'Mindhunter' True Story: How The FBI Profiles the Real Serial Killers and Crimes Behind the Netflix Series

You probably know Jack Crawford. The stalwart director of the FBI's Behavioral Science Unit in Thomas Harris' bestselling novels, Crawford has been a central character in on-screen adaptations like Michael Mann's Manhunter, Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs and in Bryan Fuller's network television serial killer epic Hannibal. Crawford, depicted by actors like Dennis Farina, Laurence Fishburne and Scott Glenn, applies psychological research and behavioral science to crime in an effort to capture serial rapists and murderers. He has become the model for a bevy of fictional FBI profilers, who use keen insights into human nature to piece together a mental map of disturbed violence. But it wasn't until playwright Joe Penhall's Netflix series Mindhunter that the men who inspired Harris' original depiction of Crawford in Red Dragon has had their own story told.

Mindhunters True Story: Who Are John Douglas and Robert Ressler?

In Mindhunter, Jonathan Groff plays Holden Ford and Holt McCallany plays Bill Tench. Ford and Tench are based on FBI agents John E. Douglas and Robert K. Ressler, who coined the term "serial killer." Together, Douglas and Ressler—or Ford and Tench in the Netflix telling—taxonomized serial killers and their violent impulses with the help of forensic nurse Ann Burgess, beginning with a dramatic series of interviews with some of the most infamous killers in the U.S. history.

Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), based on Ann Burgess, consulted with the BSU and systematized the information gathered from serial killer interviews. Netflix

Netflix's Mindhunter is based on Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit, which Douglas co-authored with Mark Olshaker. It's a dishier, more narrative retelling of Douglas and Ressler's study of what they first called "sexual killers," eventually released as Sexual Homicide. Their first study, which became the basis of FBI criminal profiling, was based on interviews with 36 convicted sexual murderers, combined with information about 118 of their victims, primarily women. Famous serial killers interviewed included Edmund Kemper, Donald Harvey, Joseph Paul Franklin, Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz, John Wayne Gacy and Jerry Brudos, some of which appeared in the first season of Mindhunter.

"The participating offenders agreed to the interviews for several different reasons," Sexual Homicide explains in its preface. "Some of the murderers who admitted their crimes believed the interviews provided them with an opportunity to contribute to increased understanding or to clarify other people's conclusions about them. Offenders who would not admit to their crimes cooperated in order to point out why it was impossible for them to have committed the murders. Yet other murderers consented in order to 'teach' police how the crimes were committed and motivated. Those who refused interviews had reasons ranging from the advice of an attorney to their own psychotic states."

The History of Mindhunting

The FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit was formed in 1971 to apply the behavioral sciences to crime. Psychology had been used in criminal profiling before, famously leading to the capture of the Mad Bomber in 1957 (but its role has been exaggerated: the profile wasn't the break in the case), but was anything but systematized. In 1977, Douglas, formerly a hostage negotiator, transferred to the BSU, where he started the Bureau's Criminal Profiling Program.

Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) on the Netflix Original Series "Mindhunter." Netflix

Over several years, Douglas and Ressler interviewed famous killers, primarily serial killers, and built a centralized database —the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP)— to analyze their motives and patterns. They were joined in this work by Burgess, a doctor of nursing science and the basis for the Mindhunter character Wendy Carr (Anna Torv). Burgess was already an expert in the treatment of trauma victims and cofounder of the crisis counseling program at Boston City Hospital when she began consulting with the FBI. Burgess was able to make links between childhood traumas, particularly parental abuse, that has remained central to our understanding of how serial killers are formed. As depicted in Mindhunter , Dr. Burgess also created the form for serial killer interviews that introduced some methodological rigor to what was initially a loose survey.

"It's not quite exactly the way it happened," Burgess said of Mindhunter in an interview with Pacific Standard. "I always have been an academic, but they take her down to Quantico. I never moved down there like she did."

The trio presented their findings to the public in 1988's Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives. Further systemization lead to Ressler's founding of the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (which now houses the BSU's modern equivalent, Behavioral Analysis Unit 5), announced by President Reagan in 1984, and the 1992 textbook Crime Classification Manual: A Standard System for Investigating and Classifying Violent Crimes.

