Dean of death

October 4, 1996

A university dean who has never visited a murder scene and has eyesight so poor he cannot even read a signed confession is now the best-known homicide expert in the US. Tim Cornwell reports. Relatives of Sonja Larson, or any other of the five university students murdered in the gruesome 1990 killings at the University of Florida at Gainesville, should avoid the following paragraph. It is not, appearances to the contrary, the start of a murder thriller, or the work of Stephen King.

"Officer Barber found Larson's body lying in a pool of blood on the waterbed, her arms raised high over her head and her legs spread apart and dangling over the side of the bed...Larson was completely naked, except for a blood-stained multicoloured T-shirt that was raised above head breasts and around her neck. A huge hole in her left thigh looked as though a chunk of flesh had been removed..."

It was written, instead, by two highly respected professors at Northeastern University in Boston, in demand almost as much from reporters at The New York Times as from their criminology students. The work in question is Killer on Campus, "The terrifying true story of the Gainesville ripper", a paperback published this year under the Avon True Crime imprint with the title on the cover dripping glossy red blood.

Academic life has taken some strange directions for James Alan Fox. So strange, in fact, it is soon to be made into a television film. A university dean with no police experience, eyesight so poor he could not read a suicide note or a signed confession, his expertise in reading the mind of a mass killer has occasionally turned him detective. Trained as a statistician, he is now the best-known United States expert on homicide, and in particular that very American phenomenon, the serial and mass killer.

Crime and punishment have been a huge growth industry in the US. Only in the past two years have murder rates begun to fall after three or four decades of steady growth. The prison population is a million-plus. The end of the cold war and the absence of any external threat have helped turn crime into a national hobby, and the criminal justice system into a major industry.

In universities, the study of criminology is booming, and Fox has ridden the crest of it. He has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, at numerous Congress panels. He dined with President Clinton as he presented a report on youth crime at the White House. Last year, he was profiled on the cover of USA Today newspaper, dubbed "the nation's dean of death". It was that which brought him to the attention of Lee Rose, a writer-producer who bought the rights to his life story and is bringing it to the small screen for Rupert Murdoch's Fox TV.

Fox, 44, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Boston's Northeastern University, began his academic career as a maths undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. "Everything happened to me young," he says. "I was born young, two and a half months premature", the reason he is now legally blind. He got his PhD aged 25 and became dean at 40 in a university where 1,100 undergraduates major in criminal justice a year.

Fox collected a master's in mathematical statistics on the way to his PhD, with his dissertation on the forecast of the national crime rates in the year 2000. He dates his fascination with the mind and motives of mass murderers back to 1980, but is also the author of several crime statistics texts - "math murder", as he jokingly calls it. He has never visited a murder scene.

It was with the 1985 publication of Mass Murder: America's Growing Menace that Fox made his mark. The book was the first overview of multiple murderers and helped to define the field. Coauthor Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology, is also at Northeastern. The two men have collaborated on eight books (four of them statistics texts), are close friends, and live in the same Massachusetts commuter town. Ten years after their first book, they brought out Overkill: Mass Murder and Serial Killing Exposed.

In Overkill, the two men write in the first chapter: "We appreciate the important distinction between analysing the gory details of a crime and glorifying the image of a criminal. At times, we describe the sickening circumstances of a multiple murder, but always with a purpose: to shed light -not a spotlight - on the motivation and character of these criminals."

Overkill won admiring reviews as a serious and insightful book. But from somewhere, Levin and Fox found a breathless, racy style as they chronicled the morbidly fascinating details of death, from cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer to Russian monster Andrei Chikatilo to mad-as-hell postal workers on the rampage. They are all there: John Wayne Gacy, convicted of 33 counts of murder, but described by neighbours as "not all bad". Colin Ferguson, who mowed down commuters on the Long Island Rail Road, turning the 5:33 to Hicksville into "the 5:33 express to Hell"; George "Jo Jo" Hennard, who killed 23 people at Luby's Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas; Aileen Wuornos, prostitute and female serial killer.

Overkill was a crossover book, says Levin. Treated as a leading textbook for its investigation of the mindset and modus operandi of these killers, it is also unashamedly aimed at the nonacademic market. The two men write together at the same screen with large text; Levin on Fox's right, because he cannot see on the left.

Fox's chosen speciality, as he is the first to admit, has exercised a special fascination for the US public. Ten years ago, he recalls, people were still asking what a "serial killer" was. But a string of celebrated cases has ingrained it in the culture, with even the cult comedy film Serial Mom. When journalists are looking for an authority or a quote, they now turn to Fox, and part of the TV film will explore the impact on his family life.

The Dahmer case broke on the birthday of his wife, Sue Ann, a personnel recruiter. "What she hates most," he says, "is that when news comes across the airwaves of a new killer, my adrenaline starts pumping, and my phone starts ringing, and my life gets busy, and it's because of other people's misery. I understand how she feels," he says.

There are the phone calls in the middle of the night, from the families of murder victims and the TV networks. Once, he dropped a crime scene photo on the floor; his wife "jumped six feet" when she found it, and a similar thing happened to one of his three sons. Fox, like the hero of many a detective thriller, must walk a dark path as he tracks his subjects.

In 1990, flown to Gainesville to appear in a TV talk show on the college murders, Fox argued forcefully that the chief suspect - a disturbed 18-year-old who had beaten up his grandmother - did not fit the serial killer's profile. DNA tests proved him right, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement took him on as a consultant. Fox - along with several other investigators - focused on the links to a similar Louisiana killing, which led to the conviction of Danny Rolling. If he did not exactly solve the case, his hunch proved right.

In 1984, he predicted that the shooter in a massacre at a California McDonald's would be an unemployed security guard. He has worked as an expert witness in several murder cases, testifying for the drug firm Eli Lilley that Prozac was not the cause of a shooting rampage by Joseph Wesbecker, in Kentucky, that left eight dead.

After years of speaking on serial crime, Fox appears to be returning to safer territory: youth crime. While statistics in the US show a recent downturn in the crime rate, youth homicides are increasing, up close to 200 per cent in the past ten years. Serial murders claim only 100-200 a year; underage homicide, about 4,000. Fox is sounding the alarm about the "baby boom echo", as it is called; with the children of baby-boomers entering their teens, "we have a demographic problem and we've got to deal with it now before it's too late." Warning of an impending "bloodbath", he is spreading the message through Congress appearances and his formidable media contacts.

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