Convicting with Empathy

by ERNEST BECK

photo of Jeff Rinek '74During three decades as an FBI special agent, Jeff Rinek handled cases that exposed unimaginable depravities perpetrated against children. Among the many horrors he investigated were murder, kidnapping and sexual assault. But the crime that Rinek says is one of the most haunting was the 1996 kidnapping of eight-year old Michael Lyons in Yuba City, Calif. Rinek eventually helped to find the psychopath who savagely tortured, killed and mutilated the third-grader and tossed his body, like so much trash, into a riverbed. Decades after the killing, the image of Michael’s body still torments him.

“That murder scene is the last thing I think of each night before I fall asleep and the first to flood my thoughts when I wake up in the morning,” Rinek, a 1974 Albright grad, writes in his searing 2018 book “In the Name of the Children,” with Marilee Strong. The book describes in harrowing detail a career spent tracking child predators, as well as his personal struggle to cope with what he had witnessed and the suffering of victims’ families. It also explores the unique way that Rinek, who is now retired, used empathy to help elicit confessions.

“I knew I wanted to make a difference and do something to help and defend vulnerable children.”

Empathy is not the first emotion that comes to mind when reading his book. At times one wonders how Rinek restrained himself from lunging across the table and strangling perpetrators while conducting interviews. One particularly loathsome offender forced his young children into ritual sexual servitude. Throughout his career, however, Rinek always believed that despite their hideous crimes, non-psychopathic offenders were never “totally devoid of humanity.”

This insight underscored Rinek’s unorthodox empathy-based approach, one that caused friction within the FBI as it went against the traditional Reid Technique, a tactic of confrontation and intimidation used to crack a suspect. Rinek preferred being open and honest with interviewees to build trust and understanding of the victimizer’s own trauma. “As my experience [at the agency] grew I found that a majority of offenders were themselves victims,” Rinek says in a phone interview from his home outside of Sacramento, Calif. “I learned that I could help them understand their value by virtue of the closure their confession brought and also help those affected by the crime.”

Rinek says his determination to protect children from exploitation and abuse is rooted in two experiences. Growing up in Philadelphia he felt ostracized as a “lonely, embarrassed, ashamed and increasingly angry” kid, due in part to a physical deformity of a left club foot and a mild case of cerebral palsy. Later, when his son was being treated for a life-threatening illness in a California hospital, Rinek was moved by the courage of the children and the families he encountered in the oncology ward, along with witnessing the pain and suffering of his own son.

Crime statistics

“I wouldn’t say I was born to do this job or was ever consciously thinking ‘I just love this work,’” Rinek says. “But when I was assigned these cases I kept thinking of the missing children and the suffering children in the cancer ward, and I knew I wanted to make a difference and do something to help and defend vulnerable children. My wife Lori and I also wanted to mean as much to others as those who helped us get through the illness of our son.”

That commitment was severely tested at times. Cases like the Yosemite murders — the brutal killing of four people in Yosemite National Park, including one victim who was decapitated — left him with an overwhelming sense of sadness and despair. Even in the few lucky cases when, say, a kidnapped child was found alive, he would always have the wrenching feeling of knowing the lasting effect the crime would have on that child’s life. But instead of anger or seeking revenge, he would always search for some evidence of humanity — “a sliver of conscience” — while trying to get a confession. In the Yosemite case he even convinced the killer to write a letter of apology to one of the victims.

Rinek acknowledges that at times he considered taking his own life. In the book, he describes so many images he would never forget, so many acts of sadism “beyond comprehension” that the nightmares wouldn’t stop, leaving him feeling hopeless. After a long career of putting away criminals, does Rinek believe true justice is ever really served? “Not Really,” he says. Even if a body is eventually found and the perpetrator put in prison, that’s only a small measure of solace for the grieving families whose children were stolen from them.

“As my experience [at the agency] grew I found that a majority of offenders were themselves victims.”

What got him through these times were the camaraderie and closeness of other agents in the child crime unit, and most importantly the love and support of his family, especially his wife, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist. “She kept me grounded and was always there to help calm the emotional trauma,” he says.

Another formative influence was attending Albright. “It was the first time I was in an environment where I felt I really belonged,” Rinek says about his time at the college in the 1970s. Fellow students and APO fraternity brothers, many who became lifelong friends, provided guidance on how to live a more honorable life, which became the foundation for who he is today. Several of those friendships are as meaningful today as they were back then, he says, including Steve and Gail Nee, to whom he dedicated the book along with his family.

When asked what he would say to new FBI recruits when they join the child crimes unit, he says: “Tell them that children are the most innocent and valuable of us. Working these cases and taking criminals off the street and helping families are the most rewarding things in my life second only to my family. But it will destroy you and take over your life. It will take you to an abyss you can’t climb out of.”