Is Criminal Minds Based on True Stories? 15 Episodes That Are

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There’s a reason why Criminal Minds was on air for over 320 episodes and fifteen seasons. The show is an epic portrayal of the FBI’s BAU or the Behavioral Analysis Unit. They analyze patterns in criminal behavior to profile the perpetrators, using that analysis to narrow down the suspect list and find the criminals. So, is Criminal Minds based on true stories?

With over 300 episodes of action, most part of Criminal Minds is purely fictional. However, there are numerous episodes that are based, or at least inspired by, true stories and crimes. Some of those episodes follow the true stories precisely, while others are only loosely based on them.

Some of these crimes and situations are historically well-known, like the BTK Killer, the Night Stalker, or the Zodiac Killer, while others are more recent, like the Elliot Rodger case. Let’s dive into the Criminal Minds lore to see which episodes and characters were based on true stories and to what extent.

Is Criminal Minds based on true stories?

Criminal Minds is a fictional series produced by CBS that ran for 15 seasons, spanning from 2005 to 2020. It follows the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), a branch of the FBI that analyzes patterns of behavior of crime perpetrators and uses those pieces of information to hone in on the criminal or to prevent similar crimes from happening.

Now, we know that behavioral analysis is a real thing in crime investigations and that there is an FBI unit that serves a similar function in real life. The question is, are the criminals and the episodes of Criminal Minds based on true stories?

Well, for the most part, they aren’t. Most of the stories are completely fictional and have nothing to do with stuff that happened in real life. However, there are also episodes that are, in fact, based on true stories and real-life, bone-chilling crimes.

Some of these episodes, like, for instance, “Hostage” from Season 11, follow the true story fairly precisely, while others are only loosely based on what happened in real life. The writers only used the cases as inspiration.

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Best Criminal Minds episodes based on true stories & crimes

With so many episodes of Criminal Minds behind us, it wasn’t that easy to determine which episodes were inspired by true stories and which were completely fictional – especially because all the names are changed. 

I went through the Criminal Minds lore and found the best-of-the-best fifteen episodes that are based on true stories and crimes. The following list is not ranked in any way but rather chronologically ordered as the episodes were coming out.

Natural Born Killer (Season 1, Episode 8) – The Iceman

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One of the first inspired-by-true-events episodes of Criminal Minds came in Episode 8 of Season 1. In the episode, an alleged mafia hit strikes the FBI’s Organized Crime Unit. As the team hones in on the perpetrator, they realize it wasn’t a mob hit – it was the work of a single man.

Vincent Perotta was a serial killer that targeted members of the OCU and killed at least seven people. Perotta’s character was inspired by Richard Kuklinski, aka The Iceman, a mafia hitman who allegedly killed as many as 250 people. 

Only seven are actually confirmed, and Kuklinski had a thing for exaggerating his crimes after he was arrested, though. The killer even claimed he killed Jimmy Hoffa. He got the nickname The Iceman due to his habit of putting dead bodies in freezers.

Blood Hungry (Season 1, Episode 11) – The Vampire of Sacramento

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This was an episode that I just hoped wasn’t a true story, but, as it turns out, I was wrong. The show doesn’t follow the case to a tee but was inspired by the case of Richard Trenton Chase, who ‘operated’ in late 1977 and early 1978 in California. In fact, all his crimes happened within a month.

The sick, brutal killer had an obsession – with cannibalism and necrophilia. Chase killed at least six victims in his sick, murderous spree, had sex with their mutilated bodies, drained them of blood, and ate their remains. 

The nickname Vampire of Sacramento came due to the fact that Chase drank the blood he drained off his victims. He was sentenced to death and executed in 1980.

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Unfinished Business (Season 1, Episode 15) – BTK

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This particular episode is only loosely based on real-life events, and fans drew their conclusions on who it was based on. In this episode, the murderer, known as the Keystone Killer, was a serial killer in Philadelphia who taunted the police and media with letters describing his crimes and saying they’ll never catch him.

Due to the letters, some fans thought the Keystone Killer was based on the Zodiac Killer, but in fact, the better comparison would be Dennis Rader, aka the BTK Killer. The nickname BTK was given to the killer by himself as an abbreviation of his actions – “bind, torture, kill.”

The Keystone Killer in the show went silent for over a decade and then came back to haunt the FBI investigator who pursued him. Rader went silent for 18 years before returning, which was his ultimate downfall.

