Today, Nashville may be best known for its bright lights, Southern charm and deep country-music ties; it’s churned out some of America’s most successful stars, from Brad Paisley to Reba McEntire to Garth Brooks. But what most people don’t know is that the city has a surprising secret past as a hotbed for serial killers.
Beginning in the 1970s alongside the development of new infrastructure, Music City became a haven for violent criminals who were either passing through or there to stay. In his new crime-history book Monster City: Music, Murder and Mayhem in Nashville’s Dark Age, former cop and bestselling author Michael Arntfield traces the city’s darkest days—as seen through the eyes of a famous local cold-case detective named Pat Postiglione.
A tenacious ex-New Yorker, Postiglione headed up Nashville’s formidable “Murder Squad”—a dedicated cold-case unit that solved a high number of notoriously nasty crimes, long before true-crime shows, podcasts and documentaries became the national pastime they are today. With the help of his devoted team of diehard detectives, Postiglione solved a whopping fifty-five unsolved murders between 2005 and his retirement in 2013.
A&E True Crime spoke with Arntfield about his admiration for Postiglione, and how the country-music mecca became a murder hub.
How did you end up writing about Nashville?
I got an invite from Vanderbilt University to be a visiting scholar there in 2016. I knew before going that there was a retired cold-case cop there who had some mutual friends in the criminology retired-police world, so I arranged to meet him in person—and that’s [Pat Postiglione] the protagonist of the book. At that point, I just wanted to network and maybe go for a few police ride-alongs, and I knew he could arrange that.
[Watch I Survived a Serial Killer in the A&E app.]
When I met him for the first time for coffee near the campus, he told me stories about cases, none of which I had heard of, and at that point I’d been teaching serial murder and American-crime history for years. I realized these stories never really made it too far beyond the South, if at all, and they were the most remarkable stories I’d heard.
I started doing the math and quickly figured out that [Postiglione] had caught more serial killers than any American detective still living, and that his cold-case squad had closed more cases than any other unit on any police department on the continent.
How did you reach those conclusions?
Two years of research that included the Murder Accountability Project and Radford [serial killer] databases, as well as collaboration with former FBI and other criminologists. I can’t find more than one serial killer who was investigated by the same agency in less than a 10-year period, much less six caught and arrested by a lone detective with a single agency. This…doesn’t include FBI analysts, who provided investigative support to numerous agencies across the country. Even then, ‘mindhunters’ like agents [John E.] Douglas and [Robert] Ressler had maybe two or three confirmed profiles that led to arrests.
Why did Nashville become a serial-killer haven? When did things begin to shift there?
The tide began to shift in the mid-’70s. At that point, American network television…began focusing on coastal shows. So they started canceling country-themed variety shows, and pulled out a lot of the infrastructure that they’d had in places like Nashville.
Much like the auto industry pulling out of the Rust Belt and the ensuing surge in crime (especially murder) and drugs, it might be the correlation of a number of factors; however, clear indicators are that a cultural and economic divestment from a discernible area leads to more systemic social problems. Killers were drawn [to Nashville] amidst this downturn. This was before ‘new country,” and [although] Nashville was still a music haven, the areas that people stroll around in now—the tourist traps—you did not want to be around there at night back then.
[Also,] Nashville has always been important geographically. In the U.S., it’s sort of the crossroads of the country.
All the murders I’ve unpacked in the book involve the country-music industry or long-haul trucking, both of which are central to the city’s economy. Once the interstate system was built, it was a major junction for moving products north, south, east and west. Two of the killers [in the book] are directly involved in trucking—one is a trucker, and the rest are involved…in country music: either in the industry as producers, pretending to be new artists, pretending to be record agents and using the cover of new country to attract their victims. Not unlike what we saw in California in the ’60s and ’70s, a lot of people went [to Nashville] seeking fame, prepared to take risks that they wouldn’t take in their hometowns back in the Midwest. And there were [criminals] there to prey on aspiring stars.
As a former cop, when you started to work with Pat, what stood out to you most about the way he works his cases? What sets him apart from other homicide detectives?
One thing that stuck out to me is his sense of justice and his sense that he’s on a mission, that this is more than a job. It’s the combination of instincts honed backed in native New York as well as dogged hard work. He always operated within the parameters of the law, but he was prepared to go to [new] lengths in terms of creative avenues. Even his colleagues, for many years, thought he was crazy, that he was wasting his time. This was before any of the digital databases that we have—and take for granted–now.
[For example,] Michael Scott Magliolo was a McDonalds manager from Texas whose hobby was to hitch a ride with long-haul truckers to anywhere he could go for a few days off and then kill a stranger. He’d murdered a man in Louisiana and a woman in Ohio before making the mistake of setting his sights on Nashville. Pat was able to link him to the Ohio case (which had a fingerprint left at the scene) after noticing some tell-tale behavioral indicators on the motel registry when he signed in under a fake name. Pat then cold called 100-plus other departments across the U.S. for a matching M.O., knowing he’d likely killed before. Magliolo ended up confessing to over 10 victims after being arrested in Texas and brought back to Tennessee.
Postiglione may have collected his paycheck from the city of Nashville every other week but…he’s working for the victims and their families, and he knows that.
What about Postiglione’s ‘Murder Squad’ cold-case department—could you give us some backstory on it?
The bureau selected and retained smart, motivated people so that they could shape the unit. They didn’t take in smart people and then tell them what to do.
These guys understand that, yeah, there [may be] a lot of murders occurring now, but when they look back on the books, where all this started in the mid ’70s, they realized [forensic] science was catching up to the present. Then they could start to work current cases but working back from the ’70s to the present. They were riding the wave of DNA advances in the 1990s and the resultant interest in cold cases. They picked 1975 and the double sex murders of two [Vanderbilt University] girls from that year [to start] and began applying [the new] forensic standards from that point forward until they caught up to present day cases. They essentially became investigators and time travelers. And they were doing that before the fight for cold cases became a sexy topic, before [all the crime shows]. They were pioneers in that respect.
How did you decide which cases to focus on in the book?
That was tough but, essentially, I broke it down to cases that were signposts in the city’s history: major forensic milestones, in terms of either offender profiling or the use of breakthrough forensic-investigative techniques. I wanted to focus on cases that have successful resolutions rather than leaving a lot of unanswered questions.
Which cases did you find the most shocking?
Bruce Mendenhall was a notable figure who linked the Nashville murder scene and the trucking industry. He had killed at least six other women before coming to Nashville and being caught by Pat in a final showdown. We still don’t know how many other victims he had, but, while in custody awaiting trial, his wife died and he used her life-insurance money to hire a hitman to take out Pat and the rest of the Murder Squad. He ended up being sentenced for that while the book was being written.
The most disturbing case is, I think, The Fast Food Killer. A guy [named Paul Dennis Reid] massacres a bowling alley full of employees in Texas. Someone else is wrongfully convicted and put on Death Row, which allows Reid to move to Nashville under the pretext of being a country-music star—drawn there by the celebrity of the city. It was all just a ruse. He immediately went back to what he did, which was killing innocent teenage employees in businesses. He’d kill everyone at a restaurant for, essentially, pocket change. This was his hobby.
How he was caught is truly remarkable. Had he not been caught, and had it not been for Pat—if he had been allowed to roam free for even a few more months and hit a bunch more restaurants, at [such] a critical point in the city’s history—you have to wonder if there would’ve been the same investment in Nashville in later years. A series of murders left unresolved would’ve changed the direction of the city’s future.