Who invented the classification of organized, disorganized and mixed serial killers?
Above, three of the four FBI agents who invented this classification: Roy Hazelwood, John Douglas and Robert K. Ressler. They took as their basis the "bible" of the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM-IV.

Who invented the classification of organized, disorganized and mixed serial killers?

19/3/2022 14:37
Actualizado: 19/3/2022 18:28

The film «The Silence of the Lambs» marked a turning point in the public’s perception of murderers and, in particular, of those killers who kill repeatedly, known as serial killers.

Based on the best seller by writer Thomas Harris, it won five Oscars in 1992: Best Picture, Best Director –Jonathan Demme-, Best Actor –Anthony Hopkins, as Dr. Hannibal Lecter-, Best Actress -Jodie Foster, as rookie FBI agent Clarice Starling– and Best Screenplay –Ted Tally-.

It couldn’t be otherwise.

But most important of all, it put on the world map the work that, until then, had been quietly carried out by the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.

A department specialized in the investigation and capture of serial killers throughout the United States, which later inspired the entertainment industry to make the series «Criminal Minds».

The aforementioned unit was born in 1972 at FBI headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, although it received its big boost under the two terms of President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), as a response to the high crime rates that plagued the United States in the early 1980s.

A serial killer could be killing women and men in several states – as was the case – and due to the lack of a national police force in the United States, like the National Police Force or the Guardia Civil in Spain, and the lack of coordination between the 50 state police, 3,033 county police and local police, he could roam the country without even being detected.

The FBI’s large human and material resources and reinforced budget allowed it to occupy a position of national coordination in the field of the investigation of crimes that are difficult to solve, in which victims and killers have no previous relationship whatsoever. It also made use of the most modern IT resources available at the time.

In more than 90 percent of the crimes that take place in the world, the murderers are always people who belong to the victim’s environment.


To address this challenge, the FBI clearly used psychiatry and its «bible», the DSM-III and its later version, the DSM-IV. Therein lies the origin of its well-known classification of organized serial killers, disorganized serial killers and mixed serial killers, as recognized by four of the original agents who initiated the BSU: Robert K. Ressler, John Douglas, Roy Hazelwood and Dick Ault.

This classification is, in fact, a translation into police and criminological language of the DSM-IV, and they are the parents.

«We needed terminology that was not based on psychiatric jargon to define the different types of offenders and for police and other law enforcement officers to understand,» admitted Robert K. Ressler[1].

«It does no good to tell an officer that what he or she is looking for is a psychotic personality if that officer has no training in psychology; we needed to speak to police in terms that they could understand and that would help them in their search for murderers, rapists, and other violent criminals. Instead of saying that one crime scene showed evidence of a psychopathic personality we started telling the officer that the crime scene was ‘organized’ and so was the possible offender, while in another the perpetrator might be ‘disorganized,’ when some mental disorder – schizophrenia or psychosis – was present,» he added.

The third category: that of mixed serial killers, which represented characteristics of both groups, such as the American Jeffrey Dahmer, who murdered 17 men, or the Spaniard Manuel Delgado Villegas, «El Arropiero», was the last one they created.

«We needed terminology that was not based on psychiatric jargon to define the different types of criminals and for police and other law enforcement officers to understand,» admitted Robert K. Ressler


In the FBI classification, the organized killer equals the definition of the psychopath, the criminal who suffers from antisocial personality disorder. This type of killer plans his crimes in advance and uses tricks or deception to reduce his victims, who are usually strangers.

He erases footprints and traces he may have left behind and alters the crime scene to disorient investigators. It is a type of killer that improves with each crime. They are perfected through experience and are very difficult to catch.

Many carry, when they go out «hunting», what has come to be called the «assailant’s briefcase». These are ropes, handcuffs, adhesive tapes or any type of object that will later be used to immobilize their victim.

They are so intelligent that it is quite normal that, after their capture, they pretend to be insane or claim to have suffered a transitory mental disorder, which would imply, in both cases, that the person was not in control of himself and did not realize what he was doing.


The second type of serial killer is the disorganized, which corresponds to the psychotic, the mentally ill, almost always of a schizophrenic, paranoid or delusional type, such as Francisco García Escalero, the «mendigo asesino» (beggar killer), author of 10 murders in Madrid.

This criminal is driven by delusions and hallucinations. He «hears» voices that induce him to murder, is seized by unfounded jealousy, interprets provocative gestures or looks in his victim, feels persecuted, thinks that someone has cast a spell on him or believes he is a chosen one who must fulfill a mission by divine mandate.

The disorganized person does not plan his crimes or choose his victims logically. The location of the crime scene reflects the same confusion and disorder he has in his mind. The victims are often badly wounded because of the resistance they present when attacked by surprise.

On many occasions, such a scene presents mixed characteristics. The crime may have begun as an organized murder and become disorganized by various factors, as happened in the case of Manuel Delgado Villegas in the Garraf crime or as happened to Edmund Kemper, a «closet» of more than two meters, who killed 9 people.


Based on this classification, the BSU developed its own investigative methodology based on the deductions made from the ocular inspection. It was originally called «psychological profiling,» but had to be changed because of the complaints it generated among health professionals. Which was correct because the FBI men were not psychologists.

Finally, it received the name «criminal investigation analysis». Its intervention today covers the fields of terrorism and counter-terrorism, violent crimes and crimes against children.

