Re-Reading Mindhunter: John Douglas’s Peculiar Manson Family Theory

In the fifth episode of Netflix’s Mindhunter (season two), agents from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit get a long-anticipated chance to interview Charles Manson in San Quentin. They don’t learn a lot from him, because he lays down his usual scattershot faux-hippie nonsense about loving the children that America forgot, doing everything out of love, yadda yadda.

But they hit paydirt when they interview Tex Watson, the actual lead killer in the Tate-Labianca homicides. Watson tells Holden Ford (the character very loosely based on John Douglas) that Manson turned his family into killers using murder drills, “creepy crawling”, groupthink and fevered talk of a bloody apocalypse. Watson tells Ford that the directions to kill the seven Tate-Labianca victims came directly from Manson, which is the generally accepted view of what went down on those two nights in August of 1969.

Douglas developed a different theory. In real life, he didn’t interview Watson nor any of the other accused killers and accomplices (he did interview Lynette Fromme, one of Manson’s most devoted Family members). After reviewing case materials, however, Douglas decided that Manson didn’t order the murders. Rather, Watson made a daring bid to wrest control of the Family away from Manson by planning and directing the Tate murders and carrying them out without Manson’s knowledge.

Once Manson became aware of what had happened on Cielo Drive, he couldn’t bring himself to admit to anyone that Watson had been the real mastermind, so he let the world live with the illusion that he had ordered the murders. Then he orchestrated the Labianca murders to regain control of the situation.

In the book Mindhunter, Douglas posits that Watson’s choice of victims was “arbitrary”, with the Polanski-Tate residence being targeted only because one of the Manson women had once been to the house. I find this hard to swallow. Polanski was subleasing the house from Terry Melcher, and Manson had a bone to pick with Melcher – Melcher had the potential to produce his music and turn him into a star, but instead had distanced himself from the Family and failed to do anything for Manson’s career. What better way to terrify Melcher than to slaughter the occupants of his house?

There really isn’t any solid evidence to support Douglas’s interpretation of events. Watson was a strong character, but he was as fully under Manson’s spell as the women. All of the women, after they stopped cooperating with Manson, insisted that Manson commanded them to kill – as did Watson. No one involved with the Family has ever implied that Watson planned out the murders on his own.

However, the ostensible motive of launching a race war known as Helter Skelter has been called into question by at least one Family member. In her first memoir, Child of Satan, Child of God, the late Susan Atkins maintained that Manson ordered the murders not to scapegoat African-American activists like the Black Panthers, but to create murder scenes so similar to the Gary Hinman murder that authorities would realize that Hinman’s killers were still on the loose and overturn the conviction of Family associate Bobby Beausoleil. It is Atkins’s contention that Helter Skelter, while part of the Family’s belief system, was never a motive for the murders.

If Atkins was being straightforward, the plot failed on every possible level. The separate teams of detectives who worked the Tate and Labianca homicides didn’t acknowledge a connection between the two until months after the murders, and when the Mansonsites were rounded up by police on unrelated criminal charges that autumn, Beausoleil’s underage girlfriend (Kitty Lutesinger) immediately spilled Family secrets to detectives, telling them that both Bobby and Sadie (Atkins) had been at the scene of Hinman’s murder.

Mistakenly believing that Beausoleil had give her up to police, Atkins admitted she had been in Hinman’s home when he died, but pinned the  murder entirely on Bobby. So, in essence, the Family killed seven other people for absolutely no reason at all. In the end, Atkins clearly decided that Beausoleil wasn’t worth saving. He remains in prison for killing Gary Hinman.

The Manson Family’s first known victim, music teacher Gary Hinman

What was it about Manson that led Douglas to believe he wasn’t fully in command of the Family, and that Watson had tried to stage a sort of coup against him? Douglas doesn’t go into any detail about how he reached his conclusions. Based on how he has responded to other killers, including Wayne Williams, I would guess that Douglas simply didn’t believe that Manson – a short, physically unimposing man with a long prison record and little else – was capable of controlling a young, powerful former athlete like Tex Watson. Douglas believes that most (if not all) of the serial killers he has interviewed over the years were “losers”; ineffectual underachievers with low self-esteem. Manson, charismatic as he was, was just another loser. Watson, a high school track star and businessman with more traditionally attractive qualities than Manson, clearly had to be the real superstar of Spahn Ranch.

