3 – Ted Bundy
One of the characteristics of serial killers is that they spread their crimes out over a long period of time: the definition of a serial killer – according to convention, as there is not one single definition in use – is a person who kills more than three people with those murders taking place over a period of more than a month with breaks in between. It is this distinction of time that sets serial killers apart from mass murders, who kill lots of people in one place at the same time, and spree killers, who kill people in one single event spread across a wider geographic area. Of course, there are crossovers: the Beltway Sniper attacks of 2002 could well be considered to be all three, as multiple people were killed in one location, as in a mass murder, before another incident on the same day, like a spree killer, with attacks spread over three weeks, in the style of a serial killer.
Another feature that defines what turns a murderer into a serial killer is their psychological profile, which often leans towards a feeling of gratification – often sexual – from killing. Serial killers are often outwardly normal, even successful, and give little to no indication in their day to day lives that they are at all dangerous or depraved. Few men – and it is almost always men – fit the archetype of a serial killer in terms of length of time active and appearance of public normality, while concealing total depravity, quite as well as Ted Bundy.
Bundy killed at least 30 women between 1974 and 1975, before being caught and jailed in 1976, escaping in 1977 and then striking again in 1978. He would prey on the helpful instincts of his victims, often posing as a man with an arm in a sling to lure his prey to his car, where he would attack them with a blunt object and handcuff them. He would move his victims to secluded areas, generally a long distance from where they were abducted, before stripping them naked and strangling the women to death. Bundy would repeatedly return to the corpses until they decayed or were disturbed by wild animals.
He was a necrophiliac and would dress up the bodies in new clothes, as well as applying makeup and nail polish, before lying with them for hours and taking Polaroid photographs of them. His victims were usually young white women with hair parted in the centre, generally picked up from college campuses. Bundy had been rejected by a girlfriend, Stephanie Brooks, and it has long been speculated that he attacked women who physically resembled her, though Bundy himself denied this.
Despite this depravity, Bundy was able to live almost normally: he was a perfectly regular guy. He began killing in Washington state, where he was attending university, before transferring to Utah and continuing his activities there. He would also attack women in Colorado, Idaho, Oregon and California before his conviction in 1976. He escaped in 1977 and was re-captured in 1979. Bundy faced the death penalty and was eventually executed in Florida State Prison on January 24, 1989, his name synonymous with evil.
4 – John Wayne Gacy
If Ted Bundy is one of the most infamous and reviled serial killers in American history, then John Wayne Gacy might not be far behind him. His name is synonymous with a series of horrific murders in the Chicagoland area in the mid-1970s, but his image is arguably even scarier: Gacy was the so-called Killer Clown, known for dressing up as a clown at charity parties.
Gacy was borning Chicago into a Polish American family with an abusive father – often a trait of serial killers – and was himself sexually assaulted as a child. He escaped his family home as a 20-year-old and moved to Las Vegas and worked in a mortuary. On one occasion he climbed into a coffin holding the corpse of a teenage boy and fondled it, before his own sense of shock overcame him. The next day, Gacy called his mother and asked to be allowed to return home.
Back in the Midwest, he managed to find himself a job in Springfield, Illinois, got married and became very active in charity work with the Jaycees. It was while living in Waterloo, Iowa – where he owned 3 KFC restaurants – that Gacy’s less mainstream interests would come to light. Along with his wife, he would become interested in swinging and in recreational drug use, while also soliciting prostitutes behind his wife’s back. He was arrested and charged with sodomy of a teenage boy in 1968 and sent to state prison for ten years. Despite this, Gacy was released in 1970 and immediately relocated back to Chicago, where he bought a house and started a construction company. This would become vital to his killings.
Gacy’s modus operandi was simple: he would lure young men to his car, usually picked up at the Chicago Greyhound bus terminal, on the promise of work in his construction business. He would drug them, handcuff them and then rape them before strangling them to death, all usually in his house. He would often keep the corpses for several days before disposing of them in the crawl space beneath his home, which he would then fill in with concrete. When Gacy was finally caught, there were 27 dead bodies in his house and several more elsewhere on the property. Later victims were thrown into the Des Plaines River after the crawl space became too full.
1977 was the second most prolific of Gacy’s spree: there were confirmed 9 victims, all young men between the ages of 16 and 21, all buried in the crawl space of his Chicago home, with another two bodies discovered on the premises that date from the same year. Only in 1976 did Gacy kill more men and boys. There was another address, an apartment block, in which Gacy was a caretaker and in which he was spotted in the middle of the night with a shovel.
When he was finally arrested in 1978, Gacy confessed immediately. He told the cops his MO and even drew a diagram of his crawl space to show where the bodies were buried. He was convicted of 33 murders and sentenced to death, with the execution being carried out in May 1994.
