By: Tim Pappa
Tim Pappa, a former FBI profiler who pioneered behavioral content creation supporting cold case investigations, shares his experience working with Rachel Morin’s family filming emotional videos, as well as some of the behind-the-scenes psychology of how he attracts an online audience — including killers.
Rachel Morin’s August 2023 homicide is still unsolved.
The Ma & Pa Heritage Trail in Bel Air, Maryland, is picturesque.
At this time of year, the foliage is just starting to change colors, and the leaves crunch underneath hiking boots.
While waiting to meet Michael Morin, I couldn’t help but think that this entrance would’ve been one of the last things Rachel, Michael’s sister, would’ve seen at 6:00 pm on August 5, 2023. At that time, the foliage was a vibrant green, the sun was just starting to set, and the high 80 degree temperature from the day was already cooling.
A perfect Saturday in the summer — until an unknown suspect ambushed her.
When Rachel didn’t make it back home by 11:30 that night, her boyfriend, Richard Tobin, reported her missing. Unfortunately, Rachel’s remains were found in a drain tunnel less than 24 hours later.
The media has shared that Rachel was found without clothes, and suffered disfiguring injuries. The killer left DNA behind at the scene, and after investigators ran his profile through the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), they found a match.
In March of 2023, six months before Rachel’s murder, the same suspect assaulted a woman in south Los Angeles and burglarized her home. He was seen on a doorbell security camera leaving the residence.
Now, that doorbell footage and Rachel Morin are inextricably linked, but even with video of the suspect, he hasn’t been identified.
My mission at the Ma and Pa Trail in Maryland was simple — give Rachel’s loved one’s the space to share their feelings following a traumatic event (the Meaning Making Model) while standing in a significant location (a.k.a., persuasive geography) to create moving content that could help drive the case.
We were going into the same drain tunnel to film Michael’s unfiltered thoughts about his sister and the grisly crime. I also met Rachel’s sister-in-law Shannon, and the father of Rachel’s oldest daughter, Matthew McMahon.
This is behaviorally-based content.
First, all behaviorally-based content creation should align with your investigative goals.
For example, if a desire in your investigation is for a family member to provide information on a suspected criminal family member, then the messaging should be based on analysis of that family member’s relationships.
Alternatively, if a desire in your investigation is to restore the reputation of someone who has been falsely labeled a person of interest in the court of public opinion, then the messaging should be based on humanizing and showing a softer side of that person.
In Rachel’s case, the current messaging about the offender is not supporting the investigative goal of finding the killer.
While at the Ma & Pa Trail Head, I couldn’t help but notice the posted “Tips Needed” flier included a ‘criminal profile’ of this unknown offender that was not developed by the Sheriff’s Office.
Meet Tim Pappa
For a third of my career in the FBI as a Special Agent, I was a certified profiler with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU).
While assigned to BAU, I pioneered the development and application of behavioral content creation in support of cold case investigations throughout the United States.
When state and local law enforcement partners requested an alternative to traditional media strategies such as press conferences or press releases, I would conceptually design a strategic messaging strategy that reflected consumer and marketing practices — but kept the media grounded in behavioral frameworks applied to that specific case.
While at the FBI, I worked with the family of Karlie Gusé to create behaviorally-based content to spread awareness to the case, restore familial reputation, and find answers. The video series generated over 3,250,000 views.
This profile characterized this offender as a “suspected serial killer.” The profile also suggested he displayed narcissistic personality traits, someone who would lack empathy or “doesn’t care how others feel” and that he “lies about everything.”
Shortly after reading this public description, Rachel Morin’s brother Michael walked over to me. We met for the first time, and I expressed to him that I believe posting this ‘profile’ was a mistake.
I explained that the purpose of any kind of content requesting information is to communicate to a defined or intended audience. The audience who may have information on who this unknown offender is will likely be his family and friends, not the broader public, who may happen to have some marginal contact with someone who starts behaving like this description of a “violent criminal” in this case.
Further, those family and friends would not likely characterize this unknown offender the way the profile did, or think of him as a “violent criminal” or “serial killer” because they have a relationship with him. They would likely not have experienced consistent negative personality characteristics in this man, or at least enough to think of him as some kind of killer.
