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Israel Keyes: The methodical serial killer

CCTV of Samantha Koenig
Image: Police released surveillance of Samantha Koenig, the last confirmed victim of Israel Keyes | Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

In 2012, 34-year-old Israel Keyes was arrested after being linked to the abduction of a young woman in Anchorage, Alaska. Investigators working on the case would soon uncover that this abduction was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg and Keyes would expose himself as one of the most diabolical serial killers in modern American history.

Keyes’ downfall commenced in the 1st of February 2012 when he abducted 18-year-old Samantha Koenig from a drive-thru coffee stand on Tudor Road, Anchorage, Alaska, where she worked. He was wearing a mask and hoody as he approached the coffee stand. He ordered a coffee before jumping in the window and zip-tying Koenig. The entire kidnapping was caught on security camera.

Two weeks after Koenig's abduction, her family were clinging to hope that she was still alive. Her boyfriend had received a text message directing him to a specific area in a local dog park where he found a ransom note. The random note included a photograph of Koenig. She was tied up with a copy of the Anchorage Daily News, dated 13 February, 2012, indicating that she was still alive. The ransom demanded $30,000 be deposited directly into Koenig's bank account and the family complied.

Unbeknownst to Koenig's family, however, she was already dead. She had been sexually assaulted by Keyes and then strangled to death in a shed near his home. The photograph Keyes had taken of Koenig was from after her death. He had applied makeup to her face and sewed her eyes open with fishing line, giving the impression of life. After Keyes snapped the grisly photograph, he dumped Koenig’s body in Matanuska Lake where it would eventually be found by investigators.

When the money was deposited into Koenig's bank account, Keyes went to a bank in Wilcox, Arizona, to withdraw some of it. He then sped to a bank in Lordsberg, New Mexico, to withdraw more. Investigators were able to retrieve the security footage from the banks which showed a man wearing numerous layers in an effort to make himself appear larger as well as a full-face mask and glasses. Keyes’ vehicle, however, was also captured on security footage at both banks and on the 13th of March, he was arrested in Lufkin, Texas.

Following his arrest, Keyes gave investigators the crushing news that Koenig was dead and gave them details of where to find her. He chillingly stated that her murder was just one of many...

Keyes would confess to at least 11 murders between 2001 and 2012, as well as 20 to 30 burglaries, a number of rapes and several bank robberies. One of the conditions of his confessions was that investigators could not publicly release any information regarding his spate of crimes. He had feared that his young daughter would learn about his murders. He told investigators: 'I’m happy to help but it’s on my terms. I am not in this for the glory. I’m not trying to be on TV.'

Keyes was born in Cove, Utah, on the 7th of January, 1978. He was the second oldest of ten children. When he was around 3 or 4-years-old, his family relocated to a remote hamlet in the woods just outside Colville, Washington. His parents were fundamentalist Christians and at a time, they lived without electricity and opted to home-school their children. For a period of time, some of the children slept inside a tent and earned money cutting firewood or working on farms. He served in the U.S. Army from 1998 to 2001 and was stationed at Fort Lewis, Fort Hood and Fort Egypt. While here, he said that he enjoyed the survival skills aspect of military training and began to fantasize about killing strangers.

He had lived in Washington from 2001 until March of 2007 when he moved to Alaska with his girlfriend and young daughter. They lived in a white two-story house in Turnagain where they entertained friends and family. While here, he started his own construction business and travelled extensively.

On the 2nd of December, 2012, while he was being held at the Anchorage Correctional Complex on suspicion of murder, Keyes ended his own life by slitting his wrists and hanging himself with a sheet in his jail cell. His suicide left many questions about possible murders, rapes and robberies. However, it also gave investigators the opportunity to go public with his confessions. Investigators were only able to identify three of his victims: Samantha Koenig from Anchorage and Bill and Lorraine Currier from Essex Junction, Vermont. Both of these murders he confessed to in extensive detail. He told investigators he had buried weapons in Burlington, Vermont, in the past and had dug them up to murder the Curriers in June of 2011. He had chosen this couple in particular simply because of the design of their home – they had an attached garage which made it easy to enter.

Despite only being able to corroborate the three murders, investigators believed that Keyes most likely had other victims and that some missing person cases could actually be murder cases. When confessing, Keyes refused to name his victims other than Koenig and the Curriers and refused to give exact locations. During one interview with investigators, Keyes revealed he would set up target practice in the Chugach mountain range and spoke about how he scoped out various sites to abduct people. He detailed how on one occasion, he sat in ambush at Point Woronzof where he planned on shooting a couple but was interrupted by a police officer. He said he considered shooting the police officer as well which would have fulfilled a fantasy he attributed to his 'white supremacist roots.' Ultimately, however, he decided against it.