The Tribe (Season 1, Episode 16) – The Manson Family

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It seems that the writers had a thing for true stories in the first season, as The Tribe followed right after Unfinished Business. In this episode, the BAU is in New Mexico, investigating a horrific scene of several college kids found tortured, raped, and murdered.

The culprits turned out to be a cult calling themselves The Tribe, who wanted to present the crimes as if they were done by the Native Americans to turn people against them. Their leader, Jackson Cally, wanted a race war to ensue – much like the guy that inspired this episode.

The Manson Family was a cult in California led by Charles Manson. He wrote Helter Skelter, a book that calls for racial war, similar to what we see in the show. The Manson Family was responsible for numerous murders, including the high-profile case of Sharon Tate. 

Ashes & Dust (Season 2, Episode 19) – Paul Kenneth Keller

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This particular episode was inspired by a real-life criminal, and a real-life activist organization, though in the show, their actions have deadly consequences, unlike in the real world. The episode follows Vincent Stiles, a serial arsonist who starts fires around Washington state as a sign of protest, ultimately stemming from an ugly divorce he went through.

He also got involved with an organization called the Earth Defense Front, which protested against environmental destruction and started fires. The story was inspired by Paul Kenneth Keller and an organization called the Earth Liberation Front, which set fires and protested in the same manner. Their fires, however, didn’t result in any deaths, whereas in the show, they did.

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Minimal Loss (Season 4, Episode 3) – David Koresh

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Minimal Loss is one of the most popular Criminal Minds episodes ever, and the main antagonist, Benjamin Cyrus, is one of the most popular villains of the show. Cyrus was a cult leader who held hostages, which resulted in a raid by police forces, resulting in brutal mayhem.

For this episode, the writers were inspired by the Waco Siege that happened in 1993. The event was an FBI attack on the cult leader David Koresh that resulted in over 85 deaths. The cult was named the Branch Davidians, and Koresh claimed to be their last prophet.

Omnivore (Season 4, Episode 18) – Zodiac Killer

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There was an ongoing storyline in Season 4 that revolved around a character named George Foyet, aka the Boston Reaper. Foyet was brutal, scary, and cunning and was one of Hotch’s first cases that marked his life forever. The killer returned after years and years of inactivity to kill Hotch’s wife and continue tormenting him.

The character was inspired by none other than the infamous Zodiac Killer and his early crimes due to the nature of his actions, such as taunting the police. The difference is we don’t know who the Zodiac Killer is to this day, whereas we know the identity of the Boston Reaper in the show.

The Big Wheel (Season 4, Episode 22) – The Lipstick Killer

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There were many episodes in Season 4 that were inspired by true events, but The Big Wheel might be the most intriguing case of all. Vincent Rowlings was a disturbed man that killed at least three victims that looked like his mother. The urge to do so stemmed from him seeing his father murder his mother when Vincent was just a kid.

He sends the BAU a videotape where he begs them to find and stop him before he kills again. That particular thread was inspired by William Heirens, aka The Lipstick Killer, who confessed to killing three women in Chicago in the 1940s. At one crime scene, a message written in lipstick was found, saying: “For heavens Sake catch me Before I kill more I cannot control myself.”

Heirens also had a troubled childhood, and his parents had huge fights, but instead of witnessing them killing each other, William committed petty thefts and small crimes to keep his mind off of the hardships of his life.

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To Hell… And Back (Season 4, Episodes 25-26) – The Pig Farmer Killer

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This storyline came at the very end of Season 4, spanning two episodes. The first was titled ‘To Hell…,’ and the second ‘And Back.’ It was a story of a brutal serial killer that operated in Detroit and then continued in Canada. As it turns out, there were actually two killers – brothers Luvas and Mason, who killed people and disposed of their bodies by feeding them to their pigs.

It was a brutal, disgusting thread, but what’s even more horrifying is that it actually happened in real life. In Canada, there was a guy named Robert Pickton, later known as the Pig Farmer Killer. He is believed to have killed more than thirty people, but it’s unclear if the number is accurate or even higher.

Our Darkest Hour (Season 5, Episode 23) – The Night Stalker

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The story of a brutal serial killer in Los Angeles, who invaded people’s homes at night during blackouts, tortured, and killed them, actually spanned over two episodes – the final episode of Season 5, named Our Darkest Hour, and then the first episode of Season 6.

In the show, his name was Billy Flynn, and he was known as The Prince of Darkness, a sadistic, heinous scumbag portrayed perfectly by none other than Tim Curry (Home Alone 2, It). The character was inspired by the infamous Night Stalker, aka Richard Ramirez, who invaded people’s homes at night, raped, and killed them brutally in the name of Satan.

Ramirez killed over twenty people in the 1980s before he was recognized by people in public, brutally beaten up, and apprehended. Even after his arrest and during the trial, the Night Stalker yelled, ‘Hail Satan.’

25 To Life (Season 6, Episode 11) – Jeffrey MacDonald

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This episode was just heartbreaking – especially knowing that it was inspired by true events. In the episode, the BAU interviews a man who’s been incarcerated for twenty five years and always maintained his innocence in the murder of his wife and kids, claiming that intruders broke into their home and brutally murdered his entire family.

He was eventually proven innocent and released from prison, unlike Jeffrey MacDonald, the real-life inspiration for the show. In the 1970s, a tragic, horrifying crime scene saw MacDonald’s pregnant wife and two young daughters killed in a brutal fashion. Jeffrey was the first and only suspect and was sentenced to 25 to life, as the name of the episode suggests.

He claimed that four intruders – three men and a woman – entered their apartment through an unlocked back door, attacking him and his family with clubs, knives, ice picks, etc. However, physical evidence pointed at him. He was charged, then the charges were dismissed, but then further investigation indicted and convicted him again before a grand jury.

He still maintains his innocence but serves a sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Maryland.

The Thirteenth Step (Season 6, Episode 13) – Charles Starkweather & Caril Ann Fugate

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Many people thought The Thirteenth Step was inspired by the infamous Bonnie and Clyde. Although there are some obvious connections – a criminal couple on a spree, eventually caught by the police – the real inspiration behind the episode was Charles Starkweather & Caril Ann Fugate.

The two had a killing spree of over ten victims. However, at first, Starkweather was the instigator, killing Fugate’s family as his first kill. 

In the show, the couple is named Ray and Sydney. Sydney fell for Ray, and instead of him killing her parents, she killed his girlfriend, and the murderous couple continued traveling and killing people, mostly at random gas stops. The couple was caught after a hostage situation at one such stop, where the BAU’s negotiator managed to turn Ray and Sydney against each other.

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The Company (Season 7, Episode 20) – Cameron & Janice Hooker

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If there’s an episode on this list that followed the true story to a tee, it’s The Company in Season 7. Well, not exactly to a tee, but close enough. We follow a case where a girl was kidnapped, bound, raped, and held locked for 23 hours a day. Her only ‘unlocked’ hour was rape time.

Her kidnappers were a couple that picked her up while she was hitchhiking, and they kept her in check by claiming that, if she tried to escape, an organization named The Company would catch and torture her to unfathomable extents. It was a total lie in real life, whereas the show made The Company a real, existing group.

The case of Colleen Stan’s kidnapping is absolutely insane, and if you’re a true crime fan, I recommend you look it up.

Hostage (Season 11, Episode 14) – Ariel Castro

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Another episode that stuck to the true story quite accurately was Hostage in Season 11. It followed a serial rapist and kidnapper, Ariel Castro, who kidnapped, tortured, and raped multiple women before finally being stopped. Castro was incredibly sadistic and didn’t care about impregnating the women – one gave birth, while two had miscarriages.

All the horrific details in the show are what actually happened in real life – and Castro was even called by name at one point of the episode, leaving no doubt about the true story inspiration for the writers.

Alpha Male (Season 12, Episode 15) – Elliot Rodger

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Last but not least, the show took inspiration from a fairly recent case of Elliot Rodger, a YouTuber who was just as dark and brutal as his counterpart in Criminal Minds. Rodger was a teenager who was, essentially, an incel misogynist who hated women because they wouldn’t date him. 

He frequently posted Vlogs about how much he hated them for not noticing him, despite being a good guy. Yeah – a good guy who believed that women should succumb to men or die. His spite and misogyny went further as he started throwing acid at random couples on the street. 

It all culminated in one final video, where Rodger said he was going to commit a mass murder – which is exactly what he did. He killed six people and injured multiple more before killing himself.

The show follows a guy with the same tendencies and hatred toward women, throwing acid at them simply because they don’t like him. The character in the show also had a manifesto about his idiotic thoughts, much like Rodger did on YouTube.

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