Did Criminal Profilers Blow It in the Sniper Case?

Now that Beltway sniper supects John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo have been apprehended, pundits are asking whether criminal profilers led investigators astray. How accurate were the profilers?

They certainly whiffed on some key elements, most notably the shooter’s race. The universal consensus was that the killer was white, despite the fact that just over half of sniper homicides committed between 1976 and 2000 were carried out by whites. Another important miss was age: Typical estimates ranged from 20s-30s, while Muhammed is 41 and Malvo is 17.

Many profilers, such as James Alan Fox at Northeastern University, also guessed that the sniper was a “weekday warrior,” someone who held down a respectable job and was a solid family man. Muhammed and his “stepson” Malvo (really the son of a former girlfriend) were destitute, having lived in a Bellingham, Wash., homeless center and, during the attacks, in their 1990 Chevrolet Caprice. And taking an adolescent on a cross-country killing spree is not typical of strong family values.

The most esteemed profilers weren’t always so off-base. Fox redeemed himself by correctly positing that a duo was behind the murders, rather than a lone gunman. Ex-FBI profiler Clinton Van Zandt said that the shooter had honed his techniques through practice; indeed, Muhammad had become an expert marksman while serving in the Army and reportedly practiced in a Tacoma backyard before hitting the road.

One of the most inaccurate profiles was espoused by ex-New York City detective Richard Dietl, who told the  New York Times that he sensed a Columbine-like scenario: “There’s probably two skinny kids out there who have made a pact with each other. They’re shooting bodies and getting away, shooting bodies and getting away.” He also insisted that the killer lacked any bona fide sniper skills.

Perhaps aware that their predictions might someday be lampooned, many profilers hesitated to be bold. “I am a profiler, not a soothsayer,” Van Zandt told the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 10. He went on to make the vague assessment that the sniper “is motivated, he is focused, he is reasonably intelligent.”

In the end, the suspects were probably caught due to a combination of their own arrogance—particularly Malvo’s alleged claim of responsibility for a Montgomery, Ala., slaying—and forensic evidence, especially fingerprints. Profiles played little role in the final capture.

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