By Katherine Ramsland
When major homicide cases turn up in the media, one of the media’s primary contacts is Vernon J. Geberth, M.S. M.P.A. He can speak knowledgeably about cases like BTK, Jeffrey Dahmer, David Parker Ray, Jack Own Spillman III and John Robinson because he’s often been invited into the case by the investigating detectives. They’ve been to his course, used his protocol, and trust his judgment. Thus, he’s become a hub for homicide consulting.
Geberth is a retired lieutenant-commander of the New York City Police Department, who was the commanding officer of the Bronx Homicide Task Force, which handled more than four hundred murder investigations every year. The recipient of over sixty awards for bravery and exceptional work during twenty-three years of service, he has personally investigated, supervised, assessed, researched and consulted on over eight thousand homicides.
He has master’s degrees in both psychology and professional studies, is a graduate of the FBI’s National Academy, and over the past twenty-five years has offered a comprehensive flagship course in Practical Homicide Investigation® and major law enforcement departments around the country, including the F.B.I., have collectively sent over fifty thousand officers and agents to attend.
Geberth is the author of what has been referred to as the "Bible of Homicide," Practical Homicide Investigation: Tactics, Procedures and Forensic Techniques and The Practical Homicide Investigation Checklist and Field Guide and has been series editor since 1982 for more than forty other textbooks for The Practical Aspects of Criminal and Forensic Investigations. Recently he added a seminar in sex-related homicides, based on his latest textbook, Sex-Related Homicide and Death Investigation: Practical and Clinical Perspectives, CRC Press, 2003. He has devoted his life to the study of murder and was the first law enforcement professional to devise standard guidelines and protocols for proficient death inquiries. Currently he is president of P.H.I. Investigative Consultants, Inc., a New York-based corporation that provides state-of-the-art instruction and consultation regarding homicide investigations to police officers.
He’s fond of saying, “We work for God,” and his agenda includes an oath to the effect that the investigation of homicide is a “profound duty” that demands that anyone who undertakes it to “develop an understanding of the dynamics and principles” of proceeding in a professional manner. In the pursuit of justice and truth, they should gain both knowledge and experience, along with flexibility and common sense.
One first principle is “Each case is a form of continuing education.”
Geberth grew up in Mt. Vernon, a suburb of New York City, and his ultimate goal for most of his life was to become a New York City cop, specifically a homicide detective. Toward that end he prepared, and even over-prepared. “Most people didn’t go into police service with a college background,” he says. “I went in with three years of college.” He attended Iona College, a Business School, but despite watching the other students direct their careers toward business administration, he persisted in his desire to be a cop. He knew that, for him, it was a calling: it had chosen him. When he was finally appointed to the NYPD and went to the police academy, he ended up among the top five students in his class. As a result, he was selected for a specialized unit.
“I was assigned to TPF, the Tactical Patrol Force, and there were only three hundred cops assigned to that unit citywide. That may sound like a lot to the average person but with thirty thousand police officers in the city at that time, being one of three hundred was a pretty impressive assignment. Because we were TPF and the major concern was urban rioting and criminal street violence, we received special training in sniper fire, tactical shotgun and machine gun, riot control, and other skills to confront this menace. We were also considered the ‘new incorruptibles.’ At the time, sadly, corruption was systemic in major cities, and we were told if we avoided this dishonesty and did our jobs honorably we’d get promoted, so within two and a half years I was promoted to detective. This was back in the late sixties and early seventies, when the level of street crime and violence was unprecedented. Cab drivers were being killed, criminals were jumping on a commercial trucks and stealing the products right out of the truck as it slowed to make a turn; it was like something out of a bad movie.”
Geberth was then assigned to a street crime unit. “At that time it had a name like ‘Taxi Truck Surveillance Unit, the forerunner of The Street Crime Unit’ but the bottom line was that I was in combat. Here I was, a detective in street clothes, making apprehensions for robbery and weapons. Actually, it was fun to go to work. Eventually we managed to get this condition under control and I was reassigned to precinct detective work and eventually the robbery division. In a roundabout way, upon promotion to sergeant, he returned to the TPF and became supervisor of a spirited unit. “Now I could make twice or three times as many arrests. And in a short span of time, I ended up back as a supervisor in Investigations.” When he finally got to Homicide, he was assigned to the busiest unit in the city - the Seventh Homicide Zone.
