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True Crime?

You simply won't believe what Dr. Helen Morrison has discovered about serial killers.

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Dr. Helen Morrison's newly published memoir, My Life Among the Serial Killers: Inside the Minds of the World's Most Notorious Murderers, is the first book to dispute the notion that Wisconsin ghoul-murderer-cannibal-taxidermist Ed Gein was abnormally devoted to his mother. Oddly enough, it's also the first to assert that Gein kept his mother's mummified corpse in his home. If the image of a serial killer living with his dead mother seems familiar, it's probably because Alfred Hitchcock made such memorable use of it in the 1960 thriller Psycho, which was loosely based on the Gein case. In the realm of nonfiction, however, the consensus is that Ed's mother was buried in the family plot in Plainfield in December 1945 and that Ed, despite his propensity for digging up graves, let her rest there in peace.

In early May, Morrison was promoting her book at the Borders on Michigan. Dressed in a cream-colored suit, her light blond hair pulled back in a bun, she gave a 25-minute lecture, then fielded questions and comments from the rapt capacity crowd. "You say this is an international phenomenon," said one woman with a heavy accent, "but to European people it is a very American problem. I do not know any similar examples from my country, which is Belgium."

I expected Morrison to offer the example of Marc Dutroux, the multiply murderous Belgian pedophile whose ongoing trial--and the national political crisis it precipitated--has been covered extensively by the Tribune, the New York Times, and CNN, among other news outlets. Instead, Morrison answered, "Well, you're kind of a tiny country. But there has been somebody in the Netherlands--which is close by--who buried his victims, so it's not unknown."

It was little things like these that got me wondering whether Morrison really was, as the dust jacket of her book claims, "one of the country's leading experts on serial killers."

According to her curriculum vitae, Morrison, who's 60 and lives in Chicago, is certified in general, child and adolescent, and forensic psychiatry and has a master's degree in health law from Loyola University. She maintains a private practice at the Evaluation Center, a clinic on Logan Boulevard that she founded in 1980. She's appeared on numerous radio and television programs, commenting on such diverse topics as trends in the medical treatment of depression, the abduction of Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart, and violent crime. Since her memoir hit the shelves, she's been even more visible: On May 6 she kicked off an international publicity tour for the book with an appearance on the Today Show. A week later she was interviewed at length on WTTW's Chicago Tonight. Then she made the rounds of broadcast studios and bookstores in England, where one newspaper dubbed her the "real-life Clarice Starling." Her book, published by William Morrow/HarperCollins, is a featured selection of four book clubs, including the Book-of-the-Month Club.

Press coverage of the book launch has tended to focus on the disparity between Morrison's poised femininity and her dark subject. The media have also latched on to the admittedly arresting fact that she keeps John Wayne Gacy's brain in a container of formaldehyde in the home she shares with her husband and two sons. She acquired the brain in 1994 from the Will County coroner's office, after presenting a letter from the Gacy family authorizing her to conduct independent research on the organ. The tests she commissioned on it revealed nothing of note, but she says she's holding on to it in the hope that advances in technology will oblige it to reveal something about the organic causes of serial murders. "We've been trying to get a live brain forever," she told me, "but we're not legally permitted to do that." (Her book is written in the first person and she works independently, though in interviews she uses what might be termed the "scientific we.")

Nobody seems to have noticed that My Life Among the Serial Killers, coauthored by a hired gun named Harold Goldberg, is a really weird book: rambling, marred by misstatements of fact, confused, confusing, contradictory--the sort of work one normally associates with self-publication. The following paragraph from the first chapter reflects the caliber of the prose: "As a child living in a small town near Pittsburgh, I never knew my real parents. It's not that I didn't yearn to find out. It just wasn't part of the deal. My parents weren't that kind. Sure, six other children and I had a roof over our heads, and food, but when it came to the real security that love can provide, well, it simply wasn't present. It sometimes seemed that the reason six others and I were children to these people was due to factors not understood, even now. Our lives as children were often unremittingly dark, and we were very alone in the world the parents defined." After rereading this a couple times I concluded that she wasn't saying she was an orphan or a foster child, only that she wasn't emotionally close to her parents.

