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RIP John Macdonald, The Master of Criminal Minds

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Colorado lost one of its most talented resources in the war on crime a few weeks ago, when forensic psychiatrist John Macdonald passed away at the age of 87. A familiar figure to any reporter, cop, criminology student or thug interested in the state's most notorious killers over the latter half of the twentieth century, Macdonald was a consummate professional who left an indelible mark on the field.


Born in New Zealand, a professor at CU's School of Medicine for almost four decades, Macdonald was a small, soft-spoken and unpretentious man who spent a great deal of his time in little rooms talking to deeply disturbed people who had done terrible things. He was frequently called upon to conduct psychiatric evaluations of criminals claiming insanity, and he wound up writing books on everything from rape to arson to proper interrogation techniques.

Macdonald sat down with John Gilbert Graham, who blew up a plane in 1955 in order to kill his domineering mother and collect insurance, and cracked him open like a three-minute egg. He traded pleasantries with Ted Bundy, Tom Luther and other serial killers. His book The Murderer and His Victim (1961) is a classic reference work, and he advanced a pioneering theory about the "deadly triangle" buried in the childhood of psychopaths (bedwetting, firestarting, cruelty to animals) long before such profiling techniques became fodder for movies and TV. When he encountered the truly deranged, such as the child-rape survivor who stabbed a man dozens of times that she'd picked up in a bar and then drove her car off a downtown viaduct, he worked hard to try to get them into the state hospital rather than a prison cell.

The Doc, as he was known to many inhabitants of Canon City, was compassionate but no bleeding heart. He usually testified on behalf of the prosecution, but I first met him when he was on the other side, retained by the defense in the case of Richard Jahnke, who'd killed his father after years of abuse. A Wyoming judge wouldn't let Macdonald testify — Jahnke wasn't pleading insanity. (Indeed, given the way the authorities had failed to take action despite the teenager's efforts to report his father, his crime seemed highly logical.) But we remained friends, and he called often over the years to discuss the latest developments in one lurid case or another.

Officially, Macdonald retired in 1988, but his curiosity about what drove people to the unspeakable never ceased. I remember running into him at a federal trial a few years ago involving gruesome murders inside a high-security penitentiary; he was researching prison gang lingo and protocol for a possible book. More recently, he agreed to review some documents I'd obtained regarding mental health care in Colorado's supermax —and weighed in with his own outrage about the lousy treatment in the resulting article, "Head Games." "They're tossing out diagnoses like confetti, aren't they?" he asked.

He was a resource for the justice system here and around the world. What remains are the books, hard-earned insights from long hours in little rooms with creatures you would never want to meet on the street. –- Alan Prendergast


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