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10 Episodes of Criminal Minds and the Real Murders they were Based Off Of

Updated on September 24, 2015

As people, we are often enthralled by the notion of unexplainable evil and the "criminal mind". For this reason, shows like Criminal Minds, CSI, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit draw a large viewer-ship and are a subject of discussion in college psychology classes. There is something fascinating about observing the workings of an evil psyche and watching the police outwit the "unknown suspect". While these shows are not entirely accurate in their portrayal of the job itself, it is a little known fact that many of the most disturbing episodes are based off of true crimes that shook the country at one time or another. In fact, Criminal Minds has pulled inspiration from some of the most prolific serial killers, from the Zodiac Killer to the Manson family.

10 "The Thirteenth Step" / Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate

"The Thirteenth Step" deals with the crime spree of a young newly wed couple. Both partners have traumatizing pasts that have lead them to become alcoholics. In an effort to repair their lives, they both attend AA. The episode itself centers around their difficulty completing the thirteenth step: Take responsibility [Link 1]. Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate were a couple who went on a killing spree in the late 50s, murdering eleven people across Nebraska and Wyoming. Displeased with their parents' disapproval of their relationship, the two went on a road trip, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake [Link 2]. Some striking similarities between Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate and the couple in "The Thirteenth Step" is that both began their killing sprees in a gas station. Both were lower class and driven by anger that lacked any real intelligence. Their victims had no consistency, with varying ages, genders, social classes and relationships to their killers. In addition to this, both altercations ended with the male serial killer trying to hold a victim at gun point before attempting to flee in a get-away car only to end up surrendering to police [Link 3].

9 "The Big Wheel" / William Heirens "The Lipstick Killer"

"The Big Wheel" centered around the enraged murders of an awkward man with severe OCD. Suffering from a troublesome past, in which he both witnessed and filmed his abusive father stabbing his mother to death, the "unsub" grew up with a compulsion to kill by stabbing as well. Filled with anger, he murdered multiple women [Link 4]. While there are many differences between "The Big Wheel" and the murders committed by "The Lipstick Killer" William Heirens, there are also a number of striking similarities as well, the most obvious being a message the killer left on one of the walls of his victim's home. Written in lipstick, it read: "For Heaven's sake, catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself." This concept of a murderous man who wanted help was a theme that held up in both cases. Each of these killers had a taste for female victims and killed them by a method of stabbing repeatedly [Link 5]. The unsub in "The Big Wheel", much like William Heirens, had extensive knowledge of electrical engineering, and both kidnapped children, though for different purposes. While Criminal Minds' unsub died a quiet death while showing remorse for what he had done, William Heirens showed no remorse and stood by his innocence until the day he died in prison at the age of 83 [Link 6].

8 "Omnivore" George Foyet / "The Zodiac Killer"

The Criminal Minds episode titled "Omnivore" first introduced a serial killer named "The Reaper", who made a pact to stop killing in return for the police stopping their pursuit of him. Once the officer died, The Reaper re-emerged to continue where he had left off, brutally murdering a married couple and tormenting the authorities with cryptic messages. At every murder scene, he left a momentum from his previous murder to prove that it was him and not a copycat killer [Link 7]. Much like "The Reaper", the still un-named man who called himself "The Zodiac Killer" tormented citizens of the Bay Area for years, shooting and stabbing seemingly random people. Many characteristics of his crimes share striking similarities with the three episodes The Reaper starred in. Both prolific killers enjoyed reaching out to the authorities with coded messages explaining their motives. Although the FBI never got involved in the real Zodiac case, the Behavioral Analysis Unit did consult with local authorities [Link 8]. Similarly to "The Zodiac Killer", The Reaper also murdered randomly, alternating between stabbing and shooting his victims. Both killers became enraged by the police's improper portrayal/acknowledgement of their murders and sent proof of their killings. These mirror killers were highly intelligent, managing to evade the police while leaving a trademarked symbol at the scenes of their crimes [Link 9].

