“I love talking to serial killers.”
Mason Forensic Science Program Director Mary Ellen O’Toole says this breezily, the way someone who spent 15 years as an FBI profiler might. She worked some of the nation’s most notorious cases, including the Zodiac Killer and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, as well as the disappearances of Elizabeth Smart and Natalee Holloway.
Perhaps her most famous case was Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer. For six months, O’Toole sat next to him in prison, her hand on his (unshackled) arm, trying to coax him into revealing where he’d hidden some of the bodies.
“I have a soft voice,” she says, “so people don’t find me intimidating. I don’t think he’d ever talked to a woman like that.”
And Greenway did talk, eventually leading the FBI to a number of the victims.
O’Toole and retired FBI agents Steven Burmeister and Joseph DiZinno are three of the heavy hitters who are helping to put Mason’s Forensic Science Program on the map.
O’Toole’s father was an FBI agent and her mother a private secretary to J. Edgar Hoover during Chicago’s gangster era, which may have sparked her interest in the depraved.
“Even as a little girl, I’d say, ‘I wonder, what do people think when they’re murdering somebody?’” she says. “I think I scared the crap out of my mother.”
Hoover didn’t allow female FBI agents, so O’Toole studied psychology in college, then health counseling. But working as a marriage counselor was a bore, so she dove into law enforcement and was hired as an investigator for a district attorney’s office. When Hoover died and the FBI opened its doors to women, O’Toole was recruited.
DiZinno, too, formed an early enthusiasm for crime solving. When he was 10, on a family trip to Washington, D.C., he toured the FBI Building. “And that was it,” he says. “I was sold.”
And for Burmeister, the goal was to be a doctor, although while working as a volunteer firefighter and paramedic, he considered becoming a state trooper. Then he saw a presentation on forensic science.
“It was like a lightbulb went on in my head,” he says. “It was everything I ever wanted.”
A Bite out of Crime
DiZinno says his 22 years identifying criminals in the FBI lab, many of them as director, were gratifying. So was eliminating from consideration the innocent—like the man who served seven years in jail for rape until DiZinno’s tests proved it wasn’t his sample at the scene.
“He was exonerated,” DiZinno says. “I’m just as proud of that as any other case where we put people away.”
Starting out as a dentist, of all things, DiZinno worked only a few years before selling his practice and heading to the bureau “with no experience whatsoever,” he says. “And I never looked back.”
He entered the FBI as a field agent, chasing bank robbers, kidnappers, and extortionists, then moved to the lab as a trace evidence examiner. His dental expertise came in handy, not only for identifying bodies, but in helping him fashion a technique for extracting DNA from teeth that the lab still uses today.
Grab and Goats
Explosives analyst Burmeister, the first director of the bureau’s Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center, calls a career of catching bad guys “fun and thrilling.” During his time at the bureau, Burmeister has helped capture criminals like Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Burmeister’s team followed Yousef from the Philippines to Thailand to Pakistan before capturing him on his way to Afghanistan. Tasked with bringing him back to America, they waited onboard a plane at the end of a runway―the distant terminal on one side, the town of Islamabad on the other.
“I’m told to be on the ground, so I get my suitcase and wait outside the plane,” Burmeister recalls. “A car pulls up, Yousef is brought out with his hands tied and a burlap bag over his head. They put him on the plane. The door closes, the car drives away, and all of a sudden everyone is gone.”
Left alone on the tarmac with no money, no visa, and no gun, Burmeister reasoned if he went to the terminal, he’d be picked up by security. If he went into town, he’d likely be robbed or possibly killed.
“So I just sat there,” he says. “Then a bunch of goats came out onto the runway to hang out with me. Finally, I saw a Suburban heading my direction and recognized the driver as someone I’d worked with. I just wanted to kiss that guy.”
From Crime to the Classroom
It is stories like these that keep Mason students excited about the work and possible careers forensic science offers. And then there are the professional connections these professors bring. Asked what sets Mason’s Forensic Science Program apart from others, all three point to the experience of its faculty.
“I’ve looked at other schools, and a lot are academically oriented,” says Burmeister. “But Mason’s program has fabulous professors—people with actual, practical knowledge.”
Take Burmeister himself, who recalls lecturing on the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, a case he helped investigate.
“You can show slides all day,” he says. “But you need to bring to life that it was hot that day, there was trauma going on, it smelled, there were decaying bodies, there was a lot of violence, and sailors were knee-deep in water while trying to repair electrical lines. By reading it in a book, you’re not going to know any of those nuances.”
And of course Mason is near the FBI, CIA, Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and “every imaginable agency with expertise in so many things,” O’Toole says.
That proximity got faculty in the door of the FBI’s crime scene house last summer, when DiZinno mentioned Mason would soon be building its own crime house on the Science and Technology Campus. Other upcoming initiatives include research involving scent dogs, developing a cold-case squad, constructing an explosives crime scene, and possibly even creating a body farm.
“We have to be thinking, what’s the future,” O’Toole says. “We’re training students not for today, but for what they’ll be seeing 10 years from now.”