The facts of Morrison's childhood don't seem crucial to understanding her work on serial homicide. But this kind of sloppy writing is hard to engage with critically--if you can't make out what's being said you can't argue with it. The problem is exacerbated by poor organization. Morrison doesn't go in for strong thesis statements or careful explication of terms. I read her book several times, but didn't realize until I heard her say so on the Today Show that her definition of "serial killer" categorically excludes women (other experts say women make up between 8 and 15 percent of the field).

On TV and in person Morrison is completely clear about this; in print she makes the point only passively, by writing almost exclusively about men and not about women. Another idiosyncratic distinction she left out of her book but emphasizes in person is that she uses "serial killer" only for killers with at least seven victims. "The FBI says that you only have to kill three people to be considered a serial killer," she told me. "Ours is seven and above, because three people, if you're in an urban area, can be almost any neighborhood. But seven was a number that, in reviewing the history of serial killers across time, seemed to be a very low number."

Morrison being so much clearer in person than in print, her public utterances are key to understanding her book. The promotional materials put out by her publisher are likewise useful. She writes that she's devoted 25 years of careful research to the phenomenon of serial homicide and has profiled more than 80 serial killers worldwide. In person she says she's met 60 multiple murderers in the flesh and the other 20-some are individuals she's profiled from written sources. All this experience, according to publicity for the book, has enabled her to dig "deeper into the psyches of killers than any profiler before her." Among her conclusions: all serial killers exhibit highly similar personality traits, have a genetic mutation that drives them to kill, share an interest in "experimentation," are psychologically akin to babies, and are incapable of emotion. "They don't have rage," she told Chicago Tonight's Bob Sirott. "They don't have passion, they don't have sadness, they don't have happiness. They're hollow shells."

Morrison isn't the first to say that only men can be serial killers. Feminist antipornography crusaders have been making similar arguments since the early 80s. But the feminists emphasize lust when describing the motives behind serial homicide. Morrison speaks and writes as if serial murderers have no sex drives or instincts whatsoever. One of the first killers she interviewed was Richard Macek, who raped and murdered four women in Illinois and Wisconsin in 1974. She notes that as a teenager he stole panties from neighborhood clotheslines and masturbated with them. "Appearances notwithstanding, this was not a sexual act," she writes. "Rather, it had more to do with the still babylike Macek enjoying the touch, feel, and smell of the softer cotton fabric the crotch was made of, avoiding the coarser cotton in the rest of the panty. . . . You might well ask, well, why not touch or chew a T-shirt? A T-shirt just isn't as soft as panties."

John Wayne Gacy, whom Morrison also interviewed, made identical use of his mother's underpants as a young man, yet Morrison writes, "It wasn't that the panties had sexual meaning to him. He just liked the feeling of them in his hand and on his body."

In custody Gacy told police that while working in a Las Vegas funeral home he once climbed into a coffin to hump its occupant. "It's important not to read too much into this act," writes Morrison, "because Gacy was not a necrophiliac who commonly had sex with dead bodies. What he did was a combination of experimentation with a body and something he saw as comfortable. He wanted to lie down, and the coffin seemed to be the handiest thing available. . . . What Gacy did with the body had nothing to do with the power and control that is said to fuel the need for necrophilia. And unlike necrophiles, who avoid relating to living people, Gacy had a full social life." Macek also had sex with corpses, but his necrophilia, she writes, "was not sexual, but . . . an effort to resolve his confusion about the line between life and death."

Morrison goes to even greater lengths to acquit British murderer Frederick West of sexual aberration. "Fred West, like John Gacy, may have exhibited signs of necrophilia," she writes. "But he was not a necrophiliac because, at its most basic, necrophilia refers to having sexual attraction to corpses, not having sex with them. . . . Nor was he purely a sexual sadist, because a sadist doesn't always kill. Did he hurt people? Yes. Did he get sexual pleasure from hurting people, that same elation the average person gets from sex with a lover in the missionary position? No."

Morrison disputes an unnamed psychiatrist's claim that Missouri killer Robert Berdella got an erection while confessing his rape-murder crimes to police. "If it happened," she writes, "and I doubt it did, it was an excitement but not a sexual excitement." Describing the recently solved Green River killings, she notes that two of the victims had rocks inserted into their vaginas and wonders "whether this was done to weigh them down" in the water.

Pressed to clarify why an ostensibly sexual act isn't sexual when perpetrated by a serial killer, Morrison told me, "It's a very concrete contact. It's a body contact, but it's not a sexual contact. A lot of people have tried to make these paraphilic offenders, and they're not."

