Bomb blasts. Vehicles driven into crowds. School shootings. These are the heinous crimes that tend to dominate our headlines and airwaves today. Terrorists and mass murderers are to the 21st century what serial killers were to the second half of the last century.
(For more on how 40 years ago was the zenith year for serial killers, read our recent article,‘Beserker ‘78: A Year of Serial Killing Carnage’.)
As a concept, the idea of the serial murderer almost seems outdated. This, in part, can be explained by media focus and attention. In truth though, the media - at least on this occasion - are actually reflecting what’s going on in the world. The 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s saw a huge spike in the number of active serial killers across the world. Since then however, that number has decreased quite dramatically.And the statistics back that up.
The phenomenon hasn’t entirely gone away, though. There may have been a dramatic nosedive in active serial killer numbers, but to imagine they no longer exist is to be naïve in the extreme. In fact, there are scores of active and as-yet unidentified serial murderers running around as free citizens right now. Killing people. That’s something we’ll be looking at in the second part of this short series on repeat murderers who escaped justice.
In this first part though, we’re going to examine some of history’s most brutal ‘free’ serial killers. Four of the five evaded capture completely and most even escaped identification. None are thought/hoped to still be active, while some may even be dead.
Still… We’d recommend that you lock your doors nonetheless. Y’know. Just in case.
The Metropolitan Police could never confirm whether or not the infamous ‘Dear Boss’ or ‘From Hell’ Jack the Ripper letters were actually written by the famed killer or not, but they largely suspected both to be hoaxes. The San Francisco Police Department, however, were less dubious about the authenticity of the so-called ‘Zodiac Killer’s taunting notes to Bay Area newspapers. Yet like their British counterparts some three-quarters of a century previously, they never arrested or identified their killer either.
In the letters, the never-ID’d Zodiac laid claim to having slaughtered some 37 people during a reign of terror that sent San Francisco and its surrounding area into near meltdown in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. But the San Fransisco Police Department only confirmed 7 victims, 2 of which survived. Those survivors went on to help create a facial composite image of the Zodiac, but unfortunately, it never led to any arrests.
California’s Napa, Vallejo and Solano Counties all still continue to chase leads in the open case, with investigators currently exploring the possibility of retrospectively identifying the killer through genealogical channels.DNA and ancestry websites caught the Golden State Killer, after all. Could they be used to catch the Zodiac…? Here’s hoping.
Glasgow, 1969. Over the past twenty months, there had been three near-identical murders. Patricia Docker, Jemima McDonald and Helen Puttock had all been attacked, raped and strangled with their own stockings. Handbags missing, the contents spilt out near the body, each of the women - who had all been menstruating at the time of their murder - were left on the floor with tampons or sanitary towels left on, or near, their bodies.
The crimes, understandably, shocked the city. Glasgow was and still is a tough and hardy city, but the ferocity of these almost unspeakable murders had the place reeling. The killer needed to be caught.
Yet he was never caught... Or was he?
Had the man, who was heard by one of the victim’s sisters to frequently reference the Old Testament in conversation, killed three women with an identical modus operandi and then simply gone cold turkey? Or did his bloodlust continue and he merely alter his approach to murder? Many criminologists, investigators and true crime buffs suspect he could well be the infamous serial sex offender and murderer Peter Tobin.
If Tobin is ‘John’, then the man who killed Patricia, Jemima and Helen is currently rotting in prison 48 miles from where they died, serving out the rest of his days in HMP Edinburgh. If he’s not, then there’s every chance that Bible John is still out there somewhere, a very sick and dangerous old man.
Fans of cult B movies might recognise this story from the 1976 slasher flick, ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown’ (or it’s 2014 remake). But while the film claimed that ‘the story you are about to see is true, where it happened and how it happened,’ much of it was actually fabricated. In fact, folklore around the case became rather muddied after the release of Charles B. Pierce’s horror movie.
The ‘Phantom Slayer’ that caused so much fuss on the Texas-Arkansas border didn’t escape justice because of some silly low-budget feature, though. The real crimes predated the original movie by almost three decades.
Eight people were attacked by the unknown assailant in the early months of 1946, with five left dead. Dressed plainly and with a pillowcase with eye holes cut out for a mask, the killer’s preferred targets were young couples out for ‘a drive’ that would park up on lover’s lanes.
Police interviewed hundreds of people in connection with the case and had dozens of suspects, but no one was ever formally charged with the murders. In fact, the closest the Texas and Arkansas authorities would come to their elusive killer would be when watching his big-screen version in a drive-in cinema some 30 years later.
Il Mostro di Firenze was, like the other serial killers to appear on this list so far, never apprehended by police. He was also never identified, either. Like the Zodiac and the Phantom Slayer, theMonster of Florence liked to attack couples in their cars.
There are other similarities between Il Mostro and the Zodiac. The serial killer in Italy, whose crimes spanned between 1968 and 1985, would also send notes to torment people after his crimes.
Unlike the Zodiac though, this killer would really get his hands dirty, often quite viciously mutilating the genitalia of his female victims. Enclosed with the letter to state prosecutor, Silvia Della Monica, after the murder of his last known victim Nadine Mauriot was - chillingly - a piece of her severed breast.
The parallels between The Monster of Florence and the Zodiac Killer have led some to believe that they were one and the same man. It’s a theory that’s been mostly discredited, though. As alluring a concept as it might be.
Scores of Florentines have been questioned and accused by authorities, private investigators and journalists down the years, with all sorts of figures from noblemen to farm hands coming under suspicion. One pervading theory points the finger at the involvement of a satanic cult with ties to the historic elite families of the city, but no allegations have ever stuck against anyone.
Onto another monster now, one who police know only too well…
Colombian serial killer Pedro López is known as The Monster of the Andes in South America and claims to have raped and butchered more than 300 women and girls during an especially vicious legacy of terror that dates back decades. So unlike the other serial killers to appear here, his identity is known. Yet he is still a free man.
While he was only convicted of around a third of that number (only 110…), he was - incredibly - allowed to leave prison. Well, we say ‘prison’. López spent most of his mortifyingly short 14-year sentence in a psychiatric facility. Before being released back in 1998.
So are we to assume that The Monster of the Andes is a reformed and atoned character? Well, perhaps we should. If for no other reason than otherwise, the whole of South America would be gripped by fear that he can still rampage around Colombia, Peru and Ecuador able and willing to indiscriminately rape, torture and slay innocent young women.
Four years after his release though, in 2002, Interpol issued a warrant for his arrest after a murder in his home country almost perfectly matched the man’s MO. He was never found.
Suffice to say that many of the women of Bogotá, worried about the whereabouts of Señor Pedro López, still lock their doors at night...