The Zoo Man Murders

An alleged serial killer who displayed four personas confused the jury.

Posted May 21, 2020

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

The first time I heard of Thomas Dee Huskey was in a lecture by forensic anthropologist Bill Bass, founder of the Anthropology Research Facility (“Body Farm”). He described his work on the decomposing female murder victims found east of Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1992. Four turned up in close proximity, and Huskey confessed to the murders. He got a hung jury in 1999. I decided to check back on his current status, given the bizarre nature of the case and how it relied on a controversial psychological condition.

In Death’s Acre, Bass describes how he used anthropological and entomological analysis to estimate the postmortem interval on these cases. The first found victim, Patricia Anderson, had been missing for a week. A hunter came across her bound and bruised body under a mattress on October 20 on the dead-end road, Cahaba Lane. She’d been a sex worker, which led police to Huskey, a brutal john already known to police for bringing sex workers to this area. He’d been arrested for rape and attempted murder earlier that year but released when the victim did not show up to testify.

The sex workers called Huskey "the Zoo Man” for his habit of taking them behind the zoo, where he claimed he once had worked. He’d tie them up and beat them. Most steered clear of him.

After Anderson was found, police scouting the area came across two more bodies. One was fresh, but one had decomposed, suggesting a serial killer dumping ground. Then skeletonized remains turned up in the same vicinity. A search of Huskey’s mobile home produced jewelry belonging to some of the victims.

During one interrogation, Huskey’s voice and demeanor changed dramatically to one of anger and aggression. He indicated that he was now “Kyle,” another personality, and that he had committed the murders to hurt Tom. Soon came another voice, with a cultured British accent and unusual vocabulary, calling himself “Philip Daxx,” who said he protected Tom from Kyle. 

When asked what his plea would be, Huskey announced, “Not guilty.” His lawyer, Herb Moncier, quickly added, “not guilty by reason of insanity.” It took six years for the cases to get to trial. In the meantime, Huskey was convicted in 1996 of a series of rapes and assaults, with no mention during that trial of having alter personalities. But the murder trial came with higher stakes: the death sentence.

Moncier and his partner, Gregory Isaacs, tried to have Huskey’s confession thrown out, offering a defense of multiple personality disorder (although by then this condition was called dissociative identity disorder). Moncier said that a man with an IQ as low as Huskey’s would be unable to successfully fake two other personalities, especially a sophisticated Englishman. “Kyle” had confessed, not Tom, and this admission was no proof that Huskey had done anything. Another alleged personality was “Timmy,” a timid gay man. 

Defense psychologist Diana McCoy testified that Huskey did have the condition, due to childhood trauma and molestation. Huskey’s wife affirmed that she'd noticed these alter personalities. Dr. Robert Sadoff, a forensic psychiatrist, said he’d been in Huskey’s presence when one of the personalities emerged via altered facial expressions and mannerisms, including shifting hands from right to left when he wrote. 

This was not the first time an accused serial killer had used the MPD excuse. One of the Hillside Stranglers, Kenneth Bianchi, had fooled several mental health experts when he confessed in 1979. Caught faking it, he gave up the ruse. Since then, others have tried it, but with a low rate of success. The hope when offering this defense is that courts will view the condition as a mental illness that mitigates the violence and lessens criminal responsibility. Some would say that even if Kyle had killed, the host body occupied by other innocent alters should not be incarcerated.

The prosecution team led by Randy Nichols also hired experts, including Dr. Herbert Spiegel, an expert on hypnosis and famous for treating Shirley Mason (‘Sybil’), whom he believed did not display genuine MPD. Spiegel stated that dissociative identity disorder is rare and suggested that Huskey was highly imaginative and had created “Kyle” to manipulate the court. The prosecutor proposed that Huskey had based Daxx on a daytime soap opera, Days of Our Lives, and he'd gotten “Kyle” from the name of a road in his neighborhood. In addition, no one had corroborated Huskey’s alleged child abuse. An inmate revealed that Huskey had read Sybil and said he was going to pretend to be crazy to avoid a death sentence. Huskey’s mother said she’d seen no evidence of any of the alleged alter personalities.

The jury struggled. Five jurors believed Huskey was guilty and sane, while four opted for not guilty by reason of insanity. Three couldn’t reach a decision. Later, one of them said that had she heard about his prior convictions for rape and attempted murder (not admitted), her opinion would have changed.

The judge declared a mistrial. In 2002, a court determined that Huskey had asked for a lawyer during his confession, so the confession was ruled coerced and inadmissible. Also, the search warrant was flawed. Nichols had no case. 

In 2005, the murder charges were dropped. Due in part to a psychiatric condition over which mental health experts still disagree, the Zoo Man, serving sentences for the rapes, might be an unacknowledged serial killer who could one day be paroled. Nichols had claimed that Huskey knew things only the killer would know, and after his arrest, no more bodies turned up in that area.  

References

Bass, B. & Jefferson, J. (2003). Death's Acre: Inside the legendary forensic lab The Body Farm, where the dead do tell tales. Putnam.