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Criminals' motives are elusive to investigators

Former FBI Profiler Clint Van Zandt:  "Motive is important because without an understanding of why people commit certain crimes in the way they do, we are left to begin at square one on every investigation, something we simply don’t have the time or the resources to do."

“Motive is the reason, the why, sometimes the darkest chapter in the darkest book in the massive library we call the human mind.” 

Motive is not an element of a crime that must be proved in court.  But some crimes are so unfathomable, such as killing your own spouse and child, that a jury may have a hard time believing anyone could do such a thing.  Because of this, prosecutors must show motive, the subject’s reason to commit the unreasonable.  The prosecution must explain bizarre behavior to a jury of 12, explain the unthinkable, and show how anyone could, and especially why anyone would commit such an offense.

It was a frightening time to live and work in the Washington, D.C., area.  During a three-week period in October 2002  men, women, and children were randomly or not so randomly targeted, shot and killed, no matter their age, sex, or race.  Bus stops, school yards, shopping malls, and gas stations were all places where the shooter (or shooters) selected their targets, their victims to be.  During those 21-days in October, someone, some domestic terrorist, pulled a blanket of fear over tens of thousands of people from Maryland to the District of Columbia and down through Virginia.  Unlike other spree killers (multiple victims with no emotional cooling off period in between victims) or serial killers (four or more victims, usually with an emotional cooling off period between victims), this shooter showed no particular choice in his quarry.  Profilers call someone who chooses one kind of victim to target a preferential killer.  Therefore, since this shooter or shooters seemed to have no preference, any man, woman, or child could be the shooter’s current or future victim.  And the shooter had no reason to stop shooting.  The only question was “why” had he started shooting in the first place? 

Most investigations require six basic questions to be answered.  Readers have known these questions for most of their collective lives.  “Who, what, when, where, why, and how?”  You answer these questions, you have the criminal, and you solve the crime.  “Who” is simple – that’s the victim, the person who gets raped, robbed, murdered.  The “who” is the criminal’s ultimate choice.  What he did, when he did it, where he did it, and perhaps how he did it, are usually self evident after the crime. 

It’s the “why” that is, many times, hard to understand.  Not the “why” that has a simple answer—he needed money, he was frustrated, angry, raging, or stupid.  The “whys” that are hard to answer are the less obvious, the less sensible ones; the ones that prove to be the most difficult for us to understand. 

Most lawyers who go on television to discuss a crime will say that motive, the why of a crime, is not important.  In fact, motive is not a legal element of a crime.  However, intent or “mens rea,” the mental purpose of performing an act that is forbidden by law, is a legal element of a crime.  Motive is the reason, the why, sometimes the darkest chapter in the darkest book in the massive library we call the human mind.

Motive is important because without an understanding of why people commit certain crimes in the way they do, we are left to begin at square one on every investigation, something we simply don’t have the time or the resources to do.  That’s where profiling comes in.  If law enforcement knows that certain elements of a crime, and certain evidence found at the crime scene, may suggest the type of person who did the crime, then we are on our way to the “why” of the crime that can then take us to the “who” – the person who committed the crime.  This can, unfortunately, be a very long journey.  Such was the case with the infamous Unabomber.

In May 1978 the first of a series of bombs exploded that signaled the beginning of an almost two-decade long run by a serial bomber.  Investigation by various federal, state, and local agencies failed to identify the elusive bomber who continued his activities into the mid 1990’s.  The why of these acts was a continual source of frustration for investigators.  Some tried to make the jump to the “who” too quickly.  Many street investigators believed that the unidentified bomber must be a high school educated blue collar worker in the airline industry, while some of us working in the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit believed the unknown suspect was likely be a highly educated man, someone who was more than he seemed.  The challenge was the “why,” the motive, the reason that allowed the bomber to stay focused for so many years.  Why had someone begun to send (or just leave) random explosive devices across the country, someone who was smart, with the ability to travel across the country – a trait usually associated with someone older rather than younger?

