Canadian expert hopes to follow invisible trail to culprit's home

Globe and Mail

Monday, October 14, 2002 

WASHINGTON -- Ten days, eight dead, two wounded, and no suspects. As the serial sniper continues to befuddle Washington-area investigators, leaving few, if any, shell casings or other physical evidence, one Canadian is trying to trace him through the location of the crime scenes themselves.

Kim Rossmo

Kim Rossmo has worked cases such as this one in locations all over the world.

When the sniper began his attacks on Oct. 2, killing five people within 16 hours, the call went out to Dr. Rossmo for his assistance. He made numerous media appearances early last week, saying the killer probably came from the northern suburbs of the District of Columbia, then disappeared from the spotlight shortly afterward to concentrate on investigating.

The method he pioneered is called geographic profiling, and it attempts to discern the "where" of serial killers in the way psychological profiling seeks the "who."

Dr. Rossmo uses a computer to generate three-dimensional coloured maps, like topographical maps. But the peaks on his maps, shown in red, indicate something else: probability.

Dr. Rossmo came up with the technique when he was a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University 10 years go. His advisers, criminology professors Paul and Patricia Brantingham, had developed an algorithm to predict where a criminal would commit crimes based on where he or she lived, following what psychologists refer to as the least-effort principle. Inverting that model, Dr. Rossmo found he could zero in on 5 per cent or less of the "hunting area" covered by crime sites and superimpose a street map on it.

That kind of focus could narrow a list of 1,000 suspects to just 50.

Dr. Rossmo became the first Canadian police officer to receive a doctorate in criminology, earning him an unprecedented five-year contract with the Vancouver Police Department that included the creation of a geographic profiling unit with him as its head.

In 1998, when sex-trade workers had been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Dr. Rossmo, then a detective inspector with the department, suggested to his superiors that the community be warned of a serial killer and singled out a pig farm in Port Coquitlam and one of the farm's owners, Robert Pickton, as suspicious. His warnings were ignored and the resulting friction within the department earned the 20-year veteran a demotion, pulling the plug on the fledgling geographic profiling unit. Earlier this year, Dr. Rossmo lost a suit against the department alleging wrongful dismissal.

In February, Vancouver police searched that same pig farm and have charged Mr. Pickton with the murder of 15 of the missing women.

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Updated: August 21, 2016