The F.B.I we know from classic fiction like The Silence of the Lambs and zeitgeist Netflix shows like Mindunter, which portray agents engaging in a psychological battle to find America’s worst killers, is actually a rather new phenomena which was popularized in the 1980s and 90s with the publishing of such books as Mindhunter: Inside the F.B.I Elite Serial Crime Unit.
The growth of public fascination with serial killers in pop culture can trace its roots back to the late-70s when the fledgling Behavioural Science Unit began to shift to the forefront of the bureau despite being located in the windowless depths of Quantico’s basement.
John Douglas found himself in a skeleton task force which was derided as the B.S department due to its initials and the way it was perceived by the rest of the F.B.I and local police.
Douglas, who is portrayed as Holden Ford in the Netflix adaptation of the book, Mindhunter, used his past experiences as a bouncer, college misfit and draftee to try and read the people he was profiling. He even attended college part-time to study psychology to become more adept at helping police arrest serial killers (a term his department coined).
He and others expanded the taskforce from a basic road school for local cops into a fully-fledged department that would be the first-call in assisting in cases all across the country. Soon, to gain a full insight and make the psychology used more practical, Douglas and co-worker, Robert Ressler (Bill Tench in the Netflix show) began to interview convicted serial killers in prison.
In his book, Douglas described his reluctance after being asked to hand over his gun and sign a waiver forfeiting the government's responsibility in the event that he was taken hostage. Despite his anxiety he interviewed his first serial killer, the notorious Ed Kemper or ‘Co-ed killer’.
The beans that the six foot nine Kemper would spill was surprising as he would go into great detail about his mindset, how he ‘hunted’ and why. Armed with this and the ‘insights’ of other killers, their team began to finally start profiling.
Just by looking at the crime scenes, Douglas could paint a picture of the suspect from their age, job, appearance, and even right down to if they had a speech impediment. The killer’s ‘M.O’, ‘modus operandi’ (how they kill) and their ‘signature’ (what they do to fulfil their sexual impulses) helped greatly with this.
The unit would not gain full recognition until 1982 when they made headlines by helping convict Wayne Williams, the perpetrator of the Atlanta child murders of 1979-1981.
On July 28, police received complaints of a foul odour near Niskey Lake Road before discovering that it was the body of thirteen-year-old Alfred Evans who’d been missing for three days. Soon, more murders began to emerge. Eventually, enough similarities were noted for police to assume that one person was responsible.
The F.B.I entered the investigation by order of the Oval Office as the case turned into a national scandal, especially due to the fact all victims were black young-adults and children.
Douglas and his department could derive from the killings that there was a high possibility of the murderer being black as serial killers at this time rarely crossed racial lines. They also could assume that the murderer was single, was 25-29, a police buff, would drive a police-like car, insinuate himself into the investigation and have a German Shepard.
All attempts to find the killer were failing and the death toll was rising. Many blamed the profile which went against popular belief that the Klu Klux Klan was involved. In 1981, the media reported that the investigation was using fibres from the bodies to find the killer which led him to change tact and dump the bodies in the rivers.
All police resources were diverted to monitor the rivers. Near the end of their shift, police caught a car stopping on a bridge and heard a splash in the waters. Police caught Wayne Williams who matched the profile almost verbatim but they had no reason to arrest him as the body was nowhere to be found.
After more killings were reported, the body from the river finally recovered, and a huge media circus whipped up by Williams, one of the bodies had enough fibres for the police to match the murdered to Williams’ home carpet.
In the trial, the prosecution, with the help of Douglas, managed to make Williams lose his collected calm which exposed his darker side to the jury. He was tried and convicted for two murders with the other 26 cases remaining unsolved but as of March 2019 have been reopened for investigation.
This case allowed the unit to expand exponentially. It continues to profile killers and focus law enforcement investigations. Douglas soon became unit chief and his first act was to literally remove the B.S from his unit by changing its name from Behavioural Science to the much dryer but more practical ‘Investigative Support Unit’.