"It's not fair! Sinners must be punished! Sinners like YOU!"
As a child, James was sent to a private school, Aldren Academy, where he was severely abused and disciplined by Brendan Burke, the school's conservative, religious principal, who beat his and other boys' wrists and took their photos, which would be added to a "wall of shame". Though these actions were traumatic for him, they also imprinted on him and he took on Burke's moral crusader rhetoric. As an adult, James got a job working as a driver for Zimmer, a ride-share service, for six months. He was fired due to the numerous negative reviews he got from passengers, one of which claimed that he threatened a passenger with a hammer. A month before the events of Drive, Burke was arrested and charged for molesting a prepubescent girl who attended Aldren. On January 10, 2016, Burke committed suicide, leaving a note apologizing for his weakness. James believed Burke was escaping public punishment by killing himself and thus became obsessed with punishing those he deemed immoral. As a result, he began masquerading as a ride-share driver and killed passengers who he believed committed immoral acts. His first victim, Lily Chang, had her head personally sawed off by him, but with his second victim, Denise Wagner, he killed her with a homemade guillotine after James deduced it was the best way to commit an execution.
After driving Amy Gibb to her home, James helps her bring her bags to her front door. Once there, he remarks on her "expensive tastes" and subdues her with a taser when she tries to force him away. He then takes her to his garage and places her in the guillotine. Despite her insistence that she'll never shoplift again, he releases the blade and cuts off her head. After dumping her body near a local statue, James drives out looking for another victim and sees a woman, but she is picked up by another ride-share driver, infuriating him. Eventually, he comes across Anthony Simmons. After overhearing him talk to who James believes is his mistress, he abducts and later tortures him by beating his knuckles when he refuses to confess. Anthony attempts to buy himself time by asking him to call a friend, but James decides to call the woman directly. After they reach her voicemail, James decides to kill him if she doesn't call back in five minutes. During that time, James recalls being disciplined by Burke and begins ranting about how unfair it was that he would not be punished. At the last minute, the woman calls back, and James talks to her, posing as a police officer. After the conversation ends, James continues to believe that Anthony was having an affair. He then opens his freezer and reveals the heads of his previous victims, set up as his own wall of shame. James then gets ready to kill him when Hotch and Morgan arrive. Though they try to talk him down, he still brings the guillotine's blade down. However, Morgan is able to tackle James down and arrests him while Hotch manages to stop the blade in time. James is last seen being taken to a police car by Morgan.
"You talk on the phone and think you're in some kind of private, little bubble, but you are not!"
James targeted people who committed immoral acts in their daily lives. He would pick them up in his car at night (since they assumed he was still working as a ride-share driver) and eavesdrop on the conversations they had with people on their cellphones. If he heard the victims saying they did something he considered to be immoral, he would disable their phones with a cell phone jammer, incapacitate them with a taser, bring them to a garage in his home, gag them, and put their heads in a homemade pillory. His signature was torturing them by repeatedly hitting their knuckles with a hammer, as a reference to how Burke would repeatedly strike his knuckles with a ruler.
When he did not get a confession from them, he would kill them by decapitating them. While the first victim was killed by having her head sawed off, the later victims would be decapitated with a homemade guillotine. The bodies would then be placed in public locations during the daytime hours as a reference to historic public executions. He would keep the heads in his refrigerator with note cards underneath each head, which had their first names and a description of them based on whatever immoral act they committed.
The unsub may be a ride-share driver or posing as one, who is using the service to pick up his victims. He appears non-threatening, which allows him to get close to his victims, and the sophisticated nature of his planning suggests he is in his late 30s or early 40s. He is an injustice collector who is upset by what he considers the unfairness of his life, and easily holds on to grudges sparked by even slights, which he magnifies out of proportion. Even a minor insult could cause him to go into a murderous rage. He does not hack the ride-share system, but he is getting around it by picking his victims off the app. His hypersensitivity may be the result of paranoia or drug-induced psychosis. He could have been raised in a home where he was excessively disciplined. The act of striking his victims' hands may be part of their punishment while the execution by decapitation gives him the power and control he feels he lacks.
James seems to have been partially based on Saeed Hanaei. Both were religiously motivated vigilante serial killers who targeted women who committed crimes, selected their victims while driving their vehicles, and felt that they were morally obligated to commit their crimes.
James is similar to Robert Berdella, a.k.a. "The Kansas City Butcher". Both were serial killers who were abused as minors by adult males, had stressors that involved the deaths of their abusers, would take their victims to their homes where they would torture and kill them, decapitated their victims (although Berdella did it post-mortem while O'Neil decapitated his victims as a kill method), kept their victims' heads, and were given names by the media for their crimes.
- January 12: Lily Chang (bought answers to an exam; manually sawed her head off instead of using a guillotine)
- January 17: Denise Wagner (was embezzling money)
- January 19:
- Amy Gibb (stole a bottle of champagne)
- Unnamed woman (intended; she got into another taxi before he could act)
- January 20: Anthony Simmons (mistaken for having an affair; abducted, tortured, and attempted to kill; was rescued)
- James is based on a few other unsubs on the show:
- Tory Chapman, as both were vigilante serial killers who targeted seemingly normal people who harbored dark secrets and had M.O.s that incorporated decapitation, after which they would keep the heads for future display. Both were also motivated to start killing by the actions of a man with the surname of Burke.
- Leland Duncan, since both were religious vigilante serial killers whose killings were triggered by the death(s) of someone connected to them, perceived their victims as being sinners, had signatures that involved torturing their victims, and killed their victims in ways that were based on and viewed as punishments.
- Steve, as both masqueraded as taxi drivers, targeted certain types of passengers, abducted their victims and killed them in their residences, and targeted only women (though James later tried to move on to men, but failed).
- The guillotine James used was a working model built from scratch by the show's production crew.