Law & Order: A Law Enforcement Perspective
By Heather Gray
I've been watching the new fall shows of Law & Order, and its various related entities, with much interest. I have to admit that for the most part I have been impressed with the array of subject matter and story depth that the writers have achieved. I was most interested in discovering how Law & Order: Criminal Intent would pan out as far as story line, character development and a new view of the criminal justice system, through the eyes, motives and behaviors of the perpetrator.
One episode in particular caught my interest in November. That story highlighted a rash of domestic-type terrorism, exhibited in the form of poison-laced over-the-counter medication, reminiscent of the Tylenol saga from many years ago. The twist in this story was of particular interest to me because it featured a tenacious Detective, extolling the virtues of a relatively new science, a method of crime tracking known as 'Geographic Profiling'. The reason this was of such interest to me is that I have the good fortune to know, and occasionally correspond with, the mathematical genius who discovered that process.
Kim Rossmo, haling originally from the Canadian Midwest, was a 20-year police veteran, formerly of the Vancouver Police Service, for about 20 years. While pursuing a doctorate degree in mathematics, he discovered "Rigel", his own method of narrowing in on a suspect by way of tracking back from the location of serial crime incidents. This breakthrough had come about when he had had the good fortune to be mentored by the husband and wife mathematical team of Paul and Patricia Brantingham, of Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, British Columbia. Paul and Patricia Brantingham, pioneers of the science of environmental criminology had come up with the theory that if one knows the home base of serial criminals, one can predict where they would commit their crimes. Given that premise, Kim's theory was that there must be a way to work backwards, from the locations of the crimes, to pinpoint the likeliest location of the criminal's home base. He developed a formula for that and worked for months on a software program to analyze and calculate the data as no such program existed that could work with his calculations. Kim successfully defended his dissertation and was granted his Ph.D. in 1995.
After that, Kim became a hot commodity in the policing world. He was in worldwide demand and he brought this unique method of profiling to many continents and countries, solving a myriad of violent, serial crimes. He garnered a well-earned international reputation because of his breakthrough technology. After finding himself embroiled in a dispute with his home police agency, complete with a subsequent wrongful dismissal lawsuit, Kim has relocated to Washington, D.C. to continue his research and head up a national research project. As a fellow Canadian and former police veteran myself, I am proud to know him. I have a healthy regard for the magnitude and significance of his discovery.
The profilers we usually see on television and in the movies are those who break down an unknown suspect's traits to the most likely methods of behavior based on the modus operandi of their crimes. Kim's process does not deal at all with the 'why' of a crime; it is entirely based upon the 'where' of a crime. In the Criminal Intent episode, the pharmacies where the tainted medication was purchased were the keys needed to track back to locate the hot zone of where the culprit lived while perpetrating the crime. Incidentally, in this episode, the female suspect was actually using her mother's home as a base for conducting her criminal business. That is where she received delivery of the cyanide and from where she laced the medication and placed it in pharmacies at which her unwitting victims purchased it.
Kim Rossmo and his amazing feats of crime detecting and geographic profiling have been highlighted in several mediums. He has appeared on several U.S. magazine shows and his name became a household world in law enforcement circles. A lengthy article in Saturday Night Magazine (subsidiary of Canada's National Post newspaper), written by Jake MacDonald (published December 23, 2000) became a rallying cry to all police officers who have made incredible contributions to law enforcement and whose own agencies not only do not value the talent that lies within but who punish and expel those rising stars, banishing them from seeing the fulfillment of their contribution to law enforcement. Kim's contribution to the science of policing is of significant import to the whole criminal justice community and for all of civilized society.
Basically, Geographic Profiling works this way....when there are a number of related crimes, such as the medication poisonings of that Criminal Intent episode, the location of the pharmacies where the medications were purchased are plotted mathematically. The end result reveals to the investigator the scope of the 'hot zone' or, in the vernacular of Kim's system, the 'jeopardy surface'. For our purposes, I'll refer to the hot zone, the concentrated area in which the perpetrator likely resides.
One of the most successful and notorious cases that Kim solved was a series of rapes in Lafayette, Louisiana, referred to by the investigators as the "South Side Rapist". These rapes began in 1985, and police had hit one dead end after another. In 1998, 13 years after the rapes began, and with 14 known victims, Lafayette Detective Mac Gallien called Kim Rossmo at his office in Vancouver. Within a month, Kim's "Rigel" (named after a star in the Orion constellation, Rigel, The Hunter), Kim's complex system of geographic profiling, had narrowed the likely residential area of the suspect down to a radius of a mere half a square mile!
At first, Detective Gallien was elated. This allowed him to reduce his suspect list from 312 down to a scant dozen. Imagine his extreme disappointment when all 12 were cleared using DNA screening. In June of 1998, Gallien had reached another dead end.
In November of 1998, though, Detective Gallien received a call from an anonymous caller, who provided a name of a suspect in the case. Detective Gallien knew the individual named in that call and nearly dismissed the call as a prank. He knew the person named by the caller and trusted him. But, upon checking, Detective Gallien discovered that this person had lived in the heart of the hot zone during the time of the rapes. With this disturbing evidence Detective Gallien sought to obtain a non-voluntary DNA sample. The only way to legally do that was to retrieve something from a public place. A discarded cigarette butt proved to be the perfect medium. The test came back positive as a match.
Detective Gallien has his suspect and the case was solved. In February of 1999, Detective Gallien walked up to the suspect and told him that it was all over. He proceeded to arrest a fellow police officer, Deputy Randy Comeaux. Randy had taken a special interest in the case right from the beginning. In the end, Comeaux was charged with six counts of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to six life terms in prison. It was a shocking and sad conclusion to a crime that had plagued Lafayette for years.
Now, back to the Criminal Intent episode to which I'm referring. The female suspect had ordered a shipment of cyanide to her mother's address. Her mother was in the hospital at the time and the woman was able to place the order because her father (since deceased) once ran a photo processing shop and had an account with a supplier. Cyanide was once regularly used in film processing. The woman subsequently poisoned her husband. A few weeks later, several other people died after taking the same over-the-counter medication purchased at several different pharmacies in the same area if the city. This black widow then sought to sue the drug company, because of her loss, and then use that money to open a franchise baby clothing shop.
The Detective that wanted to use the Geographic Profiling method ran into opposition from police administrators, as is often the case with revolutionary and misunderstood methods. What twigged the Criminal Intent Detectives was the fact that her husband's death was significantly earlier than the others and, when the cyanide was traced back to the manufacturer, it had been shipped to the woman's mother's address. And the case was solved.
It is thanks to pioneers like Kim Rossmo, the Brantinghams and many others who've gone before them, who have discovered wonderful technologies that allow the definitive solving of almost 'un-solvable' crimes. It is also these technologies that have allowed our society to be more certain of the guilt of a perpetrator as we struggle with such issues as the death penalty vs. life imprisonment. It is a constantly evolving process, the detection of crime, and we are learning new things every day.

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