cut off the money unless he cleaned up. But heroin is like an anti-truth serum—it turns a lot of people into pathological liars and scammers. This guy was. He and his lover figured the rehab was just the price they had to pay to get the money spigot turned back on. But everybody around this guy was using him for money or drugs or both. The problem was, he was utterly unpredictable, and from one minute to the next I never knew what he was going to do. We flew first class to Texas because ti was the easiest way for me to control the guy, and after looking around at every in the section, he announces at the top of his lungs, “Gee, if it weren’t for me, you’d be the weirdest looking guy in first class!” I plied him with alcohol after that. After landing, he threw one ungodly fit at the airport, demanding we turn back around. I talked him out of that. Then he pitched another screaming snit in a restaurant that required some real finesse work. I was never so glad to say goodbye to somebody in my life.
DPL: Any dangerous or dicey situations?
DC: Just once, actually. I had to interview and subpoena a guy who’d been a driver for a San Francisco cocaine ring. He drove the coke from Miami to the west coast—this was when Colombia brought everything in through Florida. The ironic thing? He was now a doctor. I finally tracked him down to this clinic he half-owned in Hannibal, Missouri. The guy evaded me all weekend, and little by little I just kept increasing the pressure, talking to friends, business associates, his family, telling them I was working on an inquiry on the west coast—I provided no details, “for the sake of his privacy”—but it would be best if he spoke with me. That got everybody’s attention. Then, on a personal note, I learned my brother had been diagnosed with AIDS. Come Monday morning, I was royally pissed—my brother was dying and this twerp had managed to avoid me for four days. I knew the layout of his parking lot and knew the car he’d likely drive. I hunkered down in my car with a camera and a tape recorder—so he couldn’t claim I tried to threaten him, or if he ran, I could photograph his skeedaddle. The guy showed up, drove to the back of his office, where he was basically trapped, due to the layout. He was getting out of his car when he saw me come around the corner. He jumped back behind the wheel and, realizing I had his exit blocked, gunned the car and came straight for me. Like I said, I was pissed, which translates into an almost careless stupidity at times. Like this instance. I just stood there, daring him to hit me. At the last second, the Hippocratic Oath kicked in, I guess, and he hit the break. I leaned over the hood of his car, tucked the subpoena under his windshield wiper, then stepped out of his way. The only sound on my tape recording was of him revving his engine, trying to scare me when I was leaning over the hood. I still offered to withdraw the subpoena if the guy would talk to me, but he thought if he played dumb, we’d leave him alone. Idiot.
DPL: What about surveillance? What types of techniques and gadgets have you used?
DC: I’ve used a jam jar to piss in while I sat there in my car—how’s that for high tech? We really didn’t do a lot of surveillance. Wasn’t necessary in the work we did, by and large. When it was, we had one guy in the firm who got off on it and he got to do it. He was a curious dude. He set up a two-way mirror in the lobby of the Mitchell Brothers porn emporium with a clock in the background so he could videotape the cops coming in to watch the show for as long as a half hour before actually closing the show down. This was when Dianne Feinstein was mayor. She had an incredible obsession with the Jim and Artie Mitchell—the only two guys in SF porn who weren’t mobbed up. Go figure. The videos made the case go away. Gee, go figure.
DPL: Books and movies portray PIs and the police as either helping each other or squabbling. Which is most common?
DC: We’re usually adversaries, but not always. In a criminal case, we typically representing the defendant, and that means our job is to test the prosecution’s evidence—for example, find out if the witness statements are truly reliable and complete. They’re never complete—”the whole truth” is a hoax, at least in court–but often that doesn’t matter. We also try to track down witnesses the prosecution has either ignored or couldn’t find themselves. The biggest job is to impugn the informant—we used to call ourselves Snitchbusters. I have to admit, in all my years of working criminal cases, I can’t recall once when I thought the informant wasn’t way more sleazy than my client, but that’s show biz.
