- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

Former FBI profilers and other pundits spent weeks theorizing about the identity of the Washington-area sniper, basing their guesses on histories of similar crimes not on the evidence being gathered by law enforcement.
Statistics on past crimes led many to predict that the killer was a white male. The three-week shooting spree was in many ways unique, say scholars, and the arrest early yesterday of two black suspects in the shooting spree shows the hazards of statistical profiling, they say.
"The database doesn't have anything like him in there," said Michael Aamodt, who teaches a course in forensic psychology at Radford University in Virginia. "There have been other snipers, but there's been none that I know of who has shot this many people over a short period of time and shot a wide variety of people."
Mr. Aamodt had predicted the sniper was an angry white man. He said the standard profile of the young white male is often correct, because, "if you lump serial killers together this is what we get."
Former FBI profiler Clinton Van Zandt, who has been a popular figure on television and in newspapers during the sniper attacks, said he was always careful to make clear that "historically" the standard profile of such a serial killer would be a white male.
He emphasized that television "experts" are not privy to the details available to law-enforcement officials.
"Those on the outside are speculating," Mr. Van Zandt said. "[We] are there to try and provide the public a reference, not to provide a profile."
Oliver Revell, a former associate deputy director of intelligence and investigative operations at the FBI, said the standard profile of a white male is still appropriate for "a sexual predator who primarily uses serial killing as a means for sexual gratification," but that it "doesn't fit" spree killings, hate crimes and other types of killings.
Statistical methods of identifying criminals are "old hat," said Brent Turvey, forensic scientist and author of "Criminal Profiling." Mr. Turvey said some profilers said the sniper was highly intelligent, while police say that one of the suspects contributed to his own arrest by calling a tip line to boast about a slaying in Montgomery, Ala.
"We're talking about two idiots," Mr. Turvey said. "You've got to remember that skill [with a weapon] and intelligence are not actually related."
But the conviction of the two men still would not invalidate every profiling prediction.
Mr. Meloy said the reported telephone reference to the Alabama shooting was a display of arrogance, which he said is always the "Achilles heel" of serial killers.
One of the men arrested was a Muslim convert who reportedly had made anti-American remarks. Mr. Van Zandt said he had guessed that the sniper case was terror-motivated. "I couldn't put a Timothy McVeigh or Mohamed Atta face on the person doing this, but I believed their purpose was terrorism," he said.
The sniper case is a reminder of the limitations of statistical profiling, some say.
"Profiles have been greatly, greatly overestimated in their value in criminal investigations," Mr. Revell said. "It is not definitive, it is often wrong and cannot be used as a conclusive road map."

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