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6 serial killers who made stupid mistakes

Dennis Nilsen in a police van
Image Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo | Above: Dennis Nilsen (Right) after he was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years imprisonment after being convicted of six murders and two attempted murders at the Old Bailey.

We all make mistakes. When this happens to a normal person they figure out what went wrong and try to learn from it. But for serial killers need to avoid blunders wherever possible if they are going to keep themselves out of prison.

However, some of them have committed the most basic of slip-ups which have led to their capture, arrest, conviction and even - in some cases - their execution.

Here are six repeat murderers that saw their cruel killing careers come to an abrupt end when they gaffed in a really idiotic way.

1. Earle Leonard Nelson

‘The Gorilla Strangler’ Earle Nelson was a cross-state serial sex killer who murdered between 22 and 29 women in 1926 and 1927. His is a grimly fascinating tale and one which ends in the most ridiculous of ways.

Two days after killing victim Emily Patterson, he was spotted at a post office and arrested. He was recognised when a detailed description was put out after a hairdresser worked out who he was. Nelson had gone in for a trim and tidy-up after killing Emily Patterson, mostly because the brave woman fought hard and tore out some of his hair. Amongst the bald patches were large specks of dried blood, which alarmed the barber.

2. Dennis Rader

Surely no one in the Wichita Police Department could believe their luck when Dennis Rader came out of the woodwork to effectively hand himself into them through sheer naivety in 2005.

Kansas’ notorious ‘BTK Killer’ murdered ten people in their homes between 1974 and 1991. It looked as if the police would never get their man. It turned out that they would, they just had to remain patient. Only a combination of DNA evidence and stupidity eventually led them to their man.

In the mid-2000s, Rader was clearly bored and looking to recapture some of the thrills of his kills. So, he decided to start sending messages to the police, mocking them for their inability to track him down. On one occasion he contacted them by sending them a floppy disk with a message saved onto it, after having asked the police if doing so would be ‘safe’ for him. They assured him it would be. It was not. As the police well knew.

The very basic sting saw computer forensics take metadata from the disk which led them directly to Rader. DNA from a smear test of Rader’s daughter sealed the deal. He was caught and soon confessed.

3. Israel Keyes

Between 2001 and 2012, Utah-born Israel Keyes killed at least three people and raped many more. It’s suspected that he was responsible for at least eleven murders in total.

Keyes intentionally chose victims with no ties to him. Often in states hundreds of miles away. He was also a student of true crime. A self-confessed serial killer fanboy, he idolised the likes of Ted Bundy and saw himself as an elite serial killer as well. The truth was that Keyes was just a vicious sociopath and a fairly dim one at that.

Would a true criminal genius use one of his victim’s (quite obviously tracked) credit cards to withdraw cash at a busy ATM that’s hooked up with CCTV? Keyes did and he was caught not long after.

4. Dennis Nilsen

In the 1980s, ‘The Muswell Hill Murderer’ Dennis Nilsen killed at two addresses in North London. The first had a small garden in which he could dispose of his victims’ remains. The second did not. So the Scottish murderer was forced to get creative. He decided to flush various chunks of flesh, smaller bones and body parts down the toilet.

What Nilsen wasn’t taking into account was the relatively small pipes used in London’s largely Victorian residential plumbing network. Soon, blockages were being caused. Despite his claim that the rotting flesh and fingers and toes were ‘just Kentucky Fried Chicken’, drain specialists soon caught on to the truth and the Met Police stepped in.

5. Albert Fish

In much the same way that Dennis Rader sought to recapture some of the thrill of the kill with sneering and vile communication after the event, ‘The Werewolf of Wysteria’ Albert Fish also inadvertently snitched on himself.

In November 1934, a distraught woman by the name of Delia Flanagan received a letter at her home in Irvington, New York. It was about her missing daughter, Grace Budd, and it was not good news.

Fish had - he claimed - killed and eaten the ten year-old. He explained how he did both in some gory detail. Police later ascertained that the murder claim was no empty fantasy. Fish had indeed murdered Grace. Whether or not he ate her could never be fully proven, but it seems possible, if not likely. None of Grace’s remains were ever found.

How was Fish tracked down? The letter’s envelope. It had the initialism ‘NYPCBA’ printed on it, representing ‘New York Private Chauffeur's Benevolent Association’. It didn’t take long for police to find Fish using his description and link to the relatively modest-sized union.

6. David Berkowitz

Most of us have got parking tickets at some point or another. What most of us didn’t do is get that ticket while murdering someone. David ‘Son of Sam’ Berkowitz did just that during his infamous ‘Summer of Sam’ killing spree back in July 1977.

He unwittingly committed the parking violation while shooting Robert Violante dead. The ticket, along with the testimony of an eyewitness, was enough to finger Berkowitz and give the NYPD evidence to get a warrant to search the serial killer’s apartment.