Todd Kohlhepp & Other Killers Reveal Secrets To 'Mindhunter' Profiler John Douglas

Convicted serial killer Todd Kohlhepp opened up to John Douglas and told him, “I should have killed Kala.”

May 07, 2019

Photo by: John Douglas [Matt Jerndal/Oddbox Studios/Courtesy HarperCollins]

John Douglas [Matt Jerndal/Oddbox Studios/Courtesy HarperCollins]

By: Catherine Townsend

Even if you've never heard of John Douglas, you know who John Douglas is. He’s the former FBI special agent and criminal profiler who ate an egg salad sandwich with serial killer Ed Kemper, talked to Ted Bundy about tracking down the Green River Killer, and was the inspiration for the Netflix series Mindhunter and the Will Graham character in Silence of the Lambs.

In his new book, The Killer Across The Table: Unlocking the Secrets Of Serial Killers And Predators With The FBI’s Original Mindhunter, John Douglas delves deep into the crimes of four of the most disturbing and complex predatory killers he has ever interviewed.

Photo by: Killer Across the Table cover art [HarperCollins]

Killer Across the Table cover art [HarperCollins]

Along the way, Douglas shares strategies that he has used to crack some of the country’s most complex cases, and to train federal agents and investigators around the world.

One of his subjects was Todd Kohlhepp, the South Carolina serial killer who was arrested after a 30-year-old woman was found locked in a shipping container on his property. Douglas told CrimeFeed that Kohlhepp was “really different than the others.”

“He was very articulate and smart, and introspective,” Douglas said. Kohlhepp’s childhood, Douglas said, was the “perfect storm of abuse and neglect” that helped mold the budding psychopath. “He had a mother who didn’t want him, so she sent him to live with his biological father in Arizona, who was not really home. So you have the mother who didn’t really want him, the father who abandoned him, and on top of that there was physical abuse by his grandfather.”

When Kohlhepp was 15, he lured a 14-year-old neighbor to his home and raped her at gunpoint. Douglas is convinced that this conviction, which resulted in Kohlhepp being sent to adult prison, was the turning point in his life. “He never should have ended up at adult prison,” Douglas said.

He added that Kohlhepp did not admit that he had been sexually abused in the prison as a teenager when Douglas posed the question — but says that in that environment, he strongly suspects that this was a possibility.

John Douglas being filmed for the upcoming Investigation Discovery special Serial Killer: The Devil Unchained as he searches for bodies Todd Kohlhepp claims he buried.

Photo by: John E. Douglas, Jr. [Courtesy HarperCollins]

John E. Douglas, Jr. [Courtesy HarperCollins]

John Douglas being filmed for the upcoming Investigation Discovery special Serial Killer: The Devil Unchained as he searches for bodies Todd Kohlhepp claims he buried.

On the outside, Kohlhepp appeared to create a successful life post-prison. He married, and built a successful career. “He came back to South Carolina, picked up two college degrees, picked up a real estate license, and was very successful,” Douglas said.

And his mask of normalcy and sanity was so convincing that, following the Superbike murders, police did not investigate Kohlhepp. Instead, Douglas said, they focused on a disgruntled employee whom they believed was behaving strangely. While police were focused on the wrong suspect, Kohlhepp would go on to kill again.

And Douglas believes that there may well be more victims out there. “I’m positive that there are more victims out there. He was telling us about his plans to meet other guys at the Mexican border to hunt women.”

Douglas told CrimeFeed that his interest in behavioral profiling dates back to the time when, as a new FBI agent, he was a street agent in Detroit during the 1970s. Back then, Detroit was racking up to five bank robberies per day. Douglas began focusing on what made criminals target certain banks: Why this particular bank? Did they target certain tellers? Did they surveil the banks first? By talking to the suspects — sometimes while they were in handuffs in the back of a squad car — Douglas found that he was able to help predict which banks would be hit next.

Later, when he began seriously delving into the science of catching criminals, he found himself at Quantico “sitting with the old timers with the mindset of Hoover’s FBI.”

Robert Ressler (left) and John Douglas (right) interview Edmund Kemper at the California State Medical Facility at Vacaville.

Photo by: Robert Ressler, Edmund Kemper, John Douglas [FBI/HarperCollins]

Robert Ressler, Edmund Kemper, John Douglas [FBI/HarperCollins]

Robert Ressler (left) and John Douglas (right) interview Edmund Kemper at the California State Medical Facility at Vacaville.

“There was the fear factor, because behavioral science was thought of as touchy-feely stuff,” he said. “Back then, the FBI was all Dragnet — ‘just the facts, ma’am’ style.” That’s when Douglas and his colleague Robert Ressler started doing the “road shows.” This involved traveling around the county to various police departments, which was dramatically depicted in the Mindhunter series.

With the help of forensic nurse Dr. Ann Burgess of Boston College, they developed a protocol and started interviewing serial killers. Douglas explained that over time, he learned to tailor his approach based on the personality of the person being interviewed. Going deep into each man’s life and crimes, he outlines the factors that led them to murder and how he used his interrogation skills to expose their means, motives, and true evil.

