Criminal Profiling: Modus Operandi and Signature

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About this sample


Words: 2868 |

Pages: 6|

15 min read

Published: Oct 25, 2021

Words: 2868|Pages: 6|15 min read

Published: Oct 25, 2021

In order for a profiler to be successful in their attempts, several facets of the crime need to be considered. Modus Operandi (M.O.) and Signature are two key components. Through the exploration of the crime scene, all involved parties attempt to identify evidence germane to establishing an offender’s M.O., or substantiation of signature behaviors. “The term modus operandi is used to encapsulate all of the behaviors that are requisite to a particular offender successfully perpetrating a crime”. Signature, on the other hand, is “a pattern of distinctive behaviors that are characteristic of, and satisfy, emotional and psychological needs”. To the laymen, these are the offender characteristics. Both are imperative to the profiling process. This paper will outline both M.O. and signature, respectively, as well as provide illustrations of preceding cases which elucidate the specifics besieging each case linkage. Criminal profiling is augmented by the utilization of modus operandi and signature, but not in all cases are the specifics besieging each case linkage illustrated.

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Edwin Sutherland defined M.O. as the “principle that a criminal is likely to use the same technique repeatedly, and that any analysis and record of the technique used in every serious crime will provide a means of identification in a particular crime”. However, this definition has been altered throughout the years. M.O. is basically an account of all of the offender’s actions before and during the transgression. This typology stems from cultured behavior that is both adaptable and vigorous. The behaviors associated with M.O. are erudite from past experiences and are capable of expanding – by analyzing each crime and its particulars, as well as weakening – as a result of becoming increasingly self-assured. Holmes and Holmes (2009) expands on this concept by stating that, “this is a prodigious step in logic, and one that has been validated by tradition and common sense, both, however, less-than-reliable sources of knowledge”. Thus, with most criminals, the M.O. transforms; but it is because there are minor mistakes made, especially during the premature crimes. During the actual crime, offenders envelope every aspect and later use that information to better prepare themselves before engaging in the next one. Such was the case of Nathanial Code in 1989. In the commencement, his M.O. was that the offenses were performed at night and involved burglary, whereas his later crimes encompassed daytime acts and the burglary progressed into forceful entry (Douglas, Ann Burgess, Allen Burgess, & Ressler, 2006). There was one thing that remained constant, pilfering. O’Connor (2010) states, “At a minimum, every M.O. will contain elements that: (1) ensure success of the crime; (2) protect identity; and (3) effect escape.” This being said, if one of the three is absent or is not fulfilled, then the criminal will do everything to ensure that this will not happen again.

An offender’s M.O. is relevant to the evidence attained from the crime scene, thus bestowing insight to profilers as to the what, where, when, and how the crime was perpetrated. At times, a criminal may employ a certain weapon, or even target a specified group of people or environs - altogether buttressing his/her modus operandi. To elaborate, serialist David Berkowitz murdered arbitrary victims as they were parked in their vehicles; more specifically in the areas if the Bronx and Queens. An offender’s M.O. is imperative to profilers because it enables them to decode evidence such as a general idea about the offender’s locale familiarity, the possible logic behind his/her victim selection, and the intent – whether it be murder, rape, etc. Assessing details from a crime scene aids investigators in creating an M.O. which can systematize premeditation along with knowledge and attributes and habits that abet in profiling and hopefully, apprehending a suspect.

Two examples that most reflect M.O. are cases such as that of Jeffrey Dahmer and Robert Berdella. To start, Dahmer’s M.O. was luring his victims to his house, raping them, and then bludgeoning them. At the lowest level, his conduct evoked feelings of profound hatred, “channeled into a sadistic programmed destruction of 17 young men. The interview of the serial killer, the photographic scene documentation, and the autopsy findings stress the ambivalent homosexuality of the killer, his sexual sadism, his obsessive fetishism, and his possible cannibalism and necrophilia”. Although Dahmer was not part of a typical family, he lacked so much of what researchers previously depicted people like him to be. He was neither poor, nor abused as a child, and his parents were educated and respectful middle-class citizens. The only link to his later criminalities was his adolescent animal torture and his alcoholic tendencies – which instigated in high school and sustained into his college career, albeit short. The puzzle that Dahmer created was that his crimes were overwhelmingly sadistic but his composure remained placid. Berdella was somewhat analogous in the rancorous nature of his crimes as well.

