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John Douglas and Mark Olshaker


Mindhunter by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker gives an insider’s view of FBI’s elite serial crime unit. Douglas was the youngest agent not just as a lecturer at Quantico, but also at FBI Headquarters. His resume is impressive having spent four years in the military, holds numerous graduate degrees, was a member of the SWAT team, a hostage negotiator, and the FBI’s criminal profiler pioneer.

With the bestselling book and now a Netflix original series, people are taken 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 who 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, Douglas determines their motives, attempting to figure out why they did what they did and why in such a particular manner.

The following is an interview with one of the FBI’s most legendary Agents:

Elise Cooper: You speak of the why + how = who?

John Douglas: I wanted to interview these serial killers because I found the best indicator of future violence is past violence. To understand the ‘artist’ you must study the ‘art.’ I decided to go directly to the source to form an understanding.

Elise: You spoke on how a good profiler should also walk in the shoes of victims. Do you feel as Michael Connelly wrote, “I speak for the victims, for those who can no longer speak?”

John: I got very close with some of the families. My goal with the interviews is to give families closure and help law enforcement solve crimes. We must remember the victims, but unfortunately we do forget those ‘surviving victims.’ They suffer from losing a loved one forever and ever. We have seen these people break down, suffer from an illness, or get a divorce. I also broke down from the work I was doing, walking in the shoes of the antagonists to better understand them. But we also must reconstruct what the victims went through and why they took certain actions.


Elise: You discuss in the book how you had PTSD and because you were so worn down you contracted viral encephalitis, a fever, which doctors said ‘fried his brain,’ and that if you did recover you would likely be left in a vegetative stage?

John: Success meant more work, which meant more stress and learning how to cope. I was gone one-third of the year, traveling and talking to surviving victims and the killers. I would run myself to exhaustion. I had PTSD; psychologically it took its toll. A lot of people in my unit got ill and died early. We felt pulled in all different directions: personal family, FBI family, local law enforcement, the community, and victim’s families.


Elise: You had a powerful quote in the book, ‘I’m afraid too many of us in the Bureau, in the military, and in the Foreign Service give too little thought to the incredible burdens on the spouse left behind.’

John: It does take a toll on the family. When I would come home I would need to decompress. Hearing about my family’s day, like one of my children scraping a knee, seemed so trivial to everything I had done. I needed to decompress before I could react.


Elise: You describe serial killers as controlling, manipulative, dominating, and egocentric?

John: They like to relive the excitement and stimulation of the kill. They mentally reassert domination and control. They picked vulnerable victims, such as runaways, street people, prostitutes, and drug addicts. We examined why did they pick a certain victim over another. For example, if they walked into a bar they could pick out those with a broken wing. Usually the victim has a certain posture or look.


Elise: What makes a good profiler?

John: You need to be able to re-create the crime scene in your head. You need to know as much as you can about the victim so you can imagine how they might have reacted, and put yourself in her place. You have to be able to feel her fear as he approaches, or her pain as she is being raped, beaten, or cut. You have to try to imagine what she was going through when she was tortured.


Elise: What are the traits of a serial killer and can you define the term?

John Douglas: Bed-wetting beyond a normal age, cruelty to small animals, and fire starting. The FBI now categorizes them if there were two or more kills. In the Netflix series we say three or more because that was the 80’s definition.


Elise: But you also interviewed people who did not fit into that description like Sirhan-Sirhan, the killer of Robert Kennedy?

John: If I were in a prison I would not pass up anyone including a skyjacker, kidnapper, extortionist, serial rapist, arsonist, or a bomber. I worked over 5000 cases. I also interviewed James Earl Ray, the Martin Luther King murderer. Perhaps we can see some of the other interviews if there is a season 2 or in the next book, Unmasking Evil.


Elise: Did you ever profile a mass killer?

John: While I was in Scotland I was asked about a mass murderer of an elementary school where dozens of children were killed. I thought the person targeted the school because they had some personal connection, and a middle age guy. The profile helped them find him. But someone like the Las Vegas killer is difficult to profile. We look for warning signs and should educate the public to be aware of any comments and strange actions.


Elise: Do you think it is an environmental influence, genetic, or both?

John: From my experience with violent offenders I really can’t think of one where I found that they came from a loving and nurturing environment. I don’t believe there is a violent gene in ones genetic makeup. Certainly you find such things as addictive behavioral patterns running through a family’s genetic pool system but IMO it’s nurture and not nature that is the major contributor to violent crime.

Experienced school teachers have told me that they can predict which child will grow up to be a violent offender one day. How do they know that? Because the children identified by them all come from dysfunctional families and they witness the child acting out at a very early age such as crimes of bullying, animal cruelty, destruction of property, and other antisocial acts. Having said that I will add that a dysfunctional family does not mean that every child is doomed. There are always survivors.


Elise: This concludes the first part of our interview. Is there anything you would like to add?

John: What bugs me is my former colleagues who say things to the press, possibly jeopardizing the investigation. Many of these killers follow the press. For example, someone once said about the DC Sniper that he thought he was G-d. The next day a little girl was shot in the stomach and a search of the area found a tarot card. Written on it, ‘I am G-d.’ Also, many of the self-anointed experts do not even have the training and are just talking heads.


Part II: The realism of the Netflix

Elise: The Netflix show has Dr. Wendy Carr as a consultant, was she based on anyone?

John: 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.


Elise: Did you actually have trouble with the FBI accepting the unit as shown in the show where you were displaced to the basement?

John: Yes, it is correct. We had pull 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 BS?’


Elise: What about the ways the killers were portrayed in the show?

John: It is amazing how the casting had them look so much like the killers. Maybe the time line 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.


Elise: The show mentions Lawrence Bittaker. Can you tell us about him?

John: 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.


Elise: You mention in the book that Charles Manson was also paroled?

John: 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.


Elise: He just died, but do you think he ever should have been paroled?

John: No. The biggest threat would have been from the misguided losers who would gravitate to him and proclaim him their G-d 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.


Elise: 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?’

John: 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.


Elise: Edward Kemper, known as the Coed Killer, also received a type of parole. Please discuss his case.

John: He killed his grandparents and was committed to the Atascadero State Hospital for the criminally insane. Let out in 1969 this six foot nine, 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. BTW: The hospital scene is not true and I never felt intimidated by him.


Elise: What do you want the viewers and readers to understand?

John: 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. wants to thank John Douglas, Mark Olshaker and Gallery Books for the interview.

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