Douglas said that he largely learned on the job – from his very first interview with “Coed Killer” Ed Kemper that is documented in Mindhunter. Kemper casually discussed how he ended his killing spree by bludgeoned his mother to death with a claw hammer, decapitating her, raping her headless corpse, and then putting her larynx into the garbage disposal.

His interview technique is the “opposite of an interrogation,” Douglas writes, because the interviewers are not trying to solve the mystery of who committed the crime — instead, it’s a “whydunit.”

So he allowed Charles Manson, who stood just five two, to climb up on the back of a chair to a “superior” position during his interview “just as he used to sit on top of a boulder to preach to his ‘family’ of followers,” Douglas wrote.

He said that Manson was not a master criminal, but a master manipulator. “He didn’t fantasize about torture or murder like so many of the offenders I’ve confronted. He fantasized about being rich and famous and a rock star and even managed to hang out with the Beach Boys for a while.”

He learned that, with assassin types like Arthur Bremer — who targeted Richard Nixon before shooting Alabama presidential candidate George Wallace, leaving him paraplegic — it was best “not to stare for long as it made them too uncomfortable to open up.”

“Once you incorporate things like victimology and forensics, you have a basic equation when tracking down an UNSUB: ‘Why’ plus ‘how’ equals ‘who’?” Douglas said. “So reversing that equation, if you already know the ‘who’ and ‘how,’ you can figure out the ‘why.’”

Photo by: Mug shot of Joseph McGowan [New Jersey Department of Corrections/HarperCollins]

Mug shot of Joseph McGowan [New Jersey Department of Corrections/HarperCollins]

In the book, Douglas also details his talks with Joseph McGowan, the former high school science teacher who raped and murdered seven-year-old Joan D’Allessandro after she came to deliver Girl Scout cookies to his house in 1973. The murder prompted the passage of Joan's Law, signed by Governor Christie Whitman in 1997 and by President Clinton in 1998.

Over the years, McGowan was interviewed multiple times by prison psychologists. By all accounts, he was a model prisoner. But when Douglas interviewed him, he said that he described the sexual assault and murder of Joan “like having a friend talk about a terrific movie he’s seen... There was never one bit of remorse as he tells me what he does to her."

Douglas also interviewed Joseph Kondro, the child rapist and murderer who targeted the children of people he knew — and who considered him a friend. In interviews with police, Kondro described how he got close to the mothers of the girls he murdered and compared himself to “an alligator who stays on the bottom of the pond until he gets hungry.”

In contrast to rage killings, Douglas described how Kondro was able to plan the attacks and remain totally detached throughout even though he knew and liked the victims and their families.

Douglas also chatted to Donald Harvey, a mild-mannered nurse from Ohio who may be the most prolific serial killer in American history. Harvey targeted men and women in hospitals who could not resist or fight back, which earned him the moniker “Angel of Death.”

Photo by: Mug shot of Donald Harvey [Ohio Department of Corrections/HarperCollins]

Mug shot of Donald Harvey [Ohio Department of Corrections/HarperCollins]

Despite the fact that Harvey initially claimed that he was committing “mercy killings,” Douglas was able to go deeper and get him to admit that he killed for personal reasons — and that he enjoyed it.

Douglas was a pioneer when it came to identifying warning signs in potential serial killers, and he tells CrimeFeed that some things have not changed. Bed wetting, torturing animals, and setting fires are still considered crucial red flags.

“The biggest predictor is animal cruelty,” Douglas said. “The FBI is finally tracking animal cruelty, and I believe that this is key.”

Most serial killers are still white males, commit their first crimes in their mid-20s, and have a prior criminal history that may include domestic violence. Many develop a preferred victim type. “David Berkowitz preferred people in cars. Ted Bundy liked young women with brown hair. [Alaska serial killer] Robert Hansen liked hunting women like animals, so he preferred prostitutes, because he believes that they would not be missed.” According to Douglas’ research, most of these crimes are intra-racial, meaning most serial killers choose victims from within their own race.

This became an issue during the Atlanta Child Murders, when Douglas said that much of local law enforcement was convinced that the killings of African-American children were hate crimes, and that the perpetrator was white.

He said that he believes that Wayne Williams killed many of the children, but that in his opinion, the mystery of all of the murders has not been solved. “There are two girls on that list. There’s no way they should be on that list. I said to them, ‘He [Wayne Williams] is good for some of them, but not all of them.'”

Douglas hopes that his work, which he calls “a science but also an art,” will help identify potential suspects and, hopefully, stop them before they strike again.

For readers who believe they could be dealing with a potential psychopath in a personal relationship, Douglas has some practical advice: “If you want to know about the man you’re dating,” he said, “ask about his relationship with his mother.”

Douglas ends by saying that while appearing nonjudgmental in the interview has been a crucial part of his success, the killers aren’t the only ones who wear masks. “I’ve laughed with them,” he said, referring to Death Row inmates, “but if they need a volunteer, I’ll pull the switch.”

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