The Seventh Homicide Zone comprised four precincts in the South Bronx. “Within these four square miles, we had two hundred and twenty homicides a year,” Geberth states. “It was unbelievable. And when I first came back, I was supervising people that were senior to me, both in age and experience. My idea of supervision was that if I was going to oversee people in a specialized unit, I had better learn the process.” He observed who the sharpest detectives were and spent most of his time around them. He paid attention and wrote things down, and this eventually became a Homicide Checklist. “That was the nucleus of Practical Homicide. I created the checklists so I could be on top of the investigations. I didn’t even realize what impact this would eventually have”
On his days off, Geberth would go to the library and look up everything on homicide. “I would read it and synopsize it, because at that time I already had my first master’s degree and I decided to research my own occupation searching for a better way to proceed.” In the police department there were basic guidelines for how to use forms and make notifications, but not how to solve crimes. In 1978 he started writing as a contributing author for Law and Order Magazine. “I figured that writing about my experience reinforced it.” Readers then began to ask for more from him.
“I would take my own photographs of the crime scenes as well as the official crime scene pictures home and analyze them. I always used to keep a rolodex of the experts that I had met in different locations. I would call them up for advice and counsel, ask them this and that, and involve them in the case. I was the first person to use forensic entomology in the police department. I went down to the Museum of Natural History and interviewed a forensic anthropologist and an entomologist, so as I was putting together these resources to include forensics into the cases, I was also making friends.”
He’d invite the museum entomologist to a crime scene when a body was covered in maggots, and his officers would ask him why he wanted such a person along. “I’d say, ‘This is forensic entomology. This guy is going to give us an approximate time of death.’ And they’d say, ‘Bullshit.’ I had to basically fight everybody as I implemented new forensic techniques. Anyway, I’d come up with a time of death that matched information from an informant. It was terrific because now I had shown these detectives the value of entomology.”
Eventually, Geberth was invited to update a book on homicide for the Charles C. Thomas Company. But they didn’t want him to be the actual author, so he shopped around and ended up with Elsevier Press. “It turns out that Elsevier Press was thinking of starting a forensic series. And so they were interested.” That was the impetus for Practical Homicide Investigation, a thick book of 800-plus pages that, now in its third edition, covers everything from the crime scene and proper evidence handling and documentation, to different types of homicides and psychological profiling.
PHI’s five primary components, according to Geberth, are teamwork, documentation, preservation of evidence, being flexible, and using common sense. At a crime scene, investigators are to observe, describe, record whatever they find, and collect the evidence with the proper procedures. In the process, they develop a mental image of the crime. They must keep in mind that they are all on the same side: they work as a team and share their information and strategies. That attitude, Geberth found, was initially resisted, but he persisted in the belief that there’s no such thing as a private investigation. Cops had to work cooperatively.
Geberth was often frustrated over the lack of training for New York City detectives. After he was assigned to a precinct detective squad, he was called to his first murder scene. “The best that I could come up with at the time,” he recalls, “was that the person was dead. It was a drug-related shooting in an alleyway in West Harlem, and basically there was no forensics at all.” The procedure for solving such crimes at the time was to pay or pressure informants to give up some leads. Geberth was frustrated.
“That’s why, when I came to the Seventh Homicide Zone, I said there’s got to be a better way. There has got to be more to this than getting confessions and rounding up the local suspects.” Seeking a more sophisticated approach, he did his own research and even attended the FBI’s Academy and took an in-depth course on forensics. Yet when he returned to New York to apply some of these procedures, he faced hostility.
“When I would tell the crime scene people what I wanted done, they must have learned a new word. ‘Can’t do it,’ they’d say. ‘Why not?’ I’d ask. ‘It’s carcinogenic.’ So I’d tell them, ‘It’s only carcinogenic if you drink it, now do what I said.’ So that‘s how it started.”
Despite attempts to maintain the undisciplined status quo, the homicide investigators eventually adopted better methods. In a place like New York, a reliable procedure was badly needed, especially when the specialized teams were re-organized. Geberth once again encountered an attitude that, to him, was unacceptable in this line of work.
“Back in 1979,” Geberth remembers, “we went through a re-organization because someone had decided that we didn’t need specialized homicide squads, robbery squads and burglary squads. Headquarters came up with some social work concept of community policing. Well it didn’t work. Within one year there was a quiet reassignment of specialized units. Because I was a well-known homicide sergeant in the Bronx, they gave me a command. I got the Riverdale section. I was upset because I thought I wouldn’t get as many homicides to investigate. When I got there, the guy who was going to now be my second-in-command had been in charge, and the ten detectives who were already there had done essentially nothing for the past five years. The five detectives whom I’d brought with me were now relegated to bicycle thefts. It looked like I had fifteen people, but in reality I had a dysfunctional family. I had to tighten people up, to make it work the way it was supposed to.”
