Archive for Sunday, March 2, 2008

Inroads into the mind

Lawrence forensic psychologist solves mysteries - even those left by deceased

Forensic psychologists get into the minds of others. Their job is to understand what serial killers, personal injury victims and eyewitnesses think, how they think, why they think a certain way and digest that information into something that can be easily understood by those in law enforcement.

Forensic psychologists get into the minds of others. Their job is to understand what serial killers, personal injury victims and eyewitnesses think, how they think, why they think a certain way and digest that information into something that can be easily understood by those in law enforcement.

March 2, 2008


Forensic Psychologist John Spiridigliozzi, Lawrence, meets and evaluates criminals along with other legal-related requests.

Forensic Psychologist John Spiridigliozzi, Lawrence, meets and evaluates criminals along with other legal-related requests.

This week two years ago, John Spiridigliozzi was checking in for the night at a bed and breakfast in Wichita when an inn employee started quizzing the Lawrence resident.

"Are you here about BTK?" she asked.

"Well ... no," he said.

"Well, they got him today," she said.

All Spiridigliozzi could manage was, "Oh, really?"

Though surprised that the 31-year hunt for Kansas' most notorious serial killer had ended, Spiridigliozzi wasn't shocked at all when the man who killed 10 people appeared splashed across the news looking, well, normal.

"He's a psychopath, a clever psychopath," he says. "What are some of the misconceptions about serial killers? One of them is that they're completely dysfunctional people. You know, they look like a raving lunatic walking down the street, but the fact of the matter is that with a lot of them, who are intact to a certain degree psychologically, is that you would not know it. People, I think from the media, tend to think you're going to get the blabbering kind of crazed-look-in-the-eye killer.

"But you never know."

But Spiridigliozzi knows. As a forensic psychologist, it's his job to get into the minds of others. Serial killers, personal injury victims, eyewitnesses - he must understand what they think, how they think, why they think a certain way and digest that information into something that can be easily understood by someone outside his field. That's usually someone in law enforcement, whether it be a lawyer, a district attorney, judge or jury.

That sometimes means face time with serial killers in what Spiridigliozzi calls "the finer penal institutions in the Midwest."

"I do lots of testing of the person, psychological testing and mental evaluations, I go to court a lot to testify about the findings, I spend a lot of time writing," he says. "I do criminal law, family law, personal injury cases. So, yeah, I get to meet real interesting people and, you know, there's not a lot of folks who've met serial killers before ... so, I'm able to do that kind of thing.

"Except for a lot of people wonder, 'Why is John so interested in murder?'"

The accidental psychologist

Those around Spiridigliozzi weren't always asking that question.

As a teen, he had wanted to be a teacher, but when a high school teacher and counselor talked him out of it, it left him reeling with an impending draft number and the Vietnam War steaming ahead.

He ended up going into the Air Force and trained as a medic before learning the ropes as an occupational therapist. Then, as an undergrad, he took a job helping a psychologist administer and score testing.

Soon, he was hooked on psychology.

Eventually, his graduate work brought him to Lawrence and into the area of forensic psychology. These days, after 17 years as a forensic psychologist, he uses a battery of tests and knowledge to state his opinion of a person's mental faculties. He even does some good old-fashioned sleuthing in a forensic area called "psychological autopsy" or "equivocal death analysis." In it, he brings the departed back to life - or at least their mental state.

"It's where a person has died and there may be a question about whether or not it was a suicide or a homicide or something like that. A lot of things can be riding on that. It could be an insurance payment or it was a crime committed and they need to find a perpetrator of a crime," he says. "To help understand the person's state of mind 24 hours prior to their death."

How does Spiridigliozzi find inroads into the mind of the dead?

"You basically pore over all of the data and information you can get on the person, as well as to speak with as many people as you can find who knew him or her," he says. "You kind of put together a picture of the person's mental space to help understand, perhaps more in-depth, the cause of death."

More than murder

But it's not all murder and the dead who rule Spiridigliozzi's day-to-day work. He also is employed by attorneys to fill certain roles in nonmurder cases. He may consult with attorneys on their client's mental state, review mental-health reports prepared by other psychologists and help explain certain concepts about psychology, among other things.

Trey Meyer is a partner with the Lawrence-based law firm of Skepnek, Fagan, Meyer and Davis, P.A., where he practices complex civil litigation. In his line of work, he has used forensic psychologists, including Spiridigliozzi, on both sides of court cases.

"When you're representing the plaintiff, you use someone like Dr. Spiridigliozzi to help you prove your damages," Meyer says. "When you're representing the defendant, you use someone like Dr. Spiridigliozzi to evaluate the true nature and extent of that person's alleged psychological injuries and damages.

"It's not something you can get out a calculator and add up. A person has to have the requisite knowledge and experience and training before a judge will let him or her give that kind of testimony."

Mark Bowers has known, trained and worked with Spiridigliozzi for the past seven years and rents the office space below Spiridigliozzi's Psychological Resources Inc., at 1711 Mass., for his own office, Psych Solutions. The clinical child psychologist has tag-teamed with Spiridigliozzi on some forensic cases and says his mentor's 17 years in forensic psychology speak for themselves. After so many years in the business, it can be difficult, Bowers says, to escape accusations of being a nothing but a well-paid tool for the defense or plaintiff.

