Real terror behind Netflix serial killer hit
David Fincher's immersive crime series Mindhunter returns for a second series this month. The show revolves around the Federal Bureau of Investigation's nascent Behavior Science Unit, which specialises in the newly developed fields of criminal psychology and offender profiling. The protagonists traverse America to interview serial killers, in the hopes they can garner an understanding of the motives of a mass murderer.
The show features portrayals of real-world murderers, with this season featuring four of the most notorious serial killers of the 20th century.
THE BTK STRANGLER
Serial killers love to taunt authority. From Jack the Ripper's "From Hell" missive, to the Zodiac Killer's frequent coded messages to the press, there is a rich history of murderous psychopaths playing cat and mouse games through the written word. Over a 17-year period, between 1974 and 1991, Dennis Rader killed at least 10 people in the Wichita area, sending taunting letters to the local press and law enforcement describing his crimes. After a 13-year hiatus, he resumed correspondence, only coming undone when he failed to realise technology always leaves a trace.
Rader revelled in the notoriety his crimes gave him, giving himself the nickname BTK, which stood for "Blind, Torture, Kill". The same year he started his murder spree, he took a job at ADT Security, where he installed alarms in homes. He held this job until 1988, and in many cases was alarming households frightened into extra security measures by the existence of the BTK Strangler lurking in their neighbourhood. Countless scared citizens of Wichita opened their front door to him, never suspecting the man fitting out their house was the one they were seeking to keep out.
Rader also became president of the council of his local Christ Lutheran Church and was a Cub Scout leader. These positions in the community were the perfect disguise for Rader as he killed indiscriminately.
Rader first killed in January 1974, slaying a family of four in their Wichita home. He wrote a letter describing in detail the way he murdered the family, and hid it inside a book in the local library.
It went unnoticed, and so four years later, he contacted a television station, gloating about the crimes and admitting to three other murders. This time he got the publicity he was seeking.
He killed again in 1985, murdering a woman and taking her body to his church, where he photographed her in various poses, sending these to the press.
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He next admitted to a murder in 1991, but then kept silent for 13 years, finally emerging in 2004 to take credit for an unsolved 1986 killing, while sending 11 separate packages to local media outlets, featuring evidence of past crimes, twisted drawings, false confessions, poems, and even a book proposal for The BTK Story.
In 2005, a 60-year-old Rader, buoyed by the arrogance of 35 years of eluding capture, wrote his own arrest warrant by mailing a floppy disk to the local Fox TV affiliate. The disk contained metadata revealing his first name and place of worship.
A quick Google search revealed the council president of the local Christ Lutheran Church was one Dennis Rader, who happened to drive the same make of car as the BTK Strangler.
Police obtained a warrant to DNA test a pap smear taken by his daughter at Kansas University's medical clinic, which indicated she was a close relative of the killer. The jig was up. Rader is now serving 10 consecutive life sentences.
SON OF SAM
Another serial killer who mocked the police with letters as he rampaged through his city, David Berkowitz was responsible for eight shooting attacks in New York City, targeting couples sitting in parked cars. In every instance bar one, the women had dark, wavy hair. The crimes were brutal and unsophisticated, Berkowitz simply blasting the victims with a .44-caliber revolver, bought for him by a friend in the army. Berkowitz himself had served in South Korea, throughout the early 1970s, and was adept at handling firearms.
Berkowitz gave himself the nickname Son Of Sam in a rambling letter found near the bodies of two victims. In the letter he claimed to be the son of a man named Sam, who tied him to the back of the house, locked him in the garage or attic, and "loves to drink blood". He claimed Sam commanded him to kill, and that bodies of his victims are buried behind the house. "I feel like an outsider," the note reads. "I am on a different wavelength then everybody else - programmed to kill. However, to stop me you must kill me. Attention all police: Shoot me first - shoot to kill or else. Keep out of my way or you will die!"
The press feverishly reported upon the series of notes Berkowitz sent, and residents of New York City were terrified. His reign of terror lasted just over a year, with Son Of Sam killing six people and wounding seven others during this spree. Police went to great lengths to decode the messaging in his letters, but it proved to be largely deluded, self-important ramblings.
When a letter sent to the New York Daily News was published, in August 1977, alongside a story that explained how all the women targeted so far had long dark hair, women rushed to cut and colour their hair. There was a shortage on short bob-style wigs for months.