As with Dahmer, Berdella was spatially mobile; although his span was much shorter. During the four years before Berdella was apprehended, he managed to commit heinous offenses that were vastly depraved. To all of his six victims, Berdella brutally tortured, raped, sodomized, and murdered them. To make matters worse, the harrying continued on for days. The savagery of Berdella is, to say the least, repulsive and fiendish. His stoicism is paralleled to that of various other serialists. Chris Bryson, Berdella’s last victim, somehow escaped and survived. Miletich (2003) touched on this account in stating that, “he was beaten, injected with animal tranquilizer and drain cleaner, shocked with electricity, and sodomized” (Miletich, 2003, p. 210). As if this is not enough, Miletich (2003) continues to note the following:

Berdella took pictures with a Polaroid 600 camera of the torture and kept notes in a stenographer’s notebook. The notebook contained details about his sexual acts, torture methods, and names of drugs injected into his human sex toys. He dismembered the bodies, then put the parts in garbage bags, which were later taken away by garbage collectors.

Berdella was what the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) labeled as a disorganized criminal. His house was cluttered with various miscellanies, prepped for Bob’s Bazaar Bizarre - which was an innovative shop that included several oddities. Instead of actually having customers, he had victims. Morrison and Goldberg (2004) noted that:

Berdella created a rudimentary torture chamber that included a bed, piano wire, a black velveteen rope, various animal tranquilizers, a wooden club, needles and syringes, cucumbers, carrots, a spatula, some copper wire, and a 7,700-volt transformer.

The only events in Berdella’s childhood that later resulted in his demonic acts were possibly that of being raped at the age of sixteen, at the same time, losing his young father to an abrupt heart attack and the introduction of a step-father a few short months soon after. In his testimonies, Berdella never truly mentioned his motive(s) for the crimes, even though it has been surmised by those who profiled him. Berdella, along with Dahmer and numerous other offenders, created an M.O. during their time as criminals. It is with this establishment, and that of one’s signature, that aid profilers in successfully detaining an offender.

The signature of an offender is dissimilar to one’s M.O. because there is no “change” involved. This resounds in the fact that they withhold innate emotive and psychological attributes coupled with the crime itself. A perpetrator espouses his/her signature as a “trademark”, which further enhances feelings (i.e. contentment, pang of conscience, dignity, etc.) that purport a justification for the crime, and furthermore, galvanize impending crimes. It is the inimitable persona of the offender that creates their signature. When attempting to formulate a signature, one may take into account the “wound patterns, sex acts, means of control, rituals, talk,” etc. (O’Connor, 2010). Depending upon whether the victim(s) survive, a profiler can distinguish between a criminal’s mark. One’s signature is another means of bringing personalization to his/her act and further claiming it. If, per say, a victim were to live, his/her verbal testament/statement – and possibly that of a witness – could be used to determine what behavioral rudiments were present in the offender at the time the crime was being committed. This facet transcends the fundamentals of actually perpetrating the crime, and can even incorporate posing, besmirching, acting out a rabid fixation (i.e. torture, disfigurement, etc.), /or confiscating trophies from the victim (i.e. photos or clothing). The reason why determining a criminal's signature is imperative to an investigation, is because it signals profilers towards the emotive and psychosomatic characteristics of the crime scene and the act itself. It further leads to the “why” that offender chose such a method of crime. The behaviors associated with a signature uncover evidence surrounding a criminal’s history, personality, sentiments, state of mind and intellect, all which aid in classifying probable motives. For instance, if the behavior of an offender was sadistic in nature, it could be an indicator that he/she retains causal poignant characteristics such as wrath, depression, or the requisite to acquire hegemony over certain individuals, and can unearth previous occurrences of sexual abuse or abandonment, as was in the Jeffrey Dahmer case.

A few examples incorporating signature are cases such as that of Gary Ridgway and the BTK killer Dennis Rader. Ridgway is the leading felon with the most murder convictions in U.S. history. Included in his signature was that he grouped a few bodies together, and posed them – in the nude. More specifically, they were either in or near the Green River in Southern Seattle; which is also the reason behind his nickname “The Green River Killer.” Although it is unknown as to the exact number of victims murdered by Ridgway, the time period for which they occurred was during the 1980’s and 1990’s. That said, DNA analysis was not discovered until 1986, thus making it near impossible to indict Ridgway. From what the investigators could gather at the crime scene, the killer was likely a Caucasian male, aged thirty or forty years, to have complexities with women, and was one to hang around wooded areas (Turvey, 2008). The issues he had with women are presumed to have derived from his mother. From an early age and into his teenage years, Ridgway was a bed wetter. His mother was routinely the one who found him and subsequently scolded him. She did so by bathing him, but made a point to embarrass him by informing the entire family of his tribulations. During his “punishment”, the robe his mother typically wore would open slightly, allowing Ridgway to see her in the nude. This brought on thoughts of lust as well as fury. It was for this exact reason that investigators later correlated Ridgway’s past as the reason for his signature. It was the humiliation that he suffered from his mother, which led him to brutally murder female victims in or near water. By posing them in the nude, the victims suffered degradation just as he did.

