Crime Research Criminal Mind

An Interview With Mark Safarik: Former FBI Profiler Talks Violent Crime and Behavioral Analysis

Mark Safarik (Image: Killer Instinct/Peacock Productions)
Within the dark worlds of violent crime and homicide, the deepest levels of human depravity are often revealed highlighting just how much harm one individual can do to another. Investigation and analysis of these crimes and the depraved individuals who carry them out can tell us the most about the psychology of violence and provide a deeper understanding of criminal behavior.

Mark Safarik is a retired FBI criminal profiler and there is little he has not encountered during his 23 years with the Bureau. As one of the most senior members of the elite FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit he specialized in the behavioral analysis of violent criminal behavior, utilizing crime scene analysis to its limit in order to learn about the individual responsible.

Now recognized as an international expert in the interpretation and analysis of violent crime, Mark Safarik is a respected leader within the complex discipline of criminal psychology with over two decades of experience that few can match.

He has conducted significant research into the area of sexual assault and murder of elderly women, providing vital understanding through publications in leading research journals on this type of crime.

His published works include the Sexual Homicide of Elderly Females in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence and Elderly Female Serial Sexual Homicide in the Journal of Homicide Studies, alongside numerous book chapters, articles and textbooks covering homicides, sexual assaults, criminal personality profiling, crime scene analysis and serial murder.

Today, Mark Safarik holds adjunct faculty at Boston College and is the head of Forensic Behavioral Services International, providing expert consulting, case analysis and investigation on the most difficult cases from around the world. He is a regular feature on television hosting his true crime show Killer Instinct and consulting on programmes ranging from Forensic Files to CSI: Las Vegas.

Mark Safarik has very kindly found the time to talk with me about his career within the FBI and provide his insights on becoming a criminal profiler, his research on sexual homicide in elderly females, the role of fantasy within violent criminal behaviour and his televised interview with serial killer Joel Rifkin.

Q&A With Former FBI Profiler Mark Safarik


Q. You were a detective in violent crimes before joining the Bureau and then going on to become a profiler in 1984 which you did for 23 years. Across your career you will have attended and studied some of the worst violence and depravity one individual can do to another. How did you disassociate yourself from the impact of that in order to do your job and how has it affected you over the years?

MS – I started in law enforcement in 1977 as a police officer in California. From patrol I promoted into detectives working violent crimes. I attended a homicide school in 1982. At this homicide school there were two FBI profilers who lectured for two days of instruction. This was my introduction to behavioral analysis and really the watershed moment when I became fascinated with this way of looking at violent crime. It was this introduction that led me to join the FBI in order to become a profiler. It is not a quick and easy pathway to get into the behavioral analysis unit. It took me nearly 11 years to make that promotion. But I stayed in the unit for the balance of my 23-year career.

I am often asked about how I deal on a daily basis with such a disturbing level of human depravity. Because these cases come from law enforcement agencies not only around the United States but the world, they are typically the most unusual, exceptionally violent, or have other hallmarks of extreme behavior.

I think the transition for me was easier because I grew up in a medical family so was used to being around the terminology and the discussion of injury and the functioning of the human body. Becoming a police officer of course further exposed me to dealing with people in extreme times of need. As my interest in investigative work and especially violent crime investigation grew I was regularly exposed to the violence that human beings inflict on one another. This of course became part of a daily routine.

I joined the FBI with the goal of becoming a profiler in the Behavioral Analysis Unit. My degree in physiology, my law enforcement work, as well as my training in areas associated with the study of violent human behavior prepared me for what I was to experience in the Behavioral Analysis Unit. In order to function effectively as a crime analyst, I think it’s critically important to be able to disassociate yourself emotionally from the horrific violence that you are analyzing. The inability to do that prevents you from objectively looking at the complex dynamics of any violent crime. The ability to do that well is one of the hallmarks of a good behavioral crime analyst.

Q. I imagine the question you get asked the most is ‘how do I become a FBI profiler?’ and I know many are surprised to realise that it is not a job you can simply apply for like any other. It is a role that takes years of experience and one you are selected for after you have proven your ability and skills as a solid and intuitive investigator. Does it frustrate you that so many feel they can earn a degree and walk straight in to the FBI as a profiler?

MS – It doesn’t really frustrate me at all. I think television shows that highlight criminal profilers and behavioral crime analysts tend to give people the impression that it’s a job you can apply for. I’m always happy to explain to people the long process of training, education, research, and experience that go into the development of a competent crime analyst. The other aspect a lot of people don’t talk about is the ability to emotionally dissociate yourself from what you are analyzing and to always consider objectively the material that you are reviewing. Most of the time the cases that end up being analyzed are cold cases in which investigators have invested, often times, years of their experience and because of that will voice very specific ideas about particular offenders or why certain events occurred. It is important to conduct your own review and for your own unbiased opinions.

