'Criminal Minds' Episodes That Are Eerily Similar To Real-Life Cases
Police procedural shows like Criminal Minds love to broadcast that their episodes are “ripped from today's headlines." To this end, countless episodes are often based on real-world crimes, with the particulars changed both to keep the audience guessing and to protect the rights of victims - not to mention occasionally making the story more dramatic.
Sometimes, the crimes that inspire episodes of shows like these are recent and topical, things the general public is talking about even as the show is being produced. Other times, they draw from older crimes, either shedding fresh light upon them or simply trading on the audience's familiarity to amp up the show's tension. Whatever the case may be, these 13 episodes of Criminal Minds detail crimes and perpetrators that bear uncanny and unsettling similarities to real-life cases that make you want to dig deeper.
The Fictional Criminal: Benjamin Franklin Cyrus was a cult leader who, among other things, preyed upon underage girls who were under his “protection" ever since he usurped control over a Libertarian commune in Colorado and transformed it into a religious cult called the Separatarian Sect. Agents went undercover to enter the cult in an attempt to catch him, leading to a disastrous raid by state police in which Cyrus rigged the compound with explosives that were then detonated by his widowed child bride.
The Real Crime: In what would become one of the biggest headlines of the ‘90s, the FBI laid a nearly two-month siege upon the Waco, TX, compound of David Koresh, leader of a religious sect known as the Branch Davidians. As anyone who lived through that time can likely recall, the siege ended in tragedy, though whether the real crime was on the part of Koresh and his followers or the FBI is still a matter of intense debate. Both in its particulars and its tragic conclusion, the nature and fate of the Separatarian Sect seems to draw heavily from the events in 1993 Waco while also referencing the Jonestown massacre of 1978.
'To Hell...And Back' (S4E25-26) - Likely Inspired By The Crimes Of Canadian Pig Farmer Robert Pickton
The Fictional Criminal: Brothers Mason and Lucas lived on their family's pig farm in Ontario, Canada. Lucas was autistic and mentally disabled, while his brother Mason was a brilliant medical school graduate. However, Mason had been paralyzed and bedridden ever since Lucas pushed him from the farm's loft in a rage years prior. Since then, Mason had been orchestrating kidnappings conducted by Lucas, in which transients and others who would “not be missed” were abducted, tortured, and ultimately harvested for stem cells to conduct Mason's twisted medical research.
The Real Crimes: Robert Pickton and his younger brother David grew up on their family's pig farm east of Vancouver and ultimately inherited it when their parents passed away. Over more than two decades, Robert is believed to have abducted at least 26 young women before torturing and killing them, then possibly feeding them to his pigs. While many details of Pickton's crimes remain unknown - including the exact number of victims and the specific involvement of Robert's brother David, who was ultimately not charged - both the quantity of victims and the Canadian pig farm setting are echoed in this two-part Criminal Minds episode.
'Doubt' (S3E1) - Based On Notorious Serial Killers Ted Bundy And Ed Kemper
The Fictional Criminal: Dubbed the “Campus Killer,” Nathan Tubbs was a spree-killer who preyed upon female students of a small college in Flagstaff, AZ, where he worked as a security guard. Precipitated by his wife's rejection, he targeted students who reminded him of her by fitting a similar visual profile. Ultimately, he was killed by a would-be victim who wanted him to take her life and became angry when he refused because he believed she was trying to trick him into incriminating himself.
The Real Crimes: Tubbs's M. O. is seemingly based on two notorious real-life predators: Edmund Kemper, who was called the “Co-Ed Killer” and who, like Tubbs, targeted young, female college students; and Ted Bundy, who did the same and was nicknamed the “Campus Killer" due to his predilection for college students. Like Tubbs, Bundy often lured his victims in by pretending to be a figure of authority. In Tubbs's case, he worked as campus security; in Bundy's, he often claimed to be a police officer or other authority figure. Unfortunately, both of these real-life criminals were quite a bit more prolific than their fictional counterpart.
'Risky Business' (S5E13) - Centers On A Very Real, Very Dangerous Internet Challenge
The Fictional Crime: In this Season 5 episode, the BAU investigates a small Wyoming town in which four teenagers appear to have taken their own lives, though most of the team suspects something more sinister is afoot. Ultimately, they discover that the students all participated in an online challenge called “The Choking Game,” orchestrated by a local EMT named Will Summers. Diagnosed with the controversial Munchausen Syndrome by proxy, Summers repeatedly poisoned his wife, who subsequently died, then began choking and reviving his son. He created the online challenge to do the same, by proxy, to strangers.
The Real Crime: The real-life “choking game,” an online fad dating back to at least 2008, has claimed the lives of 80 or more young people, according to the CDC. It boasts significantly less sinister origins than its fictional counterpart but is no less dangerous. The “blackout challenge,” as it's sometimes called, is still active today and has claimed new victims as recently as December 2021. While there's no shadowy mastermind behind these online challenges, Will Summers does appear to have a real-life analogue in the form of Soviet serial predator Anatoly Slivko, who ran a youth club where he would choke his young victims to unconsciousness and, sometimes, death.
'There's No Place Like Home' (S7E7) - Resembles The Crimes Of Jeffrey Dahmer
The Fictional Criminal: Travis James was a symphorophilic predator who believed he could use a tornado to bring his deceased brother back to life by building him a new body out of James's deceased victims. To this end, he targeted young men who reminded him of his brother, and he tended to commit his crimes during storms. In the episode, the team gets involved as a wave of tornados strikes Kansas, both escalating the frequency of James's crimes and also leading the authorities to realize their connections.
The Real Crimes: Though Criminal Minds changed many elements of the story, the episode itself connects the crimes of Travis James to those of Jeffrey Dahmer, one of the most notorious serial killers in American history. According to the fictional BAU, Dahmer was “under the delusion that he could create young male sex zombies that wouldn't resist his advances,” similar to the Frankenstein-like creation James attempts in the episode. Regardless of the veracity of his beliefs, Dahmer targeted victims with a similar profile to those of James and, like James, kept body parts of those whom he killed.
'The Thirteenth Step' (S6E13) - Likely Based On The Crimes Of Charles Starkweather And Caril Ann Fugate
The Fictional Criminals: Ray Donovan and Sydney Manning prove the old adage that the couple who slays together, stays together - at least until one of them strangles the other. In this case, they were a couple of young lovers who got their kicks through spree killings, initially targeting gas stations before they moved on to their own parents in retribution for abuse the young couple suffered in their childhood, ostensibly as part of the “12 steps” of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Real Crimes: A handful of couples have become spree killers over the years, including the infamous Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, whose exploits were famously adapted in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde and who the episode name-drops. A more recent analogue, however, would likely be the crimes of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, whose reign of terror took place over 10 days in January 1958. Of course, Starkweather and Fugate's criminal exploits inspired a lot more than just this episode of Criminal Minds; they were the grist for such films as Natural Born Killers and Terence Malick's 1973 film Badlands, not to mention the Bruce Springsteen song “Nebraska.”