Interview on Psycholinguistics with Pete Klismet

Pete KlismetPsycholinguistics

Pete, a couple of weeks ago when we were chatting, I asked you if profiles could be done on a person’s writing. You surprised me with your answer. Can you tell me and my readers a little more about what you said and why you said it?

Well, my quick answer was ‘yes.’ I said that because not only was I aware of this technique being used in the past, but also because I had used it myself in a case several years ago.

Alright. Why don’t we start by having you telling us what you know about when this unique technique came into being.

Okay. Let me start out by giving you some history I was initially made aware of in my basic profiling training, and then sought to study a little more about over the years. Back in the late ‘40’s and into the ‘50’s, New York city was plagued by a seemingly random series of bombings. Surprisingly enough, the bombings had not injured anyone, but had understandably created a sense of panic in the city. Which is not too hard to understand.  Long story short, a NYPD Captain talked to a friend of his, Dr. James Brussel, who was a psychiatrist and criminologist. Dr. Brussel was shown crime scene pictures, evidence from the bombs themselves, a few disabled bombs and began to develop some idea of what this guy was like. The police wanted to see if he could come up with a profile of the bomber.

That makes sense, but where does the writing part come into play?

Good question Alice, and that’s exactly where I was headed next. This bomber guy had written a series of letters to Consolidated Edison, the newspapers, and even the police, among others. Some were cryptic, but others were in his own handwriting. Taking all of this information as a whole, Dr. Brussel came up with we’d now call an ‘offender profile’ of an unknown suspect. Brussel said it was clear to him from the writing he had done that the bomber was suffering from paranoia, and clearly had an axe to grind with Con Ed. He said history showed most bombers were male, so the suspect would be as well. Now comes some of the more interesting stuff. The doctor concluded that paranoia develops slowly and the bombings had gone on for about fifteen or sixteen years. Doing the math, he said the bomber would be somewhere between forty and fifty years old, because paranoia usually starts in the middle to late twenties for men. So he used that information plus the sixteen year duration of the crimes to pin down his approximate age. Now, another conclusion that made his writing fit with the bombs he created. The doctor said the man would be neat and tidy, precise, methodical and very organized in his everyday life. The bomber would also be courteous but not friendly. His style of writing and the fact he used bombs told the doctor the man would be of Slavic descent, because bombs were favored in Middle Europe, and his writing displayed a Slavic orientation. Don’t even begin to ask me how he came up with that. But, he said since most Slavs were Catholic, the bomber would be Catholic as well.

Now, I see how he’s drawing some conclusions and extrapolating other information from that. So we’re starting to see the picture of what this guy is like.

Exactly. The writing told Brussel the man had a good education, but probably had not gone to college.  He would have been foreign-born because the old-fashioned phrasing of the letters sounded as if they had been written or thought out in a foreign language, then translated into English.

Fascinating!

Yeah, that’s what I thought, but it gets even better. Because of the way the man rounded off the bottom of his “W’s,” and this may sound way out there Alice, the doctor concluded this represented a woman’s breasts. So then he takes this to a place few of us could ever go. He believed something about sex was troubling the bomber, possibly an Oedipus Complex such that he loved his mother, hated his father and other authority figures. He went on from there to conclude the man had little interest in and probably was fearful of women, so he would be single, and most likely a virgin. He also believed the man lived with an older but close relative, possibly a sister.

So now we have gone from knowing nothing about this guy to knowing quite a bit.

That’s right, but here’s one thing that blew me away. Brussel said that when they caught the bomber, he’d be wearing a double-breasted suit, buttoned in front.

How on earth … ?

Yeah, me too. There were some other things, but that’s pretty much the crux of it.

Okay, so now they have all of this information, what did they do with it? New York’s a pretty big place.

Indeed it is, and was back then. Well, sometimes it comes down to good old police work. They were sure the guy was a former Con Ed employee. Now that they had a likely age range, they got Con Ed to search through worker’s comp files for employees with serious health problem. Jackpot. A sharp clerk found a man who had been injured in a plant accident, and had written several letters to Con Ed feeling he had been unfairly treated by them. The writing matched the letters they had as evidence, so they knew they had their guy.

And they arrested him?

Yup. That same night. In Waterbury, Connecticut. But here’s what’s amazing. The area he lived in was primarily Slavic, Catholic, and he was living with not one but two older sisters. He was in a robe when they arrived to arrest him, so they had him get dressed. Guess what he put on?

A suit?

A double-breasted suit, buttoned in front.

Exactly as the doctor had predicted.

Exactly. And they also found out everything else Dr. Brussel predicted was true. He’d never been married and had never had a relationship with a woman. Metesky copped out to everything, but the court wound up placing him in a mental institution.

Why would they do that after all the bombings?