It’s a strange theory for a strange case. I see no reason to believe it. Manson may have been small and seedy, but he was persuasive. He somehow convinced Beausoleil, a free-spirited musician/actor who wasn’t even a full-fledged member of the Family, to kill Hinman for him. He persuaded Watson – a “mod” wig salesman – to drop out of society and live in a filthy commune. He talked his way into the lives and homes of Dennis Wilson and several of Wilson’s closest friends, including Melcher. All he had to do was “rap” about love, the unity of all things and total freedom from the sickness of society.

Never underestimate the power of bullshit.


Re-Reading Mindhunter: John Douglas’s Secret Theory of the Atlanta Child Murders

“The truth isn’t pleasant.”

The most mysterious passage in John Douglas’s 1995 memoir Mindhunter appears near the end of his chapter on the Atlanta child murders.

Firstly, he admits that Wayne Williams can be conclusively linked to only eleven of the roughly thirty murders of children and young men that were committed between 1979 and 1981. That’s troubling, because 24 of those cases were closed after Williams’ trial. “He did all of them,” was the general consensus of investigators and prosecutors.

Secondly, he drops this bombshell:

We have an idea who did some of the others. It isn’t a single offender and the truth isn’t pleasant.”

I have been attempting for roughly 18 years to figure out what Douglas is talking about in this passage. There are only a few credible theories about the Atlanta child murders, and Douglas rejected one of them (the white supremacist theory) earlier in the chapter. What does that leave? The organized-pedophilia theory, the theory that the boys were killed by members of their own families and the theory that Williams had an accomplice who remained hidden.

There are screwy theories, as well, such as comedian/activist Dick Gregory’s assertion that the government could be kidnapping African-American children to use as subjects in interferon experiments, or the conspiracy theory that the murders were part of a CIA operation. I doubt Douglas subscribes to any of those theories.

So what was he talking about? He does mention, early in his Atlanta chapter, that evidence in a couple of cases pointed to relatives of the missing and murdered boys. But a “couple of cases” certainly wouldn’t account for more than 20 unsolved murders. Also, if Douglas was willing to address the family issue directly, he wouldn’t be shy about embracing it as an explanation later in the same chapter.

That leaves the organized-pedophilia theory. I believe this is the theory to which Douglas is alluding.

For one thing, it would explain his cryptic comment that he believed most of the strangulation murders were linked. This is a bizarre thing to say, because  in some instances boys whose bodies were found together had been killed in dramatically different ways. For instance,  the remains of Edward Smith and Alfred Evans were both discovered in the woods off Niskey Lake Road. Evans had been strangled. Smith had been shot. Smith’s murder is still classified as unsolved.

Patrick Baltazar, an 11-year-old, was bludgeoned and strangled. 9-year-old Anthony Carter and 28-year-old John Porter were stabbed. Eric Middlebrooks, found near a motel dumpster, had been bludgeoned and stabbed – and on his shoe, police found one of the telltale green shag carpet fibers that would link him to Wayne Williams. Could Douglas be hinting that Middlebrooks wasn’t killed by Williams?

All of this suggests there could have been at least two killers: One who preferred “soft kill” strangulation, and one who preferred more brutal methods. Douglas acknowledges that “aspects of the evidence led us to believe we weren’t dealing with a single killer.”

I am hoping that some of these enigmatic passages in Mindhunter will be addressed in the Netflix series.

Update: After season two of Mindhunter premiered, Douglas was interviewed by Payne Lindsay, the producer of the Atlanta Monster podcast. They directly addressed the question of other killers, and Douglas made it clear that he believes family members were involved in some of the murders (not as a group, but on a case-by-case basis). He rejects the notion of a group motive of any kind, so that eliminates white supremacists and a well-organized pedophile group that wanted to eliminate its victims.

After all these years, mystery solved.

This still leaves the enigma of Edward Smith. Why was he and he alone, of all the victims (unofficially) linked to Williams, shot? Williams was not known to be a gun enthusiast, and nothing deadlier than a leather “slapjack” was found in the home he shared with his parents.

