Although the phrase “Serial Killer” wasn’t coined until the 1970s, the truth is these shadowy mysteries have lurked among society since the beginning of civilization. Today, these monsters are the huge, bold headlines of our newspapers and grace our television screens in fictional and reality-based shows.
The United States of America has more recorded serial killers than any other country in the world. Some experts will say it is because America has better forensics and police resources to identify and track serial killers than other countries while, on the other hand, some claim it is because of our country’s vast land mass and population in comparison to other nations.
Whatever the reason, no one can dispute that serial killers have become as much of an American icon as 4th of July and apple pie.
ALABAMA: Rhonda Bell Thomley Martin
Prosecutors claimed Rhonda Martin killed her mother, two husbands, and five children so that she could collection the life insurance policies but, since the amounts received barely covered the funeral expenses, the actual reasons are probably much more sinister.
When Rhonda attempted to kill her fifth husband (formerly her son-in-law) in March 1956, he didn’t die but sadly he would live the rest of his life as a paraplegic. His illness sparked an investigation into the multitude of mysterious deaths surrounding the Montgomery, Alabama, waitress.
During police questioning, Rhonda admitted to poisoning her mother, two husbands, and three of her children but adamantly denied killing the other two.
In the latter months of 1956, Rhonda was convicted of the 1951 murder of 51 year-old Claude Carroll Martin and was sentenced to death. She was executed in Alabama’s electric chair on October 11, 1957.
ALASKA: Robert Christian Hansen
In 1967, Iowa native Robert Hansen moved to Anchorage, Alaska, with his second wife. Hansen was well liked by his Alaskan neighbors and they were impressed with his hunting skills, but they didn’t know the man behind the mask.
Anchorage and its surrounding communities suddenly had young female bodies popping up and detectives realized they had a serial killer lurking among them.
On June 13, 1983, 17 year-old Cindy Paulson agreed to have sex with Hansen for $200 but as soon as she got in the car, Hansen pulled a gun on her and it turned from consensual (albeit, paid-for) sex to kidnapping and eventually rape. Fortunately, later that same day, Cindy saw an opportunity to escape and took it. She was able to identify Hansen as her perpetrator.
When questioned about Cindy’s accusations, Hansen claimed Cindy was trying to cause problems for him with his wife because he wouldn’t pay her extortion fees. Considering Hansen’s reputation in the community, his meek demeanor, and an alibi confirmed by Hansen’s friend, police dismissed him as a possible suspect in the murders.
Anchorage officials turned to the FBI for help and Agent Roy Hazelwood provided a profile that said the killer would be an experienced hunter, suffer low self-esteem, would keep souvenirs from the victims, and may possibly speak with a stutter. Detectives immediately thought of Robert Hansen and the claims made by Cindy Paulson.
Executing a search warrant on Hansen’s home on October 27, 1983, detectives uncovered jewelry belonging to some of the murdered women, several firearms, and an aviation map with numerous red “x” markings.
Hansen attempted to deny any knowledge of the murders, but the evidence was too great and eventually he confessed. According to Hansen, he killed between 17 and 21 women beginning as early as 1971. To date, however, Hansen has only been officially charged with four murders. A jury sentenced the Alaskan serial killer to 461 years in prison. Hansen is presently housed at the Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, Alaska.
ARIZONA: Charles Howard Schmid, Jr.
Only five feet, four inches tall, Charles Schmid, Jr. was nicknamed “The Pied Piper of Tucson” because of his uncanny ability to get girls to fall for him.
An arrogant and narcissistic little man, Schmid increased his height by placing rags in his cowboy boots. He often dyed his auburn hair to a pitch black, used make up to cover imperfections, whitened his lips, and applied a fake mole to his cheek as a beauty mark while taking on the sleepy-eye look of Elvis.
What was probably more attractive than any of Schmid’s “doctoring”, however, was his parents wealth which allowed him to shower his girlfriends with expensive gifts and purchase niceties that impressed the ladies unaffordable to other young men.
On May 31, 1964, Smitty, as he was nicknamed, lured 15 year-old Allene Rowe into the desert where he raped and murdered her then convinced a couple who had accompanied them to help bury her body. When Allene’s mother, Norma, reported her missing, police dismissed her as another of Tucson’s runaway teens.
A year later, Schmid began dating 16 year-old Gretchen Fritz, the daughter of a prominent Tucson heart surgeon. During their courtship and short engagement, Schmid confided in Gretchen about killing Allene. Later, when Schmid broke up with Gretchen, she threatened to go to the police with information about the killing.
On August 16, 1965, Schmid strangled Gretchen and her sister Wendy Fritz and buried their bodies in the desert. He then told his best friend Richard Bruns about killing the sisters to keep them from going to police.
Bruns was appalled at his friends’ confession and soon became convinced Schmid was harassing his own girlfriend, fearing for her safety. After a short stay with his grandparents in Ohio, Bruns returned to Tucson prepared to help investigators put Schmid behind bars.
Tucson residents were shocked to learn about teenage activities going on right under their noses – drugs, drinking, orgies, and other scandalous behaviors. And although serial killer Charles Schmid had been arrested, teens suddenly found themselves dealing with stricter parental rules and much earlier curfews.
Following a high profile trial in 1966, Charles Schmid, Jr. was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. His sentence, however, was commuted to life imprisonment in 1971 when Arizona temporarily abolished the death penalty. But on March 10, 1975, Schmid was stabbed 47 times by two fellow prisoners and died 20 days later. He is buried in the Arizona State Prison Cemetery in Florence, Arizona.
