Back in 1956, the New York Police Department was desperate. Over the past two years, the city had become victim to 10 different bombing attacks. The events were recognized not as isolated incidents, but a series of interrelated crimes traced back to one elusive man.
The man responsible became known to the public as the Mad Bomber. He started back in 1940 when workers at the Consolidated Edison building found a homemade pipe bomb on a windowsill in downtown Manhattan. Attached was a note. It read: “Con Edison crooks, this is for you.”
In 1941, a second bomb was left in the street a few blocks away from Con Edison’s headquarters. It was wrapped in a sock. Over the next five years, NYC Police received sixteen different letters promising to “bring Con Edison to justice.” The letters were signed with the initials F.P.
In 1950, a third bomb was left on the lower level of the Grand Central Terminal. This one exploded. A fourth, found in the phone booth of the New York Public Library, also exploded. The attacks ceased for a period of time, until 1954. The Mad Bomber struck four times – once in Radio City Music Hall. In 1955, he struck six more times. Police had zero leads on a suspect. With the city in uproar and NYPD out of answers, they turned to a man named James Brussel.
We recognize his work today as the beginnings of a branch of forensics known as criminal profiling.
Brussel had recognized that look before.
A psychiatrist by trade, Freudian by nature, Brussel had long hoped to intertwine his psychological background with his experiences spent working for the FBI as a counterespionage. Late in 1956, he finally had his chance – but the NYPD wasn’t exactly thrilled. Mixing psychology with law enforcement was viewed more as a party trick, less as a legitimate plan.
As we later learned, it was kind of both.
Brussel glanced through the case filings trying to use put himself into the Mad Bomber’s shoes. Noticing the letters began in 1940, he decided he had to have been middle-aged. He sensed he suffered from paranoia, his “injustice” at Con Edison being the trigger. His letters to the police were precise, hinting he was organized, orderly, and cautious. The language and signature suggested sophistication. Brussel hypothesized he would be educated and come from a foreign background.
Brussel went through the details of the crime scenes. Examining each action, he continued to build out his profile: Single, living with a mother figure, residing outside of New York State, and an Eastern European background – a theory he built out using demographic information about Southeastern New Hampshire. Several of the letters were stamped in Westchester County, New Hampshire. Brussel felt he had his guy.
His final remarks, as famously remembered by criminal profilers, made one final prediction:
“When you catch him – and I have no doubt you will – he will be wearing a double breasted suit.
One month later, police arrived at the door of George Metesky’s residence in Waterbury, Connecticut. Metesky was arrested for his connection to the New York City bombings. He was employed by Con Edison from 1929 to 1931. He lived with his two sisters. He was single. Meticulously neat. When officers asked him to get dressed, he returned wearing a double breasted suit.
“You gotta have a quarterback.”
At the end of the 2010 NFL season, San Fransisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith knew one thing for certain.
Six seasons ago, Smith had been taken first overall out of the University of Utah after leading Urban Meyer’s Utes to an undefeated season. First year head coach Mike Nolan had selected Smith over the likes of the University of California quarterback prospect Aaron Rodgers. Not wanting to rush his new quarterback, Nolan went with Tim Rattay to start the 2005 NFL season. After a 1-4 start, Nolan decided it was time for the future.
Smith started week five against Indianapolis. It was a situation doomed from the start. Smith was sacked five times behind a porous offensive line. He threw four interceptions. San Fransisco lost 3-28. Smith would start six more games. Five of them came at the tail end of the season, when the team’s postseason fate was already sealed. The team would finish 4-12. Smith threw one touchdown and 11 interceptions. Offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy was fired. Little did Smith know this would become a theme.
In his first five seasons with San Francisco, Smith would work with five different offensive coordinators. He didn’t have the same offensive coordinator for two consecutive seasons until 2009 when Jimmy Raye took over. Raye was fired at the end of 2010.
Mike Nolan – Smith’s first head coach – didn’t last beyond 2008 with the team. He failed to finish above .500 in any of his four seasons. His predecessor – Mike Singletary – lead the team in 2009 to their best record since 2002. They won eight games.