Re-reading Mindhunter: The Berkowitz Interview


If you’re watching season two of the Netflix series Mindhunter, you’ve seen (or are about to see) a recreation of the encounter between serial killer David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz and two agents from the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit. And if you’re like me, you’ve read John Douglas’s memoir on which the series is based several times.

The Berkowitz interview covers only a few pages in Mindhunter. When I first read it in the early 2000s, I didn’t know much about the Son of Sam murders. Now that I do, Douglas’s account is somewhat problematic.

The interview took place in Attica sometime in 1979 or 1980, a year or two after Berkowitz was sentenced for the murders of six people (he also injured seven). Douglas and Robert Ressler were eager to plumb the mind of Berkowitz because they were examining the horrific, then-unsolved murders of the UNSUB known only as “the BTK Killer.” Both BTK and Berkowitz had written long, weird, semi-literary letters to the police and the press to boast about their crimes. BTK admired many infamous serial killers, and Berkowitz was one of them. He even mentioned Son of Sam in one of his missives. Maybe Berkowitz could shed some light on this guy in Witchita.

The first thing Douglas wanted to get out of the way was the dog story. After his arrest, Berkowitz told the police that his neighbours’ black Labrador dog, Harvey, was actually an ancient demon in the form of a dog. It was the dog-demon, he said, who commanded him to buy a gun and shoot into parked cars throughout New York City from the summer of 1976 until the summer of 1977.

The police didn’t buy that story. The psychiatrist who examined Berkowitz prior to sentencing didn’t buy that story.

And John Douglas certainly didn’t buy that story. He writes in Mindhunter: “I knew that that story hadn’t actually emerged until after his arrest…So when he started spouting about the dog, I said simply, ‘Hey, David, knock off the bullshit. The dog had nothing to do with it.’ He laughed and nodded and admitted I was right.”

The story was bullshit, of course. Berkowitz is far from crazy. But there’s a very serious flaw in Douglas’s assessment of the story: It did come out before Berkowitz was arrested. In fact, his obsession with that dog – and other dogs – contributed to his arrest in a very peculiar way.

Berkowitz’s obsession with (and hatred for) dogs seemed to begin in February of 1976, about five months before he began killing. He had moved from a tiny apartment in the Bronx to quarters in the spacious Westchester County home of Jack and Nann Cassara. From the very beginning of his two-month tenancy, Berkowitz complained to the Cassaras about the barking of their German Shepherd. Then he abruptly moved out, without collecting his security deposit.

He moved to an apartment building at 35 Pine Street in Yonkers. Below him, at 316 Warburton Avenue, lived the Carr family and their dog, Harvey. The household consisted of:

  • Sam Carr, who was in his 60s and ran a telephone answering service out of the family’s large, three-story house
  • Sam’s wife, Frances
  • Their daughter Wheat, who was in her 20s. She worked as a phone operator for the Yonkers police
  • Their son Michael Carr, also in his early 20s.
  • Occasionally, their son John Carr stayed with the family. He was nearing 30.

The Carrs were not close neighbours of Berkowitz. As you can see in the image below, the building at 35 Pine (now designated 42 Pine) is separated from Warburton Street by a wooded area intersected by the Groton Aqueduct footpath and another street called Grove. Berkowitz lived on the top (seventh) floor of his building, so he was well-insulated from any noises issuing from houses on Warburton.

Google Maps

Between May of 1976 and Berkowitz’s arrest in August of 1977, someone terrorized certain families in the neighbourhood – the families who owned large dogs. Molotov cocktails were thrown into two homes, occupied by the Carr and Neto families. Menacing letters were sent to those families. Shots were fired into the Neto home on Christmas Eve 1976, narrowly missing 13-year-old Sylvia Neto as she played piano for gathered relatives. The gunman killed the Netos’ German Shepherd, Rocket, before speeding away in a car.

In April of 1977, someone began sending anonymous letters to Sam Carr, demanding that he prevent Harvey from barking.

On April 17th, Berkowitz (then known as the .44 Caliber Killer) claimed his fourth and fifth victims when he fired into the parked car of Alexander Esau, killing both Esau and his girlfriend, Valentina Suriani. He left a letter near the car, addressed to NYPD police captain Joseph Borrelli.