They were called into an investigation of an apparent suicide. “We had an individual who was a graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, so he thought that he knew all about police work. He’d decided he wanted to kill his common-law wife and get himself a new girlfriend. He put together a scenario in which his wife had been ‘depressed’ since the birth of their latest child and he’d it set up that he had to leave the house by 7:00 A.M. to get to Unemployment. When he returned at 9:45, he said, the door was unlocked and he became concerned. He ran through the house and heard a baby crying. He found his wife in the tub, drowned. He attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but he couldn’t save her. Then he put his head down and cried. He called his brother to ask for help. The brother called 911 and the patrol sergeant responded.”
The protocol for an unattended death like this necessitated the patrol officer calling a sergeant who would then notify a detective. Geberth himself went to the scene. “When I got there, the place was in pandemonium. No one was doing his job, the ambulance guy wanted to take the body, and the relatives were running through the apartment. The patrol sergeant had decided it was a suicide because the husband had given him a story and placed an empty vial of pills near his wife’s body, suggesting an overdose due to depression. I went in and said, ‘this apartment is a crime scene. Clear the apartment. This is an absolute disgrace.’ ”
The patrol sergeant explained why he thought it had been a suicide by overdose. But Geberth was not convinced. “I got a gut feeling in my stomach that there was something wrong, and when you get a gut feeling that there is something wrong, there is probably something wrong. I went to the young woman’s body, pulled the sheet back and leaned down. I pulled her eyelids back and saw evidence of petechial hemorrhage. That’s when I realized we had a homicide. I ordered the apartment cleared and found out who lived there. There was an eight-year-old girl, who was in school. I knew that she may have seen something, so I went to the school with a female relative of the victim and got her out of class. She told us that she’d gotten up, her sister was watching cartoons, and she and Mommy had breakfast together and then she’d gone to school at 8:25. When she left the house, she said her daddy was in bed. He was yelling at Mommy. We also found the three-year-old, and she told us the story of how Daddy grabbed Mommy and squeezed her neck in the tub. She’d seen the whole thing.”
Geberth was relieved that he’d thought of getting to the kids before the father did.
“By making that observation of petechial hemorrhage, I got a jump on the bad guy. The autopsy would have established the cause of death the next day, but the husband would have had a lawyer and we wouldn’t have had access to the children.”
Then there was the time he got involved in a shoot-out. Only after it was over did he discover the identity of the man he’d nearly shot.
“In 1971,” says Geberth, “detectives didn’t get overtime, so I was released for the day after appearing in a Manhattan court on a robbery case. I was heading home in my car and was stopped at a light on Canal Street when I saw two men grab another man off the street and yank him into their car. He was screaming for help. It was a typical New York scene: nobody sees anything. I blew my horn to get the traffic cop’s attention. But he was directing traffic so he couldn’t be bothered. I thought the poor guy was going to get killed.”
Geberth managed to maneuver his car closer and saw the guy struggling in the back of the car as a third man drove away. He thought the man who’d been grabbed might be a gangster and was going to be killed. “But I couldn’t let that happen. Suddenly they spotted me and they sped up. So who has a siren in his family car but Vernon, the supercop. After all, you never know when you’ll need it. I activated the siren and we got into a car chase and started firing shots. They shot first, and I shot back at them. It was like something out of a movie. We’re racing through the streets of Little Italy, and they lose control of the car, it goes up on the curb and smashes into a building. All the doors open up and the three men bail out. I come racing up from behind, I jump out, and I shoot at the man with the gun. I knew I hit someone because there was a plate glass window behind and there’s no hole in the glass. Meanwhile, they all split in different directions, so I went after the biggest guy running down the street. I yelled, ‘Police!’ and he looked around and I was just about to fire when a woman and child walked out in front of me. I put the gun into the air and the shot went up. So I tackled him. I didn’t even realize that I was right behind city police headquarters. That’s how much the adrenaline was pumping. All of a sudden I heard, ‘Drop the gun, we’re going to shoot!’”
He was faced with a group of cops with their guns out, ready to shoot him. “I put down my gun, held up my shield, and told them ‘Detective! Detective! This guy is under arrest!’ I then ran back to where the car had been and there was no one there. I was worried I’d get demoted or go to jail. But then I see this gentleman brushing himself off. He says, ‘My diamonds. Did you get my diamonds?’ He was a diamond dealer and had over $100,000 worth of gems. Apparently it was an inside job. He’d gone to a jewelry store to show them what he had and they didn’t want it. It was a set-up. He called me his guardian angel.
