No one understands a serial killer like a serial killer.
The premise helped inspire the fictional "The Silence of the Lambs," and now it fuels the real investigations on "Dark Minds," the new Investigation Discovery series that premieres Wednesday night.
On it, crime author M. William Phelps and criminal profiler John Kelly revisit unsolved serial-killer cases with the help of "13" — a convicted killer heard only over the telephone. (Pictured: Phelps, left, with Kelly.)
Phelps, a former consultant on "Dexter," has a personal stake: His own sister-in-law was murdered by a serial killer in 1996.
In the premiere, Phelps and Kelly call on "13" for insight into the Valley Killer, who viciously murdered seven women in the 1980s in Vermont and New Hampshire.
One victim, seven-months-pregnant Jane Boroski, was stabbed 27 times but she and her baby miraculously escaped. She joins Phelps and Kelly in the premiere.
Phelps and Kelly — who works with law enforcement as the founder of S.T.A.L.K. (System to Apprehend Lethal Killers) — talked to TheWrap about why the identity of their "Hannibal Lecter" will remain a mystery to viewers and about Hollywood's most and least realistic depictions of serial killers.
In the show, we only hear "13's" voice on the phone. Is that to protect him, because he would be in danger if his fellow inmates knew he was helping law enforcement?
Phelps: I don't care about his safety. What I care about is him not getting any type of glory out of this. I don't want him to have his name used. I don't want anything that he's done to be known. I just want him to be a voice of reason, a voice of insight. Period. Through the eight episodes, "13" has become, really, an invaluable part of this, because he's given insight that nobody else could give.
Kelly: When we're dealing with "13," we're dealing with a sociopath/psychopath who's decided, after working with me for many, many years, that he wants to try and redeem himself in some way. He's never, ever going to get out of prison. There's no way he's ever getting back on the street. Part of keeping him anonymous, a major part, is because he's taking a chance. I mean, if other inmates where he's at see him helping law enforcement, there's a very good chance that there's going to be an attempt on his life.
Do you feel he's sincere in wanting to redeem himself?
Kelly: I believe there is some sincerity there. I really do, because if he wanted to, he could have said, "I want people to see who I am." Being anonymous goes against this real pathological, narcissistic behavior that these guys all have. And he certainly has it.
Phelps: And let's not forget that in helping us, he's getting something out of it, because he's getting to relive what he used to do, his fantasies. And for serial killers, it's all about the fantasies. His fantasies now are different, but they're getting met, through these channels. You'll see, as episodes go on, and even in episode one, how passionate he is about some of these cases. I was just screening a case, episode seven, in Mississippi. He wants to solve this case — he is totally immersed in it. I've got to take that and look at that and say, "Wow, he is helping."
Kelly: It is fantasy‑driven with all these serial killers. It's the power to control, the sex and the kill … I mean, they kill women and children. That's who their victims are 99.9 percent of the time. So the bottom line … is he sincere? He seems sincere. But you have to understand, I mean, we're playing mind games with a serial killer.
In the first episode, he very abruptly signs off and says, "That's it" — and hangs up. Is that because of a time constraint on him, or is that just a control issue on his part?
Kelly: He has a time constraint and he has a control thing.
Phelps: When he's done talking about a certain subject, maybe not the entire subject, but that aspect of it, when he's done, that's it. He doesn't want to hear more about it. That's it. He's done.
Do you have unrestricted access to him?
Kelly: We have to schedule time for the show, but I have unrestricted time. I talk to him two, three times a week, at least weekly.
Did you approach him specifically for the show?
Phelps: No. This show came out of a friendship between John Kelly and myself. I had been trying to develop a crime show based on my years of being a true‑crime author. I've written 20 books, and I've done a lot of television work. So I'd been trying to develop a show for many years. I met Kelly a number of years ago, and he became an excellent mentor and an excellent source. Whenever I wrote a book about a serial killer, John would help me understand that dark mind in the book I was writing.
When John told me one day, "I've been corresponding and really using a serial killer in prison as a source of mine," the light bulb went off over my head like in a cartoon. And I said, "That's it. This is the idea that I've been waiting on." So I began to put it together. And then I let John handle it from there with "13," to get his involvement secured.
Kelly: I went to "13" and asked him if he wanted to do this, if he wanted to get involved and put himself out there, to try and help solve some of these cold cases and bring them back into public view. And he agreed to do it.
Are there any other "Hannibal Lecters" you might use in the series going forward?
Phelps: At this point I have "14," "15," "16," "17" waiting in the wings, all willing to help. There's no shortage of these guys willing to do this type of thing because there's a psychological payoff for them. But we've got to be very careful with who we choose.
Right now, I'm interviewing and using as sources many different serial killers. Killers that I correspond with and I talk to on the phone, just trying to figure out who is sincere and who is not sincere. Really, for me, it's about trying to get new information from these cases out there and spoon‑feed it to certain law enforcement or the public and say, "Look. This case can be solved." And the means of getting to that information, one of them is "13." One of them is John. One of them is myself. It's like a package deal.
Why "13," for his name? Is that a hint, or is that some suggestion of his identity or the things he's done? Or is it just a random name?
Phelps: I'm going to hold off on that one, because you can look at that in any different way. Any different way you want to look, you can look at "13." I think it's the perfect name. I think it's a perfect code name, if you will.
Kelly: "13" likes it.
So it does have some significance …
Kelly: Well, it's been used in some pretty gory crimes, "Friday the 13th" and all …
Phelps: Let me answer this for you better. Can it be used to unearth who this guy is? Absolutely not. It's not something diabolical that we chose that had to do with 13.
Matthew, you were a consultant on "Dexter" … do you think the show realistically depicts a serial killer?
Phelps: No, not at all. The crime scenes there and the actual crime solving is more realistic than the actual serial killers. To have two serial killers going against each other in the same town, that's just way over the top for me. I believe the show has jumped the shark at this point, too. But the first couple of seasons were really good, and the premise — the serial killer is actually a cop — that's a great premise.
One of my sources, who killed many, many, many women, told me that the most accurate depiction of a serial killer on film is "The Minus Man," with Owen Wilson as the killer. From my research that is dead on, because the quintessential serial killer is someone who just folds himself, weaves himself in and out of society, and when all is said and done, you go to his neighbors, and they say, "I thought the guy was a great guy. I saw him cutting his lawn. He loved his wife," etc.
It's not as diabolical as "Dexter" would have it. See, the serial killer, it's more inside the mind than anything else. The dark mask.
Kelly: Yes. They wear the mask of insanity.