More than likely, if this unknown offender’s family or friends did hear about Rachel’s case or see the doorbell footage, they may still feel psychological reactance in response to any suggestion that he is a violent serial killer because they know him differently.
💡 Deeper Reading: Psychological reactance (Brehm, 1966) is generally understood to be someone’s motivational state in response to some attempt to threaten or control their freedom, but in this context the reaction or response from this unknown offender’s family or friends may be motivation to withhold information on this unknown offender because they believe his description is wrong.
So, because the current messaging about the offender is not supporting the investigative goal of finding the killer, the objective of this initial behavioral content creation was to share the heartbreak and trauma the family has endured rather than threats about finding a killer, so that people watching, which could include the killer or his family, see a family of real people hurting, so they see how loss has continued to tear them apart.
My goal was also to communicate to the killer or his family directly, crafting the content to be what he would most likely behaviorally respond to, rather than sharing broad appeals or narratives.
A by-product of this work is that people who were previously unfamiliar with Rachel’s case will hopefully be enticed to share her story knowing that her and her family deserves justice.
Filming with Persuasive Geographies and the Meaning-Making Model
The location of where I film someone is significant, as the surroundings aesthetically frame the look and feel of the imagery for audiences. But, beyond filmmaking aesthetics, I also consider what location will likely cause whomever I am filming and interviewing to respond behaviorally.
Michael Morin had mentioned he had visited the tunnel where Rachel’s body was found several times alone.
We discussed filming at the tunnel because that location would bring audiences to a place few had been — and would likely help Michael share what he thinks about and what he feels when he is in that tunnel.
There is nothing scripted in these recorded interviews.
Still, structurally, these discussions are essentially journalistic or motivational interviews, which are conversational, open-ended guided discussions about how they feel.
This location can be characterized as persuasive geography because the area is not only a physical place, but it prompts a cognitive and emotional experience for Michael while being in that location.
💡 Deeper Reading: Social psychologist Robert Cialdini (2016) wrote about persuasive geographies in the context of pre-suasion, which he defined as how you prepare someone to be more responsive to that content or message before they receive that content or message. This is different from priming someone, because priming involves activating someone’s mental schema or expectations of an experience or behavior.
At the trail, when we walked further into the tunnel into the darkness, I could see that Michael was experiencing a change in affect… as he was likely thinking and feeling about Rachel.
The video online of Michael is less than two minutes, but he shared similar thoughts and feelings about his sister for more than ten minutes.
What mattered most was that audiences had a moment to feel some of what Michael was expressing, and to get to know him through “thin slices” without knowing everything they could.
Shortly after filming with Michael, I met Matthew “Matt” McMahon, who is the father of Rachel’s oldest daughter. We decided to record in a different location nearby, where Matt had laid roses on the trail to the tunnel a few weeks before.
This nearby location acted as persuasive geography for Matt, because Rachel was likely assaulted in this exact location and on a leafy path to the tunnel where she was found dead.
What many people do not anticipate is how discussing and sharing how they feel in a location like this is part of how they continue to make meaning from their loss.
💡 Deeper Reading: The Meaning Making model was established in the late 1990s as a health psychology model for understanding how people restore meaning and purpose following a traumatic or stressful experience (Park and Folkman, 1997; Park, 2013). This model also considers who people socialize with and who is vital in their lives, as those people crucially shape how someone makes meaning from these experiences.
Matt told me before we started filming that he had no idea what he would talk about. But, as we started this guided interview and discussion, he began talking about his daughter.
Audiences can see and hear in Matt’s video when he becomes emotionally charged, talking about the “deep sadness” he struggles with and how he fears his daughter will handle finding out how Rachel was killed and where she was found if she returned to the trail location.
What is most important here is that audiences are momentarily introduced to this “thin slice” of Matt on the trail, and find him genuine in his moments of grief and vulnerability on camera.
Audiences must experience Matt’s and Michael’s vulnerability to find them authentic.
When Matt and Rachel’s daughter later watched his video, she decided she wanted to return to the trail to the location where Rachel was murdered. Matt considered her decision to be significant, considering for the past several months, she had refused to return to the trail and, like Matt, was struggling to process her loss.
