[TURNING 20] Beyond the evidence — how profilers help solve crimes
It was only recently that profilers here were openly given credit as they played a critical role in getting a confession from serial killer Lee Chun-jae. Lee is a high profile criminal who made headlines last year by admitting that he is the man behind the notorious Hwaseong serial murders, the country’s most brutal rape and murder case that had remained unsolved for decades. The crimes took place between 1986 and 1991 and a total of 10 women were raped before being brutally murdered. The case was even made into a movie by director Bong Joon-ho, titled “Memories of Murder” (2003).
After a lengthy battle of wits between profilers and Lee, he finally confessed that he was responsible for 14 murders including the 10 that took place in Hwaseong, Gyeonggi.
The case had remained unsolved until last year when police identified Lee as a prime suspect after finding DNA samples from the victim’s clothes matched samples from Lee, which had been kept securely in the national DNA database for many years.
Despite the mounting evidence against him, Lee refused to talk. But profilers persisted and continuously tried to build rapport with the serial killer.
Local media praised the profilers who were involved in solving the Hwaseong case, acknowledging that they played a key role in solving this notorious crime by reading Lee’s mind and targeting his psychological weaknesses to make him confess.
Profiler Pyo Chang-won, who was also a ruling Democratic Party lawmaker from 2016 to May 2020, was one of the first criminal profilers in the country, who made great contributions to solving some of the most high profile cases in Korea.
The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with Pyo, 54, for an interview to discuss how the role of profiler has changed in the past 20 years and how it is viewed as a profession by Korean society. The following are edited excerpts.
Q. The criminal profiling technique was adopted in the United States when the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) established the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) in 1972 to investigate serial killers. How was it introduced in Korea?
A. In the United States, this method was first introduced when the serial killer Ted Bundy killed more than 30 women throughout the 1970s. Before him, motives for murder always fell within four categories: money, love, revenge or drugs. Most cases could be solved by the basic principle of forensic science as “every contact leaves a trace.” But Ted Bundy had nothing to do with the victim nor did he leave any trace at the scene. When the police finally caught him, the police were shocked because Ted Bundy was far from being the prime suspect. Then they realized that to make psychopathic criminals like Ted Bundy one of the main suspects, they needed to collaborate with psychologists and psychiatrists who study abnormal behavior and human impulses. That's how the BSU was established in the United States.
In the case of Korea, it was not until the 1990s when we faced serial murder cases like the Jijonpa gang of thugs that made headlines by kidnapping and killing “rich people,” and the Makgapa gang who were burying victims alive and eating human flesh. At that time, the National Police Agency was preoccupied with improving scientific investigation techniques in Korea. That was also important, of course, but we had to find ways to get down to these serial killers, especially those who don't leave much evidence for scientific investigation at the scene.
We needed to at least get the basic outline of the suspect to start the investigation, but how could we, if the criminal never had a face-to-face encounter with the victim? Or if they weren't a previous offender with a motive? Or what if they weren’t among the probable suspects living around the area? At that point, we were stuck. That’s when we found out that profiling techniques could help the investigation by identifying the suspect's abnormal psychology and their characteristics marked at the scene.
Q. When did you decide to become a criminal profiler?
A. After graduating from Korean National Police University, I started as a police inspector investigating criminal cases. But when I couldn’t contribute to solving the case of the Hwaseong serial murder case, nor find a clue when the national college entrance exam paper was stolen in 1992, I felt ashamed of myself. I wondered what I could do to improve my investigative skills, and that’s when I decided to go and study abroad in 1993. At that time, I had never even heard of profilers. I just wanted to get better investigation training outside Korea.
After getting my Master's and Ph.D. in police studies at the University of Exeter in England, I returned to Korea in 1998. That’s when Detective Kwon Il-yong and I established a research group called the Forensic Identification Research Society with the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency's scientific investigation team. It wasn’t an official organization where we received funding from the government, but detectives, forensic experts and criminal psychology professors gathered voluntarily to discuss and analyze unresolved cases. While detective Kwon constantly urged that our National Police Agency should introduce a behavioral science unit, Busan was haunted by a serial killer, Jeong Du-yeong, from 1999 to 2000. After Jeong’s case, the National Police Agency agreed to officially begin hiring profilers in 2000.
Q. How has society’s perception of criminal profilers changed over the past 20 years?
A. There was a turbulent period in the beginning years. The National Police Agency hired psychology and sociology degree holders through tests, trained them to become police officers and gave them senior policemen rank as criminal profilers. In the first year, we hired 15 of them and sent each to a local police station.