But surely once genitals and penetration and emissions come into play, it's sex.

"No," she said. "You're talking about an act. Whether somebody gets pleasure or whatever out of the act makes it more than just the act. They look sexual to the average uninformed person, but to the serial killer it's a way to be in contact. Do you know what I mean?"

I said I wasn't 100 percent sure.

"I keep running up against this bias that it's all sexually motivated," she said, a bit forlornly.

One of the few female death-dealers mentioned in My Life Among the Serial Killers is Elizabeth Bathory, the 16th-century Hungarian countess who allegedly slaughtered 650 virgin peasant girls in order to bathe in their blood, a regimen she supposedly believed would preserve her youth. Where academic historians tend to take the legend of the countess with several grains of salt, Morrison accepts it at face value. "But Bathory was not a serial killer according to my definition," she writes. "I don't believe her killings had anything to do with strange sexual preferences. Nor were they combined with a deep aggression. Her horrible actions were just something she believed she had to do to remain pretty. Killing those virgins was the only way she felt she could make her belief a reality."

Morrison's reasoning here is hard to square with the rest of her work. Given her blanket rejection of sex as a motive for serial murder, the assertion that the countess's ritual slaughter of virgins didn't reflect "strange sexual preferences" logically favors her admittance to the club. Bathory's presumed lack of "deep aggression" likewise fits with Morrison's characterization of the serial killer as a creature without emotion. Moreover, if wanting to look attractive acquits Bathory of serial murder, the same standard should apply to Ed Gein, who, after all, hunted women only to sew their skins into a woman-suit in which to look pretty while dancing under the Wisconsin moon.

Where the feminist definition of serial homicide as a male sex crime serves a larger ideological critique of masculine sexuality, Morrison presents the nonexistence of female serial murderers as evidence that serial killers are born, not made. If serial homicide weren't driven by genes, she explained on the Today Show, "you'd have almost an even 50-50 or 60-40 mix of male-female"--an argument that could also be used to prove the existence of a ham-radio gene or a skateboarding gene.

Her other reflections on genetics are equally baffling. She writes, for example, that Macek and Gacy were in many ways alike: glib on the surface but angry underneath, "thick-bodied, with slumped postures and puffy faces like the Pillsbury Dough Boy." On the strength of these parallels she wonders "if they had some kind of genetic mutation that made them appear human." This is surely not the right way to look at the problem. That Macek and Gacy were able to pass as human doesn't really need to be accounted for, given that they had human parents. What needs to be explained is why they did so much awful, violent stuff, and Morrison's appeal to "mutation" and "crinkled genes" seems premature and inadequately supported.

The keystone of her genetic theory is the contention that all serial murderers have the same personality. "It is as if someone took a cookie cutter from a kitchen drawer labeled 'serial murderer,'" she writes. "The baker stamps out the dough and puts them in the oven to bake. When they're done, they come out . . . ready to kill."

But Morrison can never quite decide what shape the cookie cutter is, and the generalizations she throws out are of little help. Some seem tautological: "Serial killers don't make terrific husbands." Others come as a surprise: "No serial murderers are addicted to drugs, drink, or even smoking." Some are contradictory: in one place she writes that "serial murderers are always extremely well put together, whether they have a lot of money or not. . . . They're highly presentable individuals who take care of themselves," but elsewhere she states that "many of the serial murderers I have met are average men who are overweight and doughy." And after repeatedly emphasizing preternatural charm and guile as the hallmarks of the serial murderer, she presents one killer's bungled escape attempt as proof "that serial murderers are not the scheming people they seem to be."

One trait Morrison finds in every serial killer's mental makeup is a passion for "experimentation." She writes that she acquired this insight when she asked Robert Berdella why he'd stuck his fingers in his victims' eyes, injected them with Drano, and subjected them to electric shocks. He told her these acts were "experiments, nothing more, nothing less." Her eyes opened to the concept, Morrison suddenly saw it everywhere: "Ed Gein experimented by wearing a suit made of skin, as did John Gacy by putting the heads of his victims under water to see if they'd survive. It was all coming together. I could now say with assurance that at least some experimentation was part of every serial killer's way of working."