When the FBI started its program in the Behavioral Sciences Unit in the mid-70s it was the only law enforcement agency in the world engaged in this type of analysis. Since those early days many law enforcement agencies around the world have formed behavioral analysis unit’s that function essentially the same way that the FBIs functions. I often get the question from high school and college students who think that after graduating from college they can apply for the position of behavioral crime analyst. I explain the process and that usually by the time you can promote into the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit you are usually in your late 30s or early 40s. This is true in most of the law enforcement agencies that have their own behavioral units. You have to prove yourself as a competent investigator before you are considered for such a position. It takes time, commitment, and dedication.

Q. The Behavioral Analysis Unit at the FBI was really the first department to specialize in the behavioral analysis of crime scenes and violent offenders and I think remains the most elite unit in this regard. You joined when it was still in its infancy. Do you feel you were able to grow and develop with the unit as new methodologies, research and technologies emerged over years?

MS – The study of serial killers, mass murderers and other unusual types of violent crimes really began in the early to mid-1970s. This all took place in the Behavioral Sciences Unit which was attached to the FBI training Academy. The initial research by individuals like Robert Ressler, Roy Hazelwood, and John Douglas focused on both studying crimes these killers committed as well as conducting interviews with them in prison. I promoted into what is now called the Behavioral Analysis Unit in 1995. It was the first time since 1984, when I joined the FBI, that openings in the behavioral unit became available.

Quite a bit of research had been conducted and was being conducted while I was in the unit. I initiated and conducted ground-breaking research on the sexual homicide of elderly women, an area of research which had not been addressed prior to my initiating this project. I think it’s critically important to stay current on research work being conducted in homicide, violent crime, and sexual assault. This is one of the primary reasons why I subscribe to several research journals, belong to various groups studying homicide as well as list serves that focus on this type of research. It’s also important to understand how the courts are treating this type of analysis in terms of expert testimony. What is allowed and what is not because ultimately if an arrest is made in a case in which you have written an assessment you will likely be called to testify. In addition, the area of forensic science related to DNA, biological evidence, hairs and fibers, has grown exponentially since the inception of the FBI’s behavioral analysis program. When providing consultation on cases it is important to understand where the advances in forensic science have been made both in the physical and behavioral sciences in order to best serve the agencies that have asked for your assistance.

Q. You are now retired from the FBI and provide consultations, case analysis and training through your firm Forensic Behavioral Services International. I imagine your services are in high demand. At what point in a criminal investigation do clients tend to reach out to you and what are the most common services they are looking for?

MS – It depends on the type of case that I’m being contacted on. Typically, in criminal cases I’m being contacted by either the prosecution or defense in order to conduct an analysis of the crime and crime scene dynamics to understand and explain what happened, how events occurred and why. These cases are typically homicides or sexual assault investigations. I also provide expert testimony for civil attorneys. These types of cases usually focus on an underlying violent crime and the victim of crime. These are cases in which monetary damages are being sought by the victim or victim’s family. In this type of analysis I am usually addressing issues related to the deterrability of the offender. Deterrability primarily has to do with the risk of the victim and risk the offender is willing to take to commit the crime.

In both criminal and civil cases, by the time I get involved there is usually a significant period of time that has elapsed since the commission of the crime, up to years. It’s important to understand that law enforcement agencies usually conducted their own extensive investigation prior to ever contacting either the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit or me through my consulting company. It’s usually when their investigative leads dry up and the case remains unsolved that I am brought into assist in the investigation. One exception to that is typically in serial murder investigations where the urgency of identifying the killer focuses on the formation of a task force. The FBI is usually brought on in the earlier stages of those types of investigations.

Q. You have carried out extensive research into violent and sexual homicides of elderly females. I was surprised to learn these kind of crimes often display excessive violence carried out by impulsive offenders, although evidence now suggests many of these crimes may be pre-meditated. Does the vulnerability of elderly women who are often physically smaller and weaker and living alone make them a target for these offenders who think they will be easier to dominate and control?

MS – The excessive level of violence observed in these murders is disproportionate to the ease with which these women can be controlled. If the goal is just to sexually assault, these women don’t pose much of a physical obstacle and can be overcome without much injury but what I see is exactly the opposite. Excessive injury in the course of the murder occurs in the majority of the cases.