In 2010, San Fransisco stumbled to a 6-10 season. Singletary was fired. Smith started 10 games, winning just three of them. His 43.8 Quarterback Rating (QBR) ranked 28th out of 31 quarterbacks in the NFL. When Singletary parted the locker room for the last time, he had one last thing to say to reporters:
“You gotta have a quarterback.”
That postseason, San Francisco fans had to watch Mike McCarthy – Smith’s first offensive coordinator – lead the Green Bay Packers to a Super Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Green Bay’s quarterback – like Smith – was also selected in the 2005 NFL Draft. His name was Aaron Rodgers.
Maybe that’s why Smith – widely considered a colossal bust – knew he wanted a fresh start somewhere else at the end of 2010. He just had no idea where it was going to be.
In the late 1970s, John Douglas and his colleague Robert Ressler at the FBI set out to interview some of the most notorious serial killers throughout the United States. Starting in California, they spent the next several months interviewing thirty six different killers. Looking for connections, they came up with two over-arching themes to categorize serial killers: Organized and disorganized.
Instead of using crime scene evidence to initiate the search for a criminal – as was common at the time – Douglas and Ressler’s interviews proposed a different strategy: We could use evidence from the crime scene to define the killer, thus giving us a psychological angle in narrowing down a suspect pool. “Organized” killers, for example, were more likely to clean up weapons and other evidence after the crimes. They operated in low risk environments. Their method of operandi (M.O.) was consistent and executed flawlessly. “Disorganized” killers, on the contrary, were just the opposite. They were sloppy in how they disposed of evidence. They operated in high risk environments (e.g. daylight, high traffic). Their M.O. was inconsistent and sporadic, suggesting more of an emotional kill than a methodical one.
On the surface, it seemed promising. For the first time ever, we could paint a psychological profile for a specific offender based on his pattern of behavior. If we knew more about the makeup and motivation behind serial killers, we would be more adept at identifying them, finding them, and ultimately preventing them from taking innocent lives.
It just happened to be a little more complicated than we originally thought.
Not too long ago, a team of psychologists at the University of Liverpool decided to test Douglas and Ressler’s theories on the relationship between serial killers and the behavior they exhibited. They started by testing the idea of an organized vs. disorganized killer, listing out a number of different traits that would define an organized and disorganized crime scene.
They analyzed a hundred different serial crimes. If crimes were really distinguished by organization, they would expect a high level of probability that one or more organized traits should predict other subsequent organized traits. What they found was just the opposite. Crimes did not posses only organized or disorganized traits. They were predominately a combination of both: A few key organized traits mixed with a group of disorganized ones.
They decided to go further. If Douglas and Ressler believed they could group serial killers, researchers would expect a homology – or agreement – between a certain kind of crime and a certain kind of criminal. This part was critical. If we wanted to infer psychological traits from crime scene behavior, there had to be some sort of relationship between the makeup of the killer and how he or she killed people. If a pattern did not exist, our homology would be insufficient – leading to a flawed investigation process.
The group selected a hundred stranger rapes in the United Kingdom and classified them in accordance with 28 different crime scene variables. Of these included remorse, gagging, blindfolding, and disguise worn. They then compared patterns in these variables to the attributes of the criminals who committed them. Of these included age, race, education level, previous convictions, marital status, and drug use. When they looked at the study as a whole, they wanted to see if there were common themes among criminals who committed similar behaviors. They found none. There was no correlation, challenging the very fabric behind our understanding of criminal profiling.
Brent Turvey, forensic scientist, said it best in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book What the Dog Saw:
“The fact is that different offenders can exhibit the same behaviors for completely different reasons. You’ve got a rapist who attacks a woman in the park and pulls her shirt up over her face. What does that mean? There are ten different things it could mean. You can’t just look at one behavior in isolation.”
Which is exactly what first year head coach Jim Harbaugh did not do when he looked at Alex Smith back in 2011.
One minute and thirty seven seconds remained in the 2011 NFC Divisional Playoff Game between the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints. After going down three possessions in the first quarter, New Orleans had stormed back to take a 32-29 lead late in the fourth quarter.
