When local homicide detectives in St. Petersburg, Florida, hit a dead end tracking down the individual who killed Ohio mom Joan Rogers and her two teenage daughters in 1989, Jana Monroe came up with an idea that led to a break in the case.
At the time, Monroe was the first female FBI agent to win a coveted spot with the agency’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, or BSU. The bodies of Rogers and her daughters were found floating in Tampa Bay, but local authorities were unable to pin down who took the trio out on the fateful boat trip.
In her memoir, Hearts of Darkness: Serial Killers, the Behavioral Science Unit, and My Life as a Woman in the FBI, Monroe recounts how in 1992 she suggested blowing up an image of a handwritten note with directions to the boat dock found in Rogers’ car where she and her family were last seen. The image was then plastered on billboards with a message asking people to contact St. Petersburg police if they recognized the handwriting.
Within 48 hours, police had their suspect: a 46-year-old contractor named Oba Chandler. He was arrested, charged and convicted of the murders of Rogers and her children. In 1994, he was sentenced to death and executed in 2011.
[Stream episodes of Invisible Monsters: Serial Killers in America in the A&E app.]
When she joined the FBI in 1985, shortly after the agency first allowed women to become special agents, Monroe set out to prove her doubters wrong. According to her book, Monroe fought hard to earn the respect of male colleagues and worked on high-profile unsolved cases across the country during her BSU assignment.
She profiled serial, mass and spree killers for local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. Monroe also provided Jodie Foster with insights about being a female special agent that helped the actor in her role as Clarice Starling, the FBI trainee who seeks guidance from cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lechter in the film Silence of the Lambs. Before retiring from the FBI in 2006, she oversaw the bureau’s Los Angeles and Phoenix offices, and served as the first assistant director of the cybercrimes unit.
A&E True Crime spoke with Monroe about her time as an FBI agent.
How much did the FBI evolve in giving women advancement opportunities during your time with the agency?
When I started, I can say unequivocally, there was no opportunity. Things started changing, and the pivotal moment for the bureau was when Burdena ‘Birdie’ Pasenelli was appointed as the first female special agent in charge. [In 1992, Pasenelli was named special agent in charge of the FBI Alaska office. She died in 2016].
I think it was a few years after she started going up the ranks, they realized maybe we need more women in supervisory roles, and we started [getting] more opportunities for advancement.
How hard was it to earn the respect of your male colleagues during your early years with the FBI?
When I look back, I was very tenacious. There was no welcome wagon. I had to prove myself more so than a male counterpart would. It was still that culture that a female could not do as good a job. And we are not talking about physical strength because I never tried out for SWAT or the hostage rescue team. But the work I am talking about, I knew I could do.
I had been a probation officer and then worked juvenile crimes as a police officer [prior to joining the FBI]. I had to be aggressive about inviting myself on arrests and on squads that were completely male dominated.
Did you ever have your male colleagues ‘mansplaining’ things to you?
Yes. It was always demeaning. I had [male agents] explain things to me like I was 5 or 6 years old.
When it came to interviewing killers, did being a woman make it easier or harder?
From my perspective, I would downplay my gender when I was doing interviews like that. I don’t think it was an advantage when dealing with male serial killers. Some of them did things that were heinous, diabolical. And 99 percent of the time, they did it to women. I think they found it difficult to look at me and talk to me about some of the things they did.
There were also quite a few cases in which women were feigning pregnancy, killed the actual mother, kidnapped the child and pretended it was their own. I spoke to three or four of those women, and I think [being female] was advantageous. They would say things like, ‘well you know what it is like to be a woman’ and make other ridiculous assumptions. They would speak to me like I had experienced the same things they had.
In your memoir, you write about assisting the bureau in developing a bulletproof vest for female agents. What was that like?
That was great. At the time, the vests were designed to just cover your breasts. If I got hit in the stomach area, I would have probably died. So going back to Quantico to look at the prototypes was really interesting. I added some value to that by saying, ‘I understand you want to protect those [breasts]. But we have these other areas to protect.’
What was it like to dig deep into the dark corners of the human psyche when you worked for the BSU?
I had been exposed to homicides before, but certainly not that many. I started having daily involvement in cases where you see things you and I can’t relate to. Disembowelments. Decapitations. Killers who made figurines out of body parts. It was extremely disturbing.
I started exhibiting odd behaviors that my husband started pointing out to me. So, I had to learn to detach like a doctor. A doctor can’t fall apart every time he has bad news or a patient dies. I had to take a more clinical approach to it.
How did you accomplish that?
It was a process. Whatever we were being asked to, whether it was behavioral analysis or crime scene linkage, I would focus on that. And I would refer to the victims as case numbers and not as people.
You write about serial killer Edmund Kemper, who murdered eight people including his mother, reaching out to you to provide his expertise. Why do you think he did that?
Ego, if you will. He is brilliant if you believe in IQ tests. He probably felt that my unit and I weren’t going to be able to solve a case on our own. That was, quite frankly, how we went into the prisons. We couldn’t offer them anything. We couldn’t give them a stay of execution. Most of them were serving life or on death row. We couldn’t offer them a nicer cell, money or anything else. So we had to appeal to their ego.
One way was telling them, ‘you were masterful at this. You did a lot of this. You had to turn yourself in because law enforcement was too inept to apprehend you. So, we need to learn from you.’
The other way was [when] they didn’t want someone else to do what they had done, so we would say, ‘help us prevent others from following in your footsteps.’
Why was your involvement in the Oba Chandler case so rewarding for you?
That is the only case I was involved in from the beginning until the end. We can only speculate why Joan Rogers and her daughters didn’t fight back. What I think happened is that he threatened to hurt the two girls, and being the consummate mother she was, she complied and didn’t fight back. It was just horrible.
Do you think the FBI will have a female director in your lifetime?
I would have loved to get that position. I don’t think in my lifetime we are going to see it.