Keyes’ movements were difficult to track because unlike most serial killers, he didn’t follow a particular modus operandi and targeted both men and women ranging from late teens to the elderly. He told investigators that he would often travel great distances to find a target. He had buried what he described as 'kill kits' throughout the country which contained guns, silencers, zip ties and other weaponry. When the urge to kill came over him, he would travel to one of these kill kits and then pick a target. According to Frank Russo, the Assistant US Attorney who worked on the case, Keyes was among the top three organized minds he had ever come across. According to investigators, Israel Keyes took great pleasure in committing murder. As Detective Monique Doll said:

'Israel Keyes didn’t kidnap and kill people because he was crazy, he didn’t kidnap and kill people because his deity told him to or because he had a bad childhood. Israel Keyes did this because he got an immense amount of enjoyment out of it, much like an addict gets an immense amount of enjoyment out of drugs.'

In an effort to identify potential victims and link Keyes to potential crimes, the FBI have released audio and video clips from Keyes’ interrogations. They have also released details about what he claimed was his first violent crime. Keyes’ informed investigators that at some point between 1996 and 1998, he sexually assaulted a girl between 14 to 18-years-old on the Deschutes River near Maupin. This woman has never been identified. Speaking about this crime, Keyes said that the woman didn’t fight back: 'She was pretty smart. It worked. Things never really got violent like they could have if she had been fighting me.'

Keyes claimed to have murdered four people in Washington, at least one in New York and one in New Jersey. Keyes had claimed that in 2009, he abducted a woman in New Jersey and transported her over multiple state lines to New York where he murdered her and buried her near the Tupper Lake area, where he had been linked to a bank robbery. The FBI now believe that this woman was Debra Feldman, who vanished from her home in Hackensack, New Jersey, on 8 April, 2009.

In addition to information regarding his alleged victims, the FBI also released a timeline of 35 trips that Keyes had taken around the United States and Mexico from 2004 and 2012: More information about Keyes’ movements and potential victims are listed on the FBI’s website.

6 facts about Israel Keyes

Perhaps the standout fact about Israel Keyes is how coldly methodical he was, planning his serial killings like a military campaign across the United States. Here are some other things to know about the modern-day American monster.

1. He was raised by fundamentalist religious parents

Keyes’ parents were originally part of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a radical off-shoot of the Mormon Church which believes in polygamy. The church hit the headlines in the 2000s when its leader Warren Jeffs was convicted of sex offences.

Keyes’ parents eventually left the Mormon sect to embrace another radical Christian ideology while living in Colville, Washington. Here, Keyes and his nine siblings were home-schooled and had to survive without running water or electricity while being instilled with religiously-fuelled white supremacist beliefs.

Even at a young age, Israel Keyes was regarded as an ominous oddball, with a local girl later saying that he made her skin crawl.

2. He showed early signs of psychopathic behaviour

In common with many other serial killers, Keyes was prone to violent acts as a youngster. He was fond of firing his BB gun, setting random fires in woodland, and breaking into people’s homes for fun. He also showed cruelty to animals, which is a classic harbinger of violence against humans.

In one gruesome incident, he tied up and tortured a cat whose frenzied distress caused a friend of Keyes’ to vomit in disgust and fear. This was Keyes’ first major indication that his interests would be regarded as deviant by the wider community, and he became increasingly isolated from that point onwards.

3. He was thrown out by his family

Indoctrination since childhood made Keyes a true believer, and he used to scribble down Biblical quotations and his perceived sins, such as lust. However, he and his siblings naturally rebelled as they got a bit older, listening to music and watching movies which were deemed godless by their parents.

Keyes eventually declared himself an atheist, leading his parents to exile him from the household. His siblings were also ordered to cut off all ties with their blasphemous brother.

4. He was a Ted Bundy fanboy

Keyes was a true crime fanatic who proudly boasted of having an encyclopaedic knowledge of serial killers. He felt a particular kinship with Ted Bundy, although the two men – despite the superficial similarities of being seemingly ‘ordinary’ with a pleasant appearance and conventional family lives – operated very differently. While Bundy was a gregarious figure who seemed to revel in his notoriety and carried out his crimes in a spontaneous frenzy, Keyes was a far more careful killer, doing his utmost to avoid detection and being more circumspect after being caught.

Interestingly, Keyes did attempt to pull a Bundy-like escape from the authorities. But unlike Bundy, who managed to pull off two successful escapes, Keyes was quickly tasered and subdued after trying to flee a court hearing.

5. He looked down on BTK

While he admired Ted Bundy, Keyes was less impressed by Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer. As Alaska assistant US attorney Frank Russo told the press, Keyes thought of BTK as a ‘wimp’, and ‘couldn’t understand why he came out and said he was sorry for everything he’d done’.

His lack of regard was somewhat ironic because his MO was far more similar to BTK’s than Bundy’s. BTK shared Keyes’ highly calculated approach to murder, regarding his bloody exploits as perverse projects to be carefully planned.