ARKANSAS: The Phantom Killer (Unidentified)
On February 22, 1946, James B. Hollis and his girlfriend Mary Jeanne Larey were brutally attacked in a rural area of Texarkana, Arkansas. Mary Jeanne was also sexually assault – with the perpetrator’s gun. Fortunately, the couple would survive.
One month and one day later, Richard Griffin and his girlfriend Polly Ann Moore were found murdered in Griffin’s car on desolate Bowie County Road. Forensics would suggest the couple was killed outside the car then placed back inside following their deaths.
On April 14, 1946, 15 year-old Betty Jo Booker and her boyfriend Paul Martin were murdered sometime during the predawn hours. Paul’s body was discovered along North Park Road. Betty Jo’s body was discovered almost a mile away on what is now known as Moore’s Lane. Both teens had died of gunshot wounds.
Three attacks on three couples, four dead victims, the residents of Texarkana went into a state of panic and gun sales skyrocketed. The streets became vacant with each sunset as people barricaded their homes against an unidentified killer.
There were a couple of more incidents that were speculated to be the work of The Phantom Killer but were never officially declared as such.
Youell Swinney, a 29 year-old car thief, counterfeiter, and burglar was arrested, along with his wife, in 1946 – after the attacks had mysteriously ended. Swinney’s wife told officers her husband was the killer. However, Mrs. Swinney’s story changed several times and she came to be considered an unreliable witness.
The Phantom Killer inspired the 1976 movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown, which occasionally reruns on the Turner Classic Movies and other similar channels.
In 2002, Dallas’ KDFW news aired a segment about the 1946 murders and noted Youell Swinney was long considered a suspect. However, the news team also reported that several family members of the murder victims have received mysterious calls from a lady who, although she won’t identify herself, apologizes for the deaths for which she claims her father is responsible. Since Swinney was never known to have a daughter, these calls definitely brings into question his being a suspect.
As of 2006, The Phantom Killer cases are classified as cold cases. Many believe the murderer’s identity will never be known.
CALIFORNIA: Richard Trenton Chase
America can thank the abusive mother of Richard Chase for creating another serial killer who exhibited signs of severe mental illness from a very young age.
A chronic bed-wetter and pyromaniac, even before his teenage years Chase was frequently abusing small animals, an alcoholic, and drug abuser.
Chase was also a hypochondriac. He frequently complained his heart stopped beating for extended periods and that someone had “stolen” his pulmonary artery. Believing many of his “illnesses” were caused by a Vitamin C deficiency, Chase would peel oranges and hold them to his head believing his body would absorb the needed vitamins. When Chase convinced himself his cranial bones had separated and were moving around, he shaved his head so he could keep a close eye on them.
Chase left his mother’s home and moved into his own apartment because he believed his mother was trying to poison him. On his own, Chase continued his drinking and drug use; marijuana and LSD being his drugs of choice. Roommates complained that Chase, in his constant state of intoxication, frequently walked around the apartment naked – even in the presence of company. When the roommates noticed Chase was mixing the insides of the small animals he killed with Coca-Cola in a blender then drinking the concoction, they demanded he move out. When he refused, they moved out instead.
In 1975, Chase was involuntarily committed to a mental facility after being rushed to the hospital because he injected himself with rabbit’s blood. During his commitment, hospital staff discovered Chase’s face covered in blood. He had captured birds that had flown into the psychiatric facility, killed them, and drank their blood. Staff members (quietly) dubbed him “Dracula.”
Doctors diagnosed Chase as a paranoid schizophrenic and prescribed him a regime of psychotropic drugs. In 1976, he was deemed fit to return to society and released. However, Chase’s mother believed he did not need the drugs, which she said turned him into “a zombie,” and weaned him off them. She then rented her son his own apartment.
On December 29, 1977, Chase killed his first human victim: 51 year-old engineer and father of two, Ambrose Griffin.
Chase’s next victim was Teresa Lyn Wallin, who was three months pregnant when she was murdered on January 23, 1978. Teresa was home alone when Chase walked through an unlocked door and shot her. After her death, Chase sexually assaulted her body before bathing in her blood.
In a ultimate final act of violence (not final by Chase’s choice, by any means), Chase entered the home of 38 year-old Evelyn Miroth. Evelyn and her visiting friend Daniel “Danny” Meredith were shot to death along with her 6 year-old son and 22 month-old nephew, David Michael Ferreira. After the murders, Chase sexually assault and cannibalized Evelyn’s body before snatching the toddler’s corpse and fleeing to his apartment where he mutilated and cannibalized the little boys’ body before dumping him at nearby church.
Fortunately, a six year-old girl had startled Chase when she arrived for a playdate with Evelyn’s son and she rushed to a neighbor’s house for help. When police arrived at the Miroth home, they discovered the killer had left behind perfect hand and shoe prints in the victims blood; prints that later identified Richard Chase as the killer.
During his 1979 trial, defense attorneys relied heavily on Chase’s mental medical history to save him from a death sentence. They were unsuccessful, however, and on May 8, 1979, Chase was convicted on six counts of first degree murder and sentenced to die in California’s gas chamber.
On December 26, 1980, a San Quentin corrections officer found Chase dead in his prison cell. An autopsy revealed Chase had died from an overdose of prescribe antidepressants he had been hoarding for several weeks prior to his death. He is buried in an unmarked grave in the now-defunct San Quentin Prison Cemetery in San Rafael, California.
Authors Lt. Ray Biondi and Walt Hecox wrote a (very, very) detailed book about Richard Chase titled The Dracula Killer. Although now out of print, used copies can be purchased at Amazon.