Sibling Rivals and Murder Games

When brothers fight, it’s one thing; when they kill, it’s another.

Posted Jun 12, 2016

Notorious USA
Source: Notorious USA

I often speak about serial killers for production teams making documentaries for the ID network. I’ve been waiting years to get one particular call, and it just happened. When they told me the case, I said, “Finally!”

It is unique. I wrote about it in The Murder Game, a brief book about Michigan crimes. Now it would get television treatment.

I’ve seen killing families, killing teams comprised of relatives (lots of those), brothers who separately were murderers, but this is the only time I’ve heard about two brothers who both became serial killers, at different times, with entirely different victim types and MOs. (Please correct me if I’m wrong.)

I’m talking about the Ranes brothers from Kalamazoo. One book was written about them, but the author changed their names. The book, by an English professor, was published during the 1970s by a small press in Michigan. So, the case remained obscure.

It all broke open on May 30, 1964, with the discovery of a body. A man went missing, his car was found, his body was in the trunk. He’d been shot. The killer had taken his watch, shoes, and money. Larry Lee Ranes, 19, was arrested, wearing the watch and shoes. He confessed and it turned out that he’d killed four other times over the past few months, including in other states. He'd decided to commit suicide, but a friend turned him in.

Basically, Ranes was reacting from a rejection. He'd wandered aimlessly and killed to get money or because the person had annoyed him. He felt little regard for anyone else, and little remorse. His targets were men. In prison, he changed his name to the more literary Monk Steppenwolf, to create an impression. As if he were some kind of deep thinker. (He wasn’t.)

But he did have quite the rivalry with his older brother, Danny. He was a year younger, and they had an older and younger sister. They were the only two boys, the middle kids.

And supposedly Danny wasn’t about to let Larry get the upper hand. Ever since boyhood, when their abusive alcoholic father made them fight over quarters, neither could let the other win easily. Later, they had used weapons. They'd even fought over the same woman, and at different times both of them married her.

Larry Ranes won a second trial, due to legal error, and when he was bound over, he was sitting in a maximum-security cell when Danny was brought in for his spate of murders. For a brief period, they occupied adjoining cells. Fitting.

Danny had served time for an assault and was paroled in 1972, when he was 28. Within a month, he had raped and killed a woman. He'd described this incident to 15-year-old Brent Koster and had persuaded him to do it, too. Together, they'd killed three more women.

Unlike Larry, Danny didn’t confess. He said he was innocent. But he’d miscalculated with his chosen accomplice. Koster was a big guy for his age, but was not a hardened psychopath. He did participate in these crimes, but he was more of a follower who enjoyed the thrill yet would not have initiated the kill.

In the case of two girls who'd pulled into a gas station, Ranes assaulted both and told Koster to kill one. Koster attempted to strangle her with a rope, but failed. Ranes held her down so Koster could finish the job. Koster then killed the other girl by himself. They put blankets over the bodies and left them in the car in the woods. With stolen money, they celebrated.

On September 4, Koster and Ranes were arrested. Koster’s attorney told him that if he offered details, he'd be allowed to plead to second-degree murder to one homicide, for a reduced sentence. The other charges would be dropped. Koster showed them a body they hadn’t yet found. He said he was afraid that Ranes was going to kill him, too. He also told detectives about Ranes’s confession of the first murder, and became the star witness against him at trial.

Danny Ranes was convicted of various charges and received several life sentences, but still insisted on his innocence.

Several people who knew Danny surmised that sibling rivalry had triggered his murders. Larry had gotten a lot of attention in 1964 upon his arrest, as well as during his successful appeal in 1971. It was around the time he was brought back to Kalamazoo for his second trial that Danny began his own spate of murders.

Sibling rivalry can be blamed for a lot of things, but the stakes are rather high for serial murder. There is likely more to this story than the English professor managed to extract. When you read the book, you can see how Larry played him. One wonders what a more sophisticated analysis might have revealed.

It's clear that the two brothers had a firm love/hate relationship, had experienced only warped or absent parental guidance, and had developed no sense of prosocial purpose. It's also clear that their father was an arbitrary, punitive role model who disliked and abandoned them. Yet, Larry killed instrumentally, targeting only men, while Danny seemed driven by lust and anger, targeting young women.

They might have been rivals, but neither actually won, because both were losers.

The Ranes story is unique, but if you want to see a couple of really disgusting brothers who were murderers, check out the Duvalls in The Murder Game. Six degrees below Deliverance, one cop called them. My skin still crawls from writing that one.