Alex Smith – who resigned with San Francisco on a one year deal – trotted back on to the field with his team’s season on the line. In Jim Harbaugh’s first season as head coach, San Fransisco won 13 games – its most since 1997. They would need one more to have an opportunity to advance to the Super Bowl against Tom Coughlin’s New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game.
From the sideline, Harbaugh watched as Smith masterfully took the reins of his newly implemented West Coast offense. As made popular under former 49ers legendary head coach Bill Walsh, the West Coast offense relied on a series of well timed and synchronized route schemes. On every single play, Smith had to know where each receiver was going to be on the field in relationship to one another within seconds of the ball being snapped. Once he could recognize the coverage the defense was in, his job was to find the mismatch and get the ball to the right guy at the right moment of time.
Smith’s physical abilities got him to the NFL, but his ability to process information quickly and express good judgement under pressure made Harbaugh think this style of play – learned and mastered from over 20 years in football as a player and coach – would be the perfect match for Smith. If any doubt existed, it would be soon forgotten after this drive.
On the second play from scrimmage, Smith found tight end Vernon Davis down the seam on a busted Saints man coverage. He hit his standout tight end in stride, taking it 47 yards down to the Saints 20. After a Frank Gore check down on first down, Smith hurried his offense back to the line of scrimmage and spiked the ball with 14 seconds left. The 49ers had one timeout left, needing only a field goal to tie. On third and three – San Francisco’s last potential play before having to kick a field goal – Smith took a shot to the end zone. Davis had split a seam between the Saints zone coverage, finding a small sliver of space between the linebacker and safety. Smith threaded a beauty, putting right into his arms as he collided with two Saints defenders in the end zone for the go ahead touchdown. Nine seconds remained.
San Francisco would go on to win the game 36-32. In his first ever postseason appearance, Alex Smith threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns. The following week he would toss two more, only to watch a late fumbled punt seal San Francisco’s season for good. He threw zero interceptions in both contests. After two different head coaches and six different coordinators, Alex Smith finally received the fresh start he knew he needed.
He just didn’t realize it would be in San Francisco – the place he swore he would never return to after 2010.
Jim Harbaugh – former fourteen year NFL quarterback – got his start in the NFL in 2002 as a quarterbacks coach for the then Oakland Raiders. After two different head coaching stints in college – his most recent with Stanford University coaching number one overall pick Andrew Luck – he got an opportunity to return to the NFL. This time as a head coach.
At the time, it was January of 2010. San Francisco’s season had long been over. Smith, an impending free agent, was still able to utilize the team’s facilities through the end of his contract in March. Harbaugh noticed, and one day came up with an idea. He invited Smith to toss the football around. Smith, expecting to be disposed of in a few short months, gladly accepted.
After a few throwing sessions, Harbaugh was impressed. He asked Smith if he was interested in hanging around San Francisco for this coming season. Smith initially said no, but after some time decided to change his mind. He liked Harbaugh’s perspective on the game. He was a former quarterback with an offensive mindset. San Francisco’s previous two head coaches in Nolan and Singletary had defensive backgrounds.
Harbaugh had just spent the past two seasons coaching a number one overall draft pick in Luck. Smith – a number one pick himself – saw an opportunity. If he felt he could manage a talent like Luck in a pro style offense, he felt he could finally have a chance to showcase the talents he knew he was still capable of. He just never had the chance to show it.
Over the past several years, Smith had struggled. Every single year he was learning a new system with a new coordinator with a new voice. It was impossible to build any kind of consistency. None existed within the organization. Harbaugh understood this had to change. Smith didn’t need a new playbook every season. He needed coaches who were consistent, reliable, and who could empower him to take the reins of a system built on the same principles that brought Walsh five different Super Bowls to San Francisco not too long ago.
Smith, not like he had many options, was sold. At the end of the NFL lockout, he penned a one year deal worth $5 million to keep him in the Bay Area. It ended up paying off. His late game playoff heroics against New Orleans – along with a 13 win regular season in 2010 – earned him a three year $24 million extension. After seven seasons in the NFL, Smith had finally earned the second contract 69 percent of NFL players never see. All because Harbaugh refused to let a bad situation define Smith as a bad quarterback.
As it turns out, homologies do exist when evaluating character traits and behavior. Just not the homology James Brussel set out to look for back in 1956.