Even so, the Borough Commander was annoyed with Geberth for this stunt. However, Geberth was convinced that he had done the right thing. “I was doing what I was supposed to do. It went to court, and I was hero for a day. But all of a sudden that changed when the case was dismissed. I got a call from the DA’s office. The Racket’s Bureau of the District Attorneys Office was investigating me. Then I found out that the plaintiff had been threatened. Another judge dismissed the case. The courts never notify the complainant or me to appear. The whole thing ‘stunk.’ However, because of my records and reports the offender was re-indicted and I received a letter of commendation from Frank Hogan, the District Attorney himself.”
A few years later as a result of a court approved wiretap someone from the DA’s office finally let Geberth know who one of the other persons in the car was that day: “One of guys I was chasing that day was none other than John Gotti.”
Years later, he also got involved in another infamous case, but this time there was no shoot-out. Nevertheless, it dug up some difficult memories for New York.
New York had come under siege in 1976 and 1977 from the “.44 caliber killer,” who randomly shot couples in parked cars. Attacking thirteen people in just over a year, he killed six. He also wrote letters to the newspapers, calling himself the “Son of Sam” and creating an atmosphere of terror throughout the city, because it seemed that he could strike at any time after dark, anywhere in the city, and melt away. Two women were shot just sitting on their porches.
After David Berkowitz, 24, was arrested for the crimes, thanks to a parking ticket in the vicinity of the shootings that led police to him in Yonkers, he’d confessed but then raised insanity issues by claiming that a neighbor’s dog had commanded him to kill. When he’d tried to sell his story, New York blocked him with the Son of Sam law that prohibited offenders from making money on their crimes. He’d gone to prison, sentenced to six consecutive life terms, and that seemed to be the end of the case. But it wasn’t.
One of the “Son of Sam” letters contained cryptic references to “other individuals” who had been involved with Berkowitz in the crimes. They were supposedly part of a satanic group called the Process Church of the Final Judgment that gathered near his home. Two of the members were Michael and John Carr, a.k.a., “the Joker” and “the Duke of Death.” Their father, Sam Carr, was the owner of the black lab who supposedly gave Berkowitz the orders. No one else was ever arrested, but a reporter, Maury Terry, decided to investigate. The end result was his book, Ultimate Evil. As he came up with evidence of an alleged conspiracy that connected not just Berkowitz’s crimes to this group but also those of the Charles Manson cult in 1969 in Los Angeles, the media picked up on it, forcing the police to revisit the case.
Terry claimed that Berkowitz had acted as part of a consortium of people in a satanic conspiracy. He conducted an interview with Berkowitz, who claimed to have only shot two of the victims. That meant that someone else was out there who had committed murder and gotten away with it. Terry also indicated that both Carr brothers had died violently within two years of Berkowitz’s arrest. One of them had “666” painted on his hand and the other perished in a drunk-driving accident, though he was not known to drink. Terry claimed that even the NYPD had conceded that there was more than one gunman in these crimes.
Apparently, according to Terry, a man who was a Nazi sympathizer and demonologist had escaped from England after World War II and had set up shop on North Broadway in Yonkers, near the neighborhood to which Berkowitz eventually moved. He’d formed a group, many members of which had died in violent incidents.
“It was suggested that Berkowitz had been working with a team of some kind of cultists,” Geberth says, “and of course the cases in the Bronx were mentioned.” Geberth’s chief called on him to reopen the Bronx cases, knowing he would be thorough and finally put this question to rest. “I can tell you for the record there were no other people involved. It was Berkowitz and Berkowitz alone that committed the homicides in the Bronx. But we went back and examined everything, and we determined there was only person could have done it. We reinterviewed the witnesses and we looked at the evidence and there was just no way anybody else did it. To me, it was just a hokey book.”
But his own book eventually got attention from an unexpected incident that brought him national attention. He was retired by this point but still revising Practical Homicide Investigation. He soon saw it on television.
On June 12, 1994, the nation learned about a brutal double murder that would have a significant impact in the future on how such crimes would be investigated. Nicole Brown Simpson, former wife of former football celebrity O. J. Simpson, was the victim of an assailant who slashed her to death. The killer also slaughtered a man with her, Ronald Goldman, 25. He had come to deliver eyeglasses that Nicole’s mother had left behind at a restaurant where he was a waiter. They both lay dead in pools of blood inside the front gate.
Although Nicole was no longer married to Simpson, the police contacted him and he soon became a suspect. Going to his home, detectives noted a bloodstain on the door of his white Ford Bronco. A trail of blood also led up to the house, but Simpson appeared to be gone. It turned out that he had just flown to Chicago.
He returned to Los Angeles and agreed to answer questions. Investigators then noticed a cut on a finger of his left hand that would prove to be problematic for him when they eventually charged him with the crimes. First, he told several conflicting stories about how he had gotten the cut, and second, the crime scene indicated that the killer had been cut on his left hand and had trailed blood outside the gates.
