The starting point of any investigation is probably the hardest. As a police officer, you could be faced with a dead body, the murder weapon, footprints, fingerprints, and a sign on the wall in blood, saying “It was me!”, and yet at that moment, the culprit (and victim) could be anybody. It could be the person stood next to you.

As evidence is gathered, however, pictures start to form. And if a case is straightforward, fingerprints etc., once examined, could result in an outright match to an existing profile. Result: the killer is him!

That depicts a tidy murder case…where there are signposts and pointers all over the place that lead back to the killer.

But, in many cases, there isn’t much for the police to go on. In the case of killer Michael Sams, there wasn’t even evidence at the outset that a crime had even been committed.

The crime

Midsummer, 1991, and Dominic Murray, the boyfriend of Leeds prostitute Julie Dart receives a handwritten letter. In it, Julie begged for help, claiming she’d been kidnapped and was now being held against her will as ‘personal security’.

Across town, the local police force received their own correspondence. A rambling, two-page tome, the author asked for a ransom of £140,000, citing the kidnap of a woman and the threat of a bomb in a city centre superstore as reason for them to cough up the money.

But with no body, no evidence that a crime had even taken place, and just the two letters to go on, the police faced a real haystack. Who was the author? Why had they sent the letters? Was Julie Dart really missing? What exactly had taken place?”

The approach

Criminal profiling is not a new discipline; it was an investigative tool used in the Jack the Ripper slayings. In the Sams’ case, and with the absence of physical clues, the police were left with only the letters to ascertain any pointers, patterns or assumptions about the author.

The letter was detailed and lengthy, and actually gave the police a significant amount of enquiry. For example, they were able to ascertain that the author had more than a passing knowledge of electrics and an affinity, in some way, with trains and/or the railways. They were able to deduce that the crime (it wasn’t long before they had evidence one had been committed) was unlikely to have been the author’s first.

The language used and requests made in the letter suggested that control was important to the author, as was their reputation and how they were seen by the wider world. Their intelligence, it was apparent, was above average, yet certain errors in the letter pointed to a condition such as dyslexia, or a deliberate attempt by the author to appear ‘uneducated’. The letter showed detailed planning, and specific geographical areas the author must have known well.

Given that this was all they had, this aspect of criminal profiling meant their ‘haystack’ was effectively a more manageable size.

The upshot

The body of Julie Dart was found nine days later. The next letter sent to the police included details of Julie’s disposal only the killer could have known. Whether Michael Sams intended the letters to be a demonstration of his cunning, his intellect and his bravado, what he actually created was a mountain of clues and evidence that eventually helped lock him away for a long time – but only after he’d kidnapped estate agent Stephanie Slater and subjected her to a terrifying ordeal before setting her free.

Criminal profiling was a feature of the film ‘Silence of the Lambs’, where Hannibal Lecter helps FBI rookie Clarice Starling describe, and subsequently locate, the killer ‘Buffalo Bill’. Often involving psychological, sociological and behaviourial assessments, profiling is now a common tool, providing plenty of insight when crimes occur. Though it’s not a method to pinpoint the offender, it can help eliminate unlikely societal groups, for example, introduce statistical probability, and identify certain characteristics of the suspect.

Essentially, profiling can be used to cut down that hypothetical haystack by a good few feet – which, if a case doesn’t offer up much concrete evidence to examine, can be a real help to law enforcement.

Thanks to koratmember at for use of the haystack image.