Warning: Major spoilers for Mindhunter Season 2 lie ahead.
Netflix delivered a triumphant and terrifying Season 2 of Mindhunter this past weekend, but how much of that “based on a true story” actually happened?
The Behavioral Science Unit of the FBI, responsible for profiling many of the country’s most infamous criminals, was a real organization — and an important one at that. The BSU served as the basis for the Bureau’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, a current department under the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, and established many of the criminal profiling tactics still in use today.
Series leads Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) and Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) are based on real-life FBI investigators John E. Douglas and Robert Ressler — and Professor Wendy Carr (Anna Torv) is inspired by Dr. Ann Wolbert Burgess. Much of Mindhunter is based on the trio’s true accounts of working in the BSU, with the primary focus put on Douglas’s book of the same name, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit.
In Season 2, Mindhunter dives further into its source material, exploring the psychological profiles of killers like David Berkowitz, Wayne Williams, and Dennis Rader. So what’s fact and what’s fiction?
Here’s a rundown on the very real criminals depicted on this season of Mindhunter.
David Berkowitz (aka The Son of Sam)
The self-proclaimed Son of Sam, David Berkowitz is one of the more recognizable murderers portrayed on Mindhunter — and broadly speaking, the show gets his story right.
Berkowitz committed the six killings described in episode 2, as well as admitted that his alleged “the dog made me do it” motive was a hoax, specifically in an interview with Ford’s real-life counterpart John Douglas.
In addition, the series’ brief mention of a legal battle between Berkowitz and his former attorney is a reference to controversial Son of Sam legislation, an umbrella term used to describe laws that prohibit criminals from profiting off of their wrongdoing by selling their stories.
That being said, Mindhunter veers towards fiction when it comes to Berkowitz’s pseudo-consultation on the B.T.K. case. As far as we can tell, authorities never asked for Berkowitz’s insights on the infamous Kansas murders, much less handed him copies of evidence. While B.T.K. was mentioned to Berkowitz in an interview, Mindhunter’s implication that he was asked to form an opinion on that case seems far-fetched.
Berkowitz is currently serving six life sentences at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in New York. He has been turned down for parole numerous times. He can apply again in May 2020.
David Berkowitz’s police mug shot.
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
William Henry Hance
In episode 3, viewers are introduced to William Henry Hance, a serial killer and former soldier who murdered at least three women in Georgia from 1977 to 1978. In this true-to-life case, FBI profilers actually did play a critical role in identifying the killer, helping narrow down the suspect pool substantially.
Mindhunter is spot-on when it portrays Hance’s circular logic and delusional thinking, at least according to court records. What it doesn’t capture is the larger importance of his case. While Hance was undoubtedly responsible for the killings, his ability to stand trial was questioned by many who pointed out his apparent psychological and mental instability.
Ultimately, these concerns were ignored and Hance died in the electric chair on March 31, 1994. Discussions of racial bias in sentencing regularly include Hance’s execution, with his former defense attorney Gary Parker calling the event “first cousin to a lynching” in the New York Times.
William “Junior” Pierce
Also in episode 3, Mindhunter introduces spree killer and rapist William “Junior” Pierce, responsible for the deaths of nine people between 1970 and 1971 in the southeast.
Pierce isn’t particularly well-known among the true crime community, and the reasoning behind his inclusion isn’t entirely clear. But his Mindhunter characterization — a racist jerk with an affinity for junk food — is correct by most accounts.
However, the context in which Pierce is presented seems mostly (if not entirely) fabricated for narrative effect. Pierce does not appear to ever officially have been interviewed by anyone from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, which seems fair — even in the world of serial killers, Pierce’s accounts of his crimes are particularly confusing and contradictory.
Pierce is serving a life sentence at Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison.
William “Junior” Pierce awaiting trial, October 1971.
Image: Bettmann Archive
Elmer Wayne Henley, Jr.
Episode 4 presents Elmer Wayne Henley Jr. — the would-be victim turned accomplice of torturer, rapist, and murderer Dean Corll (aka “The Candy Man”). Henley’s hesitation to participate in BSU’s study, as shown in the series, reveals a number of important true-to-life details.
Henley’s relationship to Corll was of keen interest to authorities, but an extremely touchy subject for Henley. Henley has long said that his participation in the Houston Mass Murders was the result of Corll’s immense influence over him, noting that he was just 14 years old when they met. To this day, Henley maintains that his decision to shoot and kill Corll in 1973 was made in self-defense.
But many consider that an insufficient explanation as to why Henley agreed to aid Corll in the murders of roughly 28 young men between 1972 and 1973.
Henley is serving six consecutive terms of 99 years in the Mark W. Michael Unit in eastern Texas. He is eligible to apply for parole again in October 2025. His previous applications have been denied.
Elmer Wayne Henley, 17, and David Brooks, 18, lead police to the bodies of their victims.
Image: getty images
The Manson Family
Months before Mindhunter Season 2 received a release date, rumors of a Charles Manson appearance materialized online. Episode 5 finally delivered the highly hyped story, but in arguably too tidy of a package.
While Manson remains one of the U.S.’ most notorious criminals, misconceptions surrounding him and his followers are far-reaching. Mindhunter does its best to debunk some of those myths, but allocates only part of one episode to the complex story. Shoehorning in numerous real photos of the Family’s brutal crime scenes, a visit to famed follower and spree killer Tex Watson, and Manson’s infamous one-liner — “Each night as you sleep, I destroy the world”— Mindhunter delivers a largely authentic but hyper-condensed version of Manson’s mayhem.
