I Hunt Serial Killers: 6 Facts You Thought Movies Made Up
In theory, anyone can investigate an unsolved crime (or even a solved crime where you think the wrong guy went to jail). Sure, the police won't like it if you dress up like Batman and throw a grappling hook at some guy you've decided is guilty, but recent headlines are full of examples where the courts have ordered new trials based on information dug up by journalists. All you need is some research skills and a willingness to spend all night reading graphic autopsy reports.
We spoke to James Renner, a journalist who has made investigating and tracking down serial killers his life's work, despite not having a badge to flash at crime scenes. He says ...
Yes, Suspects Really Send Riddles (And Stalk Your Kids)
You know how in ridiculous Hollywood movies the killer always taunts the intrepid investigator with cryptic messages and obtuse puzzles? And we always call bullshit, because that stuff virtually never happens in real life (real killers don't exactly love the idea of getting caught, that's why). That's what I thought, and then this happened:
On Feb. 9, 2012, that video was uploaded to YouTube by a user named "112dirtbag." At first glance, it's just some creepy dude sitting in a dark basement laughing at the camera. Who cares, right? There's probably a cat doing something hilarious, and the guy just has his phone facing the wrong way. Except the video is titled "Happy Anniversary," and it was posted on the anniversary of UMass nursing student Maura Murray's bizarre disappearance. And Maura's father had just been on the news, telling everyone that his daughter was abducted by some "dirtbag" on Route 112 in New Hampshire.
The creep's video became international news, but nobody could figure out who he was (despite the fact that the video is a close-up of his face -- you wouldn't think this would require a team of CSI detectives doing a "zoom and enhance" thing).
"Put an APB on Paul Shaffer and the guy that played Skinner on X-Files."
Was this some form of a confession from a viable suspect, some crazy weirdo wasting everyone's time, or just an incredibly uncanny coincidence? There may be some overlap in some of those categories.
The next video 112dirtbag uploaded showed him playing a David Lynch tune on a synthesizer in what is clearly a murder basement.
Wearing what is clearly a murder hat.
It ends with a Photoshopped painting of a troll's head beside a series of numbers and a lightning bolt. What did the numbers mean? Were they coordinates to Maura Murray's body? Or just an asshole throwing up a bunch of meaningless numbers meant to frustrate both the police and Maura's family (hence the troll)? At some point, the guy got spooked and took his videos down, but I had the foresight to make copies, so I put them back up on a blog I devoted to Maura's cold case. He did not like that. The next video he posted was a collection of photographs of my 5-year-old son, which you may recognize as a thing a murderer would do.
Frantic, I called police and prosecutors in Massachusetts, but all this creepiness is protected under the First Amendment. The guy was eventually identified as Alden Olson, a charming fellow who's been charged in the past with threatening to murder one of his relatives. The cops questioned Alden and weren't able to find anything to connect him to Maura's disappearance or punish him at all for the whole "threatening my child" thing. I asked the prosecutor, "What if this guy showed up on my doorstep with a gun and killed my family?"
"Actually," he said, "if he showed up on your doorstep, then we'd have a good case."
"Could you please wait patiently for a second while I call 911? Thanks, bud!"
So, why do I involve myself in situations like this? Well, it starts with the fact that I'm from Cleveland, and ...
Cleveland Is Infested With Serial Killers
I'm not saying that living in Cleveland turns you into a serial murderer, but the city and the surrounding area has produced a suspiciously large number of them -- we've had the Cleveland Strangler, the Cleveland Torso Murderer, the killer who inspired that movie The Fugitive, and many, many more. My obsession with them started in 2005, when I was still working as a reporter for Cleveland Scene magazine. The first story I looked into was the cold-case murder of 10-year-old Amy Mihaljevic, who was abducted across the street from the Bay Village Police Department in broad daylight in 1989.
She and I were the same age, and she had lived one town over, so I'd seen her missing posters everywhere when I was a kid. As an 11-year-old, I fell in love with the girl in the missing posters, and I never stopped thinking about her. After I grew up and became a reporter, I looked into Amy's case. What I discovered was disturbing -- the reason the police never solved it was because there were too many men who had the means, motive, and opportunity to kidnap Amy. That's right -- there were simply too many potential child murderers in Cleveland.
It's even sadder when you realize it's one of the few thriving industries outside of LeBron James.