Morrison shies away from asking why the scientific investigations of serial killers consistently lead to the violation and death of other human beings rather than useful inventions like carbonation, digital photography, or 12-tone music. She does acknowledge that the experiments of serial murderers often lack the conceptual rigor of the best laboratory practice. "Berdella was an experimenter, but unlike even the most amateur scientist, he conducted his experiments as rote actions only," she writes. "Berdella actually reminded me of another famous experimenter, H.H. Mudgett, who killed during the Chicago World's Fair [She doubtless means Herman W. Mudgett, who used the alias H.H. Holmes]. Both drew no thoughtful conclusions from what they did. Certainly Berdella developed no theories based upon the confessed killing and mutilation and dismemberment of six men."

Morrison complicates her genetic theory by stating that the mutation that drives the violence can't be transmitted from father to son. I asked how she could know this, given that so little is known about the mutation. She politely gave me to understand that we were speaking across the chasm that separates expert from layman.

"In the book I am not going to sit down and go through all of the scientific stuff to make it easier for somebody to understand," she said. "It's not possible."

When I pressed the point and assured her I was willing to apply myself, she said she would send me some of her scientific writings (her resume lists numerous papers and articles, including some on violent crime). I've yet to receive them.

Another of Morrison's core ideas is that serial murderers are all stuck at an infantile stage of emotional development. She grounds this observation in the work of psychiatrist Melanie Klein, whose dark vision of infant psychology essentially likens the mentality of babies to that of paranoid psychotics. The idea that serial killers never successfully negotiate "individuation"--the process whereby an infant learns to recognize where his subjectivity ends and the rest of the world begins--has some currency among forensic psychiatrists, but Morrison takes the analogy between butchers and babies in weirdly cheerful and innocent directions. She compares Berdella's prolonged sexual torture of his victims to "a curious baby boy playing with a toy" and "Charles Schulz's Linus and his security blanket." She sees Michael Lee Lockhart's habit of eviscerating young women in a similarly soft light: "Lockhart was compelled to feel and touch Jennifer's warm blood and intestines. . . . He pulled at, touched, and examined what was inside of her, but not in any truly sexual way. Also, when someone cuts open a human body, there's a warmth that rushes up that has been described by some as appealing to serial murderers, who, as I've said, have not progressed past infancy emotionally. Lockhart wanted to see what was there, what it looked like, what it felt like, what it smelled like."

The fact that Lockhart was "sleeping like a baby" in the backseat of a cab when police caught him also strikes Morrison as significant. "When babies are colicky and won't settle down," she notes, "the old remedy used to be to put them in a car and drive around until they calm."

Given that Morrison is being promoted as an expert profiler of serial killers, her memoir is disappointingly light on examples of her ability to get "inside the mind" of a given villain prior to his capture. The most detailed illustration of her forecasting skills is an account of her telephone conversation with "a high-level member" of the task force working to solve the Atlanta child murders of the early 80s, for which Wayne Williams was ultimately convicted. "Dr. Morrison," asks the investigator, "what did you make of the fact that this person down here has been throwing bodies into the river?"

"We have seen that here in Chicago that John Wayne Gacy disposed of bodies in that way," she answers.

"Would a killer stick to that pattern?"

"Not necessarily. He might very well vary it, and he could do that easily."

"Interesting. Because the pattern varies down here." That's the end of the anecdote.

Scattered throughout Morrison's book are complaints that she's not taken seriously enough. She writes that though she spent more than 400 hours interviewing Richard Macek, she "never received one acknowledgment" from the prosecutors and investigators working on the case. In another instance a killer's defense team declined to pay her for the time and effort she'd invested in determining his "psychological state of mind during the murders." When she offered to help the leader of the task force assigned to catching the Green River killer, "the answer was as abrupt and brusque as it was startling: 'Not interested.'" Her testimony for the defense at the Gacy trial (where she testified that Gacy wouldn't have been able to restrain himself from killing even "if the president of the United States was there with him at the time") was refuted by another psychiatrist, who, she writes, "rudely had said I didn't know what I was talking about." Approached by some Hollywood producers with "big ideas about a show about a profiler," she cooperated on the understanding that she would be hired as a consultant. "So I spoke with them for days," she writes, "and they did the show, but I never heard from them again." Her ideas about implanting "deep brain electrodes" in imprisoned murderers so they can be continually monitored in the name of science fall flat when she proposes them to jurists and legislators: "Sometimes I've received blank stares. Sometimes I've been laughed at."

