Bell is in his element at a murder scene. Before he worked for the state, he spent 11 years with the Salt Lake Police Department, winding up his career there as a detective with the homicide division.
When he left the police department to go to work for Chief Medical Examiner Todd Grey, the tasks that made up his new job were familiar. As before, he teamed with other investigators to solve murders.Now working with the FBI's Violent Crime Apprehension Program, a computer-based nationwide crime information network, Bell is again moving in familiar territory.
With the FBI, however, instead of investigating serial homicides every now and then, Bell will focus exclusively on them. And instead of limiting his travels to Utah slaying or calamity sites, he will be on call for law enforcement agencies across the country who need the kind of help only top investigative specialists can provide.
That expertise is apparently coming to be needed more and more, Bell said in a recent interview.
Serial murders on the rise
Serial murderers are different from mass murderers or spree killers. James Oliver Huberty, who in 1984 gunned down 21 people in a McDonald's restaurant in San Ysidro, Calif., before a police sharpshooter killed him, was a mass murderer. Ramon Salcido, the cocaine- and alcohol-crazed winery worker who in 1989 slaughtered six family members and a co-worker in the course of a single day in Sonoma County, Calif., is a spree murderer.
Strictly defined, serial murders are two or more slayings separated by cooling-off periods. It is not a new crime, but it is increasing, Bell said.
One reason for that is the seemingly inexorable slide toward societal violence and aggression. Another reason is that over the past dozen years or so, law enforcement awareness of the prevalence of serial murders has grown.
Now, many investigators start with the assumption that they may be working on a serial case, said Bell, adding that it is better to start off thinking that way and then backing off than not sharing information with other agencies through the FBI's computers.
"In the '50s and '60s, if you were a homicide detective, you didn't talk to anybody. You didn't even talk to each other," Bell said. "Now detectives are realizing they have to share information."
And as they do, they find that they are investigating homicides committed by the same mobile suspect. Ted Bundy was one. The Green River Killer, still at large, is another.
Bundy was remarkable in his seeming normalcy. His affable charm and bland good looks helped him get close to his victims, who discovered his perversion too late.
In serial killers, that's not unusual, Bell said.
Killers appear `normal'
"The ones that continue to kill and kill and kill come across as being pretty normal. That's why they're so hard to catch," he said. "That's why they have so many victims - because it takes so long for you to click on to who they are."
Law enforcement professionals say that in every major metropolitan area in the country, an active serial killer lives among us.
It's a chilling thought. But perversely, it's also fascinating; witness the relentless examination of its themes by authors and filmmakers as well as police.
In the movie, "The Silence of the Lambs," two serial murderers at the plot's center - one an evil-genius cannibal, the other a failed transsexual who skins his victims alive - are grotesque bogeymen.
Such human monsters do exist. But usually, serial killers don't appear all that different from anyone else. In fact, Bell said, investigators looking to solve serial murders would do well to concentrate on the normal every bit as much as the abnormal.
"When you have a whole bunch of women disappearing from a neighborhood, you should be asking, `Who normally comes down your street?' " he said. "Those are the guys you want, because they're the ones who are the most unlikely."
Utah, and particularly Salt Lake City, holds the weird distinction of being involved in more serial cases than other states, Bell said. With two major interstates forming a big X in Salt Lake, "it's a crossroads. And it's a good town to get lost in."
In 1980, when an avowed racist named Joseph Paul Franklin murdered two young black men as they jogged around Liberty Park, nobody knew what serial killers were. "We were just starting to hear about them," Bell said, "and here in Salt Lake was this guy who had done nine."
Successful detectives burn out from notoriety
Solving these big cases has a downside, however.
"Absolutely the worst thing that could ever happen to you," he said. "The guys who survive serial murder cases are the guys who never solve them," because reporters swarm over major homicide stories, which often end up getting rehashed in books and movies. The notoriety, Bell said, kills careers.
He speaks from experience, as one of two lead investigators on the Mark Hofmann bombings, a source of seemingly never-ending local fascination.
"It's not just me," he said. "It's happening all over the country. Most detectives who are handling major homicide cases, they don't last. They leave to go somewhere else, or they transfer back to patrol, or they just kind of retire right away, within a year or two."
After the Hofmann case, the other principal detective, Ken Farnsworth, transferred back to patrol. Bell stayed in the detective division, but resigned and took his position with the state in 1989.
He's emphatic that he didn't leave the police department because he was burned out or angry with the police administration, as was reported in the press at the time. But he's equally emphatic when he describes the relentless public and professional curiosity that dogs successful investigators.
"They're either finished by the public because of the news media, or they're finished by the police department, because people get jealous or they get upset because you're getting too secretive," he said. "People walking down the hall want to stop you and ask you what's going on, and you've just been in a meeting for 41/2 hours explaining to the administration what's going on and the last thing you want to do is sit down again and explain. And you can't just take two seconds and explain what's going on."
Fascination begets exhaustion
"So you kind of brush them off, and they get angry at you, like, `He thinks he's a big shot, he thinks he's some hot guy, he doesn't even have the time to talk to his friends anymore,' and it's not that. You're absolutely exhausted and you're so tired of having to explain to everybody."
It could be said, however, that had Bell not lost one career to notoriety, he might not have been driven to find his new niche, or to discover that the crime of homicide is actually a source of international understanding.
Over the past five years, Bell has become involved with international homicide symposiums, where detectives from all over the world get together to compare notes on crime. The most recent symposium drew over 600 homicide detectives, including investigators from the Soviet Union and Italy.
Cooperation on this level will make all investigators' jobs easier, Bell says. "I'm a firm believer that one person never solves anything. That's why I'm real big on sitting down and talking to a group of experts," he said.