November 23, 2017


The Serial-Killer Detector : A former journalist, equipped with an algorithm and the largest collection of murder records in the country, finds patterns in crime. (Alec Wilkinson, 11/27/17, The New Yorker)

The F.B.I. believes that less than one per cent of the killings each year are carried out by serial killers, but Hargrove thinks that the percentage is higher, and that there are probably around two thousand serial killers at large in the U.S. "How do I know?" he said. "A few years ago, I got some people at the F.B.I. to run the question of how many murders in their records are unsolved but have been linked through DNA." The answer was about fourteen hundred, slightly more than two per cent of the murders in the files they consulted. "Those are just the cases they were able to lock down with DNA," Hargrove said. "And killers don't always leave DNA--it's a gift when you get it. So two per cent is a floor, not a ceiling."
Hargrove is sixty-one. He is tall and slender, with a white beard and a skeptical regard. He lives with his wife and son in Alexandria, Virginia, and walks eight miles a day, to Mount Vernon or along the Potomac, while listening to recordings of books--usually mystery novels. He was born in Manhattan, but his parents moved to Yorktown, in Westchester County, when he was a boy. "I lived near Riverside Drive until I was four," he said. "Then one day I showed my mom what I learned on the playground, which is that you can make a switchblade out of Popsicle sticks, and next thing I knew I was living in Yorktown."

Hargrove's father wrote technical manuals on how to use mechanical calculators, and when Hargrove went to college, at the University of Missouri, he studied computational journalism and public opinion. He learned practices such as random-digit-dialling theory, which is used to conduct polls, and he was influenced by "Precision Journalism," a book by Philip Meyer that encourages journalists to learn survey methods from social science. After graduating, in 1977, he was hired by the Birmingham Post-Herald, in Alabama, with the understanding that he would conduct polls and do whatever else the paper needed. As it turned out, the paper needed a crime reporter. In 1978, Hargrove saw his first man die, the owner of a convenience store who had been shot during a robbery. He reported on a riot that began after police officers shot a sixteen-year-old African-American girl. Once, arriving at a standoff, he was shot at with a rifle by a drunk on a water tower. The bullet hit the gravel near his feet and made a sound that "was not quite a plink." He also covered the execution of a man named John Lewis Evans, the first inmate put to death in Alabama after a Supreme Court abrogation of capital punishment in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. "They electrocuted people in Alabama in an electric chair called the Yellow Mama, because it was painted bright yellow," Hargrove said. "Enough time had passed since the last execution that no one remembered how to do it. The first time, too much current went through too small a conduit, so everything caught fire. Everyone was crying, and I had trouble sleeping for days after."

In 1990, Hargrove moved to Washington, D.C., to work for Scripps Howard, where, he said, "my primary purpose was to use numbers to shock people." Studying the Social Security Administration's Death Master File--"where we will all end up one day," Hargrove said--he noticed that some people were included for a given year and dropped a few years later: people who had mistakenly been declared dead. From interviews, he learned that these people often have their bank accounts suddenly frozen, can't get credit cards or mortgages, and are refused jobs because they fail background checks. Comparing a list of federal grants for at-risk kids in inner-city schools against Census Bureau Zip Codes, he found that two-thirds of the grants were actually going to schools in the suburbs. "He did all this through really clever logic and programming," Isaac Wolf, a former journalist who had a desk near Hargrove's, told me. "A combination of resourceful thinking and an innovative approach to collecting and analyzing data through shoe-leather work."

In 2004, Hargrove was assigned a story about prostitution. To learn which cities enforced laws against the practice and which didn't, he requested a copy of the Uniform Crime Report, an annual compilation published by the F.B.I., and received a CD containing the most recent report, from 2002. "Along with it, at no extra cost, was something that said 'S.H.R. 2002,' " he said. It was the F.B.I.'s Supplementary Homicide Report, which includes all the murders reported to the Bureau, listing the age, race, sex, and ethnicity of the victim, along with the method and circumstances of the killing. As Hargrove looked through it, "the first thing I thought was, I wonder if it's possible to teach a computer to spot serial victims." Hargrove said that for six years he told each of his editors at Scripps Howard that he wanted to find serial killers using a computer, and the response was always, "You're kidding, right?"

In 2007, Hargrove did an investigation into sids, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, after wondering why, according to the Centers for Disease Control's infant-mortality records, so many more babies in Florida died from accidental suffocation than did babies in California, even though California had many more babies. During the following year, Hargrove interviewed coroners and pathologists around the country. "A growing number of them began saying, 'To be honest, I might get in trouble for saying this, but sids doesn't exist as such,' " he said. Hargrove concluded that sids wasn't a diagnosis or a mysterious disease but the result of people putting babies in their cribs in such a way that they suffocated during sleep. Florida tended to attribute these deaths to accidental suffocation, California to sids. In the aftermath of his story, the C.D.C. created the Sudden Unexpected Infant Death Case Registry to evaluate each death. Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey senator, met with Hargrove and then introduced the Sudden Death Data Enhancement and Awareness Act, which President Obama signed in 2014. After the sids story, Hargrove's stock rose "insanely high in the newsroom," he said. 
He told his boss that he still wanted to try to teach a computer to detect serial killers, and this time his boss said, "You've got a year."

Posted by at November 23, 2017 5:37 AM