Candid as she is about herself, Morrison is even franker about other experts. She condemns the testimony of Dr. James Cavanaugh at the Gacy trial as "highly inappropriate and outside his purview as a forensic clinician." Asked by prosecutor William Kunkle whether Gacy, if sent to a mental hospital, would stay there for the rest of his life, Cavanaugh answered, "Absolutely impossible." Morrison interprets this answer as reflecting an unrealistic belief that Gacy "could be somehow cured and readmitted to society."

Cavanaugh--director of the section on psychiatry and the law at Rush University Medical Center and the founder of Cavanaugh & Associates, a 20-year-old consulting firm specializing in forensic psychiatry--was unaware that Morrison had published a memoir, but found her take on his testimony at the Gacy trial mystifying. "Kunkle was asking me whether it would be possible to put Gacy in a mental institution forever," he told me. "I was saying no, sooner or later he'd get out. Helen is quite right in saying that we don't know how to cure a personality as disordered as Gacy's--we have no therapy or medication for that whatsoever. But in the absence of treatment a hospital would simply be warehousing him, and there's no real legal basis for that. Eventually he'd be released--you just have to look at where the John Hinckley case is headed now. There's really no such thing as locking the door and throwing away the key."

Asked about Morrison's standing as an authority on serial homicide, Cavanaugh characterized her work as "simplistic" and "hyperbolic" and said, "It's very hard to argue that all serial killers can be made to fit a single common category." He added, "I've sort of lost touch with her. Back in the 80s and early 90s she seemed pretty active, at least locally. I think she got involved in some trials involving serial homicides, and she was definitely around doing things at conferences. As for the last decade or so, I'm really drawing a blank. But the person you really should talk to is Robert Ressler. He's a real giant in the field. He learned it from the ground up while establishing the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit out in Quantico, Virginia."

Ressler, who retired from the FBI in 1990, now heads a criminological consulting group called Forensic Behavioral Services and teaches at several universities in the U.S. and Europe. A 20-year veteran of the FBI, he started the bureau's first research program on violent criminal offenders, which grew into the Behavioral Science Unit--the group to which Clarice Starling is assigned in The Silence of the Lambs. He and his colleagues at the BSU pioneered the practice of interviewing serial murderers to help capture those still on the loose.

Morrison takes a dim view of the BSU. "Behavioral scientists don't do the medical work that I do to discover what makes a serial killer commit murder after murder," she writes. "They'll look at the external characteristics of the person, and sometimes they get into a false way of 'psychoanalyzing' the serial murderer. They come up with ideas like: he hates his mother and that's why he murdered. But the ideas have no basis in scientific research."

Ressler reciprocated Morrison's lack of enthusiasm. "She's inclined to make pretty expansive claims," he told me. "The problem is that the phenomena she's talking about just don't lend themselves to broad generalizations." He added that he was "astonished" by her claim to have interviewed 60 serial murderers. "I'd be very interested to see what sort of documentation she has to back it up. I don't keep a scorecard, but I've been doing this work on a fully funded basis for 32 years, and I would estimate I've spoken to perhaps 40 people who have killed multiply."

Ressler also takes issue with Morrison's definition of a serial killer as a man who's killed at least seven people. "The question of definitions is a major problem in this field," he said. "But the one I give in the Crime Classification Manual--that's a book sort of like the DSM of violent crime--is pretty well accepted. It's a serial killing if there are more than three victims killed in more than three separate events taking place at more than three locations over a length of time. And there has to be a cooling-off period involved. It could be days or weeks or months, but the point is that the killer regains equilibrium in between killings. Typically the perpetrator's thinking processes are driven by fantasy, usually sexual. The crimes are usually premeditated. The killer likely doesn't know who the next victim will be, but he has actions already rehearsed in his mind. But none of these are absolutes. It's useless to impose too rigid a structure on crimes like these, because real life is always a lot messier than theory."

Can women be serial killers?

"If Helen's saying that the men vastly outnumber the women she's correct," said Ressler. "But by my definition female serial killers definitely exist. Dorothea Puente in Sacramento, for example--she killed at least 7 men and maybe 20 more so she could cash their pension checks."

I read Ressler some of Morrison's desexualized interpretations of seemingly sexual acts perpetrated by serial murderers and asked what he made of them.

"I couldn't say what's behind that," he said. "But the work I did at the BSU distinguishes between organized and unorganized serial killers, and the motivations of organized serial killers are basically sexual. A lot of times even actions that are not overtly sexual--the insertion of foreign objects into body cavities, for instance--serve an underlying sexual purpose."

