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The man who goes inside the heads of Victoria’s most notorious criminals

Why do killers kill, rapists rape, and firebugs light fires? It’s up to Professor Ogloff and his team of psychologists at Forensicare, the state’s forensic mental health institute, to try to find out.

“What’s unnerving is they can appear to be the most normal people. That’s what’s really hard, they are not easily detectable,” he says in an interview with The Age.

Sean Price killed schoolgirl Masa Vukotic.

Sean Price killed schoolgirl Masa Vukotic.Credit:Mal Fairclough

“They do monstrous things, but they don’t appear to be monsters. Some are but a lot of them, a common thing is people didn’t suspect it, because they seem to be nice.”

Assessing people for court or parole hearings is only one part of Professor Ogloff’s job. He also supervises doctoral students and undertakes research at Swinburne University on the criminal justice system that can lead to policy change.

But about 10 or 15 times a year, he steps in to provide his expertise on what he describes as “unusually complex” cases, such as Todd. He is not limited to working for the court or prosecution and will sometimes provide evidence for the defence.

When the 57-year-old first started in forensic psychology in the 1980s, a typical assessment would be mostly based on interviews with the subject.

Adrian Bayley arrives at court during the Jill Meagher murder trial.

Adrian Bayley arrives at court during the Jill Meagher murder trial.Credit:Justin McManus

Methods have changed, however, because criminals are not the most forthright people and they often can’t explain their own behaviour.

“Many of the offenders don’t really understand why they’ve done what they’ve done,” he says.

“You get some individuals who really don’t want to talk about about themselves, they are very guarded, others are much more open. What I’ve found is probably 90 per cent of people, they’re as curious as anyone, because they’d like to know more. And virtually everyone would like to change.

“It’s a difficult thing, I think, for people to understand that the perpetrators themselves very often wish they weren’t the way they are. You can imagine, for these people it’s highly troubling to think, ‘Why am I like this? I can’t seem to control it’.”

Child killer Derek Percy.

Child killer Derek Percy.Credit:

A typical assessment will involve an interview of up to five hours, with the rest of the time spent looking at the police brief, footage and record of interview. He will also speak with family members and health professionals.

Much of the interview will be going over what happened, he says. This will include questions about what was happening in the time leading up to and during the crime.

“Going through the minutiae of the detail,” says Professor Ogloff. “And that would be supported by whatever other information I’ve got. So I’m able to determine [things] with a degree of accuracy. How did their version line up with what’s actually happened? And how, if there’s differences, do they explain it?”

A spate of killings of women in public places in Melbourne has left the community particularly desperate for answers on what drives men to commit such crimes.

“The starting point is motivation. If you think about things like, say, sexual homicide, there’s a lot of different motives, but they boil down sometimes to very simple ones,” he says.

“Some are sadistic, driven by wanting to harm and maybe kill someone, some are just angry. And then some, it’s just incidental. There’s a number of cases where the person may not have intentionally wanted to kill someone.

“So I think that’s what’s so troublesome to the community is that it breeds a degree of unpredictability. How do you know?”

After the death of international exchange student Aiia Maasarwe in Bundoora earlier this year, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said that sexist attitudes in society were leading to a culture of violence against women.

The reality is more complex, Professor Ogloff says.

“Almost all sex offending is perpetrated by men against women, not always, but almost. And so it’s something about the men and it’s partly evolution, biology, but it’s also attitudes,” he says.

“So there’s no question that attitudes which are negative against women have a place in this. But the difficulty is that the people who actually perpetrate these crimes, they’re not always driven by that.

“So it may be a factor but not always. I mean, you can’t really say somebody murdered a woman and doesn’t disrespect them, they’ve killed them. But quite often, the motivation isn’t driven by anger to women or disregard for women.”

Originally from Calgary in Canada, Professor Ogloff was not always set on psychology. As a child, he says the first psychologist he knew was on 1970s sitcom The Bob Newhart Show.

Crime is his job but he doesn’t seek it out in his spare time. His students often enjoy podcasts about murder cases but he couldn’t think of anything worse.

“I’ve never seen CSI,” he says. “I don’t watch any other shows, I generally don’t read true crime.”

Sometimes his dealings with the state’s most notorious criminals continue to affect him. When his children were young, Professor Ogloff says he would sometimes think about his interviews with Percy, who was linked to the deaths of nine children in the 1960s.

“This job is sometimes less interesting than you think. Because some people are fairly simple. I don’t mean, simple-minded. They do horrendous things, but it’s not very interesting,” he says.

“But there’s others who are a great challenge, and they’re the ones that I think more about.”

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