The Truth About Robert Ressler's Serial Killer Interviews

Netflix's "Mindhunter" is based on the book "Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit" written by John E. Douglas, who was the inspiration for the character Holden Ford in the series. In the show, Ford works together with Bill Tench to interview serial killers for profiling. Tench's character was also based on a real FBI agent — Robert Ressler.

As a child, Ressler was always interested in solving cases. In 1946, the identity of the Lipstick Killer was a mystery, and a 9-year-old Ressler formed a detective group with his friends to try and solve the case, per Crime Traveller. After graduating from Michigan State University, Ressler joined the U.S. Army and one of his roles was a Criminal Investigation Supervisor, and when he left the Army, he joined the FBI in 1970. It was around that time that Ressler, together with Douglas, conducted a series of interviews with notorious serial killers to learn more about their psychology, including the motivations behind their crimes and their personal background.

The start of criminal profiling

When Ressler joined the FBI, profiling and the psychology of criminals weren't used in investigations. Instead, detectives relied on concrete pieces of evidence to solve cases. Still, Ressler believed that criminal profiling would be a big help, especially in cases that involved serial killers (via Crime Traveller). Ressler supervised a team in the Behavioral Science Unit in the 1970s, and it was at that time when he conducted serial killer interviews.

Ressler interviewed 36 murderers and violent offenders, some of which include Ed Kemper, John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ted Bundy, just to name a few. The insights that he gained over the years allowed him to help develop the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (Vi-CAP), which is a database that allows investigators to distinguish patterns in homicides, as reported by Refinery 29. According to Ressler, he was in awe of serial killers and the interviews allowed him and his colleagues to help catch future offenders. "I am somewhat in awe of their ability to get away with their crimes for so long. It becomes a challenge for me, and people like me, to stop that cycle. You're not really admiring them as much as you are in awe that they are able to commit these crimes in sequence over a period of time," he stated in an interview via Sci-Fi Online.

Robert Ressler's insights on serial killers

Robert Ressler has written a number of books about criminal psychology and profiling. His work has inspired crime authors as well as TV shows such as "Profiler" and "The X-Files." With years of conversing with serial killers, Ressler realized that there is no perfect profile of a serial killer. "They say there are no stupid questions. But that is, 'What is a serial killer like? It's like saying what is a journalist like or what is a policeman like or what is a minister like." he said in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer interview.

Ressler also mentioned that real-life serial killers are not like they are portrayed in entertainment, such as Hannibal Lecter. Rather, they are "very much like ourselves," he said during a lecture, as reported by Greensboro. On that note, he recalled what Charles Manson told him during an interview: "Look Mr. Ressler. If you look deeply into my mind, you're going to see your own reflection."

Robert Ressler retired from the FBI in 1990, but still consulted on some cases afterward. He died in 2013, but his legacy remains. Today, criminal profiling and forensic psychology are big parts of investigations, and the practice has helped solve numerous crimes.