From our taste in television and movies to our sick fascination with learning every mundane fact about their lives, it’s clear that Americans are captivated by murderous madmen. Are we obsessed with figuring out their motives because their thoughts and actions are so foreign from our own … or do we really have more in common than we’d care to admit?
The most frightening serial killers hid in plain sight, masquerading as regular people while straight-up murdering people in their spare time. And the scariest part of all? A few of these psychopaths never got caught. Maybe they got bored of killing. Maybe they died. Or maybe they’re just waiting around for the next perfect opportunity to kill again.
Better close the blinds and deadbolt the door, because it’s time to remember the most terrifying serial killers in American history.
15. Son of Sam
David Berkowitz, aka the .44 Caliber Killer, aka the Son of Sam, spent the summer of 1976 wreaking havoc on New York City. Not only did he kill six people in cold blood and wound seven others, but he also sent taunting letters to the police and the papers promising more bloodshed and violence. His motive for killing? He said he received orders from a demon-possessed Labrador named Harvey.
Berkowitz was eventually captured in 1977, 11 days after his last murder, and confessed to all his crimes. He was sentenced to six consecutive 25-years-to-life sentences and is still in prison today.
Next: This killer exhibited psychopathic tendencies from an early age.
14. The Co-ed Killer
Edmund Kemper started his killing career by brutally murdering his grandparents when he was just 15 years old. Prior to that, he had frequently tortured and killed animals, a behavior that’s often associated with psychopathic tendencies.
A serial killer and necrophile, Kemper took the lives of six female hitchhikers in the Santa Cruz area before turning on his family once again. He murdered his mom and her friend, then turned himself in to police a few days later. He was found guilty of eight counts of murder and though he asked for the death penalty, he’s currently serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole.
Next: This east coast murderer was never found.
13. The Colonial Parkway Killer
It’s a horror movie cliché: A couple pulls their car over, and moments later a killer who was laying in wait attacks them. Except this scenario is based on real life.
From 1986-1989, three couples were found murdered in their cars along Virginia’s Colonial Parkway, and a fourth couple went missing and is presumed dead. Almost 30 years later the killer is still at large.
While there are multiple theories on who did it, it seems logical that someone impersonating a police officer may be to blame. All the victims were found with their glove compartments open, indicating that they may have been reaching for their registration. It also explains why they were pulled over. So the next time you’re driving down the Colonial Parkway, beware: That cop may not be who he says he is.
Next: These two worked in tandem to prey upon innocent girls.
12. The Hillside Stranglers
This gruesome pair proves that evil tendencies might run in the family.
Cousins Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono terrorized the city of Los Angeles in 1977 and 1978 when they kidnapped, raped, and murdered 10 girls between the ages of 12 and 28. The duo was dubbed The Hillside Stranglers thanks to their preferred method of murder.
After their capture, Bianchi pled not guilty by way of insanity but was found to be lying, so he pled guilty in exchange for his testimony against his cousin. Both men were given life sentences. Buono died of a heart attack in 2002, and Bianchi is still rotting away behind bars.
Next: This serial killer named himself.
11. The BTK Killer
Dennis Rader needed the world to know his name, which turned out to be his downfall. While he was busy murdering 10 people in Wichita, Kansas, between 1974 and 1991, Rader also sent taunting letters to the police and signed them “BTK” (which stands for Bind, Torture, Kill).
And he was one of those killers who seemed completely normal. A devoted family man, church council president and Boy Scout troop leader, no one suspected what he was up to when everyone else went to bed. Rader stalked his victims, broke into their houses, and then tied them up before strangling them to death. He disappeared in 1988 and would have gotten away with the murders, except that he sent a floppy disc to the press in 2005. Maybe he was angry that people weren’t talking about him anymore?
Anyway, police were able to track him down using the disk and he immediately confessed to the murders. Rader is currently serving 10 consecutive life sentences.
Next: This “compassionate” killer still hasn’t been captured.
10. The Oakland County Child Killer Case
Talk about creepy.
This mystery killer operated between February 1976 and March 1977. During that time, four children from Michigan were kidnapped and found dead. All four were bathed and left in clean clothing, suggesting that the murderer was a serious weirdo. But it gets worse.
One of the victims’ mothers went to the press to plead that the kidnapper release her son because she wanted to feed him fried chicken (his favorite). Eventually they found his dead body and an autopsy revealed his last meal, which was — you guessed it — fried chicken.
The crime was originally pinned on convicted pedophile Christopher Busch thanks to a huge amount of matching evidence. Plus, the killings stopped after Busch’s suicide in 1978. But then in 2012, DNA evidence proved that it wasn’t actually him. Plenty of other criminals have been linked to the case, but in the end, this one remains an unsolved mystery.
Next: These two psychos thought they’d have to repopulate the earth using captured sex slaves.
9. Charles Ng and Leonard Lake
Horrific crime duo Charles Ng and Leonard Lake raped, tortured, and murdered anywhere between 11 and 25 people during their infamous killing spree. They spent the early 1980s terrorizing northern California in an effort to create a stable of sex slaves in case they were called upon to repopulate the earth following a nuclear holocaust. They often kidnapped entire families, including two families with infant sons. The fathers and babies were killed off quickly, but that didn’t stop the pair from coercing the mothers to perform sexual acts with promises of seeing their family again.
The pair was discovered in 1995 after Ng was caught shoplifting from a hardware store. Lake took a cyanide pill and died a few days later. Ng tried to flee to Canada but was later extradited and convicted on 12 counts of murder. He is currently on death row in California.
