Ann Wolbert Burgess knew it was time to distance herself from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) when the line between her work life and her home life got too thin—serial killers knew her children’s names, they sent her Christmas cards.
A forensic nurse who pioneered research on sexual assault and trauma in the 1970s and ’80s, Burgess helped the FBI’s newest team understand killers better through who they killed. The BSU, or “Mindhunters,” had been interviewing serial killers in an attempt to prevent similar brutal crimes in the future. (In their early days before Burgess, an expert in victimology, the team had questioned the murderers with no standard list of questions. They had learned a lot about how these men killed, but not quite enough about why. Burgess helped in changing this—and in capturing serial rapists and murders.
Now, decades later, Burgess, is sharing her stories. For her memoir, “A Killer by Design: Murderers, Mindhunters, and My Quest to Decipher the Criminal Mind,” she and her co-author Steven Matthew Constantine went through transcripts and recordings of her years of work—and captured her most poignant memories of analyzing some of America’s most dangerous men.
Burgess resisted the limelight when the media was first captivated—and stayed captivated—by the BSU’s work. But now she’s ready to talk. She spoke with A&E True Crime about the serial killers who still haunt her, how she handled cases involving children and what’s surprised her about some infamous killers.
How do you think your experience in victimology helped you in the BSU?
That’s exactly what [the FBI] wanted—I should say what they needed—because they didn’t have a focus on victims. They were always focused on the offender or getting a suspect. Their investigative skills were wonderful, [but what they needed] was to better understand what the victim went through. And then that could be translated into what the offender’s motive was.
In the book, you cover the crimes of Jon Barry Simonis, ‘The Ski Mask Rapist,’ who terrorized Louisiana. He was ultimately caught because as the BSU predicted, he drove a flashy car.
It’s amazing, isn’t it? That was the other thing the agents and local police were so good at—they were into cars, makes and models, because they often would have to chase them. They would profile killers from the car.
It’s got to be funny to look around at the advisory group, and say, ‘Well, I can tell what kind of a car you drive.’
Of all the killers you’ve examined or researched, is there one who especially haunts you?
There are several. Henry Louis Wallace [‘The Taco Bell Strangler’], because he had gotten away with this for a couple of years, and the police just weren’t paying attention to the fact that these women were being killed. I always wanted to do one more talk with him [after thinking], ‘What did they miss?’
And there’s the [Harvey] Glatman [‘Lonely Hearts Killer’] case from the 1950s. His mother had even taken her son, [then 11], to a psychiatrist [after she discovered he was interested in autoerotic asphyxiation]. Because she knew something was wrong. And the mental health professional said, ‘Oh, he’s just an adolescent, he’ll outgrow it.’
[Researching] that, I realized we have to educate our mental health professionals as to some of the early warning signs of these killers. That’s an area that maybe we are doing better in now.
Ed Kemper committed his first murders as a juvenile, killing his grandparents at age 15. Do you think intervention might have prevented his becoming a serial killer?
You would’ve hoped that they would get to him because of what they saw at school.
He was a really big kid—and he was bullied and taunted about that. He would sit by himself riding the bus. That was unusual; no one would sit next to him. I think that was enough information to try to get him counseling.
He carried [serial killing] fantasies right through his early incarceration for his grandparents [murder]. And then when he got out [of Atascadero State Hospital, a forensic hospital for criminally insane juveniles] at age 21, he’s killing again.
Some of the papers reported that mental health professionals had said Kemper was no longer a danger after he had killed his grandparents. I can’t imagine anyone, whether they had a mental health background or not, saying that he wasn’t a danger to people, because [killing his grandparents came] out of the blue. So, it had to have been really haunting him for quite a while for him to just shoot his grandmother in the back of the head. She was totally defenseless.
You’re a parent. How did your team emotionally handle cases with child victims?
You had a job to do. You’ve got one little girl that had been kidnapped, another who had escaped. [Editor’s Note: Burgess is highlighting the specific case of Brian Dugan kidnapping and murdering 7-year-old girl Melissa A; her friend Opal managed to get away.]
Opal realized she couldn’t get out the passenger side door, and she jumped out the window. But what bothered me is that people had ignored her. [Local investigators] were so focused on trying to find Missy, which of course they should have been, but they ignored what Opal could have told them and did tell us.
We were able to get a fairly decent composite of [Dugan’s] face from an 8-year-old child. Sometimes people say, “Kids can’t tell you much.’ And that is not so at all. We suspected that these [child] killers kill right away because their adrenaline is just running. So, you can assume you’ve got to get them as fast as you can.
What did you find was the best way to approach a child witness or a child victim?
I always use drawings. I would get the children to draw what happened. That helps them to focus in on the paper, and not so much on what your questions are. Then you can just say to them, “What happened here? And then what did this person do?”
I found that having crayons for children absolutely does reduce stress. I’ve had adults draw their crime scenes too. I had Henry [Louis Wallace] draw the crime scenes that he did.
Your team was surprised that someone like ‘BTK,’ who craved fame, stopped his attacks for many years. When Dennis Rader was finally captured, did he surprise you in other ways?
It surprised me that Rader kept so many of his souvenirs, if you will, ‘hidden’ in the house, and that nobody found them. It means people just don’t pay attention to what their family members are doing, or that they don’t clean their house very well. I don’t know. But at any rate, I found that very interesting that he kept everything right there.
What do profilers gain from very detailed confessions like Rader’s?
That’s the purpose, in my opinion, of not executing [serial killers]. It’s the only way you’re going to learn where you made your missteps. Where were police in the first 10 years that Rader was committing his crimes?