The unknown bomber was angry at someone, probably an authority figure who exerted control over him somewhere between his home and a subsequent academic or business setting, but why?  Years after his first bombing the now much-older bomber finally made a demand we could respond to.  He sent a 35,000 word treatise, the so-called Unabomber’s Manifesto, to a number of major newspapers in the U.S. with a demand.  Publish his wordy indictment, one that railed on and on about modern society and culture, or he’d blow an airliner full of people out of the sky.  Was this all there was – almost twenty years of murder and mayhem so a frustrated academic could get a dull and boring thesis published in a way to guarantee that the world would read it? 

It was the winter of 1995 and I had just retired from the FBI.  I’d started my own crisis management company.  The men and women who worked with me had over 100 years of combined analytical and investigative experience.  I was fortunate to work with these people, the best in the world in the area of threat assessment and behavioral analysis.  On an otherwise slow December day I was called by a private investigator from the Chicago area.  She had a client who had a question.  Could my analytical team and I review the known writings of someone and linguistically compare them to a questioned document, in this case the now published Unabomber’s Manifesto.  “Yes, we could,” and yes we did.  We suggested to our unidentified client that the person who wrote the letters—the exemplars we were provided to review—and the writer of the Manifesto, were the same person.  The rest is history—our ultimate client was David Kaczynski and the letters he provided for our review, analysis, and comparison were written by his brother, Ted, a former college professor who failed in his relationships with women and with work, and subsequently moved to a dirt-floored cabin in rural Montana, the Unabomber’s corporate headquarters, where he carried on his lone bomb-making activities.  In Ted Kaczynski’s case he was a one-man corporate board.  He made the decision on who to bomb and there was no one to vote against him.  His vote always carried, his decision was always final.  Linking Kaczynski’s believed 15 bombings had always been the challenge for authorities.  Hindsight being 20-20, the crimes all came together when Ted was arrested, but the “why,” as partially explained in his Manifesto, was what had eluded investigators for most of two decades.

It was the “why” relating to the Washington, D.C., sniper case that challenged authorities in a similar manner.  Most remember the massive hunt for a lone white male in a white van, neither of which proved to be the case.  Here’s the challenge for profilers.  Most profiles are based on statistics.  Most snipers are lone white males.  As an analyst for television news, I offered that this was the normal profile for such an offender, but I further indicated that this was more likely a team vs. a lone sniper, further suggesting that this was a two-man team, one older with military experience, and one person somewhat younger.  I also indicated that – even in the face of so-called eye witnesses—because every white van between Maryland and southern Virginia that was being driven by a lone white male had been stopped and checked out by troopers and FBI Agents, I felt that the shooters were neither white nor driving around in a white van. 

Motive though was again the challenge for investigators – the path to the “who.”  As no specific race, sex, or age group was being targeted, society as a whole could have been the target.  That is, if you shoot any man, you threaten every man.  And how and why did he or they target their victims?  It was, after all, almost God-like for the sniper to look at a group of adults and children through the sights of his rifle and get to decide who would live and who would die in the next second.

But another reason to target a wide range of victims could be that the shooter had a specific victim in mind.  But were he to kill that lone victim, likely someone close to him, it would be obvious to the authorities that the person closest to the victim could be the likely killer.  However what if you kill a number of people and have your “real” target as just one of your ultimate victims.  You might, you just might, get away with it, as you would no longer be the obvious suspect in a lone homicide.  With multiple murders, the authorities could assume it was a spree killer who “randomly” identified and killed people the assailant knew nothing about.  This is what the former wife of John Allen Muhammad believes to be the case.  She thinks that she was Muhammad’s and John Lee Malvo’s ultimate target, this so Muhammad could get custody of their common children.  Ten dead, three wounded, and a nation terrorized by two men with a rifle who drove around shooting people from the trunk of an old Chevy sedan, all because one man wouldn’t accept the child custody aspects of his divorce decree?  Were this to be the two shooter’s real motive, it strains the human imagination as to the “why” of human behavior.

Motive.  Maybe not an element that must be proved in court.  But, the reason and the “why” that we all want to know.

Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Van Zandt Associates Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed, a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."