7 "Our Darkest Hour" / Richard Ramirez "The Night Stalker"

"Our Darkest Hour" dealt with a transient and uneducated serial killer who hunted down, raped and killed women with children in the Los Angeles area. Given the name "Prince of Darkness" by the media, he did all of his killings in the dead of night. Suffering from a traumatic past, the Prince of Darkness had a hate complex that lead him to force children to watch their mothers die [Link 10]. Similarly dubbed "The Night Stalker", Richard Ramirez also hunted in southern California, killing at least thirteen unsuspecting victims; however, murder was not his only crime. Much like the Prince of Darkness, Ramirez also attempted to murder, raped and burglarized multiple other victims prior to getting caught after the authorities apprehended his only mode of transportation [Link 11]. Both killers used drugs, operated in the dead of night, and raped female victims--sometimes more than once. Another similarity between these two murderers was their mercy towards children. Each killed a woman while leaving a lone survivor handcuffed in the closet nearby, after forcing him to watch his mother's murder. Additionally, both were caught by a mob of angry citizens who were fed up with the murderers' killing sprees after attempting to steal a car [Link 12].

6 "To Hell and Back" / Robert Pickton

Actually divided into two separate episodes titled "To Hell…" "…And Back", this story covers the sadistic murders of a sibling team on a secluded farm in Canada. The case began with a disgruntled family member of one of the victims intentionally turning himself in for ten murders he did not commit in an attempt to attract the FBI's attention to a case that had previously received none. All of the victims were transients who nobody seemed to notice had gone missing. This lead police to the real killers: Two brothers who had been butchering homeless people and feeding them to pigs [Link 13]. Much like the episodes before it, this episode shared notable similarities with the all-too-real case of Robert Pickton, a pig farmer who was convicted of six murders, but killed more than thirty. As with the fictitious criminal, Pickton preyed on a largely transient community of homeless people, prostitutes and drug users [Link 14], snatching his victims both in Canada and across the border in the United States. This case was also slow to gain attention as the police often blamed the disappearances and subsequent bodies on angry pimps. Pickton's victims died gruesome deaths, being hacked up, stored in freezers, shredded by a wood chipper and--often--fed to pigs, as in Criminal Minds. Proof of the murders were taken from what little DNA evidence could be recovered, as well as ID cards, clothes and teeth that were kept by Pickton himself. In "To Hell…" "…And Back", the murderer kept shoes, a similarity that was--no doubt--intentional, along with all of the other disturbing likenesses. [Link 15].

5 "The Tribe" / The Manson Family

"The Tribe" is an episode that centers around the serial murders of a cult that called themselves "The Apaches". Comprised of non-Native Americans, this group of brainwashed followers killed under their leader, who went by the name of "The Grandfather". The case began in New Mexico when a vacant house was discovered to hold the bodies of multiple American teenagers, skinned and impaled using common Native American tribal rituals [Link 16]. The Manson Family, like The Apaches, was an iconic cult that preyed on the innocent, under false implications of a racial war, in hopes of stirring up trouble between the two different races. The Apaches staged murders of young American college students to look like they were committed by Native Americans, while The Manson Family murdered rich white folks and tried to implicate blacks in their murders. Similarly, the Manson Family's followers were drug using hippies who were prone to follow others, while those who followed The Grandfather were also quite impressionable. Finally, another striking similitude was Charles Manson's eventual demise, which was similarly met when one of his followers bragged about the crimes he had committed under the teaching of Manson himself [Link 17].

4 "Damaged" / Edmund Kemper

"Damaged" is an episode of Criminal Minds in which Agent Rossi re-addresses an old case that he had been personally working for over a decade. The case dealt with three children who had walked into their parents' room to find them dead in their bed. While the serial killer who mirrors Edmund Kemper does not turn out to be the guilty party in the cold case investigation, Dr. Spencer Reid and Agent Morgan meet with him in a prison [Link 18]. Edmund Kemper is a very real serial killer who has been sensationalized by the media. Although he is not a demonic monster, he does possess all ten of the indicators of a serial killer, such as brutalizing animals and fantasies of rape. This total disregard for life, no matter how small, is a trait that is shared by both Edmund Kemper and his Criminal Minds mirror killer [Link 19]. Not only that though, both men were marked by traumatic childhoods that left them angry and bitter towards their mothers, and both men liked to rape college students for not real reason other than that this is what they thought of when they saw them. While Edmund Kemper is not quite as "demonic" as some works make him out to be, he certainly does walk on the path of the truly disturbing [Link 20].

