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Fava beans and a nice Chianti? ISU hosts an FBI profiler who's seen the dark side of human nature

Crime scene tape cordons off an area
Carlos Osorio/AP
Crime scene tape cordons off an area

Thanks to the proliferation of television shows like CSI and the surging popularity of true crime podcasts, we’re all armchair experts in the innerworkings of the criminal mind.

But Mark Safarik is a real expert. He was a senior member of the FBI's elite Behavioral Analysis Unit where he established himself as an authority in the analysis and interpretation of violent criminal behavior. He worked as a profiler, delving into some of the most disturbing aspects of human nature. It’s the kind of work that requires very specific personality traits, Safarik said.

“You have to approach your work very objectively. You're looking at some of the worst that humanity can engage with in terms of other human beings,” Safarik said. “And you have to be able to emotionally dissociate yourself from that in order to be effective.”

Mark Sararik
Mark Sararik

Safarik was in Normal this week to talk about his work. He was the keynote speaker for Illinois State University’s Science and Technology Week.

Safarik explained that when a profiler is called in to assist with a homicide case, it’s usually due to unique circumstances. Homicide detectives can handle most cases on their own, Sararik said. “But you get these very unusual cases that are overly complex, overly violent, an excessive amount of time spent with a victim. A lot of weird behavior that typical homicide detectives don't see,” Safarik explained.

Think Hannibal Lector. And though Safarik may have never profiled someone who cut off the face of a very unlucky paramedic, he’s seen plenty of disturbing things. “If you look at sort of a bell-shaped curve of violent criminal behavior, the types of cases we work on are those cases at the extreme end of that bell-shaped curve - the really aberrant behavior that's difficult to dissect or understand,” Sararik said.

That may sound like a very dark area in which to have expertise, but Sararik said it’s actually incredibly rewarding. “Sometimes the cases you get, you’re the last resort. And you have to stand in the shoes of the victim and the offender to help the agency move their case forward.”

Understanding the victim is as critical to solving a crime as understanding the perpetrator, Safarik said. “The questions we're always trying to answer is why this person? Why wasn't it me, or you, or somebody else?” Studying the relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, no matter how tenuous, can help shed light on the investigation.

Cue the music

Safarik spent 31 years in law enforcement and 12 as an FBI profiler. He’s now retired but works extensively as a consultant for television. If you’ve ever found yourself completely engrossed in an episode of CSI Las Vegas, you may have Safarik to thank. He worked on the show for nine years.

Safarik acknowledged that the fictionalization of crime for the sake of entertainment may distort our collective understanding of what solving a crime entails. It’s not always possible to lift a fingerprint or quickly identify a suspect through traces of DNA. But Safarik sees his role as helping to create as realistic a scenario as possible within the context of entertainment.

“You're doing two things,” he said of television. “You're educating people, but you're trying to also entertain people. In 47 minutes.”

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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