Before they’re caught, serial killers often fly under-the-radar. In some cases, investigators aren’t even sure some murders are connected until the killer spells it out for them. In others, a lack of suspects leaves the narrative frustratingly incomplete.
But just because police and the public aren’t aware of a killing spree, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. A&E True Crime looks at five unsolved serial killer cases, the murders connected to them and some of the information we do (and don’t) know.
It started with a panicked 911 call on May 1, 2010, with 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert telling the operator “They’re trying to kill me.” Gilbert, a sex worker, was visiting a client on Jones Beach in Long Island, New York that night.
She was never seen alive again.
Her disappearance launched a police search. But in the process of looking, investigators stumbled upon the bodies of four missing women along a quarter-mile stretch of Oak Beach, eventually identified as Amber Lynn Costello, Melissa Barthelemy, Maureen Brainard-Barnes, and Megan Waterman—all sex workers who had gone missing. Over time, the investigation grew, and at least 10 victims are now tied to the “Long Island Serial Killer” or LISK.
Criminal profiler John Kelly tells A&E True Crime that evidence from the crime scene points to a highly organized killer, possibly a former police officer.
[Watch The Killing Season, a docuseries about the Long Island Serial Killer, on A&E Crime Central.]
“When you look at this situation: where this person deposited all the bodies… this is somebody who was pretty sophisticated,” says Kelly. And although there have been no new murders attributed to the case in years, Kelly doesn’t believe the killer would stop unless he were apprehended, incapacitated or killed.
“Something else would have to happen to him. This looked like a guy on fire.”
By the time investigators discovered the victims in the desert outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, there was nothing left of them but bones. Eleven women—most of whom were Hispanic, and most of whom were sex workers—had been buried in shallow graves along 92 acres of undeveloped land of dry sand and tumbleweeds.
The women had all gone missing between 2001 and 2006, but their remains were only discovered in 2009. One of the women, 22-year-old Michelle Valdez, was four months pregnant at the time. All but one of the victims—Syllania Edwards, 15 years old—were local to New Mexico.
Dubbed Albuquerque’s “crime of the century,” investigators struggled out of the gate. Two of the women “identified” amongst the remains later turned up alive. As of time of press, no one has been formally charged, although Joseph Blea—an incarcerated serial rapist—is a suspect in the killings. Another violent serial offender—Lorenzo Montoya, since deceased—is a potential suspect.
Most people imagine serial killers committing their crimes at a whisper-close distance. But for a month in 1992, a killer went on a spree throughout the Midwest with such a cold emotional remoteness that, in one case, he might not have even known his victim’s gender.
Pulling off Interstate 70 into small stores, the killer would target women working at mom-and-pop shops. He’d approach the store clerk from behind and fire a bullet to the back of her head. Then he’d take a small amount of money from the register, get back on the highway and repeat the behavior hundreds of miles away only a few days later.
Although he targeted women, one of his victims—Michael McKown, shot while stocking shelves at Sylvia’s ceramics in Indiana—was a man who wore his hair long, leading investigators to conclude that—in his haste to murder—the killer had mistaken the victim for a woman.
All told, the killer took six lives in 30 days. Authorities think there’s also a strong likelihood that two other murders, and a near-death murder/shooting in Texas in 1994 were also committed by the same man.
Kelly says the I-70 killer was highly organized, and that the surviving victim’s description of the killer’s clothes, combined with his old-fashioned weapon, and his method of killing, suggests someone who has worked in agriculture—and perhaps has slaughtered livestock.
If still alive, the killer would be in his 40s or 50s today.
“I have no reason to think he’s not,” alive, Kelly says. “For whatever reason, a lot of these guys stop or cool off.”
He adds that the proclivity for targeting women and allowing men to escape suggests, “he had a hard time confronting males… but I think this guy absolutely hates women.”
Smiley Face Killers
Until a serial killer is caught, the connectedness of the crimes can be a matter of speculation. Such is the case with the “Smiley Face Killers,” an alleged murderous gang so-named for graffiti markings found on bridges and other structures near where the remains of young men have been pulled from rivers.
Retired NYPD homicide detective Kevin Gannon has been working on the case for years, and tells A&E True Crime he’s “confident” that more than 100 murders across “at least 30 states” have been committed by an organized group. The allegedly-linked victims are predominantly college-age men, whose bodies are discovered in bodies of water. Autopsy reports often show date rape drugs in their systems. Other factors, including not enough decomposition between time of the victim’s disappearance and discovery, and the graffiti convinces Gannon that foul play is involved.
“The majority of the victims don’t even have water in their lungs,” he adds.
There are several skeptics: most notably the Federal Bureau of Investigations, which issued a statement in 2008 saying they’d seen no evidence of links between the killings. But there’s also movement the other way: in 2006, four years after the death of 21-year-old Christopher Jenkins, investigators reclassified his death as a homicide after initially ruling it a drowning.
Gannon says that a gang of serial killers isn’t all that far-fetched a theory.
“Look at biker gangs,” Gannon says. They’re often covert violent groups that are “into drugs, prostitution, distribution of firearms.” The Smiley Face gang, he argues, is a similar phenomenon—only intensified to include homicide.
The Rainbow Maniac
In the city of Carapicuíba (part of the greater metro area of Sao Paulo, Brazil), a murderer killed 13 men in Paturis Park—a popular gay meet-up spot in the city—between 2007 and 2009. All but one of the victims had been shot in the head, their half-naked bodies dumped in the park’s undergrowth.
Unlike the other cases on this list, a suspect was put on trial for this case: Jairo Francisco Franco, a retired state police sergeant. But in 2011, Franco was acquitted by a jury of his peers.
No other arrests have been made.
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