"I know John would say he never wants to get into a situation where he's doing too many of these for one side or the other, because then you start to get criticized and you start to get looked at like, 'Oh, well, you're always sticking up for the victim,' or 'You're always sticking up for the insurance company,' and that's not really what it's about," Bowers says. "It's about getting in there objectively, and in a nonbiased manner, and doing your job and answer these questions.

"John has managed, by his very strict adherence to the ethical code of our field ... to avoid that throughout his time. He's very good. That was someone I wanted to learn from."

And what has Spiridigliozzi learned from his nearly two decades in the forensic psychology business, untangling minds as twisted as those lodged inside serial killers?

"Some psychologists would argue that everyone has the potential to kill someone," he says. "I think if the circumstances, the environmental conditions (are right) could lead to something like that for a lot of people."

But does he walk down the street, analyzing passers-by, thinking he's just locked eyes with the next BTK?

"No," he says, shaking off the question. "You need to stay sane."


Mike Blur 9 years, 9 months ago

Awesome. I can truthfully say I am a close friend of "Johnny Spiro" and at times am secretly envious of his rich, fulfilling life (not only his professional endeavors outlined here but his personal/social lifestyle.)

(Spiro was in the UK in 1976, witnessing nascent bands like the Sex Pistols and the Damned formulate. Johnny has dozens of stories about his life that can fill a book!)

Thank you, SJS for being a friend lo these many years, and may there be more kindness bestowed upon yourself, Erin and the increasingly-aging young ones.

Your friend, Mike Blur!

Cait McKnelly 9 years, 9 months ago

Although I am sure there are people who lost cases because of this man that feel differently, I know that if it came down to it I would like to have him in my corner. It's refreshing to read a story about an interesting man with an interesting career. But as a nurse who often works with dieing people I have to say I hope you take well care of yourself. I have a feeling from reading the story (and your friends comments) that I didn't have to say that but I know working in a profession that on occasion can cause high stress levels I can lose sight of that. Nice to meet you Mr. Spiridigliozzi!

World_Vision 9 years, 9 months ago

I'm sorry, and I am sure that he is a great guy, but this all sounds like snake-oil salesmanship. I particularly lost it when the article started talking about the postmortem psyche exams. That is just so wide open to speculation and assumptions and factors that simply cannot be validated or confirmed. It sounds like it relies so heavily on other peoples, often traumatized or emotionally invested, opinions about things that it would be impossible to get a real appraisal about the mental state of someone who has died.

Testifying in court about such things would out of necessity, require a lot of verbal gymnastics and framing opinion and guess-work or assumptions in the form of legalese courtroom ranting.

I am not saying that this guy would do that purposefully, and deliberately just to win a case for whoever hired him. But it still comes right down to guess work and assumptions.

A scenario that comes to mind is that of a suicide. Say some guy commits suicide, but in the week preceding that has managed to anger, annoy, alienate, and generally screw over almost everyone around them. In some incidents that might give some of those people a motive to want him dead, or even kill him. It would also give some of those people a good reason to lie about their experience with him after the fact. And what about people in the guys life who simply cannot be found? Or who just won't talk? Yet would hold a lot of valuable information? Or friends of the victim who are not known to the rest of the victims circle of friends, or enemies? And with all of these surrounding circumstances and soap opras, what really happened was that the guy was perfectly sane right up until the moment he killed himself, which was due to a sudden psychotic break that came out of nowhere? Those things do happen, and they are not predictable or even detectable after the fact. But they can be obscured and distracted from by some random series of bad relational social accidents.

But what I think would be very interesting is to see this guy psychologically dissect corporate psychopaths. People who's greed and avarice drives them to completely ruin other's lives for purely profitable financial gain or some kind of social-status pork-hanging.

I also think it would be very interesting to see what he would have to say about some of the personalities and posters on these forums! The on-line behaviors and posting patterns are right here in black and white, and can be easily examined.

So lets see the LJWORLD, or some investigative reporter, or even some KU psyche students get with this guy and start examining these forums, and maybe even identify and interview some of the personalities behind the screen names and see what really motivates their posting behaviors and ideas?

What say you LJWORLD? I myself would find it most interesting and revealing!

Godot 9 years, 9 months ago

hawk, LOL! In the late 60's, I enrolled in psych with the intention of majoring in it; early on, the TA told us that the reason people become psychologists is because they want to find out what is wrong with themselves. After two semesters, I realized he was right.

Mike Blur 9 years, 9 months ago

Ponytail for sure. Johnny will tell you upfront.

As far as any of you accusing him of something he isn't, unhide yourselves. Sweet Johnny (that is his nom de punk!) has nothing to hide. Are any of you anonymous phucks ready to do so behind your keyboards??

JoeCoffee 5 years, 9 months ago

Johnny Spiro is a man's man. Here in Michigan, his name is legend. Musician, philosopher, baby king; who knows which is fact and which is myth? All I know is that he saved my life, literally. Took a bullet intended for me by some anonymous shooter, the case went cold long ago. This is just one man's testimony. There are many others, I'm sure. And knowing the man as I do, I can assure you that it is, in fact, a ponytail.

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