Hidden in the House: Killers’ Secret Stash

Why do some killers risk capture just to keep their murder mementos?

Posted Jun 23, 2020

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

Russell Williams was the commander of Canada’s largest military airbase. Married, social, and competent at his job, he seemed like an upstanding guy. But he secretly broke into homes, terrorized women, and took photos of himself posing in their underwear.

He soon committed rape and murder. When Williams was caught, investigators discovered dozens of sets of bras and panties he’d stolen, all neatly arranged and catalogued. He also had a shocking number of photos on his computer that featured himself wearing them. Some photos included him posing in the panties of little girls, using their stuffed toys as props. Williams admitted to 82 incidents of break-ins and thefts. The photographs clearly showed his coercive fetish.

Similarly, Dennis “B.T.K.” Rader had numerous “hidey-holes” in which he kept items he’d taken from victims, along with descriptions of his “projects” (the murders) and underwear he’d taken from the homes of women he’d stalked but not killed. Occasionally, he’d dump the items, worried they might be discovered. At one point, he formed a plan to place his souvenirs into a safe deposit box, so that, upon his death, the box would be opened and everyone would know he was the infamous, uncaught BTK. He didn’t get around to it, and when police arrested him and searched his home and office, they found incriminating jewelry and drawings, along with proof of correspondence with cops and reporters.

Keeping trophies or souvenirs taken from victims helps killers relive their violence and wallow in the sense of power derived. Some have given victims’ jewelry to their wives or girlfriends so they can enjoy the secret satisfaction of seeing the murder memento on display. They know they’re taking a risk, because it proves their presence with the victim, but they think discovery is a long shot. Often, they feel immune to capture.

Shortly after Williams was sentenced in 2010, Janet Warren, a professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral science at the University of Virginia, undertook a study on this “collecting” behavior with forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz and former FBI profiler Roy Hazelwood. The resulting article was published in Aggression and Violent Behavior. They included Williams as a subject.

The researchers placed serial sexual offenders who collect artifacts linked to their victims in a distinct behavioral category and looked for common elements. The “process of collecting these artifacts and the experience of maintaining them together, and in proximity to the offender,” they wrote, “appear to represent a psychological experience that is central to the motivation for perpetrating the crimes.” It's erotic for them, even addictive.

The researchers explored some of the most prolific and egregious sexual offenders from the past 40 years. Although collection methods among offenders differed, “each reveals his wish to create a collection of victims, allowing both a reverie of remembrance and proof that he is capable of taking any victim he chooses, any way he likes.”

They called Russell Williams a “Cinematographer,” because he filmed his crimes, posed some victims, and assumed a role to create his fantasy-fueled pornography. In one incident, Williams even set up lamps for better lighting.

Dating Game Killer” Rodney Alcala took thousands of photographs, and kept pieces of jewelry. A set of earrings helped to convict him, and one of his photos later nailed him for a victim no one realized he’d even met.

Similarly, photographer Harvey Glatman kept victim photos. Caught after three murders and an attempted murder in 1958 in California, Glatman showed police how he’d posed as a photographer to get potential models to allow themselves to be tied up. He then took photographs as they began to realize he intended them harm. The photos showed bound, gagged, and terrified women looking straight at his camera. When investigators searched Glatman’s residence a second time, they found a toolbox. Inside were 22 photos of one victim, her underwear, her ID, and other personal items. He claimed he’d kept them to ensure that if he were ever caught, he’d be convicted. (Yeah, right.)

Others have recorded their crimes in narrative form. Rader kept a journal, as did a 1950’s jazz musician, Melvin Rees. After attacking and killing lone women and couples, including the murder of a family of four, the “Sex Beast” left a diary of graphic depictions in a saxophone case in a hole in a bedroom of his parents’ home. They gave police on his trail permission to search. With the diary were news accounts of the murders and a .38 caliber handgun missing the same parts that turned up at a body dump site.

Whether in narrative, video, or photographic form, these items hold the same meaning to the killers as trophies mounted on a wall, yet with only themselves to admire the evidence of their conquests. One of these collectors was also a hunter.

In June 1983, a sex worker in Anchorage, Alaska, told police that a redheaded john had tortured and raped her, and was planning to fly her to a remote cabin before she escaped. She identified the home of local baker Robert Hansen, but he said she was lying. Yet the remains of several women had turned up in the wilderness, shot or stabbed. Most had been sex workers. The police eventually got a search warrant, which turned up a weapon that ballistics matched to bullets removed from the murdered women. Hansen also had their missing jewelry and IDs. He’d given some items to his wife and daughter. Hansen admitted using his victims as “game.” For a sexual thrill, he’d drop them off in the wilderness and hunt them down.

Warren, Dietz, and Hazelwood said these killers-collectors showed “a desire to prolong the vulnerability of the victims and to enhance the offender’s power over them.” The souvenirs and trophies kept the experience alive and preserved the killers’ attachment to the victims.

Richard Cottingham incapacitated prostitutes with a chemical restraint, bound and gagged them with physical restraints, battered or burned them in vulnerable areas, and cut or gouged them with sharp implements. He liked power, so he made women suffer as they died. A prostitute’s cry for help led to Cottingham’s arrest in 1980. Evidence in his “Trophy Room” linked him to several murders and revealed his addiction to torture porn.

Some killers even keep bodies or body parts. John Wayne Gacy comes to mind (buried in his crawlspace), as does Jeffrey Dahmer, John Christie, and Dennis Nilsen. Ed Gein had skinned the face off one victim and dressed out the other one like a deer. Ted Bundy went to his wilderness dumping sites to feel connected as bodies decomposed, and David Meirhofer wrapped dismembered parts like pieces of meat and stored them in an abandoned house.

No matter which items they choose, the intense erotic pleasure they derive from this lingering contact with those they’ve killed outweighs fear over getting caught. Keeping these items feeds their sense of identity as killers, making the dullness they experience in their ordinary lives bearable.

References

Warren, J. I., Dietz, P. E., & Hazelwood, R. R. (2013). The Collectors: Serial sexual offenders who preserve evidence of their crimes. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 666-672.