5 – Archibald Hall
One of the aspects of serial killers that is often remarked upon is their ability to meld their appearance to their environment and their skills at blending into the background. Ted Bundy, for example, was nigh on impossible to identify for potential witnesses, as he looked different in almost every photograph and was so plain that nobody could remember anything specific about him. Bearing this in mind, Archibald Hall might just have been the expert in making himself appear as whatever people wanted him to be. His talents as a con man managed to move him into whichever social circles he saw as most advantageous to himself, and indeed, to catapult him into the higher echelons of the British aristocracy.
Hall was Scottish, born in the tough Glasgow district of Partick, at the time one of the most deprived inner-city areas of Europe. He began a criminal career at the age of just 15 in his native city, travelling to the richer parts of town to break into houses and steal jewellery. He eventually moved to London, using money that he had made from theft. Hall was bisexual and made headway in the budding gay scene in the capital, ingratiating himself into a community which was open to those of all backgrounds, even criminal ones.
Homosexuality was still illegal at the time in the UK and all social classes and groups could be found in the gay scene, as all were equally guilty under the law. Hall, living under the name of Roy Fontaine, worked as a butler – he took elocution lessons to rid himself of his lower class, Glaswegian accent – and began to move in aristocratic company, while still funding himself through jewel theft.
After being arrested and imprisoned, he moved back to Scotland and found himself again working as a butler to a wealthy woman on a country estate. He enjoyed the job and did not steal from the dowager (though he had initially intended to do so) and even attempted to stop a fellow criminal, David Wright, from taking her jewellery. When Wright threatened to expose him, Hall shot him and buried him in a stream. He left the estate and again found work as a butler in London for the Scott-Elliot family, members of the Scottish gentry.
He robbed and killed his employers with an accomplice, Michael Kitto, driving them all the way back to Scotland while drugged before strangling them. Hall and Kitto then stabbed the Scott-Elliot’s housekeeper, who had helped him in the previous murders, before going on to murder Hall’s brother Donald, a paedophile who had only been released from prison shortly before.
Hall was eventually caught by police after a hotel owner feared that he and Kitto would not pay their bill. When they were being questioned by police regarding a relatively simple motoring offence, the body of Donald Hall was found in the boot of their car. The car was then traced to the Scott-Elliot’s home in London and police there discovered the grisly scene there – while in the meantime, the body of the housekeeper had been found in Scotland. Hall was charged and convicted of murder while Kitto, who was also sent to prison, was told in court by police that Hall was planning to eventually kill him as well. Hall died in prison in 2002, at the time the oldest lifer in the British penal system.
6 – Hillside Stranglers
Previously in this article, we have covered individual killers, motivated by self-gratification. Now we come to our first tandem act, the Hillside Strangler – or later Stranglers, as it became clear that the deaths were not the actions of one man alone. Chasing two possible perpetrators is a markedly different proposition for law enforcement that trying to catch an individual. In the cases of the Son of Sam, the Yorkshire Ripper and Ted Bundy, the ability of the killer to hide in plain sight and be just one of a large group of potential suspects made them incredibly difficult to isolate and find – much more difficult for two people working in concert.
Moreover, the potential for a discovery via forensic science is much increased when there are two potential sources rather than just one. However, a psychological profile is far more difficult to build when there is a group dynamic instead of an individual acting alone, not to mention that most people are expecting serial killers to be one person, which makes any public callouts that could limit activity and protect the public.
In the case of the Hillside Strangler, protecting the public was one of the biggest issues, as the police never effectively stopped the killings and it was only a decision by the murderers to stop – and then a subsequent falling out between them – that resulted in their halt. The killers were later caught only after one of them struck again, this time on his own, in a different state.
Their MO was simple: they would lure women, often prostitutes, into their car while posing as johns or Los Angeles Police Department officers, before taking them to their homes and brutally raping and torturing them. They would then be strangled with a ligature and their bodies dumped in the Hollywood Hills, hence the Hillside Strangler moniker.
The perpetrators were Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, two cousins. They began working together as pimps in LA and initially targeted sex workers. They killed two prostitutes in October & November 1977, but police were slow to react and the murders, as so often happens with the deaths of sex workers, failed to raise much media attention. The stranglings became far more newsworthy, however, when first a restaurant worker and then two young girls, aged 12 and 14, disappeared. It was at the end of November that the LAPD realised that they were dealing with a serial killer and dubbed him the Hillside Strangler.
The murders continued and by the end of 1977, the pair had killed 10 women in the Los Angeles area. The police were confident that two people were committing the murders, as they found two sets of DNA evidence on the bodies, but had few leads regarding their identities. Only when Bianchi was captured by Washington State police after a double murder of two students in Bellingham, WA, was the connection made. His licence plate was linked back to one seen near two of the abductions, while in turn, his lawyer also mentioned his cousin, Angelo Buono as being a suspect. It was not until January 1979 – close to a year after the last murder – that Bianchi and Buono were finally charged and eventually, convicted.