However, there are times when we will be working the civil side to a criminal case, working for the plaintiffs (victims), or for an insurance company with an interest in the litigation.
The former situation, working for victim-plaintiffs, came up in the first Michael Jackson case. We worked for the fourteen-year-old boy and his family in the child molestation case, and we tried the best we could to help the police, but we kept finding out from the sergeant who was out liaison at LAPD that they would assemble a witness list from our reports, pass it up the chain of command, and it would inevitably come back with certain key witnesses cross off. The suspicion was that, with Johnny Cochran at the helm of Jackson’s defense, he was pulling strings with old contacts in the DA’s office or with cops he knew. We could never prove this, and it was just a suspicion. But it all became moot when Cochran, fearing his investigators has been taped trying to tamper with witnesses—they’d been instructed by Cochran to go out and find ex-employees, tell them, “Michael loves you,” and offer them their jobs back at salaries they could hardly refuse—Cochran had a high-power conclave with his client and promptly pitched almost $20 million at the kid and his family. An unwritten part of the agreement was that the boy would not testify before the grand jury. This is illegal, but who was going to prove it happened? Anyhoo, Michael slipped out of that one, as we all know.
As for the insurer situation, this happened with the Menendez brothers case. The insurance company was on the hook for a multi-million dollar payout if the brothers didn’t kill their parents. That gave them quite an incentive and a war chest LAPD could only envy. We helped locate and interview witnesses—or rather, we did these things, then passed our information along to the police.
Which brings up the crucial point: Nobody wants to give up control of an investigation. First person to the witness gets to frame the case in ways everyone else who comes later has to deal with. Sometimes you have to un-brainwash a witness who’s convinced, given what a previous investigator said, that all manner of unholy mayhem was perpetrated by your client, even if it makes no sense. An example, I had a client who made a fire claim on the basis of some collectibles that perished, essentially antique toys and manuals. These things were tossed loosely into boxes and burned to cinders in a garage fire. But the insurance investigator managed to convince witnesses that the client was claiming boxes of book had burned up, and books, packed tightly in a box, don’t burn to cinders. They’re too dense, not enough energy flow, etc. So all the firemen, by the time I got to them, were convinced my client was a lying scumbag because he claimed stuff burned up in a way that they knew, having been to the fire, couldn’t have happened. Some of them were willing to see that maybe they’d formed an incorrect impression given what the insurance investigator has said. But some of these guys were just bullheaded and there was no budging them off their biases.
Dr. Jan Gurley, a board-certified internist physician, is the only Harvard Medical School graduate to have been awarded a Shoney’s Ten-Step Pin for documented excellence in waitressing. Her training includes years of basic science research in labs (graduating magna cum laude from Harvard), then a residency at UCSF in Internal Medicine, afterwards receiving a Robert Wood Johnson Fellowship (Stanford/UCSF Joint Program) in epidemiology, public health and public policy. Her health/science background covers the vast territory from sub-cell systems, to human studies, to the captivating science of seeing patients one-on-one. She sees patients at a San Francisco clinic for the homeless – and knows more than any other suburban soccer mom about the underside of urban life. Survival sex, prison time, injection drug use, street violence, mental illness, and addictions of all kinds are part of the background fabric of her patients’ lives.
Doc Gurley’s health writing has appeared in Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the Chronicle Sunday magazine, with letters in the Washington Post and UK’s Daily Telegraph. Her research has appeared in academic publications including the New England Journal of Medicine. She is a frequent contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate.
DPL: Did you really win a Shoney’s Ten-Step Pin for excellence in waitressing? How?