Several droplets of blood at the scene failed to show a match with either of the victim's blood types. Then Simpson's blood was drawn for testing (after the droplets had already been collected) and comparison between Simpson's DNA and that of the blood at the scene indicated a match. Next to the bodies was a bloodstained black leather glove that bore traces of fiber from Goldman's jeans. The glove's mate, stained with Simpson's blood, was found on his property. There were also traces of the blood of both victims lifted from inside Simpson's car and house, along with blood that contained his DNA. In fact, his blood and Goldman's were found together on the car's console.
When Simpson was notified that he would be arrested, he fled with his friend, Al Cowlings, and hinted in a note that he might kill himself. He finally turned himself in but pleaded not guilty and hired a defense team of celebrity lawyers. They intimated that Detective Mark Fuhrman, who had been at O. J.'s home the night of the murder, was a racist and had planted evidence.
The entire trial was televised from the courtroom, and along with the rest of America, Geberth watched. To his surprise, he saw Practical Homicide Investigation used by both teams as an authoritative guide about the forensic and investigative issues. He agreed to become a weekly commentator for “Inside Edition.” He got quite involved and anticipated a guilty verdict.
Yet, deliberating less than four hours, the jury freed Simpson with a finding of not guilty. In an interview with PI Magazine, he said, “I felt like I had suffered a loss. This guy was guilty, pure and simple….But it motivated me to write the third edition….specifying why O.J. did it.” He also updated the forensic procedures, which helped to make the book a standard for international protocol.
Geberth retired as Commanding Officer of the Bronx Homicide Task Force, which handled more than 400 murders per year. Rather than take a security job, as many retired cops do, he wanted to continue with his mission of educating himself and others in homicide. So he opened a business, P. H. I. Investigative Consultants, Inc. featuring Practical Homicide Investigations®, and offered seminars to cops around the country so that they could take advantage of his experience and his protocols. He invited several nationally known forensic scientists and medical examiners to be speakers as well. Among them are Dr. Michael Baden, Dr. Henry Lee, Ph. D, Detective First Grade Raymond Pierce, and Dr. Richard Ovens, Psy D.
He begins by stressing the importance of getting experience. “Before you get to be a homicide detective,” he tells students at his seminars, “you should have spent some time in the streets, rolling around with some of the folks who you’re going to meet later. People are basically good, but they also carry a lot of baggage with them. During the course of interacting with people during a crime or homicide situation, they’re going to lie, for a lot of reasons: out of embarrassment, desire not to get involved, or some personal issue you don’t know about. So you have to spend time interacting with people face-to-face under tough conditions. Otherwise, you’ll miss those important nonverbal behaviors and cues that will allow you to zero in.
As he taught the seminars, he found himself the recipient of additional cases. Some of the cases he presents are cases on which he consulted, while others were sent to him to review or to add whatever he could offer. “The guys and gals who go through my class then see in their jurisdictions what I was talking about. They implement it and call me. So I get access to the cases.”
Over the years, he has seen an increase in sex-related homicides, so he developed a three-day seminar to address only that topic. He uses crime scene photos, videotapes collected from perpetrators, police documents, and even letters written by offenders to clarify for officers and detectives not yet exposed to the graphic details of such cases how the minds of such perpetrators work. The situations he offers range from quick murders to drawn-out tortures to staged crime scenes. Among them are the following:
Geberth offers a paper on this case on his Web site (www.practicalhomicide.com). An eleven-year-old girl was found hanging from the bedpost in her bedroom. Her mother called it in to 9-1-1. The medical examiner believed that the events that day warranted a more thorough investigation and requested Geberth to conduct an investigative analysis.
“Equivocal death investigations,” he writes, “are those inquiries that are open to interpretation.” In other words, the manner of death may as easily be homicide or accident as suicide. The facts are too vague to give a definitive finding, and that was indeed the case with this girl’s death.
The girl was found hanging from the bedpost. The ligature was comprised of a dog collar around the girl’s neck attached to a carabineer, which was hooked onto an “S” hook attached to the heavy-duty moving chain. The mother informed the first officer at the scene that her seven-year-old son had found the victim, and the officer ran to the room and soon determined that the body was cold. The victim was pronounced dead and the officer notified detectives. The mother said that she had been watching other children downstairs (she ran a daycare) and had sent her son to tell the girl, who was supposedly doing homework, to come and have lunch. She added that her daughter had a habit of tying her toys to the bed frame in the manner in which she now hung.
The father who’d expressed having had a “feeling” that something was wrong before he called home, made several odd statements, such as, “This was an accident. We have nothing to cover up” and “when you have done nothing, you have nothing to hide.” The mother, too, spontaneously said, “If there’s any good to come out of this, at least she will never have a period.” She insisted the whole thing had been an accident.
