The Real FBI Agents and Serial Killers Who Inspired Netflix’s Mindhunter

Dennis Rader, left, is played by Sonny Valicenti. Photo: Getty Images/Netflix

If you’re watching Mindhunter, the Netflix drama based on the true story of the man who pioneered the science of profiling serial killers, you’re probably wondering just how much of it is true. The show’s fictional profiler, FBI agent Holden Ford, makes reference to infamous criminals like Charles Manson and David Berkowitz, but what about the other serial killers who appear on the show? Is Ed Kemper a real person? Were the good guys inspired by actual FBI agents? Below, we separate fact from fiction to explain what’s real and what isn’t in Mindhunter.

The Good Guys

While several of the serial killers interviewed by Holden Ford are based on real people — down to actors who look eerily like their counterparts and dialogue that’s pulled directly from actual prison interviews — the trio of Mindhunter’s protagonists are more loosely connected to their real-life counterparts. Still, the connections are tough to miss.

Photo: Mindhunters INC./Netflix

Holden Ford
The complex leading man of Mindhunter, played perfectly by Jonathan Groff, is based on John E. Douglas, the author of the book Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. Douglas is no stranger to Hollywood: He reportedly served as the main inspiration for Jack Crawford in the novels Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, as well as Bryan Fuller’s take on Will Graham in the TV show Hannibal. In Mindhunter, Ford walks a similar path as an agent in the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit, traveling the country to interview some of the most notorious criminals in American history. In reality, Douglas redefined murder investigations thanks to information gleaned from interviews with David Berkowitz, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson, Richard Speck, and, of course, Edmund Kemper.

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Bill Tench
The parallels between Holt McCallany’s gruff FBI agent and his real-life counterpart are less direct than those between Ford and Douglas, but they’re still there. Tench was inspired heavily by Robert K. Ressler, a Chicago-born FBI agent who joined the Bureau in 1970. Ressler was also a part of the Behavioral Sciences Unit in the ’70s and is credited with coining the term “serial killer.” Ressler also interviewed serial killers in the ’80s and developed the nation’s first computer database of unsolved crimes, which helped capture those who crossed state lines as they killed. He worked on major serial-killer cases, including the searches for Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy. Ressler died in 2013.

Photo: Patrick Harbron/Netflix

Dr. Wendy Carr
Often the voice of reason and logic on Mindhunter, Anna Torv’s psychologist has a real-life counterpart in Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess. Again, the real person worked in the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit with agents Douglas and Ressler, and all three people are credited with writing Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives, a breakthrough study of serial killers published in 1988. Burgess pioneered the treatment for trauma and abuse victims, co-founding a counseling program for victims of sexual violence at Boston City Hospital. She still teaches at Boston College.

The Serial Killers

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Dennis Rader
The ADT man from Wichita seen in the opening scenes of several episodes is also Mindhunter’s most elusive character. He has yet to see interact with any other major characters, but he’s instantly familiar to people who have read about serial killers in America: Dennis Rader, the BTK killer. Rader gave himself the name “BTK” in one of his many letters to the media, which stands for “bind, torture, kill,” his preferred method of execution. It’s interesting that the final scene of Mindhunter’s first season is given to Rader, indicating that he will reappear in season two. Rader wasn’t caught for his murders until 2005, so he’ll likely be a part of the show for some time.

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Ed Kemper
The hulking presence of the “co-ed killer” defines the first season of Mindhunter, taking Ford and Tench down the path that leads to their breakthrough profiling research. Mindhunter’s version of Ed Kemper, played by Cameron Britton, is very similar to what we know about the real-life serial killer: The show quoted directly from actual interviews conducted with Kemper in prison. Kemper killed his grandparents as a teenager, but was later released from a mental hospital at age 21. From May 1972 to April 1973, he went on to kidnap, murder, and defile eight more people before he finally turned himself over to the police. Kemper is still incarcerated at the California Medical Facility.

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Monte Ralph Rissell
When Ford and Tench speak to the fictional version of Rissell, they discover that not every serial killer is as open and forthcoming as Edmund Kemper. Rissell, played by Sam Strike in the show, is nowhere near a household name, but his crimes were undeniably horrific. He stands out for how early he started his rampage, reportedly committing his first rape at the age of 14. Like Kemper, Rissell was sent to an mental institution, and he’s known for convincing his counselors that he was getting better while he surreptitiously committed crimes while on short leave. By the time he was arrested at age 19, he had killed five people and raped at least a dozen. He is currently incarcerated for five life sentences.

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Jerry Brudos
The man who appears in episodes seven and eight is also a real serial murderer, branded by the press for his crimes as the “lust killer” and “shoe fetish slayer.” What Ford and Tench learn from Brudos is essential how to profile criminals, and some of his confessions appear to be pulled from reality. He really was the younger son to a mother who wanted him to be a daughter, and his fetish for women’s shoes started at a very young age. Brudos, played by Happy Anderson, was sent to a mental hospital after his first crime, abducting a woman when he was only 17. He appeared to settle down in the years following his release, getting married and having two children, but his murder spree began in 1968. Dressed in women’s clothing, Brudos killed at least four young women in Oregon, mutilating and keeping parts of their bodies as trophies. He died in prison in 2006.

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Richard Speck
They don’t get much more loathsome than the infamous Richard Speck, captured by Jack Erdie on Mindhunter in all his abrasive, disgusting glory. However, Speck’s crimes are different than most others on this show. On July 13, 1966, Richard Speck tortured, raped, and murdered eight nurses from the South Chicago Community Hospital. He had previously committed violent acts, but it was the horror of the singular event that made headlines around the world, especially because one woman escaped to describe the nightmare. In Mindhunter, Speck is an aggressive monster, and it’s when Ford sinks to his level that he puts his career in jeopardy. Speck died of a heart attack in 1991.

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Darrell Gene Devier
The season finale of Mindhunter, directed by David Fincher, hinges on the case of Darrell Gene Devier, and how Holden Ford and Bill Tench solve it using methods gleaned from their conversations with serial killers. The fictional version of Devier, played by Adam Zastrow, is almost directly lifted from history: Devier was a tree-trimmer working in a rural Georgia neighborhood where 12-year-old Mary Frances Stoner was raped and killed. Douglas writes about the case in his book, making clear that it was his first chance to stage an interrogation. The fake folder of papers that makes it look like the cops had a lot on Devier, the gross implication that the victim was asking for it to weaken the suspect’s defenses, and the bloody rock placed in front of him: All of these tactics were actually used in Douglas’s interrogation of Devier, and they ultimately led to his confession. Even the drama of the passed polygraph test comes from the real story.

The Real Serial Killers Who Inspired Netflix’s Mindhunter