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John Edward Douglas was born in Brooklyn, New York. A veteran of four years in the United States Air Force (1966–1970), he holds several degrees: a B.S. in sociology/physical education/recreation from Eastern New Mexico University; an M.S. in education psychology/guidance and counseling from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee; an Ed.S. in Administration and Supervision/Adult Education from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee; and a PhD in comparing techniques for teaching police officers how to classify homicides from Nova Southeastern University.
Douglas joined the FBI in 1970 and his first assignment was in Detroit, Michigan. In the field, he served as a sniper on the local FBI SWAT team and later became a hostage negotiator. He transferred to the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit (BSU) in 1977 where he taught hostage negotiation and applied criminal psychology at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia to new FBI special agents, field agents, and police officers from all over the United States. He created and managed the FBI's Criminal Profiling Program and was later promoted to unit chief of the Investigative Support Unit, a division of the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC).
While traveling around the country providing instruction to police, Douglas began interviewing serial killers and other violent sex offenders at various prisons. He interviewed some of the most notable violent criminals in recent history as part of the study, including David Berkowitz, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson, Lynette Fromme, Arthur Bremer, Sara Jane Moore, Edmund Kemper, James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, Dennis Rader, Richard Speck, Donald Harvey, and Joseph Paul Franklin. He used the information gleaned from these interviews in the book Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives, followed by the Crime Classification Manual (CCM). Douglas later received two Thomas Jefferson Awards for academic excellence from the University of Virginia for his work on the study.
Douglas examined crime scenes and created profiles of the perpetrators, describing their habits and attempting to predict their next moves. In cases where his work helped to capture the criminals, he built strategies for interrogating and prosecuting them as well. At the time of criminal profiling's conception, Douglas claimed to have been doubted and criticized by his own colleagues until both police and the FBI realized that he had developed an extremely useful tool for the capture of criminals. Following his retirement from the FBI in 1995, Douglas has gained international fame as the author of a series of books detailing his life tracking serial killers, and has appeared numerous times on television. Douglas has also written text books for criminal profiling classes. He is the author, along with Mark Olshaker, of several books. His books are considered to be some of the most insightful works written on the minds, motives, and operation of serial killers, and the methods and lives of those who track them.
However, Douglas has also been subject to scientific doubt and criticism regarding his research methods, theories or media work. This includes descriptions of his early interview studies as lacking the scale or rigor to substantiate the conclusions drawn from them; that the highly influential distinction between 'organized' and 'disorganized' crime scenes lacks validity as there is almost always a mixture of behaviors; and that he has made logical errors or exaggerated claims in the media without noting the existence of academic critics of his theories.
Douglas first made a public name for himself with his involvement in the Atlanta murders of 1979–81, initially through an interview he did with People Magazine about his profiling of the as yet unidentified killer as a young black man. When Wayne Williams was arrested, Douglas was widely reported stating that he was "looking pretty good for a good percentage of the killings." He received an official letter of censure from the FBI Director for this, but has blamed the stress he was under at the time. However he attended the subsequent legal proceedings and claims to have helped the prosecution trap Williams into showing anger, which he claims was key in showing the jury that Williams was a murderer.
For years Douglas assisted police in attempting to identify and apprehend the Green River Killer in the Seattle, Washington metro area. According to at least one key investigator, his profile was too general to be helpful. In addition, Douglas stated that a 1984 letter purporting to be from the killer was an amateurish hoax, but it subsequently appears it was indeed written by the killer. Douglas at first denied he would have given such an opinion, but when confronted with what he agreed was his signed document he said he couldn't recall it and suggested that perhaps he had still not been mentally ready after returning to work three months previously from a bout of viral encephalitis.
Douglas was consulted in yet another controversial case known as "The West Memphis Three". In 1993, three eight-year-old boys were murdered and police and the prosecutor's office claimed the children died as a result of a Satanic ritual sacrifice. Three teens were later tried and convicted under this scenario (Satanism). Douglas was consulted by the defense in 2006/7, by which time there was new evidence of the three's innocence, and his report concluded that the killings were not related to Satanism but rather were unplanned homicides by a lone adult who knew the victims and felt rage against them. In 2011, the three men were released under an Alford plea.
Jack Crawford, a major character in the Thomas Harris novels Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, was directly based on Douglas. Crawford was played by Dennis Farina in the film Manhunter, by Scott Glenn in the film version of The Silence of the Lambs, by Harvey Keitel in the 2002 version of Red Dragon, and by Laurence Fishburne in the 2013 NBC series Hannibal.
According to Bryan Fuller, creator of Hannibal, the series' version of Will Graham is based in part on John Douglas, namely in the character suffering a severe case of viral encephalitis throughout the first season.
There is also a screenplay being written for the book Mindhunter, which was optioned for an HBO pilot in concert with Charlize Theron's production company with David Fincher directing, but the project has stalled.