Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Malingering or Trauma?

Before joining the FBI, Ressler had also served as an agent supervisor for the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Division (CID), and this experience was useful for examining killers who claimed they were victims of post-traumatic stress from Vietnam.

Arthur Shawcross (AP)
Arthur Shawcross (AP)

In the case of Arthur Shawcross, who had murdered at least 11 women in less than two years, Ressler's expertise was particularly astute. Shawcross had murdered and mutilated two children when he was 28, gone to prison for 15 years, had been paroled, and then began to kill prostitutes in Rochester, New York. He was caught in January of 1990 with the help of an FBI profile that indicated he'd return to the bodies to indulge in postmortem mutilation. As the New York State Police took to the air to search for the bodies of several recently missing women, they spotted one on the ice on Salmon Creek off Highway 31. On the bridge overhead was an overweight, middle-aged man getting into a car. When they caught him, they had their manArthur Shawcross.

While he confessed in detail and even showed the police the location of two more bodies, his defense lawyer brought in psychiatric experts to claim that he suffered from brain lesions that caused dissociative states and from post-traumatic stress disorder from both childhood abuse and experiences in Vietnam. Shawcross claimed that he became adept at modifying weapons while in Vietnam and went off on his own for days into the jungle, because after he saw American soldiers being killed, he had an emotional breakdown that turned him into a killer. He couldn't feel any longer and he became a predator. He claimed that he killed children and then took on the role of terrorist. He killed for the thrill of it, spurred on by episodes of extreme violence that he'd witnessed.

"In that case," Ressler says, "the prosecutor, Charles Siragusa, had brought on board forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Elliot Dietz. I had recruited him into the BSU as a consultant, so because Siragusa was not conversant with military terminology and records, Dietz recommended that I be brought in. I looked over the military records and compared them with interviews that Dietz had done, and the information that was brought out indicated the Shawcross was malingering quite a bit. It was clear that he was being deceptive and that opened up the door to breaking down his story of how his homicidal tendencies came about. Allegedly he was under hypnosis with the defense psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis and we saw these tapes she had and realized the interviews were bogus. He was just leading her by the nose."

In the end, the jury was unconvinced that Shawcross had failed to appreciate what he was doing when he killed the women and he was convicted of 10 murders. He pleaded guilty to one more and received life in prison.

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