Veteran Detective has Killer Instinct

Monday, JUNE 26, 2006
St. Paul, Minnesota

By Ruben Rosario Pioneer Press, June 2006

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Vernon Geberth, whose motto - "We Work for God" - can be found posted in homicide squad rooms from coast to coast, was in the middle of a visually jarring session last week in Bloomington about sexually deviant killers and their handiwork.

"Remember, don't put all your eggs in one psychological basket," the former NYPD homicide task force commander tells 70 investigators from Minnesota and Canada, including six from Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The case at hand is Kansas' infamous BTK (Bind, Torture and Kill) killer, a man who eluded detection for nearly three decades.

"Serial killers do have the ability to stop killing, to lay low, to come back, kill again, lay low again," Geberth noted. "And the early psychological profiles did not come anywhere near him. He did not fit any of those types."

Geberth may be the country's foremost expert on the subject of homicides. He spent 23 years as a cop in New York City and the past 20 carving a successful consulting and training career.

By his count, Geberth has investigated, supervised, researched and assessed more than 8,000 homicide cases in his lifetime.

"His training is exceptional," says St. Paul police homicide supervisor Lt. Tim Lynch, who sent four of his investigators to the three-day training session. "There's real value in seeing that many homicides because the more you see, the more you get a sense of what you are looking for."

"Vernon's my man," adds Lynch's counterpart in Minneapolis, Lt. Lee Edwards, who sent two of his charges. "He's seen it all."

Geberth's session on sex homicides was a disturbing and insightful mixture of horrific images and keen observations on the peculiarities and modus operandi of lust and sadistic killers, necrophiliacs and others.

Throats savagely cut. Bodies sadistically mutilated or posed in grotesque fashion. More than one investigator came up to Geberth the following day to report they either couldn't sleep or could not shake the images from their minds.

I was the first journalist Geberth has allowed to attend one of his sessions. And as someone who saw gruesome murder scenes early in my career, I was similarly affected.

"That's good," Geberth says. "We all should be disturbed by it, including cops. We have to hold on to that humanity. If we don't, there's something wrong."

So what drives a human being to commit such horrible acts, in many cases to someone they care for?

"Evil," Geberth replies without hesitation.

The 62-year-old father of four and grandfather of 13 holds a master's degree in psychology; he understands the clinical "method to the madness'' behind such crimes.

"If you are asking me if anyone is capable of murder, the answer is yes," he says. "But, yes, there are evil people, and it is displayed by a conduct that goes beyond the norm."

Geberth authored what is considered the bible of homicide textbooks, "Practical Homicide Investigation."

He wanted to add a short addendum on sex-related homicides to his book but instead spun off a separate book after the "insert'' ran more than 800 pages. It confirmed what he suspected in recent years: Sex-related crimes are on the increase.

"We are now living in an increasingly violent society, and the increase in sex-related events is going to become overwhelming for investigators," Geberth says. He cites the Internet as a contributing factor for a surge in sex-related crimes and killings.

"It has become the sex offender's playground," Geberth adds. "Even a person who on the outside appears moral or normal just gets goofy on the Internet and starts acting out fantasies and such because nobody sees them."

He also notes that Internet-assisted sex crimes are on the rise and have involved collusion between two like-minded offenders who hook up in chat rooms while scoping for potential victims.

"We've never had like we have now stranger homicides taking place outside (the offenders') area," notes Geberth, adding that in general, most killers stalk prey close to home or in familiar turf.

Geberth says the best homicide detectives look at their work as a spiritual calling and a duty to represent and seek justice for the crime victim and survivors.

"What I have never forgotten from when I took his class in 1991 was that he made it a point to first show a picture of the victim as they existed in life," Lynch recalls. "He kept driving that point home: This is a person, not just a body, and we stand in for this person."

To relieve the stress, homicide investigators take part in sports or pick up fishing or a hobby. Some need a stiff drink. Geberth's escape from the insanity is daily prayers and weekly Mass.

"I have a strong belief in God," he says as he hands me a desk placard with his motto during a break. "Because I have seen evil, I don't want it to touch me," he continues. "You wonder now why I pray every day? I need that. Otherwise, I might cross over."

Rubén Rosario can be reached at or 651-228-5454.

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