Category Archives: Interviews

Crime & Science Radio: The Body Tells the Tale: DP Lyle and Jan Burke Interview Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

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The Body Tells the Tale: DP Lyle and Jan Burke Interview Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

Join DP Lyle and Jan Burke as they explore the world of death, corpses, and decay with Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson. Dr. Bass is the founder of the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, the so called Body Farm. Jon Jefferson is a journalist, writer, and documentary film maker. Together they write fiction as Jefferson Bass. This will be a lively, or is it deadly, interview.



The Body Farm-Wikipedia:

Tour The Body Farm:

Video Tour of The Body Farm:

WBIR Interview:

JeffersonBass Website:

Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales:

Metro Pulse: The Cult of Forensics Expert Dr. Bill Bass:

Peter Breslow’s 2004 NPR Profile of The Body Farm:



Crime and Science Radio begins September 7th

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Jan Burke and I are launching a new internet radio venture: CRIME & SCIENCE RADIO. It will be aired bimonthly on Saturday mornings at 10 a.m. Pacific on John and Shannon Raab’s Suspense Radio program on Blog Talk Radio. Of course the shows will be archived for later listening if the timing doesn’t work out for you. Join us for the program launch on September 7th.

On the first show we will cover crime scene, crime lab, and coroner/ME basics as well as some of the common mistakes writers and screenwriters make when writing crime fiction. The goal is, of course, to help writers eliminate these common errors. In future shows we will have guests from the science and the crime fiction worlds, talk about crime and science issues of interest to crime writers, cover the latest crime tech news, and most importantly have fun.

We hope to “see” many of you there.


DP Lyle Interview on Jim Harold’s Crime Scene

Here is a recent interview I did for Jim Harold’s Crime Scene show.
Hope you enjoy it.


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Posted by on July 26, 2012 in Interviews, Writing


An Excellent Interview with My Wonderful Agent Kimberley Cameron

Here is an interview with my wonderful and hard-working agent, Kimberley Cameron. You can reach her at:


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Posted by on July 25, 2012 in Interviews, Writing


Interview: Dr. Richard Wenzel Discusses Labyrinth of Terror

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!


Posted by on December 1, 2011 in Interviews


Tess Gerritsen, Jane Rizzoli, and Maura Isles get ICE COLD

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.

Tess, welcome.

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


Posted by on July 2, 2010 in Interviews, Writing


Lee Goldberg Talks About Monk, Tie In Novels, and More

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:

And his blog A Writer’s Life at:


Posted by on June 28, 2010 in Interviews, Writing


Dr. James C. Whorton and THE ARSENIC CENTURY

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.



Dr. Katherine Ramsland and the Criminal Mind, Part 2

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


Posted by on February 24, 2010 in Forensic Psychiatry, Interviews


Dr. Katherine Ramsland and the Criminal Mind, Part 1

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.

Dr. Ramsland’s Website

Part 2 coming soon.


Posted by on February 16, 2010 in Forensic Psychiatry, Interviews


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