How FBI Profiling Works

FBI continues to profile criminals based on criteria built by Douglas and Ressler. It begins with the assimilation of all available information, including from the crime scene, victim autopsies and witness testimony.

mindhunter true story netflix real fbi serial killer
A head of a missing co-ed was dug up by Santa Cruz County Sheriff's deputies in a grassy spot beneath the bedroom of Edmund Kemper, III, accused killer of his mother and her friend. Bettmann / Getty Contributor

The first classification is made based on this data: between "organized" and "disorganized" murderers. Douglas and Ressler split serial killers into these two broad categories. "Generally, an organized murderer is one who appears to plan his murders in a conscious manner and who displays control of the victim at the crime scene," Sexual Homicide describes. "The disorganized murderer is less consciously aware of his plan, and his crime scenes display haphazard behavior. Sometimes an offender has elements from both categories and can be called mixed."

Following classification, a criminal profiler will attempt to reconstruct the causality of the criminal's behavior throughout the timeline of the crime, in order to establish a modus operandi that can be applied to subsequent murders or sexual assaults. Commonalities between the behaviors of interviewed serial killers provided a database, or pool, of possible motives and methods.

The next step is similar, but a little more specific to the idiosyncrasies of serial murders, which don't often stem from more material motives like money or revenge. After establishing a working theory of the crime and how the killer operates, FBI profilers look for the killer's "signature," which is the way in which a serial offender gratifies themselves psychologically during the crime.

"The three most common motives of serial rapists and murderers turn out to be domination, manipulation and control," Douglas and Olshaker write in Mindhunter. "When you consider that most of these guys are angry, ineffectual losers who feel they've been given the shaft by life, and that most of them have experienced some sort of physical or emotional abuse, as Ed Kemper had, it isn't surprising that one of their main fantasy occupations is police officer."

From these considerations, a profile is generated, which can include detailed information about the killer's demographics, family, personality and background, such as educational attainment and the likelihood of having served in the military.

Since all of FBI criminal profiling is premised in Douglas and Ressler's original interviews, the statistical effectiveness of profiling has often been called into question. Douglas and Ressler defend the early effectiveness of their system in Sexual Homicide, describing a 1981 questionnaire on which 77 percent of FBI field offices reported that a profile from the BSU aided in the subsequent capture of a suspect. As the ViCAP database expands, providing a larger data set, criminal profiling will be further refined.

The first season of Mindhunters concerned itself with the origins of these investigative techniques. Season Two looks to explore the psychological toll such work inflicts on investigators, as seen in the debilitating panic attack suffered by Ford in the finale. The mindhunters will be put to the test in season two when they encounter the legendary BTK killer, a torture and bondage specialist who terrorized the Midwest in the late '70s until his capture in 2005.

Profiling After Mindhunter

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Mindhunter is about building the protocols for FBI profiling and developing an understanding of the psychological underpinnings of serial killers and other violent, repeat offenders. After the initial interviews, Douglas and Ressler's FBI study was expanded in 1982. The criteria developed has since been applied in a number of cases, frequently by Douglas himself.

Douglas developed a profile of the Green River Killer, the most prolific serial killer in United States history. Gary Ridgway was convicted of 48 murders, but may have raped and killed more than 71 teenage girls and women, typically sex workers. Throughout the 1980s he picked up women along the Pacific Highway South connecting Seattle and Tacoma, strangled them, and dumped their bodies in wooded areas.

Douglas consulted in numerous controversial cases since conducting the study depicted in Mindhunter. He has argued for Amanda Knox's innocence in the murder of her roommate Meredith Kercher. Douglas also consulted for the defense of the West Memphis Three, drawing up a profile of a lone killer at odds with the three young men sent to prison for the murder of three boys. The West Memphis Three were exonerated and released years later, after the prosecution's outlandish Satanic ritual theory fell apart under the weight of new DNA evidence.

He has also co-authored numerous books since, including Obsession: The Killer Across the Table: Unlocking the Secrets of Serial Killers and Predators with the FBI's Original Mindhunter and The Cases That Haunt Us.

Mindhunters will return for Season 2 on Netflix in 2019.