The best the FBI has ever been able to do is narrow the list of suspects down to a Top 25. Cleveland being Cleveland, it's entirely possible that every person on that list has at least murdered somebody. Amy's story was too big for an article, so I wrote a book instead. Soon I was the go-to crime guy in Cleveland, and since Cleveland collects serial killers like other cities collect pennants, serial killers became my beat. I've reported on dozens of murders and cold cases in the years since, but I've never dropped Amy's case.
The People You Are Trying To Help May Not Like What You Find
Almost by definition, journalism means confronting people who don't want to talk to you and asking them about the one subject they don't want to talk about. And they usually don't care if we're on "their side" -- they still see us as vultures.
"Hell no -- I still remember what you assholes did to poor Nixon."
One day, I was sent to report on the murder of Steve Spade, a young man who was bound, beaten, and shot to death by a group of former friends who then drove to another state to behead and burn his body for reasons that are still not entirely clear (again, unless there's just something about Ohio that unlocks wells of evil deep within people). At the time, the police had no suspects, and my editor told me to go speak to the Spade family.
My timing was impossibly bad. Somehow, I managed to arrive moments after Steve's parents were notified of his murder. The tragedy was just beginning for them, but I had a job to do. That sounds scummy, I know. But, in my defense, the kid's killers were out there somewhere, and I felt the best way to find them was to get the news out, complete with the gruesome details of the crime. But, as soon as I identified myself as a reporter, Steve's father came after me, screaming and swinging his fists. Luckily, someone stepped between us at the last minute and I was able to get back to my car. I was so shaken up, I told my editor someone else was going to have to cover this story.
"Sorry to bother you; I'll come back in a few nevers."
And then there are the cases where the family has good reasons for not wanting people like me to dig too deep. I've been working on a book about Maura Murray's disappearance (the subject of the creepy video earlier). You would think the family of a missing woman would welcome national exposure, but her father made it clear from the beginning that he didn't want a book written about his daughter's case.
In the course of my research, I uncovered and published evidence that Maura was in trouble for identity theft and credit card fraud when she disappeared. She was also emotionally distraught, had had two alcohol-related car accidents (one days before she vanished), and had purchased several bottles of liquor the day she disappeared. Obviously, this is all relevant: It suggests that, whatever happened to Maura, she might not have been the victim of foul play, regardless of what the YouTube troll up there would have us believe. Her father was not happy, and in an interview with Boston Magazine, he said about my work, "What I think he's trying to do is create characters for a screenplay."
Except it's not superheroes or a reboot, so nobody would buy it.
This is the most common criticism I've faced, that I'm profiting off of tragedy. Which, in a sense, I suppose is true -- I make money writing about crime. But this kind of reporting absolutely gets cases reopened or even solved (see the Serial podcast and HBO's miniseries about Robert Durst, for recent examples). My work solved a case in 2011, in fact.
A 12-year-old named Tina Harmon had been abducted from Lodi, Ohio, back in 1981. Her body was never tested for DNA, and her case remained officially unsolved. I worked with the Harmon family to put pressure on the prosecutor to test the evidence. At first, he told us it would be too expensive, then we held a press conference and explained how silly that was, and he finally relented. The tests were ordered.
The results came back a couple months later. The lab found Bob Buell's DNA on Tina's clothing. Buell was a city planner who had already been put to death for another murder. So, it didn't result in a murderer being taken off the streets (when we asked for the test, the theory was that Buell's nephew had done it), but an unsolved murder was solved, and at least there was closure for the family.
Hopefully he choked on his one olive.
Remember, police will work a case for a certain amount of time before they have to devote the resources elsewhere. When these cases go cold, they're not going to get solved unless some case-breaking tip falls into the lap of the police ... or someone like me goes combing through the records to see if something got missed. But that can take a toll of its own ...
This Job Can Cause PTSD
In Hollywood, detectives do most of their obsessive researching in a montage. Poring over autopsy photographs, letters from the murder, and grisly police reports to some dramatic soundtrack until it's time for the camera to zoom in on a key piece of evidence that cracks the case. That portrayal brushes over more than just the time involved; it also ignores the psychological damage of reading that kind of shit for days on end.
