'Lovely Bones:' Serial Killers Elude As Ordinary Neighbors

'Lovely Bones' drew on real-life skills of FBI Mind Hunter John Douglas.

December 17, 2009, 2:48 PM

Dec. 18, 2009— -- George Harvey was a loner, obsessively compulsive about the dollhouses he created and the young girls he raped and dismembered in an underground lair he built right near a school.

Like many real serial killers, Harvey, the fictional character in the 2002 bestseller "The Lovely Bones," lived a seemingly normal life among his neighbors, evading suspicion and cleverly eluding capture.

"We can't get past the preconceived notion that these violent offenders should be drooling or have third eyeball," said retired FBI agent John Douglas, who has analyzed some of most vicious killers of all time.

"They get away with murder in this country -- 20 to 50 serial killers are on the loose at any time, killing three or more victims," he told ABCNews.com.

Actor Stanley Tucci has been nominated for a Golden Globe award and is being touted as Oscar material for his complex portrayal of Harvey, the suburban pedophile in the film adaptation of Alice Sebold's novel.

The DreamWorks film, due out Dec. 11, is directed by Peter Jackson and stars Mark Wahlberg, Susan Sarandon and Saoirse Ronan as Susie Salmon, the 14-year-old who searches for her killer and watches the psychological fall-out of her murder from heaven.

Best known for affable characters like fashionista Nigel in the 2006 film "The Devil Wears Prada" and gourmand husband Paul Child 2009's "Julie and Julia," the 49-year-old Tucci had to get inside the twisted mind of a serial killer.

He credits the depth of his film performance to the real-life skills of Douglas, the founder and former chief of the FBI's Investigative Support Unit and one of the pioneers in modern criminal profiling.

Douglas was the model for the agent Jack Crawford in the 1991 Academy Award-winning thriller, "The Silence of the Lambs," and was originally considered to play the part.

For "The Lovely Bones," Douglas devoted two days to prepping Tucci, engaging in role-play to elicit an authentic performance. He says playing a serial killer was "tough on [Tucci] psychologically."

Harvey was transformed into "a real person, not a monster," who "doesn't feel that he is doing anything wrong," Tucci told ABCNews.com.

"The goal is to be bad, but human," said Tucci, the handsomely balding actor who once played the Nazi villain Adolph Eichmann. "But we created him as a real person, not a monster."

As the father of three young children -- 9-year-old twins and 7-year-old, Tucci nearly turned down the role and only agreed to play the part with the understand that he didn't have to reenact the molestation.

"George Harvey is completely repellant to any normal human being, and I was resistant to play him," said he told ABC's "Popcorn with Peter Travers" this week.

Serial Killer is 'Repellent' to Tucci

The story unfolds one December day when Susie Ronan takes a shortcut home from her suburban Pennsylvania School and Harvey, a neighbor, persuades her to enter a nearby underground den.

There, he molests her, slits her throat and cuts apart her body. An elbow, the only part of the child ever found, falls out of his bag as he buries her remains in a sinkhole.

Douglas calls Harvey a "trap door spider," who stalks his victims in a desire to control.

"He's always on the hunt, looking for potential victims," said Douglas. "They only act out when they feel that things are safe. They're not sloppy or careless. They can't control themselves, and in the break between these crimes, they fuel their fantasies by taking mementos."

In Harvey's case, it was Susie's charm bracelet. "He almost gets caught when the detective comes looking around and sees the doll houses," he said. "Harvey grabs the bracelet and hides it. He discards it later, but keeps one single charm."

"Their wish is to spend hours, days, months, a lifetime with the victim," said Douglas.

"But it never works out that way," he said. "In the fantasy everything works perfectly. Sometimes they think the victim will be favorable to their advances. But the child starts crying and wants to go home and they lose that control."

Douglas, 64, helped develop the FBI's criminal profiling program in the 1970s and then got actively involved in hunting down some of the nation's biggest predators -- Wayne Williams, the Atlanta child murderer; Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer; and David Carpenter, San Francisco's Trailside Killer.

In face-to-face interviews with Charles Manson, David Berkowitz (Son of Sam) and Richard Speck, he gleaned methods to predict the behavior of a serial killer -- from the escalation of fantasy to violence and even victim selection.

"When I interview I try to visualize what it's like when the victim looks at them," he told ABCNews.com. "They can turn on a dime -- go from nice guy to bad guy within the snap of a finger."

