Seeking Serial Killers: Real-life Lecter helps hunt monsters
by Dr. Katherine Ramsland
Like Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs,” Ted Bundy once enlightened a task force on the motives and movement of an elusive killer. They learned a lot about Bundy as well. Now a unique new crime show, “Dark Minds,” will engage in a similar process.
True crime author M. William Phelps created the series with criminal profiler John Kelly. Their aim is to reopen some cold cases that involved serial murder and view them from a different angle — that of another serial killer. They’re working with an unnamed (and unpaid) offender, referred to as “13,” who reads the case notes and calls in his analysis on the show.
I asked Phelps to tell me about this provocative production. First, and foremost, I wanted to know why “13” wants to assist.
“John Kelly is 13’s gatekeeper,” Phelps told me. “Kelly has worked with 13 for 10 years and says 13 wants to give back. According to 13, it is an act of remorse and penance, which we know, psychologically speaking, is very rare for a serial killer. I think, however, it is also stimulating to 13 and feeding his fantasies, which all serials harbor, in prison or out, and in some way, helping us allows 13 to continue the game. Serial killers live through their fantasies.”
The first episode, “The Valley Killer,” focuses on a series of murders in Connecticut. “Between 1978 and 1988,” Phelps said, “seven women were brutally stabbed and dumped in the woods of the Connecticut River Valley up through New Hampshire and Vermont. It’s a cold case that hasn’t seen any sort of attention in years. In the episode, I interview the Valley Killer’s only known survivor. She has seen his face and can identify him — she was stabbed 27 times and lived. In the episode, I bring her a person of interest, and her reaction to the photo I present is physical (she begins to tremble and shake), as opposed to oral (in other words, she didn’t say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s him,’), which tells me a tremendous amount about the credibility of the identification. I also introduce her to, and interview, this person-of-interest’s son. The meeting and interview is chilling.”
When Bundy analyzed the Green River Killer, I said, it was often more about him than about his subject. I asked Phelps if 13 might be engaged in something similar.
“Absolutely not,” he assured me. “13 is deeply engrossed in helping us. He truly wants to prove he knows what he’s talking about. He’s not paid. His crimes are never discussed. No one knows who he is or what he’s done. He gets no glory, no media attention. I also think Bundy just wanted to continue the cat-and-mouse with cops and lie his way into trying to become some sort of quasi-profiler. Bundy never had any intention to help, whereas, I feel 13 definitely does. 13 studies the cases we send him very seriously and confidently. There are times when his insight is so spot on it’s scary to think that he came to a specific realization because he’s done it — he’s killed people. He’s been there! He’s hunted human beings. You cannot get that type of analysis from anyone else. Viewers of ‘Dark Minds’ will be repulsed, riveted, scared, entertained, and, we hope, encouraged to call in to a tip line if they know anything about a particular murder case we’re investigating.”
In fact, it’s ultimately what Kelly and Phelps aspire to achieve. “We want to expose cold, stagnant murder cases, shining a light on their importance and, hopefully, reigniting the investigation. I also want to provide answers to families of murder victims, if I can. The series will also introduce true crime fans to the inherent psychological nature of the serial killer’s mind — what is he really thinking? People think they have an understanding of the socio/psychopath, but they really don’t. Most people watch cable news and hear talking heads speak of the sociopath in ways that simply aren’t true. We speak to a psychopath and he reveals his most inner thoughts as they pertain to active murder investigations. For the first time, essentially, viewers will walk in the footsteps and begin to think as a serial killer would. That’s not only unique, it’s groundbreaking for television.
I asked if such an intimate connection with a killer has been disturbing. “I do broach this subject throughout the show,” Phelps affirmed. “It was, at times, a struggle for me whether I was shaking hands with the devil and jumping into a sandbox with him. I’ve had a loved-one murdered. I know what pain is. John Kelly, who is also a forensic psychotherapist, helped me work through this. I began to understand that fighting fire with fire is sometimes necessary for the sake of what we want to achieve. And as it turned out, 13’s help was at times invaluable. He tells us things about the killer I’m hunting that no one else but a killer could know. You have to set aside your personal feelings regarding the darkness in order to get closer to the light. It was extremely difficult for me emotionally, no doubt.”
Since serial killers are often deceptive, I wondered if Phelps had ever caught 13 lying?
“No. It’s not like that,” he assured me. “13 really cannot lie. We don’t allow him to talk about himself or his crimes. We just allow him to give us insight into the cases we send him to study. He stumbled a few times when we hit a subject he wasn’t comfortable with, but again, he talked his way through and ended up providing insight that was utterly disturbing and fascinating. For example, we ask him in the ‘The Valley Killer’ episode, ‘What type of vehicle do you think our guy is driving?’ He thinks about it and says, ‘Van. Mini-van.’ Kelly says, ‘Why do you say that?’ He says, ‘Because I would.’ He talks about stabbing a person as something akin to ‘no other sensation.’ Now, where can you get that kind of psychological insight when building profiles and hunting serial killers? As it turns out, our person of interest drove a vehicle very similar to a van. 13 didn’t even know we had a person of interest.”
I’m looking forward to this series, which starts this Wednesday, January 25, at 10:00 PM, on Investigation Discovery. A lot of us miss the crime shows that Court TV used to air, but the ID network is becoming a solid replacement.
The next episode of “Dark Minds,” THE EASTBOUND STRANGLER, airs Wednesday, February 1st, 10pm.
* ID network images
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Dr. Katherine Ramsland has master’s degrees in forensic and clinical psychology, a master’s in criminal justice, and a Ph.D. in philosophy. She has published nearly 1,000 articles and forty books, including The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds, The CSI Effect, Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, Inside the Minds of Healthcare Serial Killers, Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers, Inside the Minds of Sexual Predators, and The Human Predator: A Historical Chronology of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation. She has been featured on numerous documentaries and such programs as 20/20, The Today Show, 48 Hours, Montel Williams, and Forensic Files, and she currently writes regular features for InSinc and The Forensic Examiner. She teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice as an associate professor at DeSales University in Pennsylvania and consults with death investigators and law enforcement worldwide on cases involving serial murder. Her latest books are The Mind of a Murderer: Privileged Access to the Demons that Drive Extreme Violence and an ebook called Psychopath.