But police were closing in on Berkowitz, due to various reports of his strange behaviour. Police went to his home address and saw a rifle in the back seat of his car, parked on the street outside his apartment. They searched the vehicle and found a Son of Sam letter threatening a police officer, and a duffel bag with maps of the various murder locations and ammunition. The police waited for Berkowitz to exit his apartment and hop into his car. As he pulled a gun and placed it to his temple, Detective Falotico noted a huge smile on Berkowitz's face. "Well, you got me," he grinned. "How come it took you such a long time?"
The most infamous killer of the 1960s wasn't actually present during the murders his name is most synonymous with.
Despite this, Manson was considered the grand architect of the horrific slaughter, and was charged with first degree murder for orchestrating the killings.
Manson has long been painted as an evil Pied Piper figure, who controlled a group of followers, convincing them to play out his deluded plans for a race war named Helter Skelter, inspired by his extreme misinterpretation of a song by The Beatles. He and his followers took over a ranch in the Hollywood Hills and plotted their bloody war.
The reverberations of the Manson Family's up-ending of the idyllic 1960s dream of free love, communal living and drug experimentation are still felt to this day. The Tate-LaBianca murders in August 1969, 50 years ago, are seen as the symbolic end of the '60s, The legend of the Manson Family was largely spun by the prosecuting lawyer Vincent Bugliosi in his controversial 1974 book Helter Skelter, which casts Bugliosi as a heroic figure and paints Manson as a deranged cult leader, intent on sparking a race war.
While there are some who believe Manson was a stooge - a recent book called Chaos claims CIA involvement - the truth seems to be somewhere in the middle. Manson was both a powerfully charismatic figure and a petty criminal, who used his power over impressionable, damaged followers to his own nefarious, deadly end. Aside from the seven killed during the Tate-LaBianca killings, which he played no physical part in, Manson was also charged with first degree murder for killing two other men - crimes he committed himself, in cold blood.
Regardless of the hype, the legends woven over time, and the elevated tales of orgies, slaughter and Beatles tunes, at the end of the day, Manson was simply a murderer who was brought to justice and forced to serve out the rest of his life in prison.
Interestingly, Damon Herriman, the actor who played Manson in Tarantino's Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, also plays him on Mindhunter. It makes one wonder: Are these two franchises set in the same cinematic universe?
THE ALLEGED CHILD MURDERER
This season of Mindhunter will focus on the Atlanta child murders, which saw at least 28 young victims brutally killed between 1979 and 1981. The main suspect for these killings, Wayne Williams, was only ever charged with two murders - both of adults and both which he vehemently denies.
Williams became a suspect in the child murders after a team of police, doing around-the-clock surveillance of a bridge where numerous victims' bodies had been dumped, heard a splash that suggested something had been thrown into the river from a great height. They then spotted Williams' vehicle exiting the bridge. Given it was 2am, they stopped him and asked his reason for being out.
Williams, a burgeoning pop music producer and artist manager, claimed he was driving out of town ahead of an audition the next day for a young singer named Cheryl Johnson. Neither the phone number he gave police nor Johnson herself turned out to be real.
The next day, a body was discovered in the river. Williams denied any involvement, but failed three separate polygraph tests. Co-workers later reported he turned up to work around the time of these murders with scratches on his face and arms. Police matched carpet fibres from his house to the body of another victim, and Williams was charged with two counts of murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Williams maintains his innocence in both the murders he was charged with, and the series of child killings that rocked Atlanta over the three-year period, for which he remains the main suspect, despite never being charged.
He claims evidence the Ku Klux Klan were involved in the killings was covered up by officials to prevent a potential race war in the city, and that the carpet fibres tested in 1982 would not hold up to more advanced testing. Noted author James Baldwin questioned the verdict in his groundbreaking 1985 essay "The Evidence Of Things Not Seen", and many relatives of victims have commented that the wrong man was blamed for the murders of their loved ones, preventing further investigations.
Three requests for retrial have been rejected over the years, but this March, Atlanta major Keisha Lance Bottoms ordered police to reopen the murder cases.
Forensic technology has moved on significantly over the past 37 years, and if Williams is innocent, such advancements may prove there was a severe miscarriage of justice.
Mindhunter will no doubt draw extra attention to the case, a welcome situation for Williams, as well as the families of victims who have felt no sense of closure.
Season two of Mindhunter is out today at 5pm AEST on Netflix.