Names like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer are synonymous with the idea of “serial killer” in the popular American imagination. But what if one of the most calculating serial killers in modern history has gone mostly overlooked?
That’s the question investigative journalist Maureen Callahan attempts to answer in American Predator, her new book on serial killer Israel Keyes—a murderer who perplexed even the FBI’s top minds in criminal profiling.
After serving in the U.S. Army from 1998 to 2001, Keyes is believed to have spent a decade traveling the country, robbing banks and kidnapping and murdering along the way. Keyes left “kill kits” with weapons and other items in secluded locations, picking them up before abducting and murdering a chosen victim and fleeing the scene.
After his arrest in 2012 for the murder of 18-year-old Samantha Koenig in Anchorage, Alaska, Keyes confessed to several others. He’s believed to have killed at least 11 people over a 14-year period, although his exact number of victims remains unknown. While awaiting trial, Keyes was found dead in prison by apparent suicide on December 1, 2012, leaving behind an eerie suicide note and a host of unanswered questions.
We spoke to Callahan about her decision to dig deeper into Keyes’ terrifying history, what sets Keyes apart in terms of his methods and Keyes’ fascination with other notorious serial killers.
What in particular about Israel Keyes’ story struck you?
I first came across this story in December 2012, in a small article asking if this person that nobody had ever heard of was the most diabolical serial killer in modern American history.
By the time I read the description of his modus operandi—which was completely unprecedented even among the top criminal profilers at the FBI Behavior Analysis Unit, who were terrified of him and flummoxed by him—I knew there were multiple stories here.
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At that time, he’d confessed to three homicides and said he had killed at least 11 people, probably more, over a period of 14 years (and probably longer than that).
It was like a reverse Russian nesting doll. Every time you asked a question, you’d find another, and it kept getting bigger and bigger.
So I wrote a piece for the New York Post. I called a lot of the agents and federal prosecutors working on this case. After that piece ran, I remained obsessed with it, and I felt like it was a book—and I knew I wanted to write it.
What were the research methods you employed to dig deeper into Keyes’ history?
My five years of research involved spending time in Anchorage, Alaska, and hundreds of hours with the FBI, including with agents who worked on the case.
I also had to figure out a way to access the case files. The FBI had put up a limited timeline of his travels online and asked the public for help in generating leads that would potentially identify other victims. That didn’t really go anywhere.
The Department of Justice was reluctant to release the files. I hired two First Amendment law firms. It took me several years and around $30,000 of my own money, but I shook loose a lot of documentation that points to potential other victims.
What do you think set Keyes apart from other serial killers, in terms of either his methods or his psyche?
One, he had zero victim profile. Most serial killers have a “type.” He would go after men, women, he went after children despite his protestations to the contrary. Old, young, fat, thin, rich, poor. Nothing was a hindrance.
I think of him as an analog killer in a digital world. All he did was buy a one-way plane ticket to a major city, rent a car, drive thousands of miles. In those drives, he’d be digging up “kill kits” that he’d hidden all over the U.S. The kits were Home Depot buckets that he filled with guns, ammo, rope, cash and Drano, which he would use to accelerate human decomposition. The locations were only in his mind, never documented.
Within hours, he would find a victim or victims—he also had a thing for couples—abduct them, take them to another location, rape and murder them. If he could, he’d take the bodies to another location and dispose of them so expertly that he left no trace of them or his DNA behind. Then he’d immediately put thousands of miles between him and that crime scene.
Did Keyes draw inspiration from any other famous serial killers?
He admitted to admiring Ted Bundy, who killed in various places around the country, but Ted Bundy had a very specific type—young white women who had long straight hair parted down the middle.
He also said that he learned a lot by reading books written by criminal profilers in the Bureau. He read John Douglas’ Mindhunter first, as a teenager, and he said he suddenly realized he wasn’t alone. He also read Dark Dreams by Roy Hazelwood, who wrote in great detail about lust-driven serial killers. He took notes from that book.
What are the main takeaways that you hope readers come away with after learning about Keyes?
One of the big takeaways, especially for women, who are the biggest consumers of true crime, is to never take your personal safety for granted. Since reporting on this book, I even notice changes in myself and the way I move around the world.
There’s also been this explosion of what they call the amateur online sleuth—people who really dig into a case where there are unanswered questions and loose ends. They come together and begin to generate leads. One of my hopes is that some potentially Keyes-related missing-persons cases are reopened, to find more victims.