Cruel Deception (TV Movie 2003) Poster

(2003 TV Movie)

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The Most Prolific Serial Criminal of the 20th Century?
jared-1843 January 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Before you read this, bear in mind the fact that I'm the guy who found the story and pitched it to the studio head, and I'm the guy who gathered and assembled the research folder for the project (once my studio bosses pitched it to and got the greenlight from Discovery). I looked at all the court transcripts, interviewed the SS and FBI agents who were involved in the case, interviewed a couple of the surviving victims, and I'm one of two media professionals who've entered the Secret Service archives to review their original file. And of course we all know that, after a massive amount of content is researched and compiled, a very edited version eventually makes its way into the shooting script. And an even more edited version often makes it from there to the screen.

So if you look for this show, be aware that you won't see every one of DeBardeleben's crimes covered. In fact, if you want to really look into this story, get a copy of Stephen Michaud's book 'Lethal Shadow.' But back to the point I want to make: the subject of this MOW, James Mitchell 'Mike' DeBardeleben, was described as the most prolific serial criminal of the 20th century by the FBI profilers who participated in the investigation. They arrived at this conclusion based on the fact that DeBardeleben had led a criminal career for at least 17 years prior to his final capture, and that throughout that career, the FBI had listed him as five different unsubs. Bank robber, extortionist, rapist, murderer, counterfeiter... Notice they didn't say he was the most prolific serial killer, just the most prolific serial criminal. Many people have since asked me why his name is not as known as that of Bundy, or Gacy, or Dahmer. I've asked this question myself.

The answer in part has to do with how and when the media cover a story. Gacy, Bundy, and Dahmer each got a lot of coverage, and DeBardeleben didn't, so DeBardeleben is therefore not as well known. But another reason has to do with the personality of the criminal himself. DeBardeleben was such an amazingly unattractive, uncharismatic, and insecure man, the media never really wanted to cover his story. Even one of his surviving victims described his penis as being unusually small. Bluntly said, DeBardeleben wasn't an attractive media target.

So why did I, as a member of the media, pitch the story? Because he was (and still is) widely regarded as the most prolific serial criminal of the 20th century. And once I got past the ugliness of the criminal himself, I found a guy who made all the other serial criminals look like underachieving boyscouts. I've worked on a lot of serial killer docs, but this one really took the cake.
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