Because, just as Dr. Brussel had predicted, Metesky was a paranoid schizophrenic and incurable.

And a lot of this was based on how he wrote and how he formed the letter “W.”

That’s right. I am very circumspect on how I do that now.

I’ll bet. Okay, let’s go back to what you originally mentioned about having used this psycholinguistics skill yourself.  Do you know how to do it?

Oh heavens no. This is such a specialized field that I’d just as soon keep my focus on the bigger picture.

But you have used it?

That’s right. We had a very odd case when I was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was an extortion or ransom case.

FBI Diary FRONT smallWhich would mean a kidnapping right?

Usually it does, and that’s a good observation. This one did not, and that’s why I say it was an odd case. Those types of cases just seemed to follow me around. I point out several in FBI Diary, if you have read it. Anyhow, a guy had gone into several stores of an Iowa grocery chain and injected insecticide into milk cartons.

Into the top I assume?

Exactly. So the puncture was not clear. Thus, when people took the milk home and poured it, they smelled the insecticide and immediately contacted the store where they got it.

And that was about how many?

Somewhere around twenty complaints were received before the stores cleared all the milk off the shelves.

And found even more that were contaminated?

Some more, but I don’t recall how many. There were four or five of these stores in Cedar Rapids, and every one of them had bad milk.

Okay. All that makes sense, but why was someone doing it. Do we have another Metesky?

Not really. In a couple of days, one of the stores gets a typed letter saying the writer would keep doing it until the store gave him $850,000.

$850,000? Must have had a large student loan to pay off.

Not exactly, but only because tuition was a lot less back then. Where he came up with that number I don’t recall. But, he specified what was to be done and how the store was supposed to do it. Now in the meantime, we’re working with the local police to try to figure out who this guy was.

How did that turn out?

Big, fat zero. We had nothing, and this was of course before the days there were cameras watching everything and everyone, everywhere. We had no witnesses, nothing whatsoever to go on. We made a bunch of copies of the demand letter and everyone read it over and over until we had bloodshot eyes. Still nothing. A bunch of theories, but cops are good at that. We had no clue who or what we were dealing with.

Ok, so where do you go from here?

Well, I remembered the Metesky case, so I got in touch with our Behavioral Sciences Unit in Quantico. I faxed the letter back to them and they could not make heads or tails out of it either. But, they said there was a professor at Syracuse University, Dr. Murray Miron, who had some of the same abilities Dr. Brussel had. They faxed it to him and told him to contact me when he came up with something useful.

And presumably he did?

Yeah, but let me add something here. A couple of weeks had gone by and now our unknown suspect was starting to get ants in his pants. He wanted his money. He made calls to a few of the stores saying he was going to start contaminating other products unless they came up with the money. After the first call, we told the people at the stores to keep putting him off and say they were trying to collect the money. That bought us some time.

But you still don’t know who he was?

Nope, and we were working on that feverishly, but all dead ends. Then I get a call and a follow-up fax from Dr. Miron. He said he’d examined the letter and there were several things he felt confident about our suspect. First, it was a male. Then it got interesting. He said the guy would be, and I remember his exact words, “a woodsy type of guy.” By that he meant the guy lived out and away from towns and people – in the country. He lived alone and had no involvement with women. He was quiet and shy and had few if any friends. If he had relatives or knew people, they would think of him as being ‘odd.’ He watched a lot of TV and that was where he got his idea for the extortion. He was not a particularly bright guy, and was probably odd in appearance. Maybe quite overweight from spending most of his time sitting on a couch doing nothing. He probably did not have a job, and was living on workman’s comp or Social Security. There were probably a few other things, but that was most of it.

But that would fit a lot of people!

It sure would. We did some brainstorming after I got the information, but we could not come up with much. And then we got a bit of a break. This guy was finally getting really ticked off since the store was not coming up with the money. So he gave an employee some very specific instructions on what he wanted them to do. He wanted a person from the store to leave the money in a milk box at a specific place and time, and he did not want to see any cop cars. The break was, he gave us a couple of days.

How was that a break?

It gave us some time to do some surveillance and planning. The area was right out in the country on a lonely road, back in a grove of big cottonwood trees. He wanted to have the money dropped around midnight. We obviously could not have cars all over the place, so we decided to stay way back and put an airplane up. It went like clockwork. The guy showed up and parked back in the trees. He turned off his lights and just sat there for a while. The plane had him spotted. We did not know if he’d be armed, so the plan was to simply let him set there and take him down when he left. Eventually, the plane spotted him getting out of the car, walking over to the box, getting back in the car and taking off. So we swooped in and arrested him. He eventually admitted to everything.

Alright, that’s all well and good, but how did the doctor’s profile help?

The place he wanted to meet to collect the money was a place you could not know about unless you knew the area very well. It was way out in the country in an adjoining county. Iowa can be pretty rural, so that told us he knew the area and was probably the right guy. It turned out it was.

