Netflix’s true-crime series, Unbelievable, almost down to the word follows The Marshall Project’s long-real, “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.” Both Unbelievable and the written story describe the case of Marie, a young 18-year old woman who claims she was raped and the police don’t believe here. Elsewhere — and a few years later — two female detectives follow their own string of rapes in their districts as they try to get to the bottom of who’s responsible for them. This obviously turns up a few leads before they find the guy who did it, and one of them is a police officer named James Massey.
And while I literally just said that the Netflix series and the long-read are basically one and the same, James Massey doesn’t exist in the latter. Because this is a Netflix series, and sometimes we need a little bit more drama for television, for a short period of time the investigation actually focuses on another individual before finding the actual rapist.
In Unbelievable, James Massey is a police officer himself but he has a history of domestic abuse and has been reassigned a handful of times due to incidents. The reason the detectives focus on him is that one of the victims believes that her attacker had a law enforcement background (this is true, but the real rapist was in the army). The attacker is also incredibly organized and meticulous and knows to destroy all the evidence of his crimes that he can, which is why he takes the bedsheets from his victims and makes them shower.
So, this leads them to Massey. He’s actually an officer in Grace Rasmussen’s (Toni Collette) husband’s district, and she gets him to pull his file for her (though, reluctantly). On the DL, she goes to try and collect his DNA at a bar, via his beer, but he’s smart (he's been covering the tracks of his other unsavory activity for years) and catches on to what she’s doing. He’s an officer himself, after all, and the trail on him goes cold.
Massey isn’t necessarily based on anyone in real life, but he also is at the same time. The show spends some time talking about how officers themselves are often responsible for domestic abuse crimes, but little to no action is taken against them (or, as the women detectives put it, then half the force would be gone). In reality, there have been reports that demonstrate the detectives' thought process. In 2014, The National Center for Women & Policing released a study that claimed 40 percent of "police officer families" experience domestic violence.
So while Massey doesn’t have any real-world inspiration that can be found in Marie’s actual story, the idea behind a character like Massey is still a very real one.