This may be an example of Matt and his daughter making meaning together, even as one of the goals of these introductory videos with the Morin family was to start channeling audiences, including the offender, to this alternative behavioral content.
The narrative starts to change from statements of threat and claims of a “serial killer” to real people who are deeply hurting — and who believe the offender is hurting too from taking a life.
While making meaningful content is intrinsically and emotionally important, it’s also imperative for public trust.
The Public is Watching… and Judging.
In my experience, law enforcement media strategies generally focus on prepared statements and selective sharing of case information for the news media and broader audiences. Law enforcement officials periodically make statements intended for persons of interest or known suspects in some of these cases to strategically communicate some promise or encourage people who have information to come forward.
As it turns out, this strategy doesn’t take the broader public into account.
Research tells us that the public is constantly evaluating online content — including observable and written statements by law enforcement officials and victim family members. The people following case updates are judging to see if official statements may be manipulative, orchestrated, or overly controlled to determine whether they believe that content is authentic or questionably authentic (DeAndrea, 2014; DeAndrea & Carpenter, 2018; Van Der Heide et al., 2015).
Audiences also evaluate how genuine the person speaking appears to be.
Communication research in public relations has consistently found that audiences respond the most positively to people who seem to be displaying “naturally felt emotions” regardless of what they say and if their statements are appropriate. Officials are often criticized for public statements that appear to be what has been described as “surface acting” or “deep acting” because the speaker does not appear to be emotionally genuine (Diefendorff et al., 2004).
These are emotional labor strategies that are only difficult when there is difficulty being authentic or displaying these “naturally felt emotions” (Hochschild, 1983).
Audiences can judge people relatively accurately just based on observing “thin slices” of someone’s behavior, which in the context of online video content, may just take less than two minutes to introduce someone and share some of their life.
When you pool those evaluations of “thin slices” in the aggregate or visibly among a larger group of audiences online, those evaluations are increasingly consistent or in agreement. There is a large body of grounded research literature into the social influence online of commentary and assessments, whether related to impressions of someone or about products (Metzger et al., 2010; DeAndrea 2012; Van Der Heide, DeAndrea, Vang & Vendemia, 2018).
Audiences also experience some degree of emotion or affect while observing content online — especially content that could be considered sensitive or traumatic, like a murder.
These general audience considerations for behavioral content creation are based on grounded psychological theory and established marketing and consumer practices.
Numbers Don’t Lie. Authentic Content Works.
When I uploaded the videos of Rachel’s loved one’s my storytellers YouTube channel was brand new.
I only had one subscriber.
Because of this, I knew it would be a unique opportunity to observe how audiences responded to this behavioral content without any subscriber base or paid targeted advertising. I also knew it would be important to include Rachel’s name in the video titles because the public would be searching for case updates.
The subsequent growth and views are a direct result of the moving and authentic reactions from the people in the videos.
Within the first two days after uploading three videos, the channel grew by 25 subscribers, and about 2,000 viewers watched the full set of three videos. Michael’s heartbreaking video was viewed the most.
The analytics below indicate that about half of the viewers found this video from an external platform – in this case, Meta, on one of the Morin’s Facebook pages. Moreover, about half of the audience found this Michael’s video on YouTube or from Google searches, primarily people looking for “Rachel Morin”; proving the value of using her name in the video titles.
Michael reposted his video that I posted on TikTok, and his reposted video had nearly 800 views in just a few hours. Since then, the views have doubled, and the video interaction has skyrocketed.
These are anecdotal metrics, but they suggest that even without any subscriber base and no established advertising or social media presence, authentic behavioral content creation can attract audiences.
These viewers can help spread the word, and help solve a case.
Tim Pappa is a former Supervisory Special Agent and Profiler with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Behavioral Analysis Unit-2. Tim specializes in cyber deception and online influence, including creating behaviorally-based content and persuasive communications online. Most notably, Tim created an emotional video series of the Gusé family, who is advocating to find their missing teen, Karlie Gusé. Tim recently published in the Journal of Information Warfare and American Intelligence Journal on evaluating authenticity and influence among communities of Islamic boarding schools.