Today, this is the most widespread classification of these predators both among criminologists and police around the world and among psychologists and psychiatrists working in the world of crime

The key to everything lies in the behavior of the killer, whose personality can be deduced from the traces and data left at the crime scene, which must be discovered and read.

In fact, the criminal profiles developed by this unit are based on the principle of exchange of the Frenchman Edmond Locard, father of modern forensic science, who said that when a crime occurs there is always an exchange of physical information between the criminal and the crime scene.

However, criminal profiling, which in May 2011 was adopted by the CNP with the launch of its Behavioral Analysis Section, is not an invention of our time.

The first known profiling in history was carried out by British doctor Thomas Bond, the coroner who performed the autopsies on the five prostitutes murdered by Jack the Ripper, in a letter he sent to the head of the investigation in November 1888: «The murderer in his outward appearance is quite likely to be a harmless-looking person, probably middle-aged and going well groomed and in a respectable manner. I think he may be in the habit of wearing a cloak or coat because otherwise the blood on his hands or on his clothes would have attracted the attention of the street.»

During World War II, the Office of Strategic Services – the immediate predecessor of the U.S. CIA – commissioned psychiatrist William Langer to draw up a psychological profile of Adolf Hitler in order to learn how he would react to defeat.

Langer accurately predicted that he would commit suicide.

FBI police officers used resources from psychiatry and psychology to deal with crime, criminals and evil with great success, which was a revolution in its time, proving its practical usefulness. Technological advances have helped to maximize its effectiveness as never before in history.

Organized serial killers, criminal psychopaths, are the closest thing to what Césare Lombroso defined, in the 19th century, as «born criminal».


Is it biological? Adrian Raine, a professor in the Department of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the pioneers in research on psychopathy from a biological point of view, acknowledges the perplexity of the scientific world: «There are some individuals who come from tremendously stable family backgrounds. They have had loving and attentive parents and have had every conceivable advantage. And yet they have become psychopaths. That is, violent monsters. And one wonders: How on earth did that happen?»[2].

«In my opinion, different social, familial, genetic aspects come together, although we have almost completely excluded the latter when it comes to understanding criminal violence and psychopathy. I am absolutely convinced that, through research processes, i.e. by applying scientific methods, it will be possible to discover that there is a biological basis for the behavior of psychopaths.»

Dr. Raine is the pioneer in the study of psychopaths’ brains in the field of neurocriminology; neuroimaging studies in which he has used brain scans -tomographies-. The last of these, carried out with 792 murderers and individuals suffering from antisocial disorder and with a reference sample of 702 normal people.

«Psychopaths know it’s wrong to kill someone. Why do they do it? They have no moral concept. I won’t stick a knife in you because I will feel your pain. I have empathy. I can put myself in your shoes. They can’t,» according to Raine

The results established that in the former the prefontal cortex of the brain, the more «modern» area, was smaller in size compared to the prefrontal cortex of the people in the other sample. «The prefontal cortex is responsible for regulating and controlling behavior. It is the part of the brain that makes us think before we act. It is, let’s say, our emergency brain,» Raine says.

It’s a mechanism that psychopaths seem to suffer from.

And it’s not the only part of the brain that’s different. So is the amygdala, another of the oldest parts of the brain. In the amygdala resides the emotional part, the empathy, what makes us human. The amygdala of psychopaths is 17 percent smaller than that of normal people. And if the prefontal cortex and the amygdala have poor communication….

«Psychopaths know it’s wrong to kill someone. Why do they do it? They have no moral concept. I won’t stick a knife in you because I will feel your pain. I have empathy. I can put myself in your shoes. They can’t,» Raine adds.


Subcriminal, or successful, psychopaths, according to Raine’s studies, do not have a significant reduction of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. The deficit is in the size of the amygdala, which makes them less empathic. The incidence of this disorder in the financial world is four times higher than in the general population, which makes them ideal capitalists. They can close companies, destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs or flood the markets with subprime mortgages without feeling a thing.

Is there a solution to this? «We are not far from a future in which we are able to replace dysfunctional brain mechanisms with microchips,» says Raine.

Will it be possible, then, to modify the brains of criminal psychopaths and turn them into «normal» people, free of their homicidal impulses?

If that happens, the judicial consideration of them today – perfectly imputable people – will have to change.

«The moment it can be scientifically certified that psychopaths are like that due to an organic mental disorder, they will have to be considered mentally ill and sent to a psychiatric hospital instead of to jail, as is the case now,» says Professor José Antonio García-Andrade.

Be that as it may, this is not the 19th century but the beginning of the 21st century. Criminals are no longer those invisible strangers. The advance of science has not only made it possible to put a face and eyes to evil, but also to develop effective methods of investigation and technology that, for the ancients, would be little less than magic, to confront it successfully. This is what Césare Lombroso always dreamed of.

But there is still a long way to go to defeat crime once and for all, without sacrificing some – or all – of the freedoms we enjoy today? As Bob Dylan says, «the answer is in the wind».

[1] I have lived in the Monster, Robert K. Ressler y Tom Shachtman, Nueva York, St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

[2] Psicópatas y asesinos en serie. Candice A. Skrapec. Centro Reina Sofía para el Estudio de la Violencia. Generalitat Valenciana.

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