JG: Okay, I hate to toot my own horn, but the fact is (blush) yes I did win a Ten Step Pin. And let me tell you, that thing’s frickin’ hard to win. Shoney’s (at least back in my day) used Secret Shoppers – regular customers who secretly rate your every move. That means…how many minutes to the table, whether you smile enough, if you give silverware and water in the right order, how long the food takes, if you return at the right time to ask whether the food is okay…and so on. It’s a random check and you have to get it all perfect (without knowing someone is rating you) to Win The Pin. I’ve often thought (and said) that doctors should have Secret Shopper patients. Would your doctor win a Ten Step Pin?
DPL: Tell us about your clinic in San Francisco. What types of patients do you see there?
JG: Ah. That’s a good question. We see the lost, the broken, the angry, the hurting, the altered, and the desperate. There’s the homeless stereotype we all know – the person muttering under a tent of stiff hair. And there’s the woman padded with four coats who’s been raped on the street three times in the last year. There’s the newly homeless tech programmer living out of a car, applying for jobs and using the exam room sink (you get a glimpse when you open the door) to do a quick sponge bath. There are college students and mechanics and artists who don’t have insurance. There are middle-aged housewives who lost insurance coverage in the divorce. And so many people who cycle in and out, seeing us in-between stints in prison.
DPL: What are the most common drug problems you encounter? Most dangerous?
JG: We’re always aware of our toilet. Patients know the drill too – they’ll tell us if it’s occupied too long, and we bang on the door. Are we just that controlling about sewage? Nope. The sad fact is, it’s all too common to discover someone has used the toilet to shoot up and is now nodding off (if not frankly overdosed) in there. We see IV drug use of all kinds – opiates and stimulants. We see tweaking meth addicts who are vibrating and ready to blow. We see all the complications of drug use – massive abscesses, heart valve infections, overdose, withdrawal, delirium tremens – you name it.
DPL: Have you seen any change in the patterns of drug use in your clinic?
JG: More meth. That’s probably a reflection of the world at large. San Francisco has had the notoriety of being the heroin overdose capital of America for many years. Speedballs seem to be increasing in popularity over the last 5 years – probably in line with the increased meth availability. We also see a hefty trade in prescribed drugs. On the street, oxycontin can sell for a buck a milligram – making a 60 milligram pill a much-desired prescription item. We also have the constant, but relatively low-level, backdrop of crack use – but less (non-crack) cocaine usage than, say, 7 years ago. And we also have the ever-present toll of alcohol abuse – which never seems to get as much press-coverage as other drugs, but certainly commands a large chunk of our population’s drug use.
DPL: You have a book coming out called Dodging Death that’s a humorous take on healthcare advice. Great concept. Tell us about it.
JG: Dodging Death is a book for the lay-person – it’s a user-friendly guide to the kinds of things that Googling your symptoms might miss. Triage is one of the ways internet symptom-searches fail people. For example, Dodging Death is divided into chapters like Things That Can Kill You in 48 hours or Less, Things That Can Kill You in a Week or Less (etc.), as well as a chapter titled Things You Don’t Know You Have (also known as Hypochondriac’s Corner). It’s a book that’s meant to be practical, but it’s also purposely designed to make learning about how to triage symptoms and recognize the odd and rare symptoms fun.
DPL: What’s next for you in the literary world?
JG: Wow. That may be the first time anyone has ever mentioned myself and the word “literary” in the same sentence! Although this is not actually a literary endeavor, I am right now working with a team to create medical iPhone apps – ones you can download on the spot for symptom-specific issues. Our first ones out are meant to be fun and practical, like the Dodging Death concept. The “Party Pack” can be bought individually or as a group – and includes topics like “Passing Out At A Party,” “The Morning After,” and “I’ve Got A Thingie On My Doo-Hickey,” as well as “Do I Need Stitches?” and “It Burns When I Pee.” These apps also can be bought and sent to friends, like greeting cards. There will also be more joyful and interactive apps coming next year focused on long-term health issues like eating better and exercise, etc. – these apps will all incorporate practical approaches from the burgeoning new science of behavior change. Keep an eye out for them – coming soon in the iTunes Store.
Visit Doc Gurley’s Website