The body was taken to the medical examiner’s office. The parents said they hadn’t seen any evidence in the girl of depression, and under questioning admitted that their daughter had never used a dog collar on her toys. The autopsy found clear evidence of sexual abuse, both vaginal and anal, which made the death suspicious, so the father was interrogated. He said the injuries were from tampons he’d found in the girl’s room and then refused a polygraph. When he finally took it and failed, he confessed to raping and sodomizing his daughter. He offered nothing about the death, which looked more like a homicide than a suicide. The detective gave him an out by stating that perhaps the girl had been despondent over the abuse.
The mother provided her husband with an alibi and was never given a polygraph. She seemed undisturbed about her daughter’s sexual assault. One “red flag” that Geberth notes in this situation was that, after finding the girl hanging, the mother had never attempted to take her daughter down from the ligature. Her call to 9-1-1 seemed equally suspicious, and her stories failed to corroborate statements her husband had made, which themselves were full of inconsistencies.
“It is obvious,” Geberth writes, “as one reads the statements given to the police and medical investigators, that there was collusion on the part of the mother and father to confuse and mislead police with their contradictory and inconsistent accounts.”
The hanging apparatus itself appeared too sophisticated for a young girl to have constructed and there was no rust on her hands from the rusted chain, as there should have been had she wrapped it herself. Four of her friends with whom police spoke said that she was not depressed or suicidal.
Geberth believed that the death was consistent with a homicide staged to look like a suicide. He thought that the first responders should have been more skeptical and immediately treated both parents as suspects. He also believed that after the father had confessed to sexual abuse, he could have been pressed to admit to murder. That no one did this was a mistake. The mother, too, should have been pressured to take a polygraph.
While the father was convicted of sodomy and rape, the medical examiner refused to rule the death a suicide. Instead, the death was rule “Undetermined.” For Geberth, this was a tragic case of missed opportunities and obvious red flags that were not noted in time to do any good. He consulted with and supported the medical examiner’s ruling.
Thanks to his prominent position in the investigative community, Geberth has access to evidence from some of the most shocking cases ever investigated in this country. The work of David Parker Ray and Maury Travis are among the most chilling. Both men tortured their victims before killing them, and both kept videotapes of what they had done, which Geberth describes in detail in Sex-Related Homicide and Death Investigation.
In New Mexico in 1999, a naked woman who’d run from her tormenter had a horrifying story to report: a man had kidnapped her and used all kinds of torture instruments on her before she’d managed to get away. Authorities arrested David Parker Ray, 60, who clearly experienced sexual pleasure from the pain he inflicted on his victims. While he applied various implements, he photographed and videotaped what he was doing, referring to the prostitutes he’d kidnapped as his slaves. He employed psychological terrorism to enhance his pleasure, using the torture tapes of prior victims to let each captive know what was in store for her, and when he tired of the game, he’d kill them and dump their bodies in rural areas or in a lake.
His girlfriend, Cindy Hendy, participated in these gruesome sessions with him, as was his daughter, Glenda Ray. When police searched Ray’s property, they found a trailer (the “play box”) filled with instruments of torture, chains, locks, collars, dildos, whips, bondage materials, S&M drawings, and surgical instruments. There were also a gynecology chair with restraints, jumper cables, electrical wires, a video camera and a monitor. Ray had also drawn up a protocol for handling his “slaves.”
Hendy testified against Ray, his daughter, and a partner, Roy Yancy. Ray was charged with a variety of crimes related to kidnapping and rape. He died in 2002 in prison, a suspect in several murders. The number of his victims will never be known.
As Geberth was writing these cases into Sex-Related Homicide, he found that he had sometimes had to put the work down and take a break. “It got to me a couple of times. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I was viewing videotapes of women being tortured and killed. I watched those tapes and tried to describe the dynamics. It took three years to write because I had to keep putting it down. My wife usually reads my stuff, and I gave her something from this book to read. And I saw her face change. She put it down and looked at me with this really sad look and said, ‘Vernon, I can’t read this.’ I realized then that I had gone too deep into it. I had so clinicized and insulated myself against it that I didn’t see it as that bad.”
And yet, the ability to do that makes it possible to analyze the cases and teach the methods for improving investigations. “Those of us who can look at it are not stronger or smarter than other people. By clinicizing, we do what surgeons do. We see the process rather than the person. I believe in what I’m doing for my colleagues, who need to have a frame of reference for this evil so they can effectively investigate these types of felons. Just look at what Dennis Rader as the “BTK” killer was capable of and one can readily understand this need. I have a strong belief in God and the concept of good and evil. You have to have a belief in a higher authority to function properly. The psychopath cannot submit himself to a higher authority.”
