Real Crime

How to Talk to Serial Killers: An Interview with 'Mindhunter' John Douglas

FBI profilers Robert Ressler and John Douglas with serial killer Edmund Kemper
Robert Ressler (left) and John Douglas (right) interview Edmund Kemper at the California State Medical Facility at Vacaville. Photo: Courtesy of the FBI.
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    How to Talk to Serial Killers: An Interview with 'Mindhunter' John Douglas

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      Laura Barcella

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      How to Talk to Serial Killers: An Interview with 'Mindhunter' John Douglas

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      April 03, 2020

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      A+E Networks

Former FBI special agent John Douglas is, essentially, the grandfather of criminal profiling. Over his 25-year career with the FBI’s Investigative Support Unit, Douglas interviewed hundreds of America’s most notoriously brutal killers, from Charles Manson and Ted Bundy to “Son of Sam” David Berkowitz and the “BTK Killer,” Dennis Rader.

Then, in 1996, Douglas literally wrote the book on his profession with the publication of Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. (Fun fact: Douglas also served as inspiration for the Jack Crawford character in The Silence of the Lambs.)

Mindhunter helped illuminate the psychologies at work behind some of America’s darkest criminal minds. Douglas advanced the idea that, no matter how cruel their crimes, serial killers shouldn’t merely be locked away and ignored forever. Instead, Douglas looked at these predators as a source of wisdom to help people better understand the criminal mind—and possibly even help prevent future crimes. 

With the publication of his new book, The Killer Across the Table, Douglas opens up his extensive case files once again. This time he spotlights four disturbing new cases in attentive detail, delving into the nuances of each criminal’s life and how they ended up doing the horrific things they did.

A&E Real Crime spoke with Douglas about his new book, his tried-and-true interview techniques and the tricks of the profiling trade.

How is this book an evolution from your past books? What can people expect to learn that they might not have known before?
For each interview I’ve ever done, something is always a little bit different. Interviews I did with FBI credentials, I could go into any prison, any time, get in there unannounced and say who I wanted to speak to and they would bring him out. When you’re out of the Bureau, it’s more difficult.

I did the same thing with the interviews I conducted for this book: I had to memorize the case, the specifics regarding the background of the subject by looking at the correctional reports and police reports. I was looking to see how the subject reacted during the police interrogation.

Early on [in my career], I used a small tape recorder, like when I interviewed Ed Kemper, who killed the college co-eds in California, [plus] his mother and a neighbor. But the subjects we’re interviewing, including the ones in this book, are paranoid. They don’t trust anyone.

In fact, in one of the cases [for this book]—the McGowan case out of New Jersey, the man who killed [7-year-old] Joan D’Alessandrohe communicated with a pen pal after I did the interview and he said, ‘During the interview, I looked down and noticed this guy Douglas wasn’t taking notes. But he knew more about the case than anyone who’s ever spoken to me.’

Even though I detest the crimes they committed, you wouldn’t know that by the way I interview them. When I do the interviews, I’m not shocked or horrified. You can’t do that.

Some agents in my unit want to strangle the guys. Deep down, I’d like to strangle them, too, but I can’t. I’m trying to get information out of them.

How do you come up with the right questions?
The questions are from a protocol we developed with Dr. Ann Burgess at Boston College many years ago. She’s a forensic nurse and she knows psychology. She helped us come up with a 57-page protocol asking questions about the victim, the victim selection, pre-offense behavior and post-offense behavior.

I want to know: Why this particular victim? How was he able to gain control of the victim? Why did he do the things he did to the victim? Was there a precipitating event? What happened in his life that on this day he decided to go out and perpetrate this crime?

How did you select which cases to focus on in the new book?
I chose the ones that were just so different. For example, Joseph Kondro in Washington state. I’ve never had a case where someone was killing his friends’ children and getting away with it for years and years.

Donald Harvey was a case I was involved with when I was in the Bureau—he was responsible for maybe 70 or 75 murders of hospital patients.

In the [the previously mentioned] Joseph McGowan case in New Jersey, he killed a Brownie who was going door to door delivering Girl Scout cookies. This guy had a master’s degree; he was a schoolteacher. It was probably one of the most fascinating interviews I had ever done when they locked me up with him. It was dark and freezing and I was able to take him back to the point where Joan D’Alessandro is knocking on his screen door.

He’s home with his grandmother, who is upstairs sleeping. His mother is at work. He lives down in the basement of the duplex and he tells me, ‘When I heard the knock on the door, I knew I was going to kill her, John. I knew I was going to kill her.’ He was reliving the whole thing—no remorse at all.

The fourth case in the book was Todd Kohlhepp. He was interesting because I was speaking at a university when police came up and said they had this motorcycle shop where four people were killed, three males and one woman, and if I could look at the case and give them ideas.

They sent me the material and I said, ‘This was either a disgruntled employee or disgruntled customer. In all likelihood, it was a disgruntled customer because nothing was taken. He comes in there with multiple weapons, and he just massacres them.’

What’s your approach when you sense that someone isn’t being truthful with you in an interview?
Sometimes they may try to lessen their crime or project the blame—make it the victim’s fault. But if I hear that, I just kind of laugh and joke around with them, which totally changes things. I’ve also learned to give them the sense that they’re in control or dominant over me.

In the book you mentioned that when you interviewed Charles Manson, he assumed a dominant physical position over you.
Yeah. I’m 6 foot 2 inches. He’s 5 foot 2 inches. So he sat on top of a chair, on top of a credenza. I knew he would do that because he did that on the George Spahn Ranch when he had his flock of followers around him.

Has there ever been a time when you were interviewing someone and you were afraid of them?
Ed Kemper, as big as he was, was bullied in school. A lot of them were! Dennis Rader, who I interviewed—the BTK Strangler—was another one [who was bullied at school].

But Richard Speck, who killed nurses in Chicago, he was big. He was going crazy when I went on his cell floor, where he was caged. He was extremely violent, but he didn’t swing at me or anything.

Do you think there’s one core personality trait or life experience that most of the predators you’ve interviewed have in common?
I can’t think of one who did not come from some type of dysfunctional family, whether they were abused or neglected.

As far as mentally ill, [most have] a functional mental illness. The majority have antisocial personality [disorder] or are psychopaths. They know right from wrong, they just don’t care.

A child like this can react by being the school bully, can start rebelling in class, showing signs of anti-social affective behavior. The biggest indicator [of future crimes] to us is animal cruelty and animal torturing. In fact, we used to call it ‘the triad’ of bed-wetting, fire-setting and animal cruelty. David Berkowitz set more than 2,000 fires in New York City, as documented by his own diary.

Why do you think people are so fascinated with true crime lately?
The majority of the audience at my events are women and I believe that’s because they’re the victims of a lot of these heinous crimes. The interest is just like the interest I had: It’s ‘why?’

Related Features:

Edmund Kemper: Why Would a Serial Killer Help the FBI Understand Other Serial Killers?

Charles Manson Would Have Made a Great Profiler and Other Surprising Insights About the Cult Leader from FBI Investigators

Was Serial Killer Wayne Williams Really the Atlanta Monster Who Murdered Dozens of Black Kids?

When It’s Your Job to Interview Cold-Blooded Murderers

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