PROFILES IN MURDER
An FBI Legend Dissects Killers and Their Crimes
Plenum Press ($26.95)
False Confessions and the Politics of Murder
Southern Illinois University Press ($16.95)
by Kris Lawson
Russell Vorpagel, one of the founders of the FBI Behavioral Science Profiling Unit, now works as a consultant, training law enforcement personnel in the basics of profiling serial killers. As a lecturer and demonstrator, Vorpagel can be riveting, so it's too bad that Profiles in Murder presents his story "as told to Joseph Harrington," a ghostwriter who can't match his level of interest. The consuming mystery of this book isn't how to profile serial killers, but why didn't Vorpagel write his own story?
The book (which has a deceptively sleazy cover) is divided into extracts from Vorpagel's lectures and more anecdotal accounts of cases in which he was involved. Harrington puts the reader in the place of the lecture audience, listening to Vorpagel's basics of profiling. Once in a while Harrington throws in some amateur profiling of his own, giving trite descriptions of the audience members that sound like setups for bad ethnic jokes. That aside, the lectures are the most interesting part of the book, showing off Vorpagel's surprisingly active but dark sense of humor.
Vorpagel illustrates his speeches with stories and puzzles for those who think profiling is a matter of simply following charts and definitions. None of these puzzles have easy solutions, and investigators' failure to solve them results in death. There are a couple of classroom exercises the reader gets to take part in (descriptions of how to create a homemade crime scene are among the goriest in the book), yet Vorpagel keeps most of the profiling information general (he isn't so much training his lecture subjects in profiling as training them to call the FBI for help). Most of the anecdotes relate mistakes investigators can make and have made when investigating murders. And Vorpagel doesn't exclude himself from analysis either—one of the flashbacks involves a policeman in Vorpagel's department who kills an innocent bystander and then claims the dead man had a knife. For 20 years Vorpagel ruminated on this case before going back to prove the policeman wrong. The other cases are a bit more wacky, ranging from a vampire serial killer to a barber who preys on little boys to a murder attempt on Vorpagel by a crazed Rastafarian.
As a polished presentation of Vorpagel and his experience in profiling serial killers, this book is a failure; its back-and-forth structure continually distracts from the subject matter and the fawning tone of Harrington's presentation is equally offputting. Perhaps Vorpagel will be inspired to write his own book after seeing how this one turned out.
Jim Fisher's Fall Guys: False Confessions and the Politics of Murder is a fascinating search for the truth behind two murder cases of the late 1950s. Fisher, a former FBI agent and current criminology professor, researched the facts and interviewed surviving participants in the investigations of these murders—murders in which each of the accused killers was a young boy and which were originally investigated by the same detective.
Fisher's path through the reports, clippings, and interviews is documented step by step. His writing style is refreshingly unmelodramatic—when he meets the two men who are the focus of his investigation, he avoids the tawdry talk-show sentimentalism which usually accompanies this kind of story. The first murder, that of Helen Zubryd, was mentioned in a clipping Fisher read while doing research for a lecture. Zubryd's 11-year-old son Charlie had confessed to the murder—28 months later, after a grueling interview with police. Curious as to why an eight-year-old would have left a hatchet in his mother's forehead, Fisher began looking for more information. As inconsistencies in physical evidence and alibis began to accumulate, Fisher's suspicions focused on one investigator, Sergeant Ted Botula, who headed the Zubryd investigation and who had been under immense pressure to solve the case.
While searching for official reports on the Zubryd case, Fisher stumbled upon another case that Detective Botula was involved with: the 1958 murder of Lillian Stevick was solved when Botula arrested a 13-year-old boy, Jerry Pacek, who discovered her body after she was beaten to death. Pacek was interrogated for more than 60 hours and finally confessed, although he was unable to tell police what the murder weapon was or re-enact the crime for them. He went on to serve 10 years in prison.
Fisher found similarities between the two murders: the same lead investigator, the same kind of railroaded confessions, the same description of another suspect by witnesses, and the other investigators who had worked on the cases unconvinced of the boys' guilt. As he accumulated evidence, he also accumulated supporters, who helped him solve the 30-year-old mysteries—as far as they can be solved, at least. Over all, Fall Guys is a refreshing change for the true crime genre, which generally prefers sensationalist titillation (crime scene photos! never-before-told story of lone witness!) over a detailed account. But Fisher's methodical story, including how and where he finds the evidence he needs, is just as gripping as a thriller.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 1999 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 1999