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Serial Killers and Their Kids: It’s Complicated

Some offenders who harm others protect their own—others include them.

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

The offspring of serial killers used to shun media attention. Some changed their last names or went into hiding, and many asked a friend or relative to screen all communications. Recently, we’ve heard from a few in books and on podcasts and talk shows. After their criminal parent’s double life was exposed, many wondered just what this predator had actually felt for them.

How serial killers view their own children turns out to be complicated. I’ve seen comments from enough of those with families (and from family members) to form some basic categories: 1) they care about and protect them, 2) they include them in the crimes, 3) they kill them, and 4) they maintain the deception.

Let’s look at some examples of each.

1. They care about their kids.

When Israel Keyes was caught after murdering a young woman in Alaska, he knew that he’d be linked to a double homicide as well. He had more to say and he wanted to trade it in a deal that would protect his young daughter. “I want an execution date,” he told officers. “I want this whole thing wrapped up and over with as soon as possible. I’ll give you every single gory detail you want, but that’s what I want because I want my kid to have a chance to grow up… and not have all this hanging over her head.”

Dennis Rader, too, was concerned about his son and daughter when he was arrested in 2005 as the “BTK” serial killer in Wichita. He said he knew he’d made them suffer and he wanted to prevent them from further harm. (Even so, at his sentencing hearing, he dehumanized them by calling them “social contacts” and “pawns,” which infuriated his daughter, Kerri. (I reviewed her book here.)

Kerri looks back on things her father had said that now have new meaning. What had once seemed like loving advice about deflecting intruders, for example, now rang with a sinister tone: he’d described what would deflect him. “It’s horrible to realize that as my dad was raising children,” Kerri writes, “he chose to take another mother away from her own children. He was about to have a daughter, yet took two more daughters away from their families.”

Although Albert Fish molested and murdered kids, he raised six of his own as a single parent, seemingly without harm. When he was tried for the murder and dismemberment of Grace Budd, his children testified. They thought he’d loved them, but none had guessed the extent of his problems. Observing aspects of his odd deviancy, they’d thought him merely eccentric. None reported abuse.

2. They included their kids.

Sante Kimes was a born con artist, and even got her two sons involved in her criminal schemes. Kent Walker, her oldest, describes life with Sante in Son of a Grifter, in which he sorts through why he ultimately rejected her while his younger half-brother Kenny went along with the crimes.

Sante and Kenny came to national attention with the disappearance of a wealthy philanthropist, Irene Silverman, from her Upper East Side home in Manhattan. They’d finagled a real estate document with Silverman's signature on it, but the notary public would not sign it. Soon, Sante and Kenny were arrested. A search of their stolen Lincoln Town Car turned up Silverman's passport, a pair of handcuffs, several syringes, a handgun, stun guns, wigs, and papers that suggested they’d done away with Silverman. Kenny described how they'd done it together. They were convicted of her murder in New York, as well as for the murder of David Kazdin in California. Kenny also confessed to the murder of a man in the Bahamas.

Joseph Kallinger killed one of his sons for insurance money and coerced others to get involved with his criminal acts. He and his fifteen-year-old son Michael were suspects in a seven-week, three-state crime spree that involved robbery, rape, and murder. Their fingerprints were matched to those found in one of the homes, and the victims identified them. Kallinger was convicted of multiple crimes. Police suspected that he’d taken his son Jimmy on at least one of these expeditions.

3. They killed their kids.

Indiana’s Belle Gunness and England’s Mary Ann Cotton are among those mothers who murdered their kids for insurance money. A few others, like Marie Noe, had mental health issues. Stacey Castor tried to kill her daughter to stage a suicide, hoping she could pin the murders of two men on the girl. Gary Ridgway, the “Green River Killer,” came close to murder, but for a different reason.

He used the fact that he had a son to make his potential targets feel comfortable. He’d flash his wallet to make the boy’s picture visible. If he brought a woman home, he’d show her his son’s room. "They look in the bedrooms, nobody's in there," he told investigators. "There's my son's room, hey, this guy has a son, he's not gonna hurt, anybody."

In 1982, Ridgway picked up a woman while the 7-year-old son was in his truck. Ridgway was in the mood to kill, so he found a wooded area and parked. He got out, let the woman out and left his son in the truck. He guided the woman to an area that he believed was beyond his son’s line of sight. After sex, he killed her, leaving her corpse in the woods. He told his son that she’d decided to walk home. Another time, while his son slept in the truck, he found the decomposing corpse of one of his victims and had sex with it.

Two decades later, Ridgway told a psychologist that he was sorry about that episode. When the psychologist asked what he’d have done if his son had gotten out and seen him, Ridgway denied that he’d have killed the boy, but then hedged: "No, probably not, I don't know." He admitted it was possible. He'd considered it.

4. They maintain the deception.

Several offspring of serial killers have told me that they cannot have a relationship with their criminal parent, because they can't trust them. They've been betrayed and even after the parent went to prison, he or she continued to scam or lie to them.

Yet some cling to hope. The daughter of a man who’d killed 13 prostitutes claimed that he was sincerely remorseful, which made it possible for her to feel close to him as a daughter. Yet he'd told her he had a disorder that blocked him from feeling remorse. She didn’t know what this meant, but she believed he was now a good man. That’s the kind of naiveté that psychopaths exploit. From what I knew of his lifelong duplicity, I doubted he'd changed—especially if he used a disorder as an excuse.

Even those who care about their kids have lived secret criminal lives for so long that they might be unable to care the way they think they can. Israel Keyes killed himself when he couldn't get the deal, ensuring a public legacy that will always hang over his daughter’s head. The entire time he was committing his well-planned murders, he had to realize that if he got caught, he’d be exposing her to what he'd done. His life of crime was entirely narcissistic.

Rader, too, lacked appreciation for the harm his crimes would cause his children if he got caught. When I suggested that even the decision to kill undermined his avowed love for his family, he bristled. To him, it was simple: “It didn’t occur to me that they’d be hurt, because I didn’t expect to be caught.”

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