Another case covered in the seminar that specializes in sexual murders is the following, sent to Geberth from detective Roy Douglas, who had been to a number of Geberth’s classes and implemented the procedures of practical homicide investigation as he investigated it.
In St. Louis, Missouri, in 2001, police linked six murders of prostitutes with DNA from semen and entered the profile into CODIS (Combined DNA Information System). No matches were found. Then Bill Smith, a reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, wrote stories about the victims and received a letter in response. The writer provided a map to “Victim number 17,” which led police to skeletal remains. The detectives then looked at the computer-generated map, enlisting the Illinois State Police Cyber Crime Unit for assistance. Mark McAmish recognized the map as one from the Expedia.com Web site.
He contacted Expedia to get the IP addresses of computers that had visited the Web site. They provided a list, and on it was an address just outside St. Louis for Maury Travis. A background check revealed that he was a convicted felon, so detectives went to his home with a search warrant and found evidence of the possible torture and murder of several women.
They showed Travis photographs of the victims and he denied knowing them. But then he asked to see the “murdered” girls again. They had not mentioned that the women were dead. He broke down, cursing the Internet, and said he would lead them to another victim dump site, but then asked to be taken to jail. There he requested a can of soda, from which the detectives extracted a sample of his salvia for DNA analysis. It matched the semen from two of the victims. They also got a match from tread marks from one of the victim’s legs to Travis’s car. Eventually they linked him to twelve unsolved homicides, but then he committed suicide in jail.
Travis’ sick videos of what he had done to his victims were among the tapes that Geberth reviewed as he wrote his book. What he saw was outright evil.
“My definition of evil,” he state, “is anything that intentionally destroys life. In Practical Homicide, I talk about a psychology of evil on the part of people who kill. The homicides at the World Trade Center, which created the biggest crime scene that I have ever seen in my life, were an act of evil. As is genocide perpetrated by religious fanatics. Blowing up innocent people is evil, as are sexual psychopaths and serial murderers who kill because they like it - they turn it into some kind of sexual sport. These killers have conscious and detailed plans for murder, and they certainly know right from wrong. They just don’t give a damn.”
Among them is a notorious killer who strung out his crimes over three decades, and Geberth was involved from several angles.
In Wichita, Kansas in 1974, someone killed the Otero family of four, singling out the young girl for torture and strangulation by hanging. Six months later, a young woman was murdered in her home. The local newspaper received a letter with crime scene details of the Otero family massacre, and while arrests were made, no one was identified as the killer. Then two women were murdered in the area in 1977, followed by a poem sent to the press referring to the first one. FBI profilers suggested downplaying the murders, which appeared to make the killer angry. He sent a letter to a local television station claming that he was among the elite serial killers, all of whom were compelled to kill by “Factor X.” He was already stalking victim number eight. How many people had to die, he asked, before his work would be recognized?
Geberth was doing a presentation shortly after these incidents at the Milton Helpern Center in Wichita. “I met John Dodson, who was the captain of the Wichita police department. He asked me if I’d look at his BTK case, and he put together a file of the crime scene pictures and reports, and asked me to give him my ideas. In the Otero case it was obvious to me that little eleven-year old Josephine was the intended target because he had spent extra time with her. However, I didn’t see that there was any rhyme or reason for what the killer was doing, except that he wanted the authorities to know he was the killer and that he was heavily vested in bondage. That’s why he had called himself BTK. He had done drawings of his female victims facedown and it was my opinion that he received sexual pleasure from doing these drawings. I guarantee you that he had pictures of some of these murders, because the drawings were too explicit. These folks have an intense fantasy system and they’re trying to replicate it.” The murder plan is in the pornography; the pictures that arouse them are the roadmaps to their deviance.
The killer ceased responding for a time, and then another event fortuitously brought Geberth together again with the Wichita investigators. He’d been involved in the investigation of the first case in New York that featured a DNA analysis - a watershed case for the forensic use of DNA. In 1987, the same year as the world’s first conviction via DNA analysis in a serial murder case in England, Joseph Castro was charged in the stabbing death of his neighbors, a young woman and her two-year-old daughter. It went to trial in 1989. The primary evidence against Castro was a drop of blood on his watchband that was believed to have originated with one of the victims, and the prosecution had ordered a DNA analysis.
By this time, there had been press reports around the world about the miracle tool for crime-solving, and Lifecodes became the first U.S. DNA laboratory. They used the RFLP method to test the blood, but after admissibility hearings were allowed to say only that it was not Castro’s, rather than that it matched a victim. The prosecutor indicated that it was not Castro’s and offered astronomical odds to support his statement. The defense expert challenged these odds and the match criteria used. The trial court then excluded the DNA evidence, although Castro later pled guilty and got a lesser sentence.