Was it true, as Morrison writes, that "no serial murderers are addicted to drugs, drink, or even smoking?"

"I just don't understand why Helen feels the need to talk in absolutes like that," said Ressler. "If she means that drugs and alcohol don't turn people into serial killers, she's right, though I don't know that anyone ever said they did. But lots of them drink and use drugs. Gacy's drug of choice was weed, Henry Lee Lucas was a boozer, Jeffrey Dahmer had a serious drinking problem. And I don't know what tobacco has to do with anything, but I never saw Jeff Dahmer without a cigarette in his hand. I told him once, 'Jeff, those things will give you cancer,' and he said, 'Maybe that'll be the end to my problems.'"

Did Ed Gein keep his mother's mummified body around the house?

"What? No, you're thinking of Psycho."

In My Life Among the Serial Killers Morrison makes reference to personal encounters with just ten killers: John Wayne Gacy, Richard Macek, Ed Gein, Bobby Joe Long, Arthur Shawcross, Robert Berdella, Michael Lee Lockhart, Marcelo Costa de Andrade, Rosemary West, and Debra Brown. Technically, according to Morrison's rules, only four of these--Gacy, Long, Shawcross, and de Andrade--count as bona fide serial killers. West and Brown don't qualify because they were the female helpers of male murderers, and Gein, Lockhart, and Macek all fall short of the seven-victim mark. Berdella, who was convicted of four murders but suspected of another three, could arguably be counted. But even using the lower standards of the FBI to admit all 10, that still leaves 50 killers unaccounted for.

Asked for a comprehensive list of the killers she's met, Morrison demurred. "I can't release it," she said, "because I've got some that are in current legal issues." She declined to be more specific. (I asked Morrison's editor, Mauro DiPreta, for help in verifying the claims made in her book, but he didn't reply to my questions.)

How many murder trials has she participated in?

"Two, early on," Morrison said. "It was Gacy and Robert Joe Long in Florida. And at that point I said, 'You know, this is turning into a conflict,' and I wasn't going to do it anymore. The conflict is having to be both a researcher-scientist and someone who testifies."

How about criminal investigations?

"Officially?" she said. "None. Unofficially? Many. I make it a contingency of my working with law enforcement to be unofficial. Otherwise it will interfere with what I'm trying to do with these individuals. I'm not a prosecutor. I'm not an investigator. I don't put myself in any position of wanting to run around with a gun on my hip, which some forensic psychiatrists do."

How many investigations has she unofficially been involved in and what form did her participation take?

"About 15 or 20," she said. "And that's around the world. I can go through a crime scene, walk the neighborhood, try to describe what I think the characteristics are. It's what I call a 'curbside consultation.'"

What was the last case she was involved in?

"It was down in Baton Rouge. His name is Gillis--he was arrested two weeks ago. He killed at least eight, and there are others he's suspected of. I think he's just been indicted, though I'm not quite sure."

Who's the investigating officer involved in the arrest?

"The detective? I don't have the current person. I do know a newspaper person down there who might be very helpful, Josh Noel of the Baton Rouge Advocate. He and I have talked a couple of times in the past week. I think there's something in the paper today, as a matter of fact."

It sounds like you're working more closely with the press down there than the police, I said.

"As of right now I'm talking to the press. Two years ago I was talking to the investigating officer."

How much of your paid practice consists of serial-homicide-related work?

"None of it's paid," she said. "I work with what are considered extremely difficult people--opiate and cocaine addicts, housewives who might be addicted to Vicodin. I work with severe to moderately retarded people who might be addicted to drugs or alcohol, or might have a dual diagnosis, meaning a psychiatric illness. And I work with kids and adolescents. So it's a very varied kind of practice."

But all of it is pretty distant from criminological matters.

"Gosh, yes," she said, then laughed. "I don't think I've testified in a criminal trial in maybe 15 years."

According to Morrison, a lawman with "darkly animated" hands named Louis Tomaselli introduced her to the challenging work of profiling serial killers in 1977. In that year, according to her resume, she was three years out of medical school and completing a research fellowship in neurochemistry at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Tomaselli, she writes, approached her in a lecture hall, identified himself as a special agent with the FBI, and showed her gruesome photographs relating to an unsolved homicide.