3 "Unfinished Business" / "BTK Killer"

"Unfinished Business" looks into the workings of a prolific serial killer called "The Keystone Killer" who stopped taking victims for nearly a decade before starting up where he left off. One of the key traits that marked this unsub was his communication with the authorities but, more specifically, his communication with the police officer who had been tracking him and writing about him over the years [Link 21]. The BTK Killer, later known as Denis Rader, shared in the Keystone Killer's love of portraying his crimes to the police. In fact, he choose his name as a self-reference to his preferences to bind, torture and kill his victims. Rader struggled to properly strangle his first victim, much like the unsub, because he was new to it. Strangulation was a huge part of both killers' fantasies/motus operandi [Link 22]. Both of these men had periods of dormancy before returning to kill again, starting up by making contact with the police over a crime they had not yet caught and properly linked. Following a period of stagnation, both of these killers messed up, leading to their own convictions. Neither showed remorse for his actions [Link 23].

2 "Natural Born Killer" / Richard Kuklinski

"Natural Born Killer" detailed a turf war between organized crime/the mafia and the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit. After a married couple was found brutally murdered in their home and another person went missing, the BAU began investigating the disappearance. They discovered that the victim had involvement in the mafia, which lead them to the unsub: A "natural born killer" who lead the mafia and had killed over 100 people in his lifetime [Link 24]. Richard Kuklinski, much like the unsub in Criminal Minds, also had ties to the mafia. As a child, he suffered at the hands of an abusive father and a strict mother. As a result, Kuklinski learned to torture animals as a way of feeling powerful. By his teen years, he had already killed the head of a gang who had been picking on him, gaining himself notoriety for his short fuse [Link 25]. Kuklinski, like the unsub, had no special preference for weapons; he used whatever "felt right" or was handy at the time to violently murder his victims. In addition to this, Kuklinski also murdered more than 100 people throughout his younger years, prior to being caught and imprisoned. Over 300 pounds, at 6 foot 3, Kuklinski was certainly a frightening man with unimaginable strength and a killer instinct, which earned him plenty of prison time [Link 26].

1 "Blood Hungry" / Richard Trenton Chase

"Blood Hungry" dealt with a serial killer suffering from psychosis. After two seemingly unrelated murders occurred in the same town, the BAU was called onto the scene to investigate and hopefully link the two murders. One of the witnesses they interviewed was a young boy who had been taking singing lessons from one of the victims prior to her death. Soon after, the same boy disappeared. Evidence at the crime scenes lead the BAU to believe that the unsub was harvesting organs to keep in jars and, perhaps, consuming them [Link 27]. Of all of the previous episode-to-case relations, this one seems to hold the most similarities with a man named Richard Trenton Chase. From a young age, Chase suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, which caused him to believe that his heart was gradually shrinking and blood was required to fix the problem--just like the BAU's unsub. And Chase, like the unsub, was willing to get the blood at any cost. Beginning by killing and consuming animals, Chase was sent to a mental institution for a number of years before being released into his mother's care, also like the unsub. Following his release, Chase murdered multiple people, including a small child--mirror to the one in "Blood Hungry"--whom he abducted from an aunt's home in California [Link 28]. Chase even shared the unsub's psychotic thirst for blood, as well as his consumption of human organs, earning him the title of "The Vampire of Sacremento". A deeply disturbed man, Chase would up dying after overdosing on anti-depressants [Link 29].

There are a lot of popular crime shows on TV nowadays. What's your favorite and why do you like it?


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