Next: This murderer was released from prison once — and then he killed again.
8. The Genesee River Killer
Arthur Shawcross, also known as The Genesee River Killer, reportedly began his murderous career in 1972 when he lured a 10-year-old boy into a wooded area in Watertown, New York, and proceeded to sexually assault and kill him.
After that, he raped and killed an 8-year-old girl. He was convicted of manslaughter and served 14 years in prison. His records were sealed so that he could move to a new place and start over without fear of his neighbors hating him.
After his release in 1988, he proved that rehabilitation didn’t work (at least in this case). He went on to murder 12 more women and was sentenced to 250 years in jail. He died while incarcerated from cardiac arrest in 2008.
Next: Satanic symbols were this killer’s calling card.
7. The Night Stalker
Ricardo Leyva Munoz Ramirez spent 1984 and 1985 scaring the hell out of Los Angeles. Dubbed The Night Stalker, Ramirez was a Satan worshipper who shot, stabbed, raped, and mutilated his victims, who ranged from a 9-year-old girl to a married couple in their 60s.
Known for leaving behind pentagrams on the walls of his victims’ homes, he was captured in 1985 and sentenced to death. He died of natural causes after spending 23 years on death row.
Next: He killed more than 70 people, but he’s still alive.
6. The Green River Killer
Gary Ridgway killed a lot of people.
He was arrested in 2001 for four murders but later confessed to killing 70 women in Washington state, making him one of the most prolific serial killers in American history. He was able to avoid the death penalty in exchange for his detailed confession.
Five of his victims were thrown into the Green River, which is what led to his name. He is serving a life sentence without parole following a guilty conviction for 49 of the murders.
Next: This notorious murderer sometimes cooked and ate his victims.
5. The Milwaukee Cannibal
You might know him by his given name — none other than Jeffrey Dahmer.
Dahmer is notorious even among serial killers. The subject of books, documentaries, and movies, Dahmer is responsible for drugging, raping, murdering, and dismembering 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991. He was also a necrophiliac who cooked and ate parts of his victims’ bodies, keeping skulls and genitals as macabre souvenirs.
He was finally captured when the 18th victim was able to escape and contact the police. Dahmer was sentenced to 15 life terms in prison, but was beaten to death by a fellow inmate just two years into his sentence.
Next: This killer kept severed heads as trophies.
4. Ted Bundy
One of the best-known serial killers in history, Ted Bundy is known as truly evil. He kidnapped, raped, and killed young girls during the 1970s by luring them into secluded areas. He also decapitated 12 of his victims and kept their severed heads in his apartment as trophies.
How did he get away with it? Charm, mostly. Bundy would wear a fake sling or use crutches in order to evoke sympathy from the women he eventually murdered. He was also known for impersonating authority figures such as firefighters and police officers. Even after several people reported Bundy as a suspect, police refused to believe that he was the killer because of his clean-cut, seemingly normal appearance and how well he covered his tracks.
Bundy was captured and escaped from the police and courthouses several times, and went on to commit three more murders after those arrests. He was finally captured for good and executed by electric chair in 1989.
Next: This New York killer never got caught.
3. The Long Island Serial Killer
In May 2010, police discovered two bodies on Gilgo Beach in Long Island following a 911 call from sex worker Shannan Gilbert. In December of the same year, four more victims, all women in their 20s and all escorts peddling their wares on Craigslist, were found in the same area.
During 2011, five more bodies and bits and pieces of other people were also found around Gilgo Beach. It was a prime spot for burial because it’s secluded and not well-populated thanks to being contaminated (besides just body parts).
But the creepiest part of all? There are no leads on the case at all. The only thing detectives know for sure is that the killer used burlap bags … meaning it could be seemingly anyone. Let this be a warning to Craigslist sex workers in New York: Proceed with caution.
Next: It doesn’t get much scarier than a real-life killer clown.
2. John Wayne Gacy
He’s one of the worst of all time.
John Wayne Gacy spent the years of 1972-1978 sexually assaulting and murdering 33 teenage boys and men in Chicago, Illinois. He managed to lure his victims into his home by offering them work or money, and then killed by strangling them with a tourniquet. Gacy buried 26 of his victims under the crawl space of his house and got rid of the rest in the Des Plaines River. The creepiest part of all: Gacy often dressed as his alter ego, Pogo the Clown, while he tortured and killed.
He was sentenced to death after being convicted of 33 murders and was executed by lethal injection in 1994.
Next: This drifter got caught when his 10-year-old victim escaped.
1. Tommy Lynn Sells
Hailing from Texas, Tommy Lynn Sells was a prolific serial killer who claims to have killed at least 70 people between 1985 and 1999. In one case, he bludgeoned Elaine Dardeen, who was 7 months pregnant at the time. The attack caused Elaine to go into labor and deliver her baby girl alive. Sells clubbed the newborn to death and also killed Dardeen’s husband and 3-year-old son during the attack.
In the end, a child brought this serial killer to justice. In 1999, Sells broke into 10-year-old Krystal Surles’ bedroom where he proceeded to sexually assault her, stab her, and slit her throat. He killed her 13-year-old friend and left, believing that both girls were dead. Surles survived the attack and was able to escape to a neighbors’ house. She later provided a detailed description of Sells, which eventually led to his capture.
In jail, Sells said there wasn’t one day that went by when he didn’t think about “the one that got away.” He was executed in 2014.
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