Still, the series does explore one detail of Manson’s incarceration rarely touched on by other accounts: his apparent beef with Edmund Kemper aka “The Co-ed Killer.” It is true that both Kemper and Manson were held at California Medical Facility from 1975 to 1984, and while no tension between the pair was specifically reported, Manson did struggle to avoid altercations with other inmates.
Most notably, Manson’s move to San Quentin State Prison in 1985 was prompted by a dispute with another inmate who covered Manson in paint thinner and then set him on fire. Manson suffered burns over roughly 18 percent of his body.
In 2017, Manson died of colon cancer at Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield, California. Watson remains incarcerated at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, most recently having been denied parole in October 2016.
Charles Manson entering the Santa Monica Courthouse to appear in court for a hearing, 1970.
Image: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Paul Bateson’s brief appearance on Mindhunter is a generally accurate representation of the murderer — frustrating, slippery, and bizarrely related to The Exorcist.
Bateson did serve 24 years for the murder of Variety journalist Addison Verill in September 1977 — a crime he admitted to and later detailed for reporters and police — but his connection to the unsolved murders of six gay men in New York City from 1977 to 1978 remains unconfirmed.
Bateson is still the only suspect in the so-called Bag Murders, but as of 2019 cannot be found. Released from the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility in Staten Island in August 2003, Bateson completed his five years parole, and then disappeared. He was last rumored to be living somewhere in the Adirondacks, although many believe he has died.
As for that whole Exorcist thing, Bateson was in fact an extra in the classic horror film, playing a radiographer in this scene.
Dennis Rader (aka B.T.K.)
Throughout Season 2, Mindhunter continues to portray serial killer Dennis Rader as an ominous shadow, illuminating little about his crimes and motives. Considering the timeline of Rader’s killings and capture, this portrayal is a frustratingly accurate one.
Rader murdered numerous victims before 1977, when Season 2 takes place, and continuously taunted police and press with letters describing his crimes in detail. This sadistic game of cat-and-mouse went on until 2005, when Rader was finally caught by local officials. He killed 10 people.
Since the introduction of Rader in Season 1, Mindhunter‘s true crime fanbase has speculated as to how the series will wrap up his storyline. Should they remain true to the timeline set forth thus far, it is likely Tench and Ford would have long retired from the BSU before Rader’s capture.
Rader is serving ten consecutive life sentences at El Dorado Correctional Facility in Butler County, Kansas. He is ineligible for parole.
Dennis Rader in court on the first day of his sentencing at the Sedgwick County Courthouse, August 17, 2005.
Image: Bo RADER/AFP/Getty Images
Wayne Williams and the Atlanta child murders
Mindhunter‘s portrayal of the Atlanta child murders is correct — but it is also mired in old-school politics and current case-related complications.
As Mindhunter points out, Wayne Williams was tried and convicted for the murder of two adult men in 1982, but is also thought to be responsible for a number of disappearances involving young black children in Atlanta from 1979 to 1981.
Upwards of 30 missing persons cases fitting Williams’ alleged MO within that time period remain unsolved. Williams was never tried for any of those crimes — with authorities citing a lack of physical evidence and Williams’ ongoing murder trials among reasons they did not pursue additional charges. No other potential suspects in those 30+ cases were publicly identified, despite many believing Williams was responsible for some, but not all of the disappearances.
By many accounts, the apparent lack of justice was the result of city officials hoping to put the high-profile case behind them and focus on ongoing city projects, like the construction of the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Mothers of the victims — including Camille Bell, Willie Mae Mathis, and Venus Taylor, all depicted in the series — protested the city’s decision and continued to seek answers for their missing children in the years following Williams’ arrest.
In March 2019, Atlanta police officials finally agreed to reexamine the case. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, series lead Holt McCallany remarked, “They’re re-opening the investigation after all this time because no one believes that Wayne Williams murdered all those kids. Nobody.”
Wayne Williams continues to serve his life sentence for the two adult murders at Telfair State Prison in southern Georgia, and maintains he did not commit any of the unsolved juvenile murders. It is unclear how case developments might affect his future.
Wayne Williams in the back of his car en route to court trial in 1982.
Image: Bettmann Archive
The murder of Noah Alba
Although the story of Brian Tench isn’t explicitly based on any one crime, the tale told in Mindhunter bears a striking resemblance to the abduction and murder of 20-month-old Noah Alba — also known as the Crucifixion Murder.
As told in a PBS Frontline report (resurfaced by Mindhunter fans following Season 2), two unnamed boys, ages 7 and 10, found Alba wandering alone in Alta Plaza Park in San Francisco around 2PM on April 14, 1971. After looking for Alba’s mother unsuccessfully, the boys took the toddler to a nearby hiding place under a house. When Alba began to cry, the boys beat him to death before tying his body to a makeshift wooden cross.
The boys ultimately admitted to the murder, leading authorities to Alba’s body a few days after his death. At first, the pair claimed that a brick had fallen on Alba’s head, but later told police about the attack. The boys explained the cross as both a means of keeping Alba from escaping, and a half-hearted attempt to resurrect him after he’d died.
Mindhunter fans have long speculated that the fictitious Brian Tench will grow up to a be a serial or spree killer. In that regard, it should be noted that neither boy in the Alba case has been officially tied to another murder — although PBS Frontline reports one has a documented history of abusing children. Additionally, this crime was not related to the real-life inspiration for Bill Tench, Agent Robert Ressler, or anyone else in his family.
Mindhunter Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.