I started this research in 1996 when I was assigned two different sexual homicides of elderly women. In examining the research literature, I discovered that there was almost none in this sub category of sexual homicide. I published my first research in 2000 and have been publishing and writing about this area ever since. We tend to think of elderly women as generally low risk victims since they don’t have the markers for high risk victims. But one attribute elevates their risk to moderate. Most of these women are widowed and live alone.  It is the fact that they live alone that really elevates their risk. They are available and vulnerable targets and physically cannot defend themselves against strong young male offenders.

These offenders actively seek out these older women because they are not confident enough to target women who are in their own age range. Even though there is a sexual assault in all these cases, the excessive injury during the homicide really relates to issues of domination, control, and anger. These offenders are men who often have very little control in their own lives and are usually dependent for support on a dominant female. As a result, the seek out surrogate or substitute women elderly women who they know won’t present a physical challenge. The research has really helped define the composite of what these offenders look like. This in turn helps law enforcement when they are faced with investigating this type of homicide.  They will often know exactly the type of offender to look for.

Q. There have been some suggestions by a few academics of an addictive element to serial murder. Some serial killers requiring a high level of violence or more extreme behaviour to achieve the same thrill in later murders and the pleasure they receive from killing driving them to do it again and again. What are your thoughts on this idea of an addiction to serial murder for some offenders?

MS – I certainly have seen many serial offenders who are driven by an emotional or psychological need to reoffend. It is also not unusual to see offenders escalate their violence or interaction with the victim in subsequent murders in order to derive a similar level of gratification.  Often it requires a greater stimulus to bring the offender to the same level of satisfaction as he experienced in the prior killings. The issue I have with calling this escalating behavior addictive is related to semantics. Addiction, for most people, implies that the need to kill and/or escalate violent behavior is beyond the offender’s ability to exert influence and thus they are simply responding to a driving force beyond their control.  This is clearly not the case save for individuals who are psychotic or suffering from severe mental illness.

Most serial offenders know the difference between right and wrong, recognize that what they want to do is against the law and morally wrong, yet because they are only concerned about what they want, choose to do it anyway. Of course, most serial killers are not psychotic but rather psychopaths. The psychopath often needs greater and more intense stimulation to achieve the same level of satisfaction as in prior murders. Often times, the reality of what occurs in the murder does not measure up to the perfection of the fantasy. By escalating the behavior or engaging in more complex violence the offender hopes to capture what has remained elusive in the fantasy.

Q. The role of fantasy in violent crime and especially murder is an interesting concept. Fantasies that may have been developing in the offender’s minds for years before they actually carry them out, many of them sexual in nature interweaved with violence. How often have you seen fantasy being a component within violent behaviors and is there any hope for such offenders to address these impulses and not reoffend?

MS – It is interesting that I was just addressing this issue in the last question. Of course, the answer depends on the type of offender you are dealing with. For instance, the offenders in my research of men who sexually assault and murder elderly women reveals that fantasy plays little to no role in their murders. This is true even for the serial killers of these women. Only one offender in my entire research project engaged in fantasy. If you examine the various categories of sexual murders, you will find fantasy plays a significant role with certain types of offenders (e.g., sexual sadists) and almost no role at all for anger retaliatory rapists and killers.

In addressing the role of fantasy, we have learned through many interviews that fantasy development begins when they are young and at some point in their adolescent development there is a fusion of violence, sex, and fantasy. Sometimes this fantasy incorporates inanimate objects that become fetishes for the offender. Jerome Brudos and his shoe collection serves as an example.

Fortunately for law enforcement, the violent offenders who demonstrate a well-developed fantasy life that is incorporated into their violent crimes and I am specifically referring to offenders who sexually assault and/or murder, are a small proportion of the overall offender population. This is important because strong fantasy incorporation into their crimes often indicates a more criminally sophisticated offender. They engage in planning and organizing their crimes, carefully select their victims, are more evidence conscious and generally more difficult to identify and arrest. It is important to understand that I am speaking in general terms because human behavior runs the spectrum and we can find exceptions to every rule in the criminal offender population.

Q. The interview you carried out with serial killer Joel Rifkin shown in an episode of the documentary Criminal Mindscape was chilling but fascinating. Rifkin is believed to have murdered up to 17 young women and he spoke calmly and thoughtfully about his actions with an element of reliving the crimes as he spoke to you about them. Is he a typical example of a psychopathic personality and were you surprised by anything he told you or aspects of his demeanour throughout the interview?

MS – In the interview with Joel Rifkin I was trying to go beyond merely addressing the cases that he had been convicted. I really wanted to try to understand if he was in a position to help me understand how and why he selected these particular victims, whether he was concerned about leaving evidence and if he was, what steps did he take to destroy evidence. I also wanted to know if he followed the law enforcement investigation and if that caused him to alter his behavior. I was really trying to get insight into how he felt and what he thought about while he was committing the murders.