Nevertheless, the case had legs: Geberth found a way to turn this temporary setback for DNA into an advantage.
“One thing I did before I left [the NYPD] was to authorize $6000 worth of testing in connection with the Otero case in order to prove the value of DNA testing and get Otero off the street. Lifecodes later hired me to incorporate DNA testing into my program. I was authorized to open up any case I wanted in the U.S. In 1988, I’d been doing it for a short time and this letter came in. BTK had communicated again with authorities to say he was back. He was attempting to take credit for another sex-related homicide that, it turned out, he did not do. I remembered the Otero case. The killer had masturbated all over the little girl, so I contacted Captain John Dotson and had him send the samples to Lifecodes. We obtained the first DNA print of him for their case.”
And it didn’t stop there. Sixteen years passed, but the evidence was soon to become useful. In March 2004, the Wichita Eagle newsroom in Kansas received a letter from “Bill Thomas Killman” - BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) - that contained three photographs of a woman who was clearly dead. She had been posed in a variety of ways and a photocopy of her driver’s license was included. It had belonged to Vicki Wegerle, a woman who had been murdered in 1986 and not officially linked to BTK then. Late in 2004, a package was found in a park that contained a manuscript entitled “The BTK Story,” as well as the driver’s license of one of the 1977 victims. BTK had reported this murder to police dispatchers. He also used an eroticized symbol formed from the letters BTK that he had used in his 1970s communications (and kept out of media stories by the police). So after a quarter of a century, this predator had resurfaced.
“In March 2004, BTK wrote another letter,” Geberth recalls. “I got a phone call from KBI in Wichita, and they told me that BTK had re-emerged. They sent me all the letters, and I saw that he’d included his special code. So I suggested some strategies and one thing I told them was to challenge him. I thought he was trying to taunt the police and might continue to communicate if they “baited” him, but they were overruled and didn’t do it.”
Then early in 2005 BTK sent a computer disc that was traced to a Lutheran church. Dennis Rader, who’d used the computer, was arrested. In August, he confessed in court to ten murders. When it was all wrapped up, the detectives involved provided Geberth with investigative information for his program.
While Geberth’s books and seminars contain a wealth of cases, with photos and crime reports, there are some that jump off the page. When asked about one of his more unusual cases, he offered the following, which drew the attention of a rather prominent writer.
Stranger Than Fiction
“I had a case of a fellow who fed his face to the dogs,” Geberth recalls. “I’d been called to the scene and the hospital at the same time. When I went to the hospital, I observed a man whose face looked like hamburger meat on a gurney screaming bloody murder. When I arrived at the crime scene no one had gone in. I was advised that there were wild dogs in the apartment. I told them to shoot the dogs with darts so we could go in. It was a bloody mess. He’d been under the influence of PCP, and in his psychosis he’d smashed a mirror and began peeling his face off his head. He took his eyes out, cut his ears off, and cut his tongue out. But I couldn’t find the face. The only explanation was the dogs. I had them brought down to the ASPCA to pump the dogs’ stomachs. And they found pieces of flesh.”
Geberth returned to the hospital. “The man had one eye floating in his head like a Cyclops. The optic nerve was cut. I told the doctors to get the gauze out of his mouth and I got close to him and said, ‘What happened to you?’
“All of a sudden, he goes, ‘Yayayayayayayaya.’ It was all this chatter and no face. Well, I almost lost it. Here I am talking to a cadaver and the cadaver is talking back. Amazingly, he survived! His brain was damaged from the drugs and he became a ward of the state. But he did survive. The surgeons gave him a new face.”
Then Geberth learned that author Thomas Harris, who had penned the bestselling novels, The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal had used the case without permission. Apparently the FBI profilers who had allowed him inside Quantico had given him Geberth’s book. He was getting rich off the gruesome details that Geberth had provided.
“So I sent him a letter and told him he should have cited his sources. Eventually, after six months, I received a Xeroxed note. He apologized for using the information and said that future printings would acknowledge where it came from. He did that in the paperback of Hannibal.”
Geberth shows more integrity. Whenever he uses cases in his books or seminars, he acquires permission, cites his sources, and mentions them in class. He believes firmly in teamwork and in giving due recognition to the detectives who investigated the cases he uses to teach others. He thereby passes on to them the importance of doing so and hopes that he will inspire in them the right attitudes. If he does, he believes, everyone wins.
His seminars are not just training courses; they’re about teaching and supporting an attitude for homicide detectives to do the right thing.