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Cold, Vacant Eyes: FBI Profiler
By Scott Nicholson. Photo by Marie Freeman.

Alan Brantley has looked into the faces of some of North America's most ruthless criminals, first as an Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) profiler and now as a forensic behavioral consultant.

It was while he was undergoing officer training in the military in 1972 that Brantley first saw the FBI headquarters in Quantico, Va. The headquarters were just being built as he trained nearby, and he remembers thinking how nice it would have been to be working there instead. He applied to the FBI after earning a masters degree in counselor education, but a hiring freeze led to his taking a job as a psychologist with the North Carolina Department of Correction. Brantley worked first at Dorothea Dix psychiatric hospital, then later worked across the street at Central Prison in Raleigh. He characterized that time as one of relaxing attitudes toward metal patients, and policy changes emphasized the release of many patients. Brantley said he later saw many of the same people, only this time they were in prison rather than a hospital.

Part of his job was conducting analyses for prerelease or parole hearings, dealing with inmates with mental problems, and “putting out fires” by heading off potentially dangerous situations. After six years there, Brantley saw a television ad in which the FBI was looking for new agents, and he joined just as the FBI was launching its behavioral science unit. He said he was a beneficiary of good timing, because the FBI was starting to hire people with diverse backgrounds. He went through about three months of training in Quantico with the goal of being a profiler. He worked under John Douglas, FBI agent who was believed to serve as the model for Thomas Harris's fictional profilers.

While the term “profiler” conjures up images of the agents hunting serial killers in movies and television shows, Brantley said that wasn’t the only role of the agency. He served with the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, which was originally focused mostly on serial killers, but also on any criminal committing serial assaults, or on any case where there was evidence or belief that the perpetrator might repeat the crime.

“In the beginning, the mission was the identification and tracking of serial killers,” Brantley said. “At some stage, there’s a display of behavior that will lead to clues.”

He said serial killers were the original focus of the unit because many police and attorneys didn’t have the experience dealing with such unexpected crimes. “They were so horrendous, and the probability of them repeating was so high, that prevention was a major factor,” Brantley said. The police usually have a suspect in mind, so profiles are only created “if the well has run dry.” Race and age of offenders was difficult to profile, and any wrong information can be used later by defense attorneys.

Brantley worked on the case of Angel Maturino Resendez, known as “The
Railroad Killer,” who in some ways was the antithesis of the cunning madman portrayed in popular drama. Resendez, who is Hispanic, broke the conventional-wisdom serial killer mold that said such killers stick to their own ethnic groups. In fact, Resendez was so disorganized he escaped detection for a couple of years, allegedly killing nine people in widely scattered areas. Resendez eventually caught when a policeman noticed that a murder in his state matched those in another, with each of the crimes taking place near a railroad. He was caught in 1999 and is currently on Death Row in Texas.

Brantley said the role of the behavioral sciences expanded to embrace other types of crime, particularly with the threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The FBI has to wade through thousands of letters, tips, and anonymous phone calls, many of which are false. But none can be fully discarded until they are checked. “If you look at a crime or threat, you compare that with your information and come up with a probability,” Brantley said. “There’s always that one exception you have to worry about. The one thing I always thought was, ‘Don’t let it happen on my watch.’”

One danger for investigators is to get complacent and overlook evidence, or to rely on a profile and avoid looking at all possibilities. Brantley said, for that reason, the FBI is reluctant to deliver a ready-made profile, instead studying evidence and case materials for connections. The way the government handles major investigations has also changed. Brantley helped with the investigation into the Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building in 1996, and said “there were all kinds of wild and crazy theories” in the aftermath of the tragedy. There was talk of rounding up all the fringe or survivalist groups who might be suspects, but Brantley and others favored a more measured approach, fearing such action to stir the paranoia of anti-government groups who might then react rashly.

One of Brantley’s last major cases was the D.C. sniper hunt, when two men were arrested after a shooting spree that killed 13 over a three-week period. That crime really had a major effect on people in the three-state area where the shootings occurred. Brantley was preparing to testify in the trial of teen sniper Lee Malvo when a plea agreement was reached.

“The randomness of victimization is what scares people,” he said. “If someone’s killing prostitutes, people think ‘I’m not a prostitute so I don’t have to worry.’” But when the victims are random, people perceive the crimes differently and are more likely to project themselves as potential victims. The sniper case was also an example of the deluge of misleading tips that led to flawed eyewitness accounts and descriptions, which hampered the investigation and further added to the panic.

Though Brantley was in Quantico when portions of “Silence of the Lambs” were
filmed there, he doesn’t watch modern crime shows. He spends enough time reading case material, so he avoids the field in his spare time.

As a researcher, Brantley had the opportunity to interview a number of killers. “They’re not all Dr. (Hannibal) Lector,” he said, referring to the fictional cannibalistic genius in “Silence of the Lambs.” “I would sit across from people who are just plain evil, bad apples, with cold, vacant eyes.”

He said most criminals are psychopathic, though some can “flip a switch” and turn on the charm if needed, but the switch can just as easily reveal the raging face of a killer. He interviewed one man convicted of killing two people. “He had no expression other than rage,” Brantley said. “I never felt comfortable in his presence.”

That same man had his case reviewed again through the efforts of a group of death-row opponents. One of the group members, a woman, went to the prison and told the man about the review, thinking she was delivering good news and would receive a show of gratitude. The killer was separated from her by security glass and spoke to her from a telephone. He told the woman, “If I could get my hands around your throat, I would kill you.” Brantley interviewed the killer shortly afterward, and the killer said the woman had laughed in response, yet the killer was serious. “There was this anger in his face,” Brantley said.

Regarding Ted Bundy, who confessed to 28 murders and may have killed as many as 100, Brantley said the killer went undetected for so long because in those days law enforcement agencies didn’t communicate with one another, and criminals could escape detection simply by going to the next state or even the next town. Brantley said Bundy wasn’t the suave genius the press sometimes made him out to be, though he did possess an instinct for self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. Brantley said Bundy tried numerous different tactics when killing, even delving into cannibalism or sexual deviation, in his search for a thrilling experience.

Brantley said it is often such thrill-seeking that leads serial killers to repeat their crimes. It’s a popular misconception that killers are tripped up because they “want to get caught.” Brantley said most of them don’t want to get caught because they want to continue killing. Brantley learned that most criminals simply take advantage of opportunity, and such basic security features as lights and barking dogs can deter most of them. The best way to avoid being a victim is simply locking the door, he said.

Brantley also believes that serial killers weren’t an invention of the twentieth century. He said myths of vampires, demons, and werewolves grew from gruesome murders, with people consigning the deaths to supernatural forces because that was easier to understand. “They couldn’t accept that another human being could do that,” he said.

--Copyright 2005 by Scott Nicholson

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Scott Nicholson is publishing books and comics though Haunted Computer Books, serving as U.S. imprint of Ghostwriter Publications. Check out their titles at He has signed copies of The Skull Ring or Drummer Boy for $9.95 plus $2 shipping, as well as other books available through His e-books The Red Church, The Skull Ring, Burial to Follow, Ashes, The First, and Flowers are available through Amazon and Digital comic books, including the Dirt and Grave Conditions series, are available through his Web site and DriveThru Comics. The novels Drummer Boy and Disintegration will be released in April and May 2010. For writers, he operates the freebie download manual at


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