Dr. Katherine Ramsland and the Criminal Mind, Part 1

16 Feb

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


4 responses to “Dr. Katherine Ramsland and the Criminal Mind, Part 1

  1. Gayle Carline

    February 16, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    This is fascinating, especially the comment about Gary Ridgeway planting “signatures”. Is there any sign that the investigative research available is resulting in criminals who plant or otherwise disguise their signatures in an attempt to avoid discovery?


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      February 16, 2010 at 10:39 pm

      The so called CSI Effect is just that. Part of it is that criminals learn to get better at what they do and learn to prevent leaving evidence, as well as to destroy and plant evidence. Changing MO is common but changing a signature is more difficult as this comes from something deep inside. That’s what makes Ridgeway’s case unusual—of course everything about Old Gary was unusual. The other part of the CSI Effect is that juries now expect cool forensics like DNA and when it’s not part of the case they wonder why. Can’t tell you how many times I heard during the Scott Peterson Case–What about DNA? I was on Court TV and Catherine Crier asked me that same question. As I told her, DNA would have been mostly useless in that case. They were married. They lived together. There are a million innocent reasons Laci’s DNA could have been found on Scott’s clothing–and vice versa.


  2. Victoria Allman

    February 17, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    I have nominated you for a blogger award. It could be fun to incorporate the “crimes” from your blog. For details, please see
    Thanks for a great blog,


  3. Epoxy Floors :

    October 27, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    desktop computers these days gets obsolete the day that they are shipped considering how fast technology updates*`*



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