The famous “double-breasted suit” prediction might be the one we remember the most about the Mad Bomber case, but it was far from the only one Brussel made. In fact, many of those predictions have since be cleaned up since Metesky’s documented arrest.
For one, Brussel told law enforcement to search for Metesky in White Plains – a small city in Westchester County. This prompted a bomb unit wild goose chase that ultimately lead to a dead end. Brussel also told law enforcement to look for a man with a fascial scar. Metesky did not have one. He gave an age range between 40 and 50. Metesky was over 50.
Brussel predicted an “expert in civil or military ordinance.” Metesky merely had a brief stint in a machine shop. Oh, and Brussel never predicted a Mediterranean descent – Slavish, to be exact. He predicted Metesky to have been born and educated in Germany. Both were far from the truth.
While we associate Brussel with the breakthrough in Metesky’s capture, the real hero was Alice Kelly – a woman assigned to going through Con Edison’s personnel files (who would have thought to look here). She found an employee complaint in the early 1930s. There was a disagreement in a workplace injury. The employee thought he was hurt. The company said he was not. In the letters that ensued, Kelly spotted a threat where the employee threatened to “take justice in my own hands.” The name of the employee was George Metesky.
Brussel’s attempt to reverse engineer a profile from a crime scene wasn’t a plan. It was a party trick. He handed out predictions without actually having to face the consequences for those predictions. And most of them weren’t even close. The few that proved true became the calling card behind this new style of investigation, but there was no magic behind it. It was pure luck. We were fooled.
Born, as a result, was a branch of federal investigation that has been romanticized through popular movies and television shows such as The Silence of the Lambs and Criminal Minds. I think it’s time we examine it a little more closely. We want to believe the heroic actions and keen intuition of Dr. Spencer Reid and Aaron Hotchner are representative of reality, but it’s a lot messier than most people – including the FBI – would like to admit.
Well, just maybe not James Brussel.
Brussel’s background as a psychiatrist drew him to the psychology behind serial killers. He wanted to put himself in his shoes so he could understand the intent behind his moves. But, in reality, the greatest motivator behind Metesky’s bombing spree wasn’t who he was as a person. It was the injustice he felt as an employee during a work place accident at Con Edison. Brussel thought he was using a shortcut to behavior by profiling out the bomber. In reality, he took the long route. He focused on a link that does not exist between serial killers and the crimes they commit. He was obsessed with the wrong homology, which is the one mistake Harbaugh did not make in his first year with the 49ers.
If we look at Harbaugh’s decision to retain Alex Smith, we see the opposite effect. Instead of focusing on the individual, he focused on the context around the individual. Smith was in a situation destined to fail. There was no continuity within the coaching staff. He was learning a new playbook every season. He was playing under a different style of offense that he learned in college (Urban Meyer’s spread). It wasn’t a matter of “if” it was going to fail. It was a matter of when.
Just think about how different the Buffalo Bills handled quarterback prospect Josh Allen when they drafted him seventh overall in 2018. He’s had the same head coach (Sean McDermott) every single season. Up until this season, he’s had the same offensive coordinator (Brian Daboll). Daboll’s replacement for 2022, Ken Dorsey, has been within the Bills organization since 2019 as quarterbacks coach (2019-2020) and passing game coordinator (2021).
Allen hasn’t had to learn a new system every single season. He’s had the same messaging and continuity from the top down ever since Buffalo drafted him. It’s exactly what Smith never had his first six seasons in the league. If it wasn’t for Harbaugh – and later Andy Reid – there’s a chance he never never would have gotten a fair second chance. We assumed the behavior was fixed, when in reality the behavior was constrained to the environment in which it was forced to operate.
Mike Singletary did indeed have his quarterback back in 2008, but he made a critical mistake. It’s the same mistake Brussel, Douglas, and Ressler all made in their pursuit to understand the makings of a serial killer. We looked at the behavior without examining the context that drove that behavior. Criminal profiling might make for great TV, but making predictions about the behavior of people using ambiguous character traits is not effective. It’s very much the opposite. But if your predictions do fail, just remember:
It’s a lot easier to blame the quarterback.