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The FBI's BAU Partnerships

Profile of a Partnership
A Key Role of Behavioral Analysts

02/06/06

Special Agent Mark Safarik in 2006
Supervisory Special Agent Mark Safarik

When the phones ring in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Units, it’s a safe bet the callers on the other end have a grim story to tell. Investigators from all over the world dial up the small, highly trained cadre of agents in Quantico, Virginia—known informally as profilers—for help and advice when leads in their criminal cases turn cold or fray into infinite and troubling possibilities.

That was the case two years ago when detectives in a Detroit suburb investigated the rape and murder of a 92-year-old woman who had been stabbed multiple times in her bed. The lead detective, David Wurtz of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office Special Investigations Unit, had suspicions, but little else to go on. Then he re-read an article he’d picked up at a seminar, about the characteristics of people who commit crimes like the one he was investigating.

“It was like ‘bang,’ right on the money with what we had,” Wurtz said.

The article was written by Mark Safarik, an FBI special agent for 22 years and former police investigator who has spent the last 10 years researching cases of elderly women who were raped and murdered. Through his empirical study of 128 cases in 30 states over a 24-year period and at least 100 other elder sexual homicides, a picture emerged of potential offenders: single, a history of alcohol abuse, close proximity to victim, prior criminal record, poorly educated, not financially independent, unable to maintain health relationships with women. Safarik’s research shows the average age of offenders is 27; the average age of victims is 77.

“It’s not a profile. It’s really more of a constellation of behavioral, personality, and physical characteristics,” says Safarik, one of seven supervisory special agents in the Behavioral Analysis Unit that focuses on adult victims. Other units specialize in crimes against children, terrorism, and threat assessment.

Reached by phone, Safarik briefed Det. Wurtz in Detroit on his research of offenders; in a chilling way, the picture the agent painted reminded the detective of man he first suspected—a neighbor of the slain woman who was unemployed, had a history of crime, and a chronic alcohol problem. A DNA test on the suspect linked him to the crime and he was arrested and later convicted.

Calls like the one from Detroit to the Behavioral Analysis Units are not uncommon. In 2005, Safarik and other agents in his unit covered more than 300 leads for assistance and held 168 case consultations with law enforcement agencies around the world. In 37 of those cases, personnel provided on-site help to investigators at crime scenes. Cases are continuously triaged, giving preference to active serial murder cases or kidnappings. Together, the units, which operate at the FBI Academy as components of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC), worked on 655 cases, many of them on-site.

In addition to working cases, the units train others in law enforcement, science, and academia on ways to sleuth cases. The units’ research, like Agent Safarik’s, is often published in peer-reviewed journals. Last fall, the units hosted the FBI Serial Murder Symposium in San Antonio, which drew 150 experts from around the world.

Meanwhile, the profile of an agent in the Behavioral Analysis Units generally points to a seasoned FBI investigator with an analytical mind, a keen understanding of psychology and human behavior, and a lot of experience working cases. And a strong stomach.

“We look at the extreme end of human behavior,” Safarik said. Despite that, agents like Safarik enjoy the challenges and rewards of working some of the most interesting cases in law enforcement.

Links: The National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime