Dangerous Instincts by Mary Ellen O'TooleMary Ellen O’Toole, PhD, a retired FBI profiler, has tracked down, captured, interviewed and studied some of the world’s most infamous criminals. She sat face to face during hours of interviews with Gary Ridgway, better known as “the Green River Killer,” and she helped capture the Unabomber, the serial killer of Baton Rouge, and many other serial killers. She also worked the Elizabeth Smart, Natalee Holloway, and Columbine cases.

O’Toole is the author of the upcoming book [amazon_link id=”1594630836″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Dangerous Instincts[/amazon_link] (Hudson Street Press, 2011), which applies the tools of a profiler to real life situations, problems and decisions. Readers learn how to vet people for danger, how to interview people, how to read people and more.

O’Toole has consulted on TV shows, documentaries and movies, and worked in the FBI when the cast and crew of one hit crime show visited Quantico, the Marine Corps base 36 miles outside of Washington, D.C., to observe profilers and gather information for the show.

So do TV crime shows and movies get it right? Not hardly. According to O’Toole, here are five things they get wrong:

1. People who commit violent crimes just snap.

Fiction: Criminals are often portrayed as law abiding, every day citizens who experience a stressor – the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the loss of a job  — and just snap and go on a killing spree.

Fact: There are usually warning signs — sometimes for years — that someone might become violent. What happens is that their concerning behavior goes unnoticed. For instance, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did not just snap. They planned the [amazon_link id=”0981652565″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Columbine shooting[/amazon_link] for months. They meticulously and slowly gathered explosives and firearms. They planned the shooting down to the last detail. For weeks before the incident, they taped each other discussing how they would carry out the shooting.

Your usual well-adjusted, law-abiding citizen doesn’t “snap” into a mass murderer or coldblooded serial killer. There are always warning signs that these people had the potential to become violent and, in fact, were planning to carry out a violent act. But those signs go unrecognized for a number of reasons, including:

  1. We don’t like to believe that the people we know — neighbors, teachers, school board members, spouses, and so on — can be plotting and planning violence.
  2. People who are prone to violence can be quite good at hiding their plans from others.
  3. Signs that someone might become violent are usually mixed with normal behavior. Some potentially violent people can sometimes act like normal, caring people. Other times, they’re angry, vengeful people. Their ability to be chameleons or good actors when they need to be is mixed in with anger and violent tendencies to form a big soup. Sometimes it can be difficult to spot the indicators of violence until it’s too late.
Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs
"A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti."

2. Psychopaths are maniacal geniuses.

Fiction: Psychopaths stick out. They appear odd, and stick out of a crowd due to their oddness. And they are smarter and more cunning than the average human. They are so smart and cunning that they’re almost impossible to catch. Think of Hannibal Lecter in [amazon_link id=”B000MGB6N2″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Silence of the Lambs[/amazon_link] or The Joker in The Dark Knight.

Fact: It’s easy to mistake a psychopath as being brilliant, considering his or her inflated sense of self worth (he or she will tell you of his brilliance), as well as a glib nature that enables him to engage with others on many different topics, albeit on a superficial level. But high intelligence and psychopathy are not correlated.

Psychopaths reflect the intelligence of the general population. There have been some exceptionally bright serial killers such as Edmund Emil Kemper, whose IQ is thought to be around 160.

O’Toole notes, “Kemper, whom I’ve interviewed several times, was rumored to have memorized the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). The test is used to test the presence of mental illness. It has 500 items on it, and Kemper knew precisely how to answer each of those items to support his insanity plea. He was one of the smartest killers I’ve ever interviewed.”

On the other end of the spectrum, however, is Billy, whose last name O’Toole has not used out of consideration for his living family members. “He was never tested for IQ, but during my interview with him, I had the opinion that his level of intelligence seemed quite low, and this opinion was corroborated by other people who had interviewed him. Billy only had a fifth grade education.”

CSI, Ted Danson
CSI's Marg Helgenberger, Ted Danson and George Eads look for clues on a train

3. You can easily follow the evidence.

Fiction: Crime scenes are rich with fingerprints, blood, semen, DNA, hair, and more. All of the evidence is collected and analyzed — sometimes within hours. The crime is usually solved that day.

Fact: Sometimes there’s hardly any forensic evidence. Maybe it was never there, or maybe it deteriorated or was worn away by the weather or carried away by wild animals.

Other times, like after September 11, 2001, there are thousands of pieces of evidence — more evidence than the largest crime lab in the country could process in many years. Often, detectives must pick which pieces of evidence to process and which ones to ignore. They can’t analyze it all. They don’t have the budget, human power or time, so they often must make tough choices: analyze the DNA, the fiber, or the material found under the victim’s fingernails. They try to pick what evidence will be the strongest and help them to solve the case.

“Television programs often depict us with technology that also hasn’t been invented yet, and they use this technology to analyze evidence in record time — much faster than it ever happens in real life,” says O’Toole.

Here, D.B. Russell (Ted Danson) and Nick Stokes (George Eads) investigate a crime scene in season 12 of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation:

4. Crimes are solved and prosecuted in 24 hours or less.

Fiction: The good guys get the case, gather all the evidence, analyze it, and figure it all out before the day’s end — just in time to catch the criminal before he kills his latest victim.

Fact: “My team solved some cases within 24 hours, especially if we were able to persuade the primary suspect to admit to a crime and tell us where he’d hidden the bodies,” says O’Toole. “Other cases, like the Unabomber, took years. How long it took to solve a crime depended on the crime itself. Serial murders generally took longer. In all my career, we never caught a murderer just before he strangled his latest victim. I was, however, once five minutes too late to stop a suicide.”

5. There’s often a helpless woman with a butcher’s knife.

Fiction: A tiny woman wakes in the middle of the night to a noise. She’s terrified. She grabs a butcher’s knife and then creeps, while sobbing, bumbling through her home in search of the intruder.

Fact: Only a ninja warrior, a Navy Seal, a police officer, or some other highly trained and confident person would walk through the house to confront an intruder– and their choice of weapon would not be a butcher knife. It would be an automatic weapon or the shotgun they sleep with. The vast majority of people who wake and are terrified would not confront an intruder. “They would get out of the house so fast it would make your head spin,” says O’Toole.

Dangerous Instincts is available on October 13, 2011. Many thanks to Alisa Bowman for additional reporting on this piece.

Dial M for Murder
Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 classic, Dial M For Murder

Follow Dangerous Instincts on Facebook.

Read a Q&A with Mary Ellen O’Toole on Seattle Weekly.

Read reviews of Dangerous Instincts: Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly


  1. This is great! I love reading her perspective. As a former attorney, I find myself unable to watch any courtroom type shows because I get so distracted by how wrong everything is. I wonder if she has the same problem with these type of shows!

    • Good question, Vyv. It certainly seems like there must be either an additional chip or a chip missing in the psychopathic brain. If people just snapped when things got stressful, then we’d all be killing machines. Life is hard!

  2. This is really interesting and I will want to read her book. Did not realize re. forensic evidence. I’ve been a CSI fan for many years. Viewers never stop to question the search for forensics. I assumed it was always at the scene of the crime.

  3. This is a fascinating topic! I enjoy watching courtroom dramas like The Good Wife, but I can’t imagine that real crimes follow such a linear path to justice.

  4. I love the crime shows, but as a former crime reporter, mainly stick to the true crime shows such as “Dateline” and “48 Hours Mystery,” as the fictional ones always have to seem those elements you described. Great post!

  5. I *knew* crime shows depended on a lot of poetic license and suspension of disbelief, but this is great to read. Who knew they took more liberties with details than Glee does?

  6. […] NOTE: You can read more about Dangerous Instincts, which is a must-read book that I helped to write, at Or you can read tips that Mary Ellen has for reporters on how to conduct better interviews. Or you can find out five things crime shows get wrong. […]

  7. […] NOTE: You can read more about Dangerous Instincts, which is a must-read book that I helped to write, at Or you can read tips that Mary Ellen has for reporters on how to conduct better interviews. Or you can find out five things crime shows get wrong. […]

  8. I love watching The Mentalist, but I fully realize it’s fiction. I know from my own car that you’d have a jolly old time with a few layers! I enjoy watching courtroom dramas like The Good Wife, but I can’t imagine that real crimes follow such a linear path to justice.


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