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Hunting the hunter: Profiling the sniper

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• Story: D.C. area victims

(CNN) -- As the hunt for the sniper who has terrorized residents in the Washington, D.C., area enters a second week, the role of the profiler in helping investigators put a face on the killer has received more attention.

Media headlines blare that the profilers are baffled by the failure of the killer to conform to known patterns. But this assertion comes from a misunderstanding of the role, function and method of the profiler, said Clint Van Zandt, a former FBI profiler.

Portrayed in television and movies as the mystics of law enforcement, people with an almost psyche link to the mind of the killer, profilers are in fact engaged in what Van Zandt calls "a broad brush art."

"A profile is an investigative tool. It is not science, it is not DNA, it is not latent fingerprints. ... It is just one more tool investigators have. But a profile does not tell you who did the crime," Van Zandt said.

Profilers are engaged is building a "constantly evolving" document that is available to investigators to focus their search, Van Zandt said.

Van Zandt disputed the popular notion that research into previous multiple killings has provided clearly defined "profiles" of killers that can be used to fit each case that comes along.

"There is a skeletal structure, so to speak, of certain individuals, but the clothes that we hang on that skeleton come from investigation. And that's what starts to form the picture, the profile of who we're looking for," Van Zandt said.

And sometimes a killer may not fall within even very general categories, which seems to be the case so far with the killings in Maryland, Virginia and Washington.

"So far it appears we have kind of a hybrid. We have what we call a spree killer, in essence someone who kills one person after another without an emotional cooling off period in between," Van Zandt said.

"And yet, because of the period of time that has lapsed, now it is starting to take on some of the traits of a serial killer, in essence, someone who kills with that emotional cooling off period, which can be days, weeks, even months, depending on the serial killer himself or herself."

What profilers may well be able to offer investigators, depending on the evidence authorities have discovered at each crime scene, is a series of statistical probabilities -- the shooter's age, his race, his academic or professional background, perhaps even his motive, Van Zandt said.

This enables those in charge of the investigation to "take the population group and shrink it until it becomes manageable" he says.

"Hypothetically, we know, it's a statistical probability that a sniper in a situation like this is likely to be a male as opposed to a female. Well, then, we have eliminated 50 percent of the population. Now does that rule out a woman from doing this? No, but we'll say it is a very small chance.

"But if a witness says, 'I saw a car with smoke coming out of the window after a shot was fired and I saw a red-headed woman in the passenger seat,' profile be damned, you have to go with the evidence that you have," Van Zandt said.

So what are the types of questions profilers will be asking?

"You start out with very generic profiles, like, Is the offender organized or disorganized? An organized person has transportation, brings the weapon with him, has the ability to get in and out from a crime scene without being detected," Van Zandt said.

"Or, a disorganized person may walk or take public transportation. He may use a weapon of opportunity. You may see overkill on the part of the victim. He may just escape because he's lucky, not because he's calculating."

"So you start with an organized-disorganized offender. Then you say: A serial killer is this, a spree killer is that.

"But, again, these are broad general titles that you kind of paste up on a wall, and then you start to work with the intelligence you have, the information that comes through investigation, and you refine that."

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