“Mindhunter,” a bestselling book and now a Netflix original series, takes people behind the scenes of some of the most gruesome and challenging cases. FBI profilers gather up crime scene evidence to help predict the type of personality that commits serial murders. Through interviews with some of the most ghastly killers such as Charles Manson, Edmund Kemper and the Son of Sam, to mention a few, author John Douglas determines their motives, attempting to figure out why they did what they did and why in such a particular manner.
Elise Cooper: The Netflix show has Dr. Wendy Carr as a consultant, was she based on anyone?
John Douglas: She did not exist, but was based upon Dr. Anne Burgess, who is more of an academic type. She came down to meet with another agent that was investigating rape. After she heard about what we were doing, she wanted to learn more about how we looked at a crime scene and the way a victim was attacked. Unlike in the show, she was never a member of the Behavioral Science Unit. She had a completely different profession than the character in the show. She was actually a forensic nurse who did co-author some books with me.
EC: Did you actually have trouble with the FBI accepting the unit as shown in the show, where you were displaced to the basement?
JD: Yes, it is correct. We had push back on what we could possibly learn from interviewing serial killers. Even when we started to teach profiling we got resistance and there was an attitude of, “What is this B.S.?”
EC: What about the ways the killers were portrayed in the show?
JD: It is amazing how the casting had them look so much like the killers. Maybe the timeline was different, but the conversations were accurate. For example, Richard Speck, who killed eight student nurses, did throw a live bird into the fan, but it happened before we got to the prison. I did open the interview with him using street language, which had him open up because he thought I was as crazy as he was.
EC: The show mentions Lawrence Bittaker. Can you tell us about him?
JD: He met Roy Norris while serving time together and discovered their mutual interest in dominating and hunting young women. After being paroled in 1979 they kidnapped, raped and tortured five girls. They bought a van, nicknamed it “Murder Mac,” insulated its interior, and then went on the hunt, videotaping what they did. Bittaker’s nickname became “Pliers Bittaker.”
After they were caught I interviewed Bittaker with a female agent, Mary Ellen O’Toole. Interestingly, he would never look at her when she asked a question.
EC: You mention in the book that Charles Manson was also paroled?
JD: In his young adult life he committed a series of robberies, forgeries, pimpings and assaults. He was paroled in 1967 after serving for some of these offenses.
I do not think of him as a routine serial killer. I was interested in finding out how someone could become this satanic messiah. He found lost souls and was able to institute a highly structured delusional system that left him in complete control of their minds and bodies by using sleep deprivation, sex, food and drugs.
People forget he was not even at the Sharon Tate murders because he was afraid it would violate his parole. He spoke of “Helter Skelter” from the Beatles “White Album,” having a vision of the coming apocalypse and race war that would leave him in control.
EC: He just died, but do you think he ever should have been paroled?
JD: No. The biggest threat would have been from the misguided losers who would gravitate to him and proclaim him their god and leader.
When I think of Manson and his flock of wandering inadequate followers, I immediately visualize the violent crimes they perpetrated against innocent people. The crime scenes were horrific and it’s difficult to imagine what was going through the victims’ minds, as they each knew they were going to die a violent death. Imagine Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant and begging for her life and that of her unborn child. So why do any of them deserve parole when they initially received the death penalty, but unfortunately a Supreme Court ruling changed their death sentence to life imprisonment.
Therefore, life imprisonment means just that. No parole. No matter how much they conformed to prison rules and were considered model inmates and “found religion.” Manson and his followers will all again meet one day in hell.
EC: Can you please explain the book quote, “I can speak for myself, I would much rather have on my conscience keeping a killer in jail who might or might not kill again if sprung, than the death of an innocent man, woman, or child as a result of the release of that killer?”
JD: Many thought that the rapist or killer would burn out and they would just stop. They ignored that these were actually crimes of power and manipulation.
I remember a guy in California who chopped the arms off of a young girl and went to prison. After a number of years, he was thought to have been rehabilitated and was released. He then goes to Florida where he brutally kills a woman. Eventually, I started to go before parole boards telling them, “All you have done is incarcerated a body, but what you haven’t taken away from them is what is going on in their minds.”
They remember and fantasize about the crime. I tell them they have no business making decisions regarding probation or parole if they have not looked deeply at the crime scene photographs, the victim, circumstances of the case, police reports and the autopsy.
EC: Edward Kemper, known as the Coed Killer, also received a type of parole. Please discuss his case.
JD: He killed his grandparents and was committed to the Atascadero State Hospital for the criminally insane. Let out in 1969, this 6-foot-9-inch, 300-pound man started preying on coeds in 1972. He killed them, carried the bodies back to his mother’s house, had sex with them and buried them face-up in the yard. Eventually, he called the police and confessed to the murders. He was convicted on eight counts of first-degree murder.
I was struck by his intelligence, a 145 IQ, how huge he was, and the amount of hostility he had built up in him. He was not cocky, remorseful and was cool and soft-spoken. By the way, the hospital scene is not true and I never felt intimidated by him.
EC: What do you want the viewers and readers to understand?
JD: I hope the public realizes we cannot catch all the perpetrators. As profilers we provide clues. We cannot apply the same method to every case. Certain cases are easier to solve than others. For example, a rape case with a surviving victim can provide us with verbal, physical and sexual evidence.
I also do not think law enforcement should rely on polygraphs. Dennis Rader, the BTK Strangler; Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer; and Robert Hanssen, someone in the FBI’s leadership who spied for the Russians, all passed the polygraph. After that, they were not considered persons of interest for some time.