WHEN A KILLER CALLS
Case Files of the Original Mindhunter
Today on the site, we have a book review for When a Killer Calls by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. In the book, Douglas and Olshaker take readers through the kidnapping and murder of Shari Faye Smith and Debra May Helmick, and the subsequent investigations to solve the crimes, as well as the hunt for the killer and his eventual prosecution. Throughout it all, Douglas gives readers insight into his investigative thinking, the inner workings of consulting on the case, and the creation of a criminal profile that befit the offender they hunted.
When a Killer Calls by John Douglas, Mark Olshaker
Series: Case Files of the Original Mindhunter #2
Published by Dey Street Books on February 1, 2022
Genres: Non-Fiction, True Crime
Source: Amazon Purchase
Buy: Amazon | Goodreads
From John Douglas—the legendary FBI criminal profiler, #1 New York Times bestselling author, and inspiration for the Netflix show Mindhunter—comes a chilling journey inside the mind and crimes of Larry Gene Bell, one of the most dangerous serial killers Douglas confronted, and the desperate effort to identify and catch him.
On May 31, 1985, two days before her high school graduation, Shari Smith was abducted from the driveway of her family home in South Carolina. Based on the crime scene and the abductor’s repeated and taunting calls to the family, law enforcement quickly realized they were dealing with a sophisticated and highly dangerous criminal. A letter arrived the next day entitled “Last Will & Testament,” in which Shari, knowing she was to be murdered, wrote bravely and achingly of her love for her parents, siblings, and boyfriend, saying that while they would miss her, she knew they would persevere through their faith. The abduction rocked her quiet town, triggering a massive manhunt and bringing in the FBI, which enlisted profiler John Douglas. A few days later, a phone call told the family where they could find Shari’s body.
Then nine-year-old Debra May Helmick was kidnapped from her yard, confirming the harsh realization that Smith’s murder was no random act. A serial killer was evolving, and the only way to stop him would be to use the study of criminal behavior to anticipate his next move before he could kill again. Douglas devised a risky and emotionally fraught strategy to use Shari’s lookalike older sister Dawn as bait to draw out the unknown subject. Dawn and her parents courageously agreed.
One of the most haunting investigations of Douglas’s storied career, this case details how the eerily accurate profile he created—alongside his carefully crafted and stage-managed manipulation of the killer’s psychology—combined with dedicated police work and cutting-edge forensic science to end a reign of criminal terror. As Shari’s family took incredible personal risks to lure her killer from the shadows, Douglas and the FBI pushed criminal profiling to its limits, culminating in one of his most dramatic and effective confrontations with a sadistic and remorseless killer.
Though I started this book on release day, it took me a few days to finish it. It is both horrific and devastating to read, yet it also provides invaluable insight for criminologists and law enforcement professionals. As someone who studied the childhood history and criminal behavior of high-profile US serial killers for my criminology master’s thesis, these types of books always provide another avenue to explore when trying to understand why people do the things they do and how those in law enforcement and criminology can use it to both capture other criminals and (hopefully) prevent further devastating crimes.
I was a kid when these particular crimes took place, but I remember hearing the news reports of Shari Faye Smith’s disappearance, and the ones that followed for Debra May Helmick. Reading the book gave details I had no way of knowing or understanding back then, but they now provide a window into not only how this killer committed these acts but also what law enforcement and the Smith family did to catch him. Detailing the bravery, courage, determination, and sacrifice the Smith family and so many others involved in the two cases made.
If you are a true crime reader or are in or around any type of law enforcement or psychology majors, this is an informative book to read. It’s criminal profiling insight and investigative strategies truly are invaluable, especially if one is interested in studying criminal behavior.
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