9 "Criminal Minds" Episodes That Are Based on Very Creepy True Stories
Your favorite team from the BAU are headed to screens again very soon for the much-anticipated "Criminal Minds" revival — making it the perfect time to look back at some of the highlights from the original series.
Over the course of its 15 seasons, "Criminal Minds" solved dozens and dozens of cases, many of which were actually based on haunting situations that happened in real life. While the show made tweaks to these "ripped from the headlines" nightmares for more TV-ready stories, they also served as a reminder that sometimes, the truth really is stranger than fiction.
From some of history's most infamous killers to cases drawn from more recent scary scenarios, here are a few of the most memorable "Criminal Minds" episodes based on real crimes and true stories.
Was "25 to Life" Based on a True Story?
The episode "25 to Life" sees the BAU team encounter a man who's been given the prison sentence in the title — 25 years to life incarcerated — for murdering his wife and daughters. It's based on the real case of Jeffrey MacDonald, a former military doctor who was convicted of the 1970 murders of his pregnant wife and two daughters, though he's maintained that they were killed by intruders.
While the episode focuses on the team proving the fictional man's innocence, the real MacDonald remains in prison, with multiple appeals so far having failed.
Was "The Big Wheel" Based on a True Story?
In this creepy episode, a murderer sends a tape to the BAU himself, begging them to help him stop killing. It's based on the case of William Heirens, also known as the "Lipstick Killer" after he left a message pleading for someone to stop him written in lipstick at one of his murder scenes. The Lipstick Killer was also referenced in the pilot episode of "Criminal Minds," which similarly focused on a serial killer abducting and killing young women. The fictional killer's motivations, however, are very different from the real Heirens, who later claimed innocence and even asserted that an alternate personality or imagined persona "made him" commit the crimes.
Was "Omnivore" Based on a True Story?
One of the long-running nemeses to the BAU is the "Boston Reaper," a serial killer who began his spree in the 1980s and whose cold case was one of Agent Aaron Hotchner's earliest investigations. The killings are designed to bear a striking similarity to the Zodiac Killer, one of the most famous cold cases in American history. Both carried out a string of brutal murders, both taunted law enforcement over their inability to catch the culprit, and both got away with their crimes for years. This being a TV show, though, the "Criminal Minds" killer eventually is defeated, while the real Zodiac case remained unsolved until a breakthrough in late 2021.
Was "To Hell" Based on a True Story?
The two-part season four finale of "Criminal Minds" features a particularly weird and gruesome case . . . and it also happens to be one inspired by real life. The killers in "To Hell" are notable for disposing of their victims' bodies by feeding them to pigs, drawing inspiration from the "Pig Farmer Killer," Robert Pickton. In the disturbing nonfiction case, Pickton was eventually caught and claimed to have committed 49 murders over the course of his spree.
Was "The Thirteenth Step" Based on a True Story?
The Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque couple at the center of "The Thirteenth Step" were inspired by a real-life couple who went on a crime spree in the late 1950s. In the episode, a young woman, Sydney, starts the string of misbehaviors by killing her crush's girlfriend. In real life, 19-year-old Charles Starkweather was the instigator, and 14-year-old Caril Ann Fugate was his accomplice. Starkweather was executed in 1959, while Fugate served 17 years in prison and was released in 1976.
Was "Minimal Loss" Based on a True Story?
This fan-favorite episode from the fourth season features Luke Perry as Benjamin Cyrus, a cult leader who presides over a hostage situation that goes wrong when law enforcement attempt to raid the compound. Of course, this situation draws heavily from the infamous Waco siege of 1993, when the FBI attempted to take down the Branch Davidians under David Koresh in a raid gone wrong that ended with 76 members of the group dead, including Koresh himself.
Was "Hostage" Based on a True Story?
A season 11 episode centers on the case of a man who kidnaps and imprisons multiple women, drawing clear parallels with the Ariel Castro abductions. As in real life, the fictional criminal kidnaps women and holds them prisoner for years, putting them through a terrifying and violent ordeal. One of Castro's actual survivors, Amanda Berry, escaped in 2013 with her daughter and reported Castro to police. The other women, Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus, were rescued, and Castro was arrested and pleaded guilty. He later died by suicide in prison.
Was "Our Darkest Hour" Based on a True Story?
The season five finale of "Criminal Minds" pulled inspiration from another infamous serial-killer case: the Night Stalker. Richard Ramirez gained notoriety in the 1980s for his shocking and brutal crime spree terrorizing California, often under cover of night. Much like in the real case, the BAU struggle to understand their fictional killer's motivations and apparently remorseless violence. Ramirez was eventually caught and convicted, dying from lymphoma in 2013 while on death row.
Was "The Tribe" Based on a True Story?
Even in the very first season, "Criminal Minds" drew inspiration from some of history's most infamous crimes. "The Tribe" features a cult trying to ignite a "race war" against Native Americans, leaving a trail of torture and murder behind. It's based on one of the schemes of the Manson Family cult, known as "Helter Skelter." Reportedly, Charles Manson believed a "race war" was imminent and became obsessed with sparking and surviving such a war, but, like his fictional "Criminal Minds" counterparts, failed and was later imprisoned.