Bo Barton is a criminal profiler. You could compare his work to today’s prime-time television prototypes, but don’t. Barton is the real deal, and the work is really dangerous. The latter is dipped in Hollywood, sprinkled with glitz, add model-like actors and – poof – a crime, an investigation, an arrest and a confession is recorded in a 48-minute script.
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) is a long way from Hollywood – California, that is. Barton says the job – criminal profiling – requires patience, discipline and, honestly, it’s not nearly as glamorous as prime-time television leads society to believe.
“We call that the CSI effect,” said Barton. “To me, it’s entertaining, but it’s one of the worst shows. There are so many things on those shows that we can’t do. TV shows get technology, grab on to it, and exaggerate it for Hollywood. It’s affected our juries.”
Barton said television’s influence is now following students into the classroom. College students interested in criminal justice with a desire to become a profiler need a reality check from nonreality television.
“The thing that worries me when students say they want to do this, I say, you’ve got to get experience – go work in crime scene, or homicide or on the street,” he explained. “Students say, ‘I don’t want to be a street cop, I want to be a profiler.’ I was at SLED 15 years before I started the training.”
Barton, a self-proclaimed small town boy, grew up in Gilbert, South Carolina, and is a fifth generation law enforcement officer. As a teenager he would ride alongside his father (Durwood Barton), then with the Richland County Sherriff’s Department. Watching his father dress in his blues and responding to calls excited Barton.
“We were at a crime scene, and a SLED agent showed up to work the scene,” remembers Barton. “I was in awe. He seemed larger than life. I remember saying then, I want to be a SLED agent.”
Barton joined SLED in 1988. In 2002, Captain David Caldwell (now retired) and Lieutenant Mike Prodan started profiling the future profiler. They eventually approached Barton to see if he’d be interested in making that teenage dream come true.
“It wasn’t a goal I had when I started my education,” said Barton. “I wanted to be an investigator; all I wanted to do was chase bad guys. I was happy where I was. I was just in the right place at the right time.”
Already enrolled at Charleston Southern in the master of criminal justice program, Barton drove 9o minutes to Charleston, spent three hours in class and drove 90 minutes back home to Columbia. The back and forth continued once a week for three years, every fall, spring and summer.
“It was difficult,” Barton confessed. “I was working at SLED. I was in the homicide unit on investigations. I had a wife and two boys; not exactly the best time to be going back to school. It was an incredibly difficult feat – and draining.”
But he witnessed something bigger evolving from his education. When Barton left the house for work, studied his training materials or made another weekly jaunt to Charleston, he realized he was being watched.
“It’s big for my children,” he said. “It was important for them to see me graduate and know what they could accomplish. I really want to be an example for them. What you can accomplish, even being from a small town.”
In 2005, he graduated with a master’s in criminal justice and completed his board certification training at SLED. Barton said his CSU education is paying dividends today.
“I see my education at work when I have to take in large concepts,” he said. “Being given a thesis and break it down. I did a lot of research for my master’s and, of course, a lot of research here (SLED).”
Barton completed his CSU thesis, a statistical analysis of all the police officers in South Carolina killed from 1791 – 2002. The project included police officers killed in the line of duty, off duty (but acting in a police capacity), on duty and died of natural causes were all in the study. The project took about 18 months to complete. It was a massive undertaking for Barton, but it paid off. He later donated the database he compiled to the academy and the criminal justice hall of fame.
But all the training, the research, the education and the experience will never prepare a criminal profiler for the dark reality, the “weird and twisted” as Barton describes it, of the work. The kind of stuff even Hollywood can’t begin to make up.
“We see the worst of the worst,” he said. “You’re gonna see some stuff that’s just … you just can’t soak it in. It’s a toxic environment. What you see every day is toxic. I see a lot of seasoned homicide detectives that just can’t get past it. It’s not your normal compartmentalization; you really have to be able to cut it off.”
The job of a criminal profiler is like no other. On any given day Barton can go from desk research to a brutal crime scene and by sunset be home for dinner with his wife and two children.
