Some serial killers hint at more, then close the door.
Posted Jun 26, 2019
Edward Harold Bell, a convicted killer of one, claimed to have murdered 11 more young girls – "the Eleven in Heaven" – but he died in a Texas prison without revealing details. His confession did help locate two bodies, but his statements were inconsistent. If he actually killed more, we might never know.
He’s not the only killer to tease and leave us hanging.
Ted Bundy infamously hinted at many more victims. When Bundy was scheduled for execution in 1989, Detective Bob Keppel was invited to “debrief” him. Bundy admitted to several murders that Keppel wanted to clear up and suggested three more, but resisted telling all. He’d told an FBI agent that he’d killed 30, but told his attorney 35. To a cop, he said it was more than 100. It's unclear when he was manipulating or telling the truth, Now that he’s dead, his victim count has become a guessing game.
A Bundy wannabe, Israel Keyes, tried trading information for a deal. At his arraignment on March 27, 2012, the 34-year-old pleaded not guilty, but little by little, Keyes revealed things. “It was all a mind game with me,” he told detectives. He said he’d reveal the full story of his murders and plead guilty if they would give him a quick execution date. On top of the three for which investigators had solid evidence, Keyes gave numbers between 8 and 12. When he couldn’t get the deal he wanted, he took matters into his own hands. On December 1, 2012, Keyes used a sheet and a razor to kill himself. His other victims, if there actually were any, remain a maddening mystery.
In 1995, Robert Charles Browne pled guilty to the 1991 murder in Colorado of 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church. Five years later, he sent cryptic notes to Texas prosecutors that suggested many more victims could be linked to him: “The score is you 1, the other team, 48.” He admitted he’d been killing since 1970, in nine different states. Because he'd beat by one the record held by Green River Killer Gary Ridgway, Browne’s confession triggered skepticism. So far, investigators have been unable to tie him to anywhere near the number he claimed.
After the police arrested Glen Rogers in 1995, wanted in connection with five murders, he took credit for 70, including Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Then he said he was joking. Convicted in two, he likely has more, but his link to the Simpson double homicide remains controversial.
The most infamous tease was Henry Lee Lucas, arrested in 1983. He confessed, estimating he’d killed 60-100 people, but eventually raised that number to over 350, in 27 states. Lawmen came to Texas to close their open cases. Then he recanted. Soon, he confused everyone by saying he’d been forced to recant. "I set out to break and corrupt any law enforcement officer I could get,” Lucas said. “I think I did a pretty good job." When he died in 2001, the truth went with him, but his conviction in 11 homicides fell far short of what he’d said.
After killing a man in 2013 in Pennsylvania with her new husband, Miranda Barbour claimed she’d participated in the murders of more than 100 people in several states. When no evidence corroborated her admissions, she reduced the number to 22. None panned out. (Now she’s appealing her sentence, saying she can be rehabilitated.)
Psychopathic killers view their victims as objects, useful only as pawns in their game. They’re callous and manipulative, and form agendas from self-interest. What we view as a “confession,” they might view as bait. There’s no particular reason to just trust them.
Former Special Agent Mary Ellen O’Toole, from the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, interviewed Gary Ridgway, who’d initially confessed to 71 before settling on the official toll of 48 (now 49). “I can’t think of any behavior on its own merit that would indicate that someone is telling the truth or exaggerating,” she said. “It’s not that I wouldn’t believe them, but I’d like to get basic verification first. In my opinion, many of these people have an egotistical need to control and manipulate, and some like to be bigger and badder than the other guy.”
She points out that not only might they lie about committing murders to dupe investigators but might also conceal murders they did commit. “When we look into someone’s range of crimes, we never have the complete picture. We have the page of the book we’ve opened, but we see offenders in the middle of their story. They didn’t just wake up one morning and start killing. They had a period of trial and error that they don’t like to talk about. When they describe the murders they did well, they’re glib, because they think of themselves as big bad killing machines. But they have a problem talking about their initial period of development.”
It’s hazardous to be gullible, especially for investigators hoping to close a case. They might inadvertently reveal details, allowing offenders to play them, and might expend limited resources for nothing in return. However, there are hazards in dismissing these offenders, too—notably that they might stop providing details that can solve actual crimes. To some extent, we can study behavior in past cases to better understand the impetus to brag and manipulate.
Ramsland, K. (2006) Inside the minds of serial killers: Why they kill. Westport, CT: Praeger.