10 Famous Serial Killers' Dumbest Details
With all the true crime podcasts flooding your feed to remind you that lurking around every corner could be some monster preparing to go all Hostel on you, it can be a scary world out there. Let it be some solace, then, to know that at least it's also a very stupid one. Like when …
BTK Got Caught Because He's A Dumb Grandpa
There's a certain level of trust that should exist between serial killers and the people trying to catch them. Wait, no, that's the opposite of true, but that's apparently what Dennis Rader, A.K.A. the BTK Killer, believed. In 2004, after 30 years of literally killing to be noticed, Rader began an earnest penpal campaign with police and the local media, delivering letters and packages sometimes by hand. One, which was seen on security cameras being dropped off by a person driving a black Jeep Cherokee, was accidentally thrown away.
Eventually, he asked in one of his letters, "Can I communicate with Floppy and not be traced to a computer? Be honest," because those are the two magic words that legally compel police not to lie to you. Weird that more people don't use them.
Obviously, the police were like, "Yeah, sure can," and the disk they received contained even more information than they'd hoped for. Not only could they track its last changes to a local church, the user who changed it was named "Dennis." Not even DenDenRevolution or just Dennis42069. They quickly found Rader listed on the church's website as the president of the congregation, which didn't necessarily seal the deal. After all, BTK could have hacked into this Dennis's profile. But the Jeep they found at his home helped, as did the wealth of DNA evidence left at the crime scenes. Rader actually seemed hurt that the police lied to him about the security of floppy disks, beseeching his interrogator why they did it. The interrogator responded with the straightest face possible, "Because I was trying to catch you."
Jeffery Dahmer Accidentally Roofied Himself
By 1990, Jeffrey Dahmer had a pretty solid M.O.: lure his target back to his apartment, serve them a drink spiked with sedatives, wait for them to fall unconscious, and go all Jeffrey Dahmer. In late May, however, things didn't quite go as planned. In what was hopefully some kind of Princess Bridal hijinks, he mixed up the drinks and wound up drugging himself, passing out in front of his would-be victim.
There are a lot of ways that person could have played it. Best-case scenario, they realize what happened and call the cops; equally best-case scenario, it turns out Dahmer was trying to Dahmer another Dahmer. In the end, they took probably the most ineffectively hilarious action and robbed him. When Dahmer woke up, he was missing $300, some clothes, and a watch. The survivor/thief has never been identified, but some hapless thrift-shopper is definitely walking around out there with a stolen cannibal watch.
Ted Bundy Escaped Police Custody Twice
The people in charge of keeping Ted Bundy locked up took a pretty lax attitude. While preparing his defense for the murder of a Colorado woman, he got access to the courthouse law library with nothing more than a guard on the other side of a locked door to keep him in there. One day, that guard decided to sneak out for a cigarette, but it didn't really matter because, after months of considering how he could break out of there, Bundy slipped through a window that was not only not locked but hanging wide open. He hung out in a cabin in the nearby mountains for a few days before he was caught driving recklessly in a stolen car.
Having learned nothing, Colorado authorities simply moved him to another jail, assigning him a cell with a gaping hole in the ceiling they hadn't quite gotten around to fixing and continued to not fix for several months. In the meantime, Bundy dropped around 25 pounds for reasons that became clear when he was found missing from his cell about six months after his first escape attempt. It turned out he had carved the opening in the ceiling just wide enough that his homicidal revenge body could fit through, navigated the ductwork to a guard's room, stole some clothes, and walked out.
This time, he made it all the way to Florida, where he decided the best way to lie low was to kill a bunch more people. He was free for nearly a month and a half before he was picked up by local authorities for stealing a car. They had no idea who he was until he told them. For someone who clearly didn't want to be locked up, he sure did want to get caught.
John Wayne Gacy's Ugly Artwork
As uncomfortable as it might be to acknowledge, serial killers are people too. They have families, jobs, pets that meet variable ends, etc. They also have hobbies—in fact, many notorious psychopaths, like Charles Manson and the Night Stalker, were known as prolific artists. John Wayne Gacy was one of them, except his artwork was dumb as hell.
His output was largely limited to simple portraits of himself and public figures like Hitler and Jesus, which are about the same quality as the juice-spotted sheaves of construction paper you'd find papering the walls of your local Sunday school.
Nevertheless, in 2011, a Las Vegas art gallery organized an exhibition of Gacy's paintings, promising the proceeds to the National Center for Victims of Crime but embarrassing themselves when the center politely responded that such money was bad and gross and they don't wanna touch it. Clearly, not everyone feels that way: Gacy's paintings have sold to private collectors for as much as $175,000, which at least means they should be easy to track if any children in their neighborhoods go missing.
Newspapers Paid H.H. Holmes For His Bullshit Confession
A lot of the public perception of H.H. Holmes is wrong: His so-called "murder castle" didn't actually see much use, and he probably killed just a handful of people, mostly in the service of various financial schemes, rather than hundreds of transients. He was basically just an extremely unscrupulous fraudster, so when newspapers started paying him to elaborate on his crimes, he saw an opportunity.
