8Tips for Interviewing a Serial Killer

Over the route of his profession, former FBI agent and behavioral analyst John E. Douglas has interviewed criminals starting from repeated hijacker Garrett Trapnell and cult leader Charles Manson to serial killers Edmund Kemper (a.Ok.A. The Co-Ed Killer) and Dennis Rader (a.Okay.A. B.T.K.). In his new e-book, The Killer Across the Table, Douglas takes readers into the room as he interviews four very different offenders.

Serial Killer

In these conversations, “I’m seeking to benefit [their] trust [to get] records that I’ll be able to practice to modern-day instances,” Douglas tells Mental Floss. Here, he outlines how he prepares for an interview with a killer to determine what makes them tick.

1. Never pass into an interview bloodless.

“Preparation is the primary component for access interview” of this type, Douglas says. “Before I move in to do an interview, [I] pass back into the documents and completely study the case that got them incarcerated, to begin with. Which method of searching on the police reviews, the initial protocol that the health worker did regarding the post-mortem, autopsy photographs, and then looking in the corrections reports as nicely. You want to be armed with the case while you go in.”

2. Memorize the whole thing—don’t use notes or a tape recorder.

Early in his interviews with killers, Douglas used a tape recorder, which he now says becomes a mistake. “You’re handling very paranoid individuals. They do not trust you, and they disagree with the [corrections] system,” he says. “If my head is down, [they’ll ask], ‘What, are you taping this? Why are you writing these notes down?'” Memorizing the case is prime—while he is going in, he received’t has notes or a tape recorder: “It’s going to be key [for] me to maintain some eye contact with them.”

3. Make certain the environment is proper.

The key in those interviews, Douglas says, is to make the surroundings feel open so that the killer feels cozy and like he’s on top of things. “When you pass right into jail, on occasion, you’re forced to cope with what you have,” he says. “But if I have time, I try to [make arrangements] depending on the persona.”

Douglas prefers to conduct his interviews at night, relying best on low table lights to create a relaxing, strain-free atmosphere. Douglas may even consider seating preparations. “If I’m handling an actual paranoid kind of person, I need to position this man or woman near a window—if there’s a window—so that he can appear out the window and psychologically escape, or I may have him face a door,” he says. Charles Manson and Richard Speck chose to sit down on the backs of their chairs so they might appear down on him. Douglas’s attitude is: “You hate me. I know you hate me; however, cross ahead and do it. I’m just looking to get a little bit of facts now.”

4. Don’t depend on what a killer tells you.

Douglas does not take a killer’s word for something, which is why memorizing the case is so important. Typically, he knows the solutions to the questions he’s asking, allowing him to name the wrongdoer if they lie. “If you don’t look deeply into the material, you don’t know who within the heck you’re speakme to,” Douglas says. “You’re speakme to any person who’s pulling the wool over your eyes … If [an interviewer relies on] on self-reporting, they are going to be packed with various lies coming from the individual they’re interviewing.”

5. Know that this is not an interrogation.

Once he is aware of who’s committed a criminal offense, Douglas says, his primary purpose is to discover what stimulated them. The great way to get that out of them is to ask his questions “in a very at ease sort of a format, making the challenge—even supposing it’s a guy like Manson or a number of the worst killers you’d ever want to meet—experience real secure and feel at the equal time that they are controlling me for the duration of the interview.”

What Douglas ultimately tries to do is have a communique with the offender. “That approach if they may be asking me a lot of questions about myself, approximately perhaps my circle of relatives, my job, and I’m pretty sincere with them,” he says. “They will consider and confide in me as long as they know that I recognize the case, backward and forwards. If they start fudging on the case, trying to send me down the wrong direction, I will confront them, however not in a mean [way]. I’ll snicker and say, ‘Look, come on. I realize what you did. What are you doing here?’ That’s how you advantage their belief.”