Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
There are currently 2.2 million people incarcerated in America’s prisons and jails, and a handful of these inmates are serial killers. Some of the most notorious serial killers are still alive today, serving life sentences for their sadistic crimes. Gary Ridgway (“The Green River Killer”), who was convicted of killing 49 teenage girls and women, and Dennis Radar, known as “BTK,” who murdered 10 people and sent letters to the police and media describing the details, are just two prolific serial killers currently in prison. Others, like Donald Leroy Evans, who murdered at least three people between 1985 and 1991, and Charles Schmid (“The Pied Piper of Tucson”), convicted of killing three young women, had their lives taken while behind bars.
“Although prominent individuals tend to stand out in prison subculture, the fact that they were serial killers likely did not make them targets,” author and investigative historian Peter Vronsky tells A&E Real Crime.
Vronsky says it’s possible, like in the Old West when a cowboy killed a notorious gunfighter and then he himself became famous, that those who murder serial killers want the same kind of notoriety or dynamic. Or serial killers might become targets because of the sexual nature of their crimes.
“There’s a hierarchy in prison, and child molesters and child murderers are lowest in rank,” Vronsky says. “Whether they’re serial offenders or not, sexual killers are targeted [by other inmates].”
Motivations aside, A&E Real Crime looks at some infamous serial killers who were murdered while serving their time.
Albert DeSalvo (‘The Boston Strangler’): Stabbed to Death by Undetermined Assailant in 1973
Albert DeSalvo, who became known as “The Boston Strangler,” confessed to killing 13 women in the Boston area between June 14, 1962 and January 4, 1964. He sexually assaulted most of his victims before strangling them with a piece of their clothing. Several others were beaten and stabbed to death. At the time of the murders, police also sought a suspect they dubbed “The Green Man,” due to the color of his pants, who was wanted for a series of unrelated sexual assaults. DeSalvo fit a victim’s description of “The Green Man” and authorities arrested him on October 27, 1964.
Although DeSalvo confessed to murdering 13 women while hypnotized, there was no physical evidence linking him to any of those particular crimes. He was tried only as “The Green Man” and found guilty on 10 counts of armed robbery and sexual assault. He received life imprisonment on January 18, 1967.
On November 25, 1973, corrections officers at Walpole state prison (now known as the Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Cedar Junction) found DeSalvo stabbed to death in his cell in the prison’s hospital wing, where he had worked as an orderly. DeSalvo had been dead for at least 10 hours. Fellow inmate Robert Wilson was tried for the murder, which ended in a hung jury.
“Prison institutions have subcultures, and those subcultures operate according to a certain set of norms and values,” criminologist Karol Lucken tells A&E Real Crime.
If another inmate violates the code, such as cheating or “ratting out” another, says Lucken, there are often consequences because it can cause problems for everyone and risks violating the hierarchal power structure of the inmate group.
This may have happened in DeSalvo’s case, as his attorney later stated that DeSalvo had begun selling illegal drugs for less than the inmate-enforced price, possibly making him a target.
“None of the inmates have ever testified or stated on record what had occurred, so DeSalvo’s death remains a mystery to this day,” says Vronsky.
In 1993, experts matched DNA collected from a water bottle with a sample of preserved forensic evidence taken from the Boston Strangler’s last victim in 1964, helping police link DeSalvo to the crime and reinforcing the likelihood that he committed the others.
Jeffrey Dahmer (‘The Milwaukee Cannibal’): Beaten to Death by Christopher Scarver in 1994
Jeffrey Dahmer, “The Milwaukee Cannibal” who killed 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991 and ate some of their remains, remains among America’s most notorious serial killers. Dahmer was captured in 1991 and sentenced to 16 life terms.
In a 2015 interview with the New York Post, convicted murderer Christopher Scarver said he arrived at Wisconsin’s Columbia Correctional Institution around the same time as Dahmer in 1992 and knew right away to keep his distance from the serial killer. Scarver claimed Dahmer would assemble his food to look like body parts and then squirt ketchup on them, taunting the other inmates with his cannibalistic infatuation.
“Because of the dynamics, the penitentiary is almost like being in high school and when Dahmer was free, he was the class clown,” says Vronsky, who believes the serial killer also exhibited a provocative, smart aleck personality in prison.
While Scarver found Dahmer’s actions unnerving, he never interacted with the serial killer until the morning of November 28, 1994. Dahmer, Scarver and Jesse Anderson, another inmate convicted of killing his wife, were escorted to clean the bathrooms. By this time, Scarver had become repulsed by the nature of Dahmer’s killings and his actions inside prison.
“Sex offenders are vilified in prison just as much as they are in society by non-criminals,” says Lucken. “However, criminals don’t exercise the same restraints in controlling their impulses or disdain, hate or revenge.”
After retrieving a mop, Scarver turned around and saw Dahmer and Anderson laughing. He grabbed a metal bar and struck Dahmer in the head twice, killing him. He then beat Anderson to death.
Luken says some inmates who are already serving life in prison, like Scarver, feel they have “nothing to lose” by committing additional crimes behind bars.
Scarver was sentenced to two life terms for the murders of Dahmer and Anderson.
“We often forget that Scarver murdered another person that same day, within minutes of killing Dahmer,” says Vronsky, once again reinforcing that serial killing alone does not necessarily make a person a target.
Donald Harvey (‘Angel of Death’): Beaten to Death by James Elliott in 2017
At the onset of his killing spree, Donald Harvey, who worked as a nurse’s aide, convinced himself that his victims, whom he smothered to death with pillows, were chronically ill cardiac patients who needed relief from pain. Harvey, as the self-professed “Angel of Death,” claimed to have killed around 70 people, but was convicted in 1987 on 37 counts of murder and sentenced to life plus 20 years.
Harvey entered the Ohio prison system on October 26, 1987. On March 28, 2017, prison officials discovered Harvey inside his cell severely beaten. He died two days later. Fellow inmate James Elliott, who was serving time for a series of burglaries, confessed to killing Harvey and received a life sentence for the murder.
In a letter he sent to the News Journal, Elliott claimed he wanted to get the attention of prison officials because he was “unhappy with the food being served by the institution,” and that “complaints and grievances were not getting their attention.” He also stated that murdering a well-known known serial killer “would enable him to ‘do something constructive’ for the friends and neighbors he robbed and stole from and never gave anything in return.”
Elliott had planned the assault, with the intention of stabbing Harvey. When the serial killer screamed out, he kicked and beat him to death.