During the Buell case, I spent countless hours reading notes, autopsy reports, victim statements ... a kaleidoscope of very dark stuff. And there was no editor to cut the scene short when it all got to be too much to handle. I started feeling weird. I had panic attacks. Whenever I went to the grocery store, I paid attention to what the man in front of me at the checkout line had in his cart. I convinced myself that he had too many Stouffer's frozen mac-and-cheeses for one person, so he must be buying food for the women he's keeping chained in his basement. Everyone around me was a suspect.
What Kevin Spacey did for spaghetti, this woman is clearly doing for vegetables.
My wife noticed before anyone else that I'd actually developed post-traumatic stress disorder, despite not experiencing the traumatic events myself. Sort of like catching lung cancer from secondhand smoke. It turns out this frequently happens to war journalists, as we learned after Iraq. Still, I felt like a wimp, because I wasn't embedded in some war zone. I was in Ohio (even if there are some similarities).
This kind of PTSD is a risk for all journalists who expose themselves to the dark side of human nature long enough. It's such an issue that the Columbia School Of Journalism runs a website to help reporters find support and information about the problem. It took three years of therapy and daily Cymbalta to get my mind right again. I still occasionally suspect the person in front of me at the grocery store is a sadistic, lady-butchering pervert ... but now I'm sane enough to know it's probably not true, even in Cleveland.
You Know That In Most Cases There Is No Closure
The father of a murdered girl once told me, "Closure is for doors." That's why I can't watch Law & Order or Criminal Minds or any of that bullshit. Those shows have to wrap every episode up in a nice, clean bow, everyone moving on to the next case, everything they did the previous week completely forgotten. In real life, when a case is "solved" -- like in the Tina Harmon case -- it's messy and incomplete and often years after the crime.
And when your job is investigating these crimes, the work never ends. Just when you think you've learned everything there is to know about the case, a new tip will appear in your inbox and suddenly the story changes.
"Crap, that one spiral curves less slightly to the left than I remembered. Case reopened!"
For instance, we have the Maura Murray case (the one who vanished, but upon further research appeared to be a troubled girl who might have run away). At one point, I was almost convinced that she had actually committed suicide up in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. But I spoke to her track coach, who revealed that he'd been having an affair with Maura and that she'd talked about running away to Mexico. There you go -- one comment from a former lover and suddenly it looks like she could be 2,800 miles away from where I thought I'd tracked her to.
There's nothing in the rulebook that says spring break ever has to end.
And remember Amy Mihaljevic, the little girl whose disappearance I'd been obsessing over since I was a kid? At a book signing last year, a Metroparks ranger came up to me and gave me the name of a new suspect in the case -- nine years after I'd written the book. His boss had been caught waving his penis around in the park, near some kids. I looked into the boss' background and found that the guy had committed himself to a mental hospital in 1989 ... just a few days after Amy's abduction. That doesn't make him guilty; it could be nothing. All I can do is go digging in this new direction and see if anything turns up. Because, here's the thing ...
If You Don't Ask The Right Questions, You Have To Live With The Consequences
In 2007, I spent two months investigating the unsolved abductions of Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus. I met with their families inside the FBI's Cleveland bureau. At the time, we believed the cases were unrelated, even though the girls had both disappeared along the same block of the same street, Lorain Avenue.
You see, after Amanda went missing, detectives pulled over her boyfriend, and when they opened the trunk of his car they saw it was covered in suspicious dark spots. By the time they returned with a warrant, he'd cleaned it all out. Missing girl, boyfriend frantically destroying evidence -- the cast of CSI: Cleveland would have this one wrapped up before the first commercial break.
Definitely starring this guy.
But, as many of you have already figured out, both girls (along with a third, Michelle Knight) were kidnapped by the now-infamous Ariel Castro, who kept them as prisoners, raping and torturing them for a decade.
Here's what breaks my heart -- I had Castro's name in my notes. His daughter was the last person seen with Gina, and I'd meant to question her. I decided not to because she was a minor at the time. If I had, would she have said something to implicate her dad? Maybe raised some red flag that could've spared those women years of anguish?
I'll never know.
James Renner is the author of the true-crime memoir Amy: My Search for Her Killer and several other books. More info at JamesRenner.com. Robert Evans runs the Cracked personal experience article team. He also tweets.
For more insider perspectives, check out 7 Things I Learned as an Accomplice to Mass Murder and 5 Realities of Life When Your Brain Wants You to Murder.
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