7 – Oakland County Child Killer
The final case in our list the only one in which the murderer has never been found. The case of the Oakland County Child Killer is still open with police in Michigan, but some 40 years after the last attack, it seems unlikely that anyone will ever be brought to justice for these heinous crimes. They are among the most horrifying in our list too, as they involve the abduction, sexual assault and murder of defenceless children, all between the ages of 10 and 12.
The first killing was in 1976, when Mark Stebbins, a 12-year-old boy from the Detroit suburb of Ferndale, Michigan was last sighted leaving a community hall on a Sunday afternoon. His mother, who was at the hall, had allowed him to leave to go home and watch television, but he was never seen again. The body of Mark Stebbins was found four days later, laid out on display in a snowdrift the neighbouring district of Southfield. He had been violated with an object and then asphyxiated with a rope, after having also been tied up – he had rope marks on his ankles and wrists.
The death of Mark Stebbins was followed by that of another 12-year-old, this time a girl named Jill Robinson from Royal Oak, a different area of Oakland County on the outskirts of Detroit. She was a young runaway, who had fled the family home after an argument with her mother in the run-up to Christmas 1976. She disappeared on December 22 and was found on the morning of December 26, having been shot in the face while forced to lie on her back the ground, fully clothed and still carrying the backpack that she had packed when she ran away.
The manner in which the body had been laid out in a snowdrift to be found – it was discovered directly across from a police station – alerted police that the perpetrator might well have been the same killer who murdered Mark Stebbins.
In the following three months, another two bodies of children would be found. Kristine Mihelich, a ten-year-old, was laid out in a snowbank after being smothered – though crucially, she had been abducted 19 days previously and had only died within the 24 hours before her body was found. Timothy King, 11, was similarly found in March 1977, a month and a half after Mihelich’s body was discovered.
He had left his family home to go to buy candy and had disappeared: fresh with the stories of the previous 3 murders, the local Detroit media had broadcast appeals from his parents and advertisements in newspapers calling for his return. When the suffocated, sexually-assaulted body of Timothy King was discovered, it neatly laid out in clothes that had been laundered and with the skateboard that he had left home with two weeks before.
The search for the Oakland County Child Killer brought up plenty of suspects: a man wrote a letter to a Detroit psychiatrist associated with the police claiming to know the killer, but was never uncovered, while the son of a General Motors executive was found with drawn images that closely resembled Mark Stebbins when he committed suicide in late 1978. Even John Wayne Gacy, the Clown Killer, was considered, as he had been in Michigan at the time.
8 – The Vampire of Sacramento
If we’ve learned one thing about serial killers in our perusal of the worst people of 1977, it is that they tend to have had horrendous childhoods and a history of abuse. There is a scientific theory that backs this up as well: the Macdonald Triad. The Macdonald Triad holds that those who exhibit homicidal or sociopathic behaviour, particularly violent ones, particularly one of a serial nature and particularly those with sexually predatory behaviour, often display the same set of symptoms in their early life. Those symptoms are bed-wetting at an age beyond most children, cruelty to animals and pyromaniacal tendencies – all three of which are very visible in the early life of Richard Chase, aka the Vampire of Sacramento.
Chase, who killed 6 people in 1977 and early 1978 in California, had all three behavioural patterns and plenty more besides. He was abused by his parents as a child, was a severe hypochondriac in his adolescence and, by the time that he was at college, an alcoholic, drug addict and exhibitionist. He would capture, murder and eat animals raw – often mixed in a blender with Coke – before, eventually, he was committed to an asylum in 1973 at the age of 23. Even in the mental institution, he would capture birds and drink their blood, earning him the nickname of “The Vampire” among hospital staff.
Richard Chase would be released back into society in 1976 after an intensive schedule of treatments. He was forced to live with his mother, whom he long suspected of wanting to poison him, and finally managed to move out on his own. He was clearly not cured off his obsession with blood – he was arrested in the summer of 1977 covered in cow’s blood – and by the end of the year, he would begin killing.
His MO was, even by the standards of our list, horrendous. He would kill his victims with guns before engaging in necrophilia, cannibalism and mutilation of their corpses, always involving blood drinking. His final victims were a 38-year-old mother, her friend, a child and a baby. Chase left so much blood that when the police arrived, they were easily able to take fingerprints and when they tracked him down, everything in his home was soaked in blood.
Chase attempted to plead insanity but was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. His strange behaviour would continue: he began to claim that his crimes had been orchestrated by the Nazis and by UFOs, while he also hoarded food that he thought was being poisoned by the guards. After over a year on death row – where even the other inmates in the prison were scared of him – he managed to store up enough of his anti-depressants to kill himself with via an overdose.