Finding a Killer in the Neighborhood

"The Lovely Bones" takes place in 1973, but today, with more sophisticated investigation techniques and tools, that kind of case would be "very solvable," according to Douglas, a self-described "creative right brain kind of guy."

In analyzing the fictional Harvey, Douglas saw a "level of sophistication" in the man who was able to conceive and create a cell where he entrapped his victims. That trait is also evident in the dismembering the bodies.

"If I didn't know who was responsible for this homicide, I would know he had done others in the past," said Douglas. "We're not looking for a teenager, but an older, criminally sophisticated offender who lives in the area, who feels comfortable. The focus should be right there, in the neighborhood."

During police questioning, the killer is often "over-cooperative," with clothing that is "buttoned up and not sloppy" that shows a rigidity of personality, according to Douglas. Usually the house is orderly.

Killers often maintain newspaper clips and scrapbooks of their victims and crimes. The Kansas "blind, torture and kill" (BTK) strangler Dennis Lynn Rader, apprehended in 2005, built a torture chamber for his victims and made drawings of their demise.

Douglas's career with the FBI began when he was only 25. In 1977, he was assigned to what was then FBI's training headquarters -- now the behavioral science unit -- in Quantico, Va.

"Without a doubt, John Douglas had this intuitive ability, better than anyone I have ever met," said Ken Lanning, a retired agent who for 15 years worked across the hall in the windowless basement offices at Quantico.

"He was laid back and easy going, very good at reading people," Lanning said.

"When you talk to these people -- like Charlie Manson and [the Co-Ed Butcher] Ed Kemper -- you go in there and talk to these guys in a non-judgmental way, putting them at ease, laughing at their jokes," he told ABCNews.com.

"A lot of people couldn't do that," Lanning said. "He had to develop a rapport with them and enter their world and rationalize and justify their behavior. John was very good at that."

The case work -- hundreds in a year -- took a toll on Douglas's health. "Not a human being in the world can work a 10- or 13-hour day, and he got caught up in the rate race," said Lanning. "To a certain extent it was self-induced."

In 1983, while working on the Green River case in Washington -- 48 prostitutes were murdered in a 16-year killing spree that ended in 2003 -- Douglas didn't show up for breakfast and two agents he was training found him collapsed in his hotel room.

Douglas was in a coma for a week with viral encephalitis. When he awoke, his entire left side was paralyzed and he couldn't speak.

"The doctors who treated me said I was 'burned out and burning both ends of a candle,'" said Douglas.

After five months of physical and psychological rehabilitation, he returned to the FBI.

FBI Agent Retires to Write Books

In 1995, Douglas retired from the FBI, writing the books "Mind Hunter" and "BTK Strangler" and consulting on films. At his retirement party his colleague Lanning was wheeled in on a gurney as Hannibal Lecter, complete with a lacrosse mask resembling the mask Anthony Hopkins' character wore in the movie.

Though some fellow agents resented the fact that Douglas "went Hollywood," he left a legacy of almost "psychic" insight into the mind of a serial killer, according to Lanning.

After retirement, he was hired by the parents of Jon-Benet Ramsey in a murder case that is still unsolved.

One real-life case that Douglas analyzed resembled the fictional "Lovely Bones" murder.

Robert Hansen killed between 17 and 21 prostitutes in Alaska between 1980 and 1983. After paying for the women's services, Hansen would kidnap and rape them, then fly them out in his private plane to his wilderness cabin, release them and stalk them like animals with either a hunting knife or a rifle.

At the request of local police, Douglas looked into Hansen's background, finding he was of slight build and heavily pockmarked, with a severe speech impediment.

He surmised that Hansen had suffered from teasing as a child and would seek isolation due to his low self-esteem. He was also a skilled hunter.

Douglas also suggested that Hansen, like Harvey, might collect souvenirs of his killings. Police later found victims' jewelry, newspaper clippings and an array of firearms which led to the killer's capture in 1993.

Hansen, like the fictional George Harvey who was an ordinary doll maker in the community, was a baker who even waited on local police, but slipped under their radar.

Douglas maintains that today, an estimated 500 murders -- most thought to be serial killings -- are still unsolved.

As a parent of three grown children, Douglas says knows what it's like to be paranoid.

"When my daughter was young, she'd go to the mall and dance ballet," he said. "I'd be looking at the crowds when people were looking at their kids."

So does Tucci, who admits that "a little fear is OK."

"It's important for children to understand what they should and should not be afraid of," Tucci told People magazine's Celebrity Baby Blog. "But ultimately, we all have to keep a close eye on our children."