“My normal day doesn’t involve moving body parts that are in a freezer, but then you are just thrust into that,” said Barton. “I tell people, as callous as it might sound, you cannot think of that person, at the time you’re dealing with the body, whether it’s an autopsy or a crime scene, you can’t think of them as a person who was once walking around, talking. If you do you’re just going to tear yourself up. They are part of the crime scene. They are evidence. At that point, when you’re visually dealing with it, you have to be professional and be able to handle it.”
The physical becomes psychological, and the real becomes surreal.
“You have to think of the mind as a warehouse,” he explained. “You compartmentalize things and you stick ’em in the warehouse, and the warehouse is gonna get full at some point. It may not be the worst case you’ve ever worked that says, ‘OK, that’s it. I can’t do it anymore. I need to get away for a while.’ It’s a mentally toxic area. It’s the accumulation … I’ve seen a lot of really bad things, and I remember having my first dealings with that overwhelming sense. It wasn’t the worst case I’d ever worked, but it was one too many. You have to get away.”
Barton said the team at SLED has a close relationship, a necessity in his line of work. “We lean on each other a lot,” he said, explaining his relationship with Lieutenant Prodan. “We cover each other.”
When the warehouse gets full, Barton said he looks for activities to “rest the brain,” like fishing or reading a book. On his desk sits Doug Stanton’s In Harm’s Way. It sounds like a crime book, but it’s not. A bookmark sticks out the top. Barton has barely cracked the front cover, but soon, the warehouse will fill up and he’ll need that book.
Barton will whisper a prayer this Sunday morning in church. He will praise and worship as a member of his choir. Before lunch on Monday, he will question God.
Barton finds it difficult reconciling what he prayed for Sunday, followed by what he’s seen Monday morning. In fact, being a Christian criminal profiler is one of his biggest challenges. That, and the fact, his two sons want to be just like him.
“It’s hard,” said Barton. At one point he walked away from his relationship with God. It was one too many cold, dark holes, looking at innocent children as victims. Faith is something Barton wrestles with all the time. He said it is more difficult to live in faith as a criminal profiler than it is living a life without Christ. The questions are endless. Why would God allow this to happen? Where is God in this?
Bo Barton has two sons. His oldest son, 13, wants to be a street cop, chase the bad guys. His youngest, 10, wants to be a forensic anthropologist.
Do they want to follow in Dad’s criminal profiling footsteps? “Uh, yea,” said Barton with hesitation. “I would be extremely proud of my children if they followed in my footsteps, but I prefer they don’t. It’s dangerous work.”
Last Christmas Barton’s youngest son received a facial reconstruction kit, including the skull, makeup and clay.
“Whenever he comes up here, the forensic art department is where he wants to go,” said Barton. “He doesn’t want to hang out with Daddy. He wants to go over to forensic art. He thinks facial reconstruction is the coolest thing ever. He’s really into it.”
While the next generation of Bartons prepare for the inevitable work in law enforcement, Dad is working the two white boards hanging in the hall outside his office containing cold cases that go back as far as 1978, while others are fresh in history. The handwritten case descriptions are etched in red, listing the date of the homicide, victim, status and who in the unit is working the case.
Barton feels a responsibility to solve the crimes. His job is to “speak for the dead,” he explained. “I am the one person that gives them a voice. I want to be able to say exactly what happened and why it happened.”
“If you have a rape victim or a child sex case we can always interview them. In a murder case we don’t have that ability. This (homicide) is a victim-based crime where there is no victim to talk to, so I have to speak for them.
“I know a lot of times from working homicide cases we get wrapped up in suspects and evidence, and we didn’t spend a lot of time on the victim,” he said. “The first thing we look at when we profile a case is what we call victimology. Who is the victim? What happened? What brought us to this position? Usually there is something that drives the offender.”
The board begins to take on a life of its own. The cases, the victims, the stories hang over their heads, seemingly haunting and taunting the profilers. But Barton and the SLED profilers are focused on one goal: identifying the offender.
“So many people get wrapped up in the psychology of it and think I just don’t understand how somebody could do this,” explained Barton. “We don’t need to understand why they did it, but how they did and who they are, because the end game is identifying the offender and getting him to confess.”
Barton looks up at the board, takes a deep breath; so many cases, so many people to speak for. If only it were as easy as television. He could use some of that Hollywood magic right now.