Thrill Kill Couple: Benjamin and Erika Sifrit

The Sifrits aren’t technically serial killers, but only because their stupidity got them caught before they could claim more victims.

They Seemed Like an All-American Couple

Erika Grace, perhaps the more controlling of the two, was born into privilege, the only child of a successful contractor. Throughout high school and college she was an excellent student and athlete. She played basketball and graduated cum laude from Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Her friends knew her as a normal, level-headed person, active and outgoing. She didn’t seem to have a dark side.

Not much is known about Benjamin (or BJ), other than he was raised in Minnesota and was a poor student in high school. But after enlisting in the Navy, he seemed to find his calling in life. In 1997, he finished first in his elite SEALs class.

Two years later, he met Erika, then a student at Mary Washington, at a bar with friends. Though he apparently tried to dissuade her from getting into a relationship with him due to his demanding training schedule, she was relentless. Three weeks later, he spontaneously asked her to marry him, and they eloped to Las Vegas.

According to BJ’s mother, Elizabeth, her son changed after getting involved with Erika. Once close with the rest of his family, he stopped calling and visiting. “I just wanted to make [Erika] happy,” he explained at his trial. “It was extreme.” This isolation from family is also a common red flag for abusive and controlling relationships.

The relationship also seemed to affect his Navy career. Erika didn’t like that BJ would be gone for long stretches during training, and would call and harass him frequently. She claimed to have anxiety attacks and bouts of depression while he was gone. Once, while he was in Alaska for training, she flew up to visit him, a violation of the rules. They both were sent home.

BJ’s response to the stress of being torn between his wife and career was to “torpedo” his career. He became unruly and insubordinate, and even got a large swastika tattoo. Finally he was court-martialed for a variety of offenses, including going AWOL. One Navy prosecutor said BJ seemed to have developed “utter disregard for authority.” Ultimately he was drummed out of the service on a bad-conduct discharge.

So they moved back to Erika’s hometown of Altoona, Pennsylvania, and her dad set them up with a scrapbooking store – a hobby that Erika was obsessed with (though not very good at, if the examples on Crime Watch Daily are any indication).

Like Gasoline and a Match

The couple thrived on excitement; many of Erika’s high-school friends said they didn’t recognize her anymore. She got tattoos, including a cross on her hip inspired by the movie Natural Born Killers. BJ, who already owned two handguns, bought Erika a .357 Magnum as a present. The couple collected pet snakes they named “Bonnie” and “Clyde,” “Hitler,” and “HIV.” They began doing drugs heavily. Before long, they started stealing from nearby stores and Hooters restaurants (another odd obsession of Erika’s), and selling the items on Ebay.

But that was not enough for the thrill-seekers. So in 2002, the couple headed for Ocean City, Maryland, for their first vacation. But they had more on the itinerary then just sunbathing and bar-hopping.

The Murders

The couple met Martha “Geney” Crutchley and Joshua Ford on a shuttle bus to the club Seacrets. The Sifrits didn’t have exact change, so Joshua offered to pay for them in exchange for the Sifrits buying him a drink at the club. The two couples seemed to hit it off, chatting and drinking through the night.

Afterwards, the Sifrits invited them to their condo for nightcap. What happened next, no one but the Sifrits know for sure, but statements and evidence paint a scene that went something like this: At some point, Erika claimed her purse was missing and accused Geney and Josh of stealing it. BJ then threatened them with his gun. The terrified couple blockaded themselves in the bathroom. Someone – it’s still not known for sure which one – shot Joshua twice through the door. Then BJ kicked the door down and shot him twice more while Geney cowered under the sink. Erika then turned on Geney, stabbing her multiple times.

BJ dismembered their bodies. At one point, he held up their severed heads and told Erika to take a picture, but she refused. They also discussed eating some of their victims’ flesh, but Erika said they didn’t go through with it.

They cleaned up the bathroom, which had so much blood on the floor, it would splash when you stepped in it, according to Erika. They put Geney and Josh’s body parts in trash bags and tossed them into dumpsters across the state line in Delaware. They replaced the bullet-riddled bathroom door and went on with their vacation. They played mini-golf, ate crab, and swam in the ocean, all smiles and happy faces. Erika wore Josh’s bloody ring on a necklace and got a tattoo on her side in the exact spot where she first stabbed Geney.

Still not satisfied, the thrill-kill couple tried it again. For a second time, they befriended a couple, Melissa Seling and Justin Wright, and invited them to their condo for a nightcap. Again