The Borrelli letter is written from a dual viewpoint: That of a man who stalks and kills beautiful women, and that of a dog who is under the command of his bloodthirsty “father”, a man named Sam. Passages that are clearly written from the dog’s POV include “Sometimes he ties me up to the back of the house.” It is an extremely strange and oddly literate letter. You can read it here.

Douglas was familiar with the Borrelli letter, because he would have read it in in preparation for the interview. It is even reproduced in its entirety in Mindhunter.

All throughout his year of murder, Berkowitz knew that he would probably be apprehended at some point. So he went about accomplishing two things: Lining up an insanity defense for himself, and framing his neighbours. This two-pronged strategy led to some of the most bizarre letters ever penned by a serial killer.

He sent several mystifying letters to his old landlords, the Cassaras. One featured a drawing of a dog and read, “Sorry to hear about the fall you took from the roof of your house.” No one had fallen off the Cassaras’ roof. The letter was signed by Sam and Frances Carr, who did  not know the Cassaras or Berkowitz.

On April 27th, ten days after the Esau-Suriani murders, Berkowitz shot and wounded Harvey the dog from the direction of the aqueduct path.

The baffled Cassaras reached out to the Carrs, and it didn’t take them long to figure out that their old dog-hating tenant, David Berkowitz, was living in the Carrs’ neighbourhood. There was now a suspect in the shooting of Harvey.

Craig Glassman, Berkowitz’s downstairs neighbour, also received a slew of creepy letters. One read, in part, “True, I am the killer, but Craig, the killings are at your command.” Some of these letters mentioned the Cassaras and Sam Carr.

On July 31, 1977, Berkowitz committed his final murder when he shot Stacy Moskowitz and her date, Robert Violente. Moskowitz died.

Berkowitz continued his harassment of the neighbours. On August 6th, someone set a fire in front of Glassman’s apartment, and the responding officer had a hunch that this could be connected to what was going on with the Carrs and the Cassaras.

Three days later, Detective James Justus was assisting the .44 Caliber Killer task force. He was given the assignment of checking up on the owners of cars that had been ticketed in the area of the Moskowitz-Violente shooting. One of those cars belonged to Berkowitz, so Justus phoned the Yonkers police department.

The operator who answered his call was Wheat Carr.

Stunned to hear the name of her family’s tormentor from someone working on the .44 Caliber case, Wheat spilled out all the details: The wounded dog, the disturbing letters. She put Justus in contact with Yonkers police officers who were familiar with Berkowitz.

One day later, he was arrested for the murders.

In his confession, Berkowitz admitted that he had shot Harvey the dog. He did not admit to killing Rocket, but I think it can be safely assumed that he did. Dogs had been central to the case all along, and the demon-dog of Sam Carr was not just a last-minute creation of Berkowitz’s squirrely mind.

The FBI interview was not incredibly informative. In the end, Berkowitz didn’t reveal any new insights into BTK. But Douglas and Ressler did take interest in his admission that when he couldn’t find parked lovers on his nightly “hunts”, he would return to previous crime scenes to relive the shootings.

There is one additional error in the Berkowitz section of Mindhunter. Douglas states that Berkowitz’s biological mother, when he found her, wanted nothing to do with him. This is not true. Betty Falco contacted Berkowitz as soon as she learned he was trying to get in touch with her, and he established a relationship with her, his sister, and his sister’s children. The bond never developed into a close one, but Falco certainly did not reject the son she had given up for adoption. His sad stories of being abandoned by an unloving mother are just one more way he tries to garner sympathy and attention.

A few years after he was interviewed by Douglas and Ressler, Berkowitz changed his story again. He said that John, the elder of the two Carr brothers, had initiated him into a Satanic cult that carried out the murders at the behest of an elderly man in Westchester County.

He claimed this cult was a branch of The Process Church of the Final Judgment.

I believe he selected this particular church for several reasons, and here is one of them: The founder of The Process, Robert de Grimston, was known for his love of Alsatian dogs, and in the early ’70s members of the church established the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, which operates to this day as the Best Friends Animal Society.

Berkowitz has demonstrated over and over again that he knows nothing of substance about The Process, and it is obvious to any careful observer that he was not in cahoots with anyone when he carried out his murders.

But that’s a different bullshit story.