But, unfortunately, the local police stations were not on the same page as the National Police Agency. To local police officers, profilers were not welcome at all. To them, a complete stranger, who were mostly women and who weren't even police officers before, suddenly came in with a senior police rank. So the detectives were like: Who are you guys? Have you ever handled dead bodies at the scene? Do you know the smell of blood? Have you ever been through a rough investigation? How are you going to investigate by just reading textbooks?
One episode that I recall is that the criminal division chief in a local police station sent the profiler to the murder scene on the first day of work and said, “Hey, you said you were a profiler. Now, tell me who did it. Shouldn’t you know who did it by reading the scene?” Being the first time she visited the crime scene, she couldn't say anything. Without letting her adapt to the crime scenes, the chief never let her come to other crime scenes again nor let her take part in future investigations. But such attitude was common in the beginning years, and many profilers left because of that.
But for those who managed to adapt, profiling slowly began to rise in status by contributing to solving cases. Now, detectives go to profilers when they are stuck in the middle of investigations like when they are having a hard time identifying suspects, or when their arrested suspect won’t talk. Most of the cases that come to profilers are high profile crimes like serial murders. Profilers can build rapport with criminals and make them talk about why they committed the crime, what they were thinking, what they did.
Q. What would you say about the career outlook for criminal profilers?
A. To be honest, I am on the fence about it. As of now, the guaranteed spots are extremely limited. For example, there is a certain number of open positions for doctors each year in Korea, but that is not the case for criminal profilers. It depends solely on one's capability in solving the case whether one can succeed as a criminal profiler who even appears on TV shows or someone who never gets a case from the police.
But in the long term, profilers hold a greater potential. Not only from police officers but also other public sectors. Military investigation officers and the National Intelligence Service officers are starting to recognize profilers' capability and are making inquiries. In the private sector, insurance companies call profilers to detect insurance fraud, and conglomerates call profilers when involved in industrial espionage or embezzlement cases. Profilers have considerable usefulness in preventing or reducing such risk factors.
Q. So after being a criminal profiler for the past 20 years, what do you see for yourself for the next 20 years?
A. Won’t I still be appearing in TV shows? Recently, I started hosting JTBC’s investigative program “Crime Chief” from July that runs every weekday. Each day we have different corners. For example, on Mondays we have a corner named “epidemiological study in crimes.” Just like we investigate the origins of the infection and the spread of Covid-19, we try to find the fundamental cause of a crime in a way to prevent the recurrence of the same crime. I also wish that the Pyo Institute of Crime Science [PICS] will have grown bigger by then. Right now I can’t afford to hire anyone, but by that time I wish I could hire and train profilers who wish to investigate crimes and conduct research on crime prevention.
Q. Speaking of PICS, its website introduces the institute as “a scene where you strive to realize the dream of becoming ‘Korean Sherlock Holmes.’" Would you call yourself the Korean Sherlock Holmes?
A. Sherlock Holmes is a consulting detective, who provides advice to police at the crime scene. Everyone can be a consultant. I was a consultant to the SBS investigative program “Unanswered Questions,” and have been consulting reporters just like we are doing right now. Sherlock Holmes is also cultural content as a fictional character. PICS is a civilian research and training lab which provides educational programs to teach criminal investigation techniques and prevent crimes. This can also be defined as cultural content in a modern sense.
A. I am writing a mystery novel that’s an easy read. The publishing companies want me to write a book that analyzes criminal cases, but that work is just too painful. By that, I’m not referring to physical pain but emotional pain. I would have to look back on the actual cases and be able to retell the painful stories to the public. In the process, it may unintentionally add wounds to the bereaved families and victims. It is just too emotionally difficult to go back into the minds of criminals.
Recently, readers' standards have risen considerably through investigative TV programs like "Unanswered Questions" or crime dramas like "CSI” and “Criminal Minds.” In the United States and Europe, many former profilers, former detectives, former lawyers and former judges write mystery novels. Based on their factual and investigative techniques, their novels are very realistic.
On the other hand, Korean mystery authors may have great storytelling techniques, but they are weak in elaborating on the details of the crime scene. Without having detailed knowledge in investigative techniques, mystery novel authors alone cannot appeal to these readers. So wouldn't it be a great contribution if I write a mystery novel based on my profiling techniques? I am writing rough drafts over and over, but it’s going to take some time because I would never want to publish something embarrassing (laughs).
BY KIM YEON-AH [firstname.lastname@example.org]