When you are examining serial killers in general, the majority of them will be psychopaths. It is their lack of empathy for the victims and complete disregard for the rules and laws of society that are hallmark attributes. Being a psychopath unfortunately, also lends to their success in these repeated killings. They are not bothered by killing and disposing of the bodies of their victims. This lack of empathy allows them to act in a relatively normal manner immediately after their activity. They blend in to their social and work activities and their normal manner rarely arouses suspicion.

Serial killer Joel Rifkin talking with Mark Safarik on Criminal Mindscape.

When you watch my interview with Rifkin you can see that he is literally unfazed by all the death and destruction that he is left in his path because he simply does not care about the victims or their families. He has no empathy for the women he killed. For Joel, describing how he killed and dismembered one of his victims would elicit the same kind of emotional response as if you asked him how to make a ham sandwich. His affect was flat when describing his murders, no emotion, no empathy, and no regret.

I wasn’t really surprised by anything Joel told me but I found it interesting how little personal insight he had regarding his murders despite the fact that he has spent many years in prison meetings with prison psychiatrists and has certainly had a very long time to reflect on what he has done. I remember asking him about one of his victims and I could see that he became distant in the interview. He was reliving the event in his mind. It was like he was watching a movie. He can call up any of these past murders to relive these events over and over again.

Q. Familial homicide, murder within a family unit is often a very interpersonal crime involving high levels of violence. These crimes are not always an explosion of rage that results in murder and can often be a planned and carefully thought out attack. Is there a difference in offenders who can kill their own parents for example in this manner compared to those to murder strangers?

MS – When you use the term familial homicide, or familicide, what you are describing is typically a spouse killing the other spouse and children. It can also include other related family members. Each set of murders is case specific when looking for answers to the questions about how and why. They can be well planned as in the John List case where he killed his entire family and disappeared for many years or revenge killings where the killing of children is meant to punish the other spouse. It can be planned or it can occur spontaneously after an argument so it is difficult to ascribe a singular motive, plan of action or level of organization to the offender who engages in this type of homicide.

You mentioned children who kill their parents (parenticide) or single parent, matricide (mother) or patricide (father) versus offenders who kill strangers. Killings between people who know each other well often stems from an interpersonal conflict that the offender feels can only be resolved by the death(s) of the other(s). If the homicide occurs as you have stated, between people who are strangers then the chance of the motive being an interpersonal conflict is low and we have to look at other potential motives. Children who murder their parents with a high level of violence will often have access to them in more private locations (their residences) that would be more atypical in stranger murders with high levels of violence.

Q. You have hosted a number of TV shows including Killer Instinct and Cold Case Homicide giving viewers a real insight into your work and the complexities of criminal behavioral analysis across a wide range of cases. What are your plans now moving forward?

MS – When I retired from the FBI I joined Robert Ressler as his partner at Forensic Behavioral Services International. Unfortunately, due to significant medical issues with Robert’s health I had to take over all duties of the consulting business after about 6 months and have continued for the past ten years. Through the business I provide expert analysis in both criminal and civil cases involving complex violent behavior.

I recently filmed in Los Angeles for a series coming out in 2018 and in Germany for another TV program. I enjoy doing television work especially in cold case homicides or equivocal death cases. Both of my cold case homicide television series in Europe recently finished their second seasons.

I still conduct research and have co-authored journal articles published this year. I have recently written a book chapter for an international textbook on sexual homicide to be published in early 2018. I enjoy lecturing both in the US and in Europe. I spent two weeks in Spain and a week in Germany lecturing in various cities.

I also belong to several groups including the Vidocq Society where I contribute my expertise on cold case homicide reviews. I am working on my own book which I hope to finish next year. My 31 years in law enforcement has served as the foundation for most of what I do today. I enjoy the challenge of the work and value the unique opportunities to assist others especially the victims of homicide and their families who seek justice. So, I guess you can say that I am keeping myself busy.


A very busy man who has kindly given me the time for this interview. Thank you Mark for answering my questions and giving such a fascinating insight into your work. A big thank you also to Randy Williams for the introductions to make this interview possible.

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2 Comments

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  • I commend Crime Traveller for this very interesting interview. Many of the questions were exactly the ones I would want to pose to Mark.

    Mark I thank you for all you have done and continue to do in your specialized profession. As a former street officer and homicide detective I feel we have many things in common. I enjoyed reading each question and your responses. I have the utmost respect for your service. Roy Hazelwood worked on our serial murderer case and was instrumental in identifying and causing the arrest of Nathaniel Code. I wish you the best in all of your endeavors. Respectfully, Pat McGaha, Shreveport P.D. Homicide Retired.

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