"Tomaselli had come up against a seemingly insurmountable brick wall," writes Morrison. "He and the FBI could not find the perpetrator of the vile crime." The pictures were of a woman who'd been "brutally stabbed several times" and whose eyelids had been slit with a penknife. Tomaselli asked Morrison if she'd ever seen anything like it. Morrison examined the slits. "It almost looked like the kind of primitive, ritual cutting common to ancient cultures," she writes. "But it was clear this modern-day act had nothing to do with long-lost magical symbols. . . . I said no, I hadn't ever seen anything like it. No longer darkly exuberant, Tomaselli stopped talking and stood there, waiting for me to say more. I looked him straight in the eye. 'But if you ever catch him, I'd like to talk to him.'"

Those words, she writes, were "exactly what he wanted to hear." When the perpetrator of the horrifying crime, Richard Macek, was finally caught, Tomaselli and his FBI colleagues came back to Morrison for help in getting "inside his mind." Specifically, she writes, "they wanted to use me as their agent to coax Macek into confessing to a crime in Illinois--to the murder of a teenager named Sally Kandel." Toward this end, Morrison "picked up the phone and arranged for Dr. Roger McKinley, a reputable hypnotherapist, to put Macek into a trance." She writes that while he was hypnotized Macek was interrogated about an arson he committed, in the course of which he burned his hand. While reliving his action in the trance, Macek screamed as if in pain, then developed blisters the size of dimes on his fingers.

Asked about this incident, Tomaselli, who's retired and lives in Spring Green, Wisconsin, contradicted Morrison's version of events on several key points, starting with his employment history.

"FBI?" he said. "Sure I'm FBI--full-blooded Italian. Except my job was special agent for the Wisconsin Department of Justice. I don't know why people think the FBI has some special jurisdiction over serial murder. I guess it's from the movies and TV. And the dead woman she's talking about, Paula Cupit, was stabbed just once in the heart, not repeatedly, and she had a broken neck. There was no mutilation of the eyes or ritual mumbo jumbo--I can send you the crime-scene photos and the autopsy report to prove it." The documents he sent support his recollection.

"Helen Morrison is a fine lady--don't get me wrong," Tomaselli continued, "but I don't know where she'd get the idea I approached her. I've got a pretty good memory, and the way I recall it is we wanted to hypnotize Richie Macek to see if that would get us a better recall of some crimes. So we got Roger McKinley, who was the hypnotist we usually used--a real good guy--and he brought Helen along just as someone who was interested. But there's just no way she was officially involved in the investigation. Besides, Helen's got her timeline all screwed up. She says she met me in 1977, but Richie got locked up in 1975, so no way could I have been showing her pictures of any unsolved homicide."

Morrison writes that she ultimately succeeded in "breaking through Macek's mind," extracting from him a confession to the 1972 murder of Sally Kandel, for which another man, Richard Milone, was serving time. When she reported the breakthrough to the authorities, she writes, "they acted as though it never happened," a response she attributes to bureaucratic inertia and "pure ego, which pervaded everything from the prison system to the court system."

Again, Tomaselli disputed Morrison's version of events. "If she got the confession for the Kandel slaying from Richie, it's the first I heard of it," he told me. "As far as I know, I got that confession. I developed a pretty good rapport with Richie. He was a total con man, but he sort of respected me because I saw through his bull."

What does Tomaselli make of Morrison's claim to have spent more than 400 hours interviewing Macek?

"If she continued to talk to Richie after we finished up--once he'd pled guilty and had nothing left to offer--that'd be no surprise," he said. "Richie got bored easy and he had a flair for dramatics. He had a life sentence plus 30 or 40 years, so he was never going to see daylight, and he probably knew he had her undivided attention. He was real big on writing little notes to people--I've still got a bunch of them somewhere. So he sends her a little note, and she comes hustling up to see him. Why not? What else has he got to do?"

Is Morrison regarded as an authority on serial murder in law-enforcement circles?

"Not to my knowledge," he said. "I think in all my 37 years in homicide I would have heard something, but I never have." He added that he'd been involved in three serial murder cases. "There was a guy named Ross Hemming up in Fond du Lac, another biter. We only got him for one murder, but we knew he did some others. I also interrogated Henry Lee Lucas."

What about the incident Morrison describes in which Macek developed blisters while reliving a burn injury under hypnosis?

"That did occur," he said. "I witnessed that."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Robert Meganck.

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