FBI Agent Mary Ellen O'Toole, a real-life version of the investigator played by Jodie Foster in the movie "Silence of the Lambs," says she never met a killer she didn't like.
"They're very bright, and in some cases they can even be really helpful to give you more insight to them and to that (criminal) phenomenon," said O'Toole, who interviews about 50 convicted murderers and rapists, suspects and witnesses yearly.The interviews of convicted murderers and rapists are used to help the agency build a file of typical characteristics and methods of violent offenders to help solve current crimes.
Foster won an Oscar for best actress for her portrayal in "Silence of the Lambs" of a rookie FBI agent who interviews an imprisoned cannibalistic killer to help apprehend a similar killer. Foster's character works for the FBI's behavioral sciences unit, which is modeled after the Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, O'Toole's employer.
While O'Toole has yet to encounter a cannibal, she has interviewed some colorful characters.
"If you can keep an open mind, (they) can be extremely interesting and entertaining to talk to," she said in a recent interview in the Federal Bureau of Investigation's San Francisco office. "I can't think of one person that I would place in the `I don't like them' category."
O'Toole does not lose sight of their horrible crimes; she just tries to understand the complete picture of why they do what they do.
"This one was a serial sex offender, (with) hundreds of sexual assaults," she said. "He was one of the brightest men I've ever spoken with, very polite. I got a card from him over the holidays."
The red-headed O'Toole does not look like the usual image of the drably dressed federal agent. She appeared for the interview dressed in a long black dress with floral prints, a pearl necklace and large pearl earrings.
Her soft-spoken manner makes her an effective interviewer, said O'Toole.
With 11 agents at the Analysis of Violent Crime in Quantico, Va., and 50 field coordinators, the center assists local police and FBI offices on particularly complex cases and interviews convicted offenders in prison.
"I really like my job," said O'Toole, who puts in 15-hour days. "The scary part is that I like it probably way too much. I can't imagine doing anything else."
O'Toole has had this curiosity since she was 10 years old, making her mother stay up late with her watching horror films.
She has never been attacked by an interviewee, but she has had disturbing interviews.
O'Toole interviewed one man who murdered about 20 women, and another convicted of five murders. "And the murders were not quick, they were over a period of time, hours," she said.
"I found those to be kind of difficult, because these women who were killed were maybe very similar to me in background growing up. Those kind of things could happen to me or somebody I know."