How a retired cop coaxed confessions from a serial killer

lakeFascinating and beautifully written story in today’s New York Times Magazine (29 April) by Chip Brown, describing how Charlie Hess, a retired FBI agent, ex-CIA operative and former polygrapher, persuaded incarcerated serial killer Robert Browne to give up details of his previously unsolved crimes.

Before Hess got involved, Browne had been taunting detectives with cryptic notes and poorly written verses, for instance:

In the murky placid depths,
beneath the cool caressing mire,
lies seven golden opportunities.
Missed opportunities?
Lovingly, Robert Browne.

Hess, working as a volunteer ‘cold case’ investigator with other retired detectives, and took on the Browne case in 2002, entering a prolonged correspondence with the killer. Eventually – after months of exchanging letters with Hess – Browne provided details that helped close a number of previously unsolved murders. The keys that Hess used to open Browne up were patience, a focus on building rapport with the killer and a non-judgemental approach:

[Had Hess] ever found himself too repulsed to sit and chat about the inmate’s health and how Browne’s beloved New Orleans Saints were faring that season in the N.F.L.? Was it hard to shake his hand knowing what it had done?

“It upsets people when I say this, but it wasn’t hard,” Hess said. “I can’t let myself feel revulsion. If I feel revulsion in my gut he’s going to pick up on it. […] Now when I’m hearing [details of how Browne disarticulated the body of one of his victims], I can’t jump up and say, ‘Jesus Christ, Robert, how could you do that?’ I have to say ‘O.K.’ like it’s something everybody does. I have to put the horror of it out of my mind. […]”

The full article is available free, but you’ll have to register on the NYT site. If you’re interested in serial killers, catching serial killers, interview technique or persuasion, you’ll find hassle of registration a small price to pay.

Photo credit: leighvoges, Creative Commons License