Serial killer Samuel Little, who also went by the name Samuel McDowell, had already been incarcerated for killing three women when he confessed to yet another murder in November 2018—this one a 1994 slaying in Odessa, Texas.
Turns out, he was just getting started.
Soon there was a cascade of confessions, a story of serial crime appalling in scope: 90 murders, Little claims, which—if confirmed—would make him the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history. By comparison, Gary Ridgway, aka the Green River Killer, confessed to killing 48 women in the 1980s. Ted Bundy is believed to have killed as many as 100 women, although he only admitted to 36.
While the numbers may be astonishing, the duration of Little’s homicidal behavior, and the ages at which he committed his crimes, are also noteworthy. The 78-year-old claims to have committed homicide repeatedly between 1970 and 2005, meaning he allegedly started when he was 30 and stopped at the advanced age of 65.
According to Christopher Uggen, a professor of sociology and law at the University of Minnesota who researches age and crime, Little’s behavior, while “not unprecedented,” is a “fairly rare phenomenon.”
“Age is one of the strongest correlates of criminal behavior,” explains Uggen. “Gender is also a strong correlate, but age has pronounced empirical regularity: Crime rises in the teens, reaches a peak somewhere between 16 and 18, and then declines rather rapidly—in half by 25, half again by 40, and then essentially falls” to zero.
Raqota Berger, a professor of psychology and criminology at California State University, Northridge, who has done research on crimes by elders, says men generally become less aggressive as they age. He also says the average serial killer is around 30 years old and stops killing by around 35.
Little seems to have broken that trend, and there are several reasons why that might have happened. But, according to Berger, it’s important to first understand that serial killers usually don’t stop killing because they lose their taste for it; the serial homicidal impulse is typically rooted in psychopathy (i.e. an absence of empathy), a condition that never goes away.
“The psychopath tends to be a psychopath for life… That brain signature won’t change as they age,” says Berger.
Rather, he says, a “retired serial killer” stops because of declining opportunities: “It’s more physical than social. A 70-year-old man can’t overpower someone in their 20s.”
Samuel Little’s physical make-up helped make him an exception. A former prizefighter who grew up boxing in prisons, Little was physically imposing. He says he beat women unconscious before choking them to death.
Elder’s serial murder is rare, but not completely unheard of.
In the 1980s, senior-citizen husband-and-wife duo Ray and Faye Copeland killed five drifters on their Missouri farm, shooting them each in the head and burying their bodies in barns. Eventually, the Copelands were apprehended, convicted and sentenced to death. At the time, Ray, 75, became the oldest death-row inmate in the U.S. (The current record for oldest person to have been on death row is held by Water Moody Jr., who, at 83, was executed in Alabama in April 2018.) Ray died while in prison. Faye had her death sentence commuted to life in prison in 1999. At the time, she was the oldest woman on death row at 77. Faye received medical parole in 2002 after suffering a stroke in prison and passed away in a nursing home in January 2004.
Still, Berger says that lack of physical strength among the elderly means they rarely aim their aggression at strangers, and that the sadistically inclined will shift focus to their intimates in their later years, hurting those around them.
“Most of the violence elderly men commit is domestic abuse,” Berger says, adding that sexual assault rates are higher than many people might expect in assisted-living facilities.
“People become less inhibited,” as they age, Berger says, adding, “you might notice elderly men can become very forward and crude… People’s need to dominate and sexually control other people doesn’t recede that much” with age.
Uggen agrees there’s evidence that sexual assault is less correlated with age than a lot of other criminal offenses.
“The age-crime curve looks different for sexual assault than it does for auto theft,” says Uggen. “It’s not that it’s flat—it just declines more slowly than other offenses,” he says, adding that the “peak” of the age-crime curve for sexual assault is also less pronounced than most other crimes.
In the case of Little, evidence suggests his homicides were at least partly sexually motivated. His semen has been found on the bodies of some of his victims, and he is believed to have raped some of them.
Other factors that typically help people “age out” of violent crime were absent from Little’s life. Uggen says that as people “become more connected to institutions” and “develop social ties” they are less likely to commit offenses. He notes, for example, that marriage and employment tend to help drive people away from violence.
But Little was nomadic and had little in the way of a career. He was arrested in a Kentucky homeless shelter in 2012.
If Little’s confessions are verified, he could potentially be the second senior citizen serial killer to be exposed this year. [Update 10/7/19: The FBI has confirmed that Little is the “most prolific serial killer in U.S. history,” having confessed to 93 murders. Law enforcement has been able to verify 50 of the confessions, so far, with many more pending confirmation. According to a statement on the FBI.gov website, “FBI crime analysts believe all of his confessions are credible.”]
In April 2018, authorities arrested 72-year-old retired police officer Joseph James DeAngelo and charged him with six counts of first-degree murder. Since then, they’ve added additional charges and as of the date of this article’s publication, he’s facing 13 murder charges and 13 rape-related charges. Prosecutors claim DeAngelo is the “Golden State Killer,” a serial murderer who, in the 1970s and ’80s, killed at least 13 people in California and raped and burglarized dozens more.
[UPDATE: On August 21, 2020, DeAngelo was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty in June to more than a dozen murders in the ’70s and ’80s.]
There are several notable differences between DeAngelo’s alleged crimes and Little’s. For one, while both men’s heinous behavior was uncovered when they were in their 70s, DeAngelo had allegedly stopped killing in his early 40s.
In addition, DeAngelo maintains his innocence. Little has volunteered information about his deeds to investigators.
Berger says there is evidence to suggest that people are more likely to feel remorseful towards the end of life and may therefore confess to their bad deeds, describing that late-life conflict as an issue regarding “ego integrity vs. despair.”
“When people know they’re about to die, they want to make amends,” Berger says. “They feel shame and guilt… They’re not comfortable with dying. And so sometimes they’ll confess.”
But Berger is quick to clarify that he’s talking about “normal” people, not cold-blooded killers. With Little, he says, “I think this just him boosting his ego.”
Authorities claim Little confessed as a way to bargain for a change in prisons. At the time of his first confession, in May 2018, he was in the California State Prison in Los Angeles County. He has since been transferred to a jail in Ector County, Texas.