Charles Manson and Other Shocking Serial Killer Stories
The Son of Sam, the Boston Strangler, the Milwaukee Cannibal: Some killers gain such notoriety they find permanent places in the history books. Cult leader Charles Manson, who masterminded one of the most brutal crimes in California history on August 9, 1969 (and is the subject of a new biography entitled "Manson," by Jeff Guinn), is one of them. Delve into the Manson story along with other accounts of real-life killers with these chilling reads.
Ex-convict and amateur musician Charlie Manson moved to California in the 1960s and formed the Manson Family cult. Members obeyed his every order and, in the summer of 1969, embarked on a killing spree across Los Angeles, slaughtering seven--including pregnant actress Sharon Tate, the wife of director Roman Polanski. The gruesome murders gained worldwide attention, spawning songs, books and movies. Guinn, of course, isn’t the first to tackle the twisted tale: Vincent Bugliosi's 1969 classic “Helter Skelter” is considered by many to be the gold standard in Manson lore.
In his 2007 book “A Death in Belmont,” author Sebastian Junger, whose family briefly employed “Boston Strangler” Albert DeSalvo as a handyman, recalls a murder committed in his Massachusetts hometown that bore all the horrific hallmarks of a DeSalvo killing. DeSalvo was never linked to that death--but, between 1962 and 1964, allegedly sexually assaulted and killed 13 women in and around Boston. Fifty years later, his case is still making headlines: Earlier this month, investigators announced they'd matched DeSalvo's DNA with fluid found on the body of the woman believed to be his last victim. Historian Alan Rogers looks back on the case in his book, “The Boston Strangler.”
In the summer of 1976, a rogue shooter stalked the streets of New York City. David Berkowitz, who called himself the "Son of Sam," gunned down six people and wounded seven more with a .44-caliber revolver. After his arrest, the unhinged killer told police he’d been commanded by a demon; in a strange twist, he later became a born-again Christian in jail and gave himself a new nickname, the "Son of Hope.” In 2010, Tom Philbin published an anthology of interviews with Berkowitz and other murderers. Despite his purported rehabilitation, in popular culture (including Jimmy Breslin’s classic true crime novel "Son of Sam,” one of the first fictionalized accounts of the murders), he’s been immortalized as a cold-blooded killer.
There are creepy clowns--and then there's John Wayne Gacy. One of the most prolific killers in U.S. history, Gacy--a Kentucky Fried Chicken manager who moonlighted as a clown--was convicted of the sexual assault and murders of 33 teenage boys and men in the Chicago area between 1972 and 1978. In 2004, a decade after he was put to death, his psychiatrist Dr. Helen Morrison--who admitted, bizarrely, to keeping preserved slices of Gacy’s brain in her basement for later research--published “My Life Among the Serial Killers.”
Few serial killers get the Hollywood treatment in the figure of a gorgeous A-list actress. Not so for Aileen Wuornos, whose story was made into a critically acclaimed film starring Charlize Theron, who won an Oscar for it. A runaway who hitchhiked to Florida in her early 20s, Wuornos relied on prostitution to get by. Somewhere down the line she turned to killing: between 1989 and 1990, she murdered seven men. Wuornos claimed her victims were violent johns she’d killed in self-defense. The argument didn’t play, and in 1992 she was convicted of murder; ten years later, she was executed. Not to be confused with Philbin's book, before she died, Wuornos authorized a biography called “Monster,” written by British criminologist Christopher Berry-Dee.
Outside Seattle in the 1980s and 90s, factory worker Gary Ridgway killed an astounding 49 girls and women, the most confirmed victims of any American serial killer. (Ridway himself estimated he'd slain a total of 71.) Twice married and, according to his exes, sex-obsessed, Ridgway lured his victims--mostly runaways and prostitutes--into the woods, then raped and strangled them, dumping their bodies along the city's Green River. It took 20 years for cops to catch him, and in “Chasing the Devil,” David Reichert, the sheriff who led the charge, takes readers inside the manhunt.
There are few things more terrifying than a serial killer--unless, of course, it’s a serial killer with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Between 1978 and 1991, real-life Hannibal Lecter Jeffrey Dahmer, a quiet, unassuming chocolate factory worker from Milwaukee, raped, murdered, dismembered and in some cases cannibalized 17 men and boys. Despite the persistent sound of a chain saw and the sour stench emanating from his apartment, Dahmer’s atrocities went unnoticed for years. He was convicted on 15 counts of murder and in 1994 died in jail after being beaten by a fellow inmate. Author Donald A. Davis goes behind Dahmer’s crimes in his 1991 bestseller, “The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.”
In the mid-1980s, with the memory of the Manson murders still relatively fresh on the minds of Angelenos, Satanist Richard Ramirez reignited panic in the city when he killed 14 people in and around Los Angeles. Known as the “Night Stalker” for striking after hours, he murdered at random, raping, mutilating and beating his victims. Despite his crimes, Ramirez built up a sizable legion of female admirers; they continued to send letters to him in jail until his death earlier this year. In his book “The Night Stalker”--republished in 2006 with new interviews--author Philip Carlo tells Ramirez’s life story and explores Ramirez fans’ dark romantic obsession.
As author Kevin Dutton argues in his provocative book, “The Wisdom of Psychopaths,” superficially, at least, lots of serial killers seem like really appealing people. Charming and attractive, Ted Bundy fit that very bill, often trading on his personality to lure his prey. But, Bundy wasn’t above a good trick: In several cases he resorted to ruses, feigning injury or impersonating policemen to attract a helping hand from an unsuspecting female victim. After his capture, Bundy admitted to raping and killing 30 women in seven states (and likely many more); he was executed in Florida in 1989. Ann Rule’s “The Stranger Beside Me” tells his story.
Like Manson, Ramirez and Bundy, Rodney Alcala had no trouble attracting girls. As Stella Sands describes in her 2011 book, "The Dating Game Killer,” the suave, handsome onetime dating show contestant who claimed to be a fashion photographer regularly wooed women into his Hollywood apartment for impromptu photo shoots. In the 1970s, he took thousands of often revealing, sexually-charged pictures of young women (and some men) in Los Angeles. Tragically, some of his subjects also became victims: In 2010, Alcala was convicted of murdering five women--although some estimate he killed upwards of 50.