Knowing that he could generate much more interest in his columns by embellishing the grisly details, he built his own mythology until the New York World offered him $7,500 (almost a quarter million in today's money) for a full confession. This was no tabloid rag—it was owned by Joseph Pulitzer at the time. Of course, the stuff Holmes turned in was patently, easily refuted nonsense, including the names of supposed "victims" who were still alive. But it was William Randolph Hearst's America, and horror sells, which is why Holmes is still remembered as a cartoonish madman rather than a particularly violent con artist.
Related: 4 Famous Killers Everyone Gets Wrong
A Sausage Factory Was Blamed For The Smell Of The Cleveland Strangler's Victims
Either city inspectors refused to consider the horror that could be responsible for the smell reported near where the Cleveland Strangler did his business or they just really had it out for Ray's Sausage. After showing up and performing an evaluation that presumably consisted mostly of turning their heads this way and that and taking a few sniffs, they determined the factory was responsible and forced the owners to sink $30,000 into failing to solve the problem that wasn't theirs, including the installation of new sewer traps and ventilation systems.
In the end, Ray's Sausage cleared their own name and helped police discover the true cause of that unique rotting meat smell when their security camera captured one of the Strangler's victims leaping through a third-story window to escape his home. Ray's Sausage still stands in Cleveland, but they're still struggling to get their financial heads above water after the unnecessary expenses and recover from their reputation as an exporter of corpse farts.
The Night Stalker Walked Right Past The Police Who Were Looking For Him
These days, the alert would go straight to his phone, but on the day Richard Ramirez was publicly linked to his last attack by fingerprints found on his getaway car, he had no idea all of Los Angeles was looking for him. That's because he wasn't in Los Angeles at the time. He'd taken a bus to Tucson for a little post-rape family hang, but his brother wasn't home, so he turned right back around to a city full of people waiting to give him the pitchfork treatment.
That is eventually what happened, but it shouldn't have been necessary, as police were monitoring the bus stations explicitly looking for Ramirez. They were expecting that he was still in the city and might attempt to flee, however, so they didn't notice when Ramirez instead got off a bus and walked right past them. Thankfully, he walked into a liquor store where everyone noticed him, and he was taken down by a frothing mob after attempting to steal several cars from people who just added themselves to the throng. Should have just waited for your brother, dude.
Joseph Paul Franklin Tried (and Failed) To Get A Murdery Tattoo
If you had to guess who tried to assassinate Hustler publisher and all-around ick-monger Larry Flynt, you'd probably think it was some hardcore family values type. It was actually serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin, who murdered tons of other people in the service of trying to start a race war. He didn't appreciate Hustler's depiction of interracial relations.
His tattoos, which featured a grim reaper dripping with blood, offered some hints about his hobbies. It could have been even more clear, though.
When Franklin got the tattoo, he'd also asked the artist to write the words "Helter Skelter," notoriously associated with Charles Manson's own attempted race war, in red with blood dripping from the letters. Pro tip: If you want to get away with a lot of murder, stay away from dripping blood motifs. Indeed, this was a bridge too far for the artist, who refused out of fear that the cops would come after him.
Police Investigated DC Comics For The Son Of Sam
Between the summers of 1976 and 1977, the Son of Sam was making the New York police look pretty bad. He was just out there shooting people right on the street and taunting investigators with handwritten letters that nevertheless yielded little evidence. Apparently, while poring over the letters for clues, someone on the team got it into their heads that this guy's handwriting was a little too good.
At the end of their investigative rope, they actually reached out to DC Comics to ask if they recognized the writing, thinking he might work in the comics industry as a letterer. You probably know that David Berkowitz was brought down by parking tickets, so obviously, the Superman Stakeout went nowhere, although a note on his dashboard bearing his distinctive handwriting did help clinch the case. Always cut the letters for your murdery screeds out of magazines, kids.
Jack The Ripper Turned Queen Victoria Into An Amateur Detective
Untrained nobodies have been sticking their noses into active investigations since long before the true crime podcast era. During Jack the Ripper's slashing spree, no less a figure than the Queen herself became the Victorian equivalent of a TikTok sleuth. Of course, the monarchy is theoretically more concerned than most about the mass murder of its citizens, but its role is usually limited to rousing speeches and other morale-boosting. Victoria was out there in her frilly gowns giving orders like a grizzled chief.
Well, from the comfort of her palace and through her intermediaries, at least. When she felt the investigation was lagging, she wrote to the prime minister herself, insisting that "All these courts must be lit, and our detectives improved. They are not what they should be." Then, the home secretary elaborated that "The Queen fears that the detective department is not so efficient as it might be … Have the cattle boats and passenger boats been examined? Has any investigation been made as to the number of single men occupying rooms themselves? The murderer's clothes must be saturated with blood and must be kept somewhere. Is there sufficient surveillance at night? These are some of the questions that occur to the Queen on reading the accounts of this horrible crime."
Of course, it was later theorized that Prince Albert Victor, the Queen's grandson, was Jack the Ripper, so maybe she was just trying to throw them off the scent.
Top image: Towfiqu Barbhuiya/Unsplash