6. He killed himself in jail

In December 2012, Keyes killed himself while being held in an Alaska prison. He managed to beat security restrictions by smuggling in a razor blade which he had embedded in a pencil. As well as slashing his wrist, he also used bedding to strangle himself.

Keyes left behind a gruesome gallery of skulls painted on sheets of paper with his own blood. There were 11 in total, which are believed to correspond to 11 victims. Keyes also left a bizarre suicide note which has been described as an ‘ode to murder’.

The macabre letter seems to address a victim, gloating over how they will ‘join those ranks of dead’, reduced to just ‘bones and meat’. Keyes also described his pleasure at seeing the trusting eyes of his victim fill up with fear and rhapsodised about a ‘face framed in dark curls like a portrait, the sun shone through highlights of red. What color I wonder, and how straight will it turn plastered back with the sweat of your blood.’

7. Kill kits

One of the most distinctive and disturbing aspects of the Israel Keyes case was his use of what he described as his ‘kill kits’ or 'caches'. These were packages consisting of guns, ammunition, silencers, duct tape and other tools which came in handy for carrying out home invasions and murders.

These kits were buried in locations all over the United States, ready to be dug up and used whenever required. When he killed Bill and Lorraine Currier in Vermont, for example, Keyes uncovered a kill kit stashed in a bucket which he’d buried two whole years before.

The use of such kits underscores the military-like precision of Keyes’ planning and the incredibly patient lengths he went to to satisfy his desire to kill random human beings.

The unidentified victims of Israel Keyes

In March 2012, a month after 18-year-old Samantha Koenig vanished from a coffee kiosk in Anchorage, Alaska, Israel Keyes was arrested and charged with her murder. As the FBI interviewed Keyes, in addition to confessing to Samantha's murder, he admitted to a string of other crimes that the authorities were unaware of.

During the eight months that followed, Keyes was questioned for more than 40 hours, where he evasively gave information about his crimes, including arson, bank robberies and rape.

As investigators sought to uncover the extent of Keyes’ disturbing crimes, their exploration came to a halt when he took his life in his prison cell on 12th December 2012.

Despite the hours he spent being questioned by the FBI, Keyes did not disclose how many victims he killed. Special Agent Jolene Goeden described when they were trying to get an exact number, the way Keyes spoke suggested that the final number was 11.

In 2013, the FBI released new information to the public seeking assistance regarding Keyes’ travels and identifying further victims. The information included extensive videotaped confessions and an interactive map which provided detailed timelines of Keyes’ movements beginning in 1997.

Special Agent Goeden described how the FBI was releasing information regarding the type of cars he owned and the towns and campgrounds he was known to frequent. The FBI hoped that releasing this information could have jogged someone’s memory, which may have helped identify the victims.

In 2020, the FBI released chilling never-before-seen pictures of skulls allegedly painted with Keyes’ blood. These paintings were discovered underneath his prison cell bed. One of the paintings says, ‘We are one’.

In addition to the eerie images, the FBI released examples of Keyes’ ‘kill caches’, which included guns, zip ties and various other items that he buried across the country prior to committing a crime.

Unidentified rape victim

According to Keyes, his first victim was a teenage girl aged between 14 and 18 that he raped during the summer of 1997 or 1998. He claimed that he wanted to murder her but let her go. Keyes told investigators, ‘I was too timid. I wasn't violent enough. I made up my mind I was never going to let that happen again.’

First murder victim

Following his discharge from the army, Keyes moved to Neah Bay, Washington, where investigators believed his murders began around 2001.

Unidentified couple

During his interviews with the FBI, Keyes claimed that he murdered a couple when he was living in Washington. The killer refused to release details on the victims but had told authorities the victims were, ‘Buried in a location near a valley’. These murders are suspected to have occurred between 2001 and 2005.

Further Washington murders

In either 2006 or 2007, Keyes is suspected to have killed an additional two victims in Washington state. The FBI said, ‘Keyes stated at least one of the bodies was disposed of in Crescent Lake in Washington, and he used anchors to submerge the body.’

Unidentified East Coast victim

The serial killer confessed to kidnapping a female victim in April 2009, whom he buried in upstate New York. Investigators believe the victim may be 49-year-old Debra Feldman, who was last seen at her residence in Hackensack, New Jersey, on 8th April. When shown an image of the missing woman, Keyes reportedly took a long pause and replied, ‘I'm not ready to talk about that one.’

Other victims

During questioning, Keyes gave details on potentially additional victims, including a woman he described as having a pale face who may have come from money. Keyes also told investigators that the body of a victim had been recovered, but he made it look like an accident.

Keyes’ varied victimology and forensic awareness saw him go undetected by law enforcement for over a decade. The killer’s vast amount of travelling across the United States and overseas has left the authorities fearing there may be more victims. Keyes’ suicide means his secrets may never be uncovered. However, the FBI is continuing to seek help from the public, hoping to identify any of the killer's victims.