How about the other things the doctor had to say?

Right on the money. He was very heavy, lived alone with a dog, never married, dressed like a lumberjack and had a trailer house far away from the closest town. Right in the middle of some woods.

So the profile did not catch him, but it helped?

In several ways. Obviously, when he gave us the location of the money drop, that fit in well with Dr. Miron’s comments. When I interviewed him, I told him we already knew who he was. That wasn’t true, but he bought it. He asked me how I knew that, and I laid Dr. Miron’s profile down in front of him on the table. He read it carefully, and then he said, “Yeah, I see how you knew.” He fell for that hook, line and sinker, and it was fairly easy to get a full confession from him after that.

Are there any fairly recent cases you can think of where this was used?

One that comes to mind was the Unabomber. He had his ‘manifesto’ that he wanted put in newspapers, and finally they decided to do it. His brother saw it and almost immediately knew who it was, so that got him identified. A little different, but it still worked. Another way it worked indirectly was with the BTK Killer in Wichita. Dennis Rader sent a written document to a newspaper I believe. While that did not solve it, Rader made a huge mistake. For some reason he put a computer disk in with the letter. A computer forensics expert was able to identify the exact computer the document had been written on and that led to his demise. I’m sure there are other cases, but none I have been involved with.

Okay, now I’m going to throw one more thing at you. I did a little research and psycholinguistics can also apply not only to writing, but to spoken words. You’re aware of that, right?

Yup, sure am.

So, can you think of any cases where that was used?

Probably a lot of them, but one immediately comes to mind. Do you remember the case involving a woman named Susan Smith?

Was that the young woman in South Carolina who killed her two little kids and claimed someone had carjacked her and kidnapped both of her sons?

That’s it. What had really happened was she had decided she was in love with a guy who was not her husband. But, the second guy said he could not marry her since he wanted to raise his own kids, not someone else’s. So she contrived this story that a black man had stolen the car from her with her kids in it.

Alright, I remember it now.  It was a big, national story and she was on TV pleading for the kidnapper to return her kids.

That’s the one, and knowing all the time she’d taken the car to a boat ramp for a lake, opened the windows and let it roll into the lake. Both kids drowned. She figured that would drop the last barrier to this guy marrying her.

So how did psycholinguistics help in this case?

I know one of the FBI agents who was involved in the case, and he said they knew she had done it after the second day. Every day she and her husband would be on TV pleading for the supposed kidnapper to return her kids. But what they noticed pretty quickly was that she was talking in the past tense. She’d say something like, “My babies needed me. And now they’re gone.” On the other hand, her husband was more positive – “They’ll be back. We’re still waiting.”

Just from that, it sounds like she was talking in the past tense, or she was very negative that she’d ever see the kids again.

Exactly. When they played back what she was saying, they noticed the pattern. Long story short, they confronted her with what they’d seen over the previous week, and she admitted to everything.

So it’s more of a subconscious thing than us being aware of what we’re saying?

That’s right. We are who we are, and that’s going to come out in what we’re saying and writing. It just takes a person with some real skills to interpret those very subtle changes.

Pete, I really appreciate you taking some time with me and letting my readers get some insight into something we’d otherwise never think about. Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

Several things actually. As you know, “FBI Diary: Profiles of Evil has been out for about six months. I do some interviews and other promotion for that when I can. I’m writing the second in the FBI Diary series, this one will be “Home Grown Terror.”

About a true case?

Yup. I’m not imaginative enough to write fiction, or I don’t need to because I’ve had so many crazy things happen that are factual. The one I’m working on now involves the assassination of a police officer in the Four Corners area and what has been characterized as the largest manhunt in the history of the west to find the killers. I’m hoping to have it done in a couple more months. Still have a little more research to do.

And I think you told me you have another book done, but not published yet.

That’s right. It’s going to be very controversial, and I really need to talk to a publisher or an agent about how to go about getting it in print and on the shelves. When the word gets out about this book, it will publicize itself quickly on a national scale. I really can’t say much more without saying too much. And I’m good at doing that. Like this interview. Did I go on a little too much?

Oh no. Not at all, I’m glad we did it. Very quickly, tell us about your current project, aside from the books.

Okay. A group of us have founded Preventing School Shootings. We’re doing research now and expect to have some conclusions and recommendations pretty soon. You can find us on the web at http://preventingschoolshootings.com/. We’re currently looking for high school and middle school teachers who would be willing to talk to us and to give us some insights. So, if anyone is or knows one of these teachers, I’d really appreciate it if they’d go to our site and leave a message. We have a link to do that right there. And we’ll get right back to them. It’s really a worthwhile cause.

Sounds like it.  Thanks again Pete.

 

 

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