Rader was yet another serial murderer. His nickname, BTK (Bind, Torture, and Kill) stemmed from the acts he committed. A few consistencies were apparent throughout his crimes. One was that when strangling them, he not only used various types of knots with the binding cord, but he would torture them to the mere point of death, allow them to breathe momentarily, and then would continue asphyxiating them till death was evident. He deemed his acts as “projects” (Waller, 2010). Behind the killer, was an avid, respectable church member, a Cub Scout Leader, and an employed citizen. From what his social ties could reveal, he was well-mannered and mundane, and from time to time, a bit dominating. Altogether, for someone who encompasses scruples, albeit minimal according to most, his offenses are abhorrent; but ironically, from his standpoint, they are his furthermost life endeavors, and when it came to his court testimony, he was all too eager to disclose the truth about his crimes. It has been noted that “he found copies of true crime and detective magazines” and at one point, Rader commented that “he found the magazines exciting and sexually stimulating at age 8 and would sneak away to a barn near the family home to look at the magazines for hours, imagining what was happening to the women in the pictures”. McClellan’s (2010) research found that:

Shortly after he began reading the magazines, Rader began to capture, torture, and kill small animals. Rader would capture an animal, take it to a barn in the area, tie it up with barbed wire, and strangle it until it was dead in imitation of the pictures and story lines of the detective magazines.

Rader transposed all that was good in his life, for ten consecutive life sentences in a nine-by-nine cell twenty-three hours a day. Unfortunately, the attention he craved from his acts will forever be remembered by all those that study him. It was his deepest fantasy; and despite the desire not to fulfill it, we can only learn from it and employ that information in hopes of solving the next serial murder case.

M.O. and signature cannot exist without one another. Profiling techniques are used in almost every type of criminal case, but due to the gravity and enormity of certain types of crimes, this process is essential. Holmes and Holmes (2009) list the following crimes that profiling is more suited for:

sadistic sexual assaults, sexual homicide, postmortem cases of abuse and humiliation, motiveless fire settings, lust and mutilation murders, rape, occult and ritualistic crimes, child sexual abuse including pedophilia, bank robberies, and anonymous obscene communications.

With ever-evolving technology, and the increase in educational opportunities, one can only surmise that investigators and profilers alike will become further knowledgeable in the profiling process and hopefully aid in reducing the amount of criminal activity in our nation. The information obtained from each criminal typology is imperative to an investigation and the hopeful arrest of a suspect. Both M.O. and signature reveal pertinent facts, evidence, etc. about the crime scene and the offender’s characteristics. Countless other criminals share comparable as well as contrasting M.O.s and signatures. One victim in the BTK case, made an impressionable statement during Rader’s trial, and I feel that it puts the entire reason why profiling is so crucial, into perspective. Smith (2006) notes:

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From this point on, we declare our independence from the tyrant of your actions. While you begin your slow and painful descent into hell, we will choose to rise above our pain. While you sink into and emotional abyss of hopelessness and despair, we will channel our grief into positive endeavors, those life activities which would please the ones we have lost. While you agonize over the reality that your last victims were ironically your own family, we will embrace the new family we now have, with who, we will always share a common bond forged from the pain of adversity and loss. While your body wastes away in prison, we will renew ourselves by incorporating into our lives those characteristics modeled by our loved ones: humility, compassion, honor, integrity, kindness, selflessness and love; traits which your twisted cancerous mind cannot comprehend, I realize. While your wretched soul awaits pronouncement of the one true justice, your damnation to hell for eternity, we will thank God for every day he gives us, realizing as only we can just how precious life really is. Finally, we want you to know that we who could so easily have succumbed to your quagmire of madness, will not give you that satisfaction. Your despicable actions will not defeat us. Our very lives will be testimony that good can triumph over even the most hideous form of evil and perversion. Just as your days are not over, ours are just beginning. In the final analysis you have to live with the cold reality that while all of us here will overcome your depravity, you have now lost everything and you will forever remain nothing. May that thought torment you for the rest of your tortured existence.


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  • Miletich, J. (2003). Homicide Investigation: An Introduction. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, Inc.
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  • O’Connor, T. (2010). M.O. and Signature Compared. Retrieved from
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  • Waller, S. (2010). Serial Killers – Philosophy for Everyone: Being and Killing. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.
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Criminal Profiling: Modus Operandi And Signature. (2021, October 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 19, 2024, from
“Criminal Profiling: Modus Operandi And Signature.” GradesFixer, 25 Oct. 2021,
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