Damon Herriman portrays Charles Manson in Netflix’ Mindhunter.
In 1971, I had staring contest with Charles Manson.
In 1971, I had staring contest with Charles Manson. More about that later.
September 22, 2019 will be my 50th anniversary of being a professional investigator (both as a federal agent and a private investigator). On that September day in 1969, I raised my right hand at the Department of Justice and swore to uphold the constitution and the laws of the land.
Nothing can really prepare one for this type of ride in life.
I have often written and lectured about serial killers, intuition, Hollywood investigations, Hannibal types, criminals hiding in plain sight and the art of the interview and interrogation process. I believe this latter technique is the single most important crime solving skill-set for any investigator. It is essential to the critical thinking process of high-end, sophisticated investigations.
During my time as a federal agent, I was fortunate to master this investigative tool. I actually really enjoyed it, and hence I got pretty good at it… so much so, that I was selected to teach this subject matter to the law enforcement community at the federal academies of the Departments of Justice & Treasury.
That also led to being selected and trained as a profiler.
Mindhunter mostly gets it right. The show exceeded all of my expectations.
It was never in my mindset that I would someday write positively about a movie or a television show that accurately depicts the nuanced art and skill of interview and interrogation. Most Hollywood depictions of interrogations don’t ever come remotely close to the real thing. However, Netflix’ Mindhunter mostly gets it right. The show exceeded all of my expectations.
Mindhunter follows federal agents Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and psychologist Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) as they interview imprisoned serial killers, with the goal of penetrating their psyche to understand how they think. Once obtained, they hope to use this knowledge to solve future cases.
The show is largely based on the real-life events of agents John E. Douglas, Robert K. Ressler, and Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess forming the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Unit. (I never had the opportunity to meet the real-life agents or Dr. Burgess when I was a federal agent, or since.)
Simply stated, the dialogue and acting is phenomenal. You have a ring-side seat into how the world of interview and interrogation works. It is like a boxing match with both sides sparring with verbal tenacity. To me, the most striking element they captured is how the killers play and toy with the agents. The show is truly a psychological thriller, as both sides of the table try to figure out how “crazy” the other side is.
Another highlight for me was how actor Cameron Britton portrays serial killer Edmund Kemper III. Britton is phenomenal and had me spell-bound. His demeanor was very representative of some subjects I have interviewed in my career. Kemper’s reign of terror began at age 10 with the killing of the family cat. He then killed his paternal grandparents at the age of 15. He served six years in a mental ward of a state hospital. At age 21 he was released. He ended up killing his own mother and multiple female hitchhikers.
Season 2 began a few weeks ago. Damon Herriman portrays Charles Manson in episode 5. That brought back some memories.
As a young agent, I was stationed in Los Angeles during the Manson trial. In January of 1971, I was in the courtroom, watching a very confident prosecutor named Vincent Bugliosi. He was unflappable.
At one point during a break, Manson turned around and looked at those of us gathered in the courtroom. I actually locked eyes with Manson. It was chilling. I will never know what he was thinking but he appeared to want to stare me down. I was able to keep my glare for about ten seconds before I looked away. The guy was pure evil.
That same year in April, I was at the courthouse for the penalty phase / sentencing. This time I was in back of the courtroom and observed Manson from afar. I didn’t lock eyes with him this time, but I wasn’t really eager to do that again.
If you have ever thought about becoming a federal agent and what it would be like to match wits with the lowest circle of the criminal element, watch and listen closely to the dialogue in Mindhunter. It is very realistic, caustic and mesmerizing.
Even the top echelons of federal agents (who think they are unsurpassed with their own personal interview and interrogation skills) can sometimes get a lesson by a class-one criminal. In Mindhunter, this happens to agents Tench and Ford. I have been there and experienced the same. All you can do is dust yourself off, move on and try to understand the lesson you learned the hard way.