Haunting Serial Killers and What Ended Their Bloody Reigns
Serial killers have long held a horrific place in the American imagination, with their string of bodies inspiring coverage in the news media as well as in books, movies and television.
At the heart of each case, however, is a twisted killer — and their victims, often slain in brutal ways, who suffered most.
Here is a look at the investigations of nine serial killers in America, the people whose lives they took and what finally stopped them.
Before his arrest in 1978, Ted Bundy murdered at least 30 women in seven states — and authorities have long suspected had had more victims, many of whom he kidnapped and sexually assaulted.
Bundy’s years of slaughter came to an end in February 1978 when, having previously escaped from custody, Florida police stopped the stolen vehicle he was driving.
He was killed in the electric chair in 1989. The victim who put him there was a 12-year-old girl.
Charles Edmund Cullen
Charles Edmund Cullen worked as a nurse in New Jersey and Pennsylvania where he said he murdered as many as 40 patients via drug overdose over a 16-year career, in what he characterized as mercy killings. (Twenty-nine of his victims were confirmed, though authorities believe more could have died at his hands, with some estimating he could have killed 400).
Cullen was finally arrested in 2003 and was sentenced in 2006 to more than a dozen life sentences in prison.
Lonnie Franklin Jr.
For more than 20 years, Lonnie Franklin Jr. — nicknamed the “Grim Sleeper” for the unusually long gap between his sprees — eluded Los Angeles authorities as he killed at least nine women and a teenage girl. Investigators had the killer’s DNA. Franklin wasn’t in the state’s database, however. But his son Christopher was.
Franklin was arrested in 2010, after police requested a familial DNA search be conducted. He was convicted of murder on May 5, 2016, and sentenced to death, though that penalty is pending appeal.
Christine Pelisek, a PEOPLE senior reporter, followed the case for more than 10 years and largely helped bring it and the story of the victims to national attention. Her accompany book about the investigation, The Grim Sleeper, is available now.
Though notorious Wisconsin body-snatcher Ed Gein was arrested in connection with the slayings of two women, the discoveries made in his farmhouse suggested he had many other victims. His arrest in 1957 came not long after a local hardware store owner vanished. After police found a receipt for antifreeze with Gein’s name on it, they went to his Wisconsin home to talk to him and found a woman’s decapitated body in his shed and the head of another woman in his bedroom.
There were more gruesome discoveries, including that Gein has robbed from about a dozen graves and kept various human remains and organs as well as clothing made of skin.
Following his 1957 arrest, the “Butcher of Plainfield” was institutionalized — never convicted of his crimes — and died of natural causes in 1984. His ghoulish proclivities inspired Psycho’s Norman Bates, among other fictional killers such as The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill.
For years it seemed that Waneta Hoyt and her husband were the unluckiest parents in the country, cursed to watch their infant children die from the mysterious Sudden infant death syndrome, better known as SIDS. One by one, from 1965 to 1971, the Hoyts lost Erik, Julie, James, Mollie and Noah.
Then in the ‘90s, the truth: Hoyt herself had killed each child, smothering them.
In a confession she later recanted, according to the New York Times, she told police: ”They just kept crying and crying. … I just picked up Julie and I put her into my arm, in between my arm and my neck like this … and I just kept squeezing and squeezing and squeezing.”
Hoyt died behind bars in 1998.
“BTK killer” Dennis Rader murdered at least 10 people in Kansas between 1974 and 1991 — his moniker an acronym referring to his method of binding, torturing and killing his victims, mostly women — but he wasn’t caught until 2005, when mounting circumstantial evidence led them to test DNA from his daughter. It was a familial match with DNA at the crime scenes.
Among those Rader killed were four members of the same family, his first known victims. He is in prison serving 10 consecutive life sentences — the maximum possible penalty for his crimes.
Richard Ramirez’s fatal mistake? As with Rader, it was apparently getting caught up in his own media coverage. With news of Ramirez’s murderous rampage making headlines, the California press took to calling him “the Night Stalker.”
After killing 13 people, Ramirez referred to his nickname as he brutalized a young couple, who survived to describe him to authorities. He also stole their car, which was later recovered. So, too, was one of his fingerprints.
His mugshot made all the front pages, and police took him down in 1985 when a group of elderly Mexican women fearfully identified him, yelling “el matador” (Spanish for “the killer”). He died behind bars in 2013.
Known as “the Green River Killer,” Gary Ridgway is believed to have killed more than 90 women and girls in Washington between 1982 and 1998. He was arrested in 2001 thanks to DNA evidence and is serving life in prison, having pleaded guilty to 48 homicides.
Ridgway strangled his victims and often left their bodies hidden in forested areas, so that he could return to have sex with the corpses.
In the two years before she was captured in January 1991, Aileen Wuornos killed seven men. She stole the personal belongings and cars of her victims, which ended up leading police to her when she crashed one of the cars and authorities recovered her fingerprints, which were already on file for a previous prostitution arrest. She also pawned some of her victims belongings, and police found her fingerprints on those items.
Wuornos was sentenced to die for her slayings and was executed in 2002.