Jessica Ridgeway: Sketches of a killer

Profilers, criminology studies piece together information to describe suspect

Searchers look through a field near where Jessica\'s body was found.
WP Fields

This story is part of Boulder Weekly‘s Jessica Ridgeway package.

Map of Arvada and Westminster with Jessica’s home, where her body was found and where her backpack was found

Map of Jessica’s neighborhood

Killer’s ‘awareness space’ might lead to clues, by Joel Dyer and Jefferson Dodge

Local schools respond to Jessica’s death, by Elizabeth Miller

Boulder County sheriff: trick or treat with your kids this year, by Jefferson Dodge

Westminster Police: Ketner Lake attempted abductions may be linked to Jessica Ridgeway, by Boulder Weekly staff

Local law enforcement reacts to Ridgeway murder, by Jefferson Dodge

One of the starkest aspects of the Jessica Ridgeway murder case is the lack of evidence and clues. That no one saw anything smacks of either cold professionalism or blind tragedy.

But even the basic, gruesome details can reveal certain aspects of the crime. Police say Jessica’s body was “not intact.” She was taken in broad daylight, in a neighborhood with potentially dozens of witnesses who might have (but tragically didn’t) witnessed the abduction. Her backpack appeared miles away from both the body and the abduction site. Investigators can form theories and scenarios based on all of these facts.

The odds of any child being kidnapped or killed by a stranger are slim. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported 697 children age 11 and younger were murdered in 2010. Estimates for kidnapping annually hover in the low 100s — fractions of a percentage that any one child would be abducted by a stranger.

When children are taken, studies show, there’s often little time in which to act to save them when the abductor is motivated toward homicide. In 74 percent of cases, the victim is killed within three hours of abduction. It’s probable that Jessica was dead even before her mother woke up and realized she was missing.

Statistically, according to “Sexually Motivated Child Abduction Murders,” Jessica was more likely a victim of opportunity than a deliberate selection. School age girls are three times more likely to be the victims of an abduction, and elementary school children like Jessica are often taken within a mile of home. Her killer also may live nearby.

But a key component to solving the crime lies in determining whether Jessica was just in the wrong place in front of the wrong predator at the wrong time, or a victim of a targeted abduction, says Mary Ellen O’Toole, a former FBI profiler. Jessica’s abduction was riddled with risk. She was kidnapped in the busy part of the morning in the middle of a neighborhood, leaving the smallest of windows to successfully abduct her. The killer dismembered her body, which O’Toole says means spending more time with the body and increasing the likelihood of dropping a hair or some other sort of identifying DNA onto the body. The killer left her backpack in the middle of a Superior suburb, where someone could have seen the suspicious car. The sheer boldness of her abduction could reveal either an extremely impulsive killer, who happened to be in the neighborhood that Friday morning, or someone familiar with the area who intimately knew Jessica’s routine — and carefully planned the abduction.

Though as of press time the Westminster Police Department has not released a cause of death, studies on similar incidents suggest that the statistical likelihood is for a physical method of murder, like strangling.

Details from the medical examination of Jessica’s body, which police will likely not release, could shine light on what type of person kidnapped and murdered her.

“All we know is what the police have said, which is that she was ‘not intact,’” says Mark Safarik, a former FBI profiler who now operates a criminology consulting firm out of Virginia.

“They haven’t discussed, which they won’t in an open investigation, the aspects of that. But that’s a critical piece of information, and you can learn a lot from that kind of information. For instance, you can have a very organized, thoughtful sexual predator who has thought this out, perhaps watched her on previous trips to the park, or you can have a guy who’s just acting on impulse. The way, in fact, that she was dismembered can tell you a lot about that.”

O’Toole talks about three reasons why a killer might dismember a body. One could be to delay identification of a body — for example, removing the head or the hands. The second would be to make the body easier to transport. And the third would be some sort of pathological reason, if the killer was getting some sort of psychological thrill from dismembering the body.

Given the dismemberment and other details of the case, O’Toole says all signs point to someone who lives in the area. Dismembering a child’s body is extremely rare, she says, and it is an extremely risky way to destroy and dispose of a body.

“Dismembering a person takes a lot of time. It’s not easy,” O’Toole says. “You’ve added one more step to the [homicide]. That one more step takes time.”

Then there’s the backpack. Reports say it was placed prominently on the sidewalk, but had the man who found it discovered anything indicating murder, he would have called 911 immediately instead of sending a message to the Louisville listserve.

“[It says,] ‘Look over here. Look in this neighborhood; don’t look in my neighborhood,” says freelance criminal profiler Pat Brown. “To me, that would indicate that he lived close to the family.”

Safarik agrees. He says he doubts the backpack was intended for anything other than misdirection.

“It’s a backpack placed to mislead law enforcement in the opposite direction of where the body was placed,” he says.

Police said at a press conference they would not be giving out any additional details on the case. In lieu of a description of the suspect, an FBI spokesman said, “It could be your boss, it could be your friend, and ultimately it could be your family member.”

That description irks Brown.

“It’s vague and they give that one out for every serial killer out there,” she says. “It has nothing to do with the evidence at all.”

Brown says anyone who would abduct, murder and dismember a 10-year-old girl is a psychopath, and police should release a description of psychopathic traits to look out for.

“They should list the traits of a sexual psychopath — pathological liar, manipulation, it’s all about him, they need to list those for people,” Brown says.

Profilers refrain from speculating about characteristics of her killer because the police haven’t released the information and there’s only so much that clues from her medical examination could suggest in the way of the make-up of her murderer.

Where their assessments end, criminology studies step in to hypothesize on her killer based on what we know about killers who have gone before.

Statistics outline her abductor as likely a white male in his late 20s or 30s, without a girlfriend, a wife or children. In the demographic study “Nonfamily Child Abductors Who Murder Their Victims,” which compiled information from detailed interviews with 25 convicted child abductors who murdered their victims, 72 percent were younger than 30, 76 percent were Caucasian, 60 percent were not married, 56 percent had no children. It’s possible a recent conflict with a female, or legal problems, triggered his predatory drive.

Though almost half of the offenders were employed at the time of the murder, it was likely unskilled work. They reported little education beyond high school, 40 percent of them dropping out before graduation.

Only 36 percent had a psychiatric diagnosis before the offense and only 28 percent of offenders reported being sexually assaulted or molested as a child.

He was, likely, an isolated child with few friends and, possibly, a history of bed-wetting, raised by both biological parents in a home environment he would describe as stable. A lonely child has probably grown to a lonely adult who lives on the margins of society.

There’s a 49 percent chance he had selected that tree by the side of the highway as where he would leave her body before he’d kidnapped her, and a 22 percent chance he has returned, or will, to the site where he disposed of her remains. There’s also a 21 percent chance he’s already left town.

If he’s like the majority of the offenders in the study, he would still score below the threshold for classification as a psychopath on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, which is used by researchers and clinicians to diagnose risk for violence. Perhaps not because he’s not psychopathic, but because he’s learned to mask those traits, able to hide even in the full sunlight of a Friday morning.