Television is filled with fictional crime shows, employing everything from crime scene investigators to profilers, but Investigation Discovery's "Dark Minds" takes its cue from the real thing. Crime writer M. Williams Phelps hosts the show, which debuts its third season April 2 with an in-depth look at serial killer Israel Keyes. And for this special two-hour premiere, Phelps had a very clear goal in mind: to expose the killer's dark secrets he wanted to keep hidden.
But there's another, more important goal he has with this show and the more than 26 books he's written involving true crimes, many of which have been unsolved: to drag them into the light of day and make people aware of things they may have seen or heard that were never reported to police. Because as much as crime writers and law enforcement can do to keep cold cases active, it takes public awareness at the end of the day to really give these cases a chance for that break that will solve them.
Phelps sat down in an exclusive interview to talk about the series and the nature of serial killers. It's a subject he's come to know well as both an investigative reporter and family member, as his sister-in-law was killed by a serial killer in 1996 and the killer has never been caught.
Diana Price: On the season premiere of "Dark Minds" coming up, this first guy that you're profiling -- Israel Keyes -- boy, is he a chilling serial killer. But not only are you profiling this killer, you actually came up with some new information in the case, or at least a very viable, possible victim. So, has anything happened with that? Are police pursuing that lead?
M. William Phelps: I don't know what the FBI is doing with that ... With Gilbert Gillman that you're talking about, the potential victim of Israel Keyes, we've looked at other potential victims of Israel Keyes that we thought he could have killed, and we ruled them out, but Gilbert Gillman we just couldn't rule out. So what we're saying is the potential is there for Israel Keyes to have killed Gilbert Gillman, and what we're hoping is more investigation goes into it. And, you know Diana, whether our theories prove right or wrong doesn't matter, what matters to me is that before last week nobody was talking about this case, and here's a guy who just disappeared, I mean this guy just vanished into thin air, and now people are starting to tie his name back in -- you know his name was never really in the big news, and now his name is big news, and the potential is there to solve his case. Whether it's tied to Keyes or not in the end, to me is just part of the story. So for me I’m hoping that Gilbert Gillman’s family can get some answers out of this, that's my main goal here.
DP: You actually call for viewers to start looking into cases in their area, which even if it's not connected to the case that you're investigating, any more information or just people thinking about things they've seen and working on it has got to be a good thing.
MWP: Yeah, it takes a village, really, to quote the cliché. I mean -- that's what I try to implore in each episode of my show -- I take a case and say look, this potentially could have happened, these are maybe some persons-of-interest we're looking at, here are the victims, here are their stories, but the case remains unsolved. And I think the one thing that helps cold cases after they're very cold and collecting dust, is participation from potential witnesses. Cold cases get heated back up again when people become involved, and the good news is that cold cases, any investigation that's unsolved, goes through a period where five years after the case begins people feel differently, and then five years from then people feel differently. Maybe relationships have severed and now that person is willing to come forth. So it's good to keep the cases out in the public eye, and that's what we try to do on "Dark Minds."
We try to choose cases that we think are solvable, and then not try to solve them ourselves because I’m not a cop, I’m just an investigative journalist, but put it out there for people, and give these victims and their families a voice. In all these cases we do the families haven't had a voice for sometimes twenty, thirty years.
DP: Or just even having fresh eyes -- people that can think about a case in a different way even if they haven't seen anything personally -- is probably helpful.
MWP: Absolutely, that's an excellent point, an excellent point.
DP: Now, you have a resource on your show, you have an actual serial killer in prison who gives you insight into the minds of killers and he uses a pseudonym, "Raven." How did Raven get involved with the show? That has to be pretty logistically complicated, to be able to talk to him on a regular basis with him incarcerated.
MWP: I speak to Raven probably too much -- two, three times a week. He writes me letters, three, four, five letters a week. The first season of "Dark Minds" we used a gentleman who we called "13." And that was a person that my profiler on the show, John Kelly, has been working with for ten, fifteen, sixteen years now. And then Kelly told me while we were doing Season 1 of the show, he says, "Phelps, you should develop your own source, your own serial killer."
So I had a few killers that I was speaking to already, and I developed Raven into the guy for the show, because I believe that Raven is being honest. I believe that Raven inherently wants to -- not help, because serial killers, psychopaths can't really help -- but I believe that he wants to please me, he wants to give me his insight, he wants to be able to say "I know." He gets nothing out of this, he doesn't get any money, he doesn't get any notoriety, the only thing he gets is the personal satisfaction of helping. Helping me. People can say what they want about Raven, the name, the drama on the show, et cetera.
But this is groundbreaking research, really, I mean the research that I do with Raven, not only with the show but on my own for the cases that we look at -- you can't get that type of insight from anybody else. Here's a guy who’s done it himself. It's something that is scary, that is chilling, but altogether I think it's very important to the work that I do.
DP: Is part of the reason that they're anonymous because that allows them to be more honest? Are they in the general population in prison?
MWP: Raven is in the general population, but it's not because they'll be more honest. The reason why we hide the identity is: A) We don't want to re-victimize all of Raven's victims by putting him on TV and giving him the notoriety. B) We don't want any psychopath to have any notoriety for this whatsoever. We want Raven to be a voiceless person giving insight on the phone. And C) It's just a good idea all around that nobody knows who he is, for his own safety, for his own self, for the prison, and for me.
DP: And, you know, sure there is some drama to it, but it really is chilling listening to these serial killers talk. I don't want to give away too much in the first episode, but when he was talking about the soup kitchen thing -- that really made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Like, wow, this is the real deal.
MWP: Yeah, when we were in the room, when we were filming that, when he said that, I was like, "Whoa." Nothing like that comes out of anybody else but a guy who’s done it, right? And people don't understand this about serial killers, this is one thing I don't think people grasp -- is that serial killers and psychopaths in general, they view the world so much differently than us. We get up in the morning, we have an outlook on life, a view on the world that is totally opposite to how they view the world. Serial killers, psychopaths view the world through their own prism -- it's all about them. Everything they say, everything they think about, every fantasy they have, is all about them.
DP: At one point where Israel Keyes was being interviewed he was like, "Well, I’ll tell you this," and he chuckles and says, "if you give me a cigar." That's the value of their information of what they've done -- the value of the lives they've taken -- a cigar.
MWP: And with Israel Keyes, one of his biggest fears was having his secrets exposed, and I was so happy to be able to expose some of those deep, dark secrets, because he shouldn't call the shots. He is a monster. He is a psychopath. He is the worst scum on the planet of the earth in my view. And look, I understand why the FBI have to do it, but I don't have to do it. He's a monster and I’m glad people will know after they watch that show really how much of a monster he was.
DP: Well, one of the other interesting things you've done on television is you were a consultant on the first season of the show "Dexter" about a sociopath who "channels" his murderous needs into killing criminals who slip through the justice system. Do you think it's possible for a serial killer to channel their tendencies into killing those who deserve to die -- by some people's standards -- and if so, would that change how you felt about that particular serial killer? Or would you still consider them another form of monster?
MWP: They can't change how they feel. There's no way a serial killer could go out and do good in the world. They kill because it's what they do. Like, for example ... I spoke to the mother of Israel Keyes' child ... She wasn't on the program for various reasons we won't get into, but I spoke to her at length. I spoke to people who knew Israel’s Keyes' family, and had spoken to his sister, et cetera. You saw the guy that I interviewed on the show said Israel Keyes was in the top two percent of humanity. Now, I heard it again and again -- he was a great guy.
[But] that was the mask of insanity. Israel Keyes, the true person, is a psychopath, and a person who kills people. Anything else is just a veneer, is just him putting on a mask for people. The real Israel Keyes is the monster. And that's with any psychopath/serial killer. They can't do well. And I don't want to get into the whole "it's not their fault," thing, but it's really not. In many ways they're born a psychopath, a sociopath, and then they develop into this killer over the course of their lives for various reasons. That's why they're so rare. But, yeah, they can't do well. They can't. It's not in them.
DP: Out of all the cases that you've covered and written about, what would you say is the one that has most affected you, and the one that if you were able to bring information to light that would solve it, what would be the one that you would pick as the top case you would love to see solved? I mean, I know you want all of them solved ...
MWP: What comes to mind as you were describing that, and again I’d like to say I’d like to see all of them solved, but one that is particularly personal to me was episode eight of season one. I wrote a book about this guy, his name is Ned Snelgrove. He lived in the state that I live in, Connecticut, he killed a couple of women here in Connecticut, but I profiled Ned on Season 1, Episode 8, as a potential killer of a woman named Jane Goodwin in New Jersey, and the only person that could solve that case is Ned Snelgrove. He's the only one. I’d like to see Jane Goodwin’s mother get the answer that she believes, that we all believe that Ned killed her. That's very personal to me.
And I will follow that up with any of these cases involved with children that I do, I want to see those answered. There's one thing that is in every single "Dark Minds" case, and that's the look on the victim's family's faces -- it's empty, it's shallow. It's like somebody, please, give me an answer. You see that now with Flight 370. There are no answers, they're in limbo, they don't know what the hell is going on, and I see that all the time on "Dark Minds" when I’m interviewing victim's family members. It's that despondent gaze of "I just want to know. I just want to know."
DP: The worst thing in any situation has to be just not knowing.
MWP: Yeah, I’ve got two girls here in my home state, my home town, one of the girls who I went to school with who I profiled last year on the show, "Blond, Blue-eyed and Gone." I profiled four blonde girls on that episode, two of the bodies are found, but the two girls here that I personally know their families -- their bodies have never been found. So not only have the girls been missing for 38 years, 40 years, but there's no body. They don't know where that person is. And that, that's doubly hard.
DP: So, you're opening up the season with this great two-hour episode, is there anything else that we should look forward to on this season of "Dark Minds?"
MWP: Oh, yeah, a case that everyone's been talking about for years, the Long Island serial killer case. We go out and we look at that case deeply, and there's a few things that I figure out there. Nothing groundbreaking, as far as a perpetrator, but there's a few important facts that I think I dug out of that.
And then there's a real interesting case in Idaho, that we did, where we know who it is, I absolutely know who it is. Everybody watching this program will know that, that everybody knows who this guy is. We couldn't name him for legal reasons, but we know where he is, we know there's a lot of girls missing from the new place that he lives, and I’m hoping that episode, the Idaho episode, brings out that witness that can bury this guy. Because he's still out there, and they don't stop, that's one thing I know. Is that they don't stop.
"Dark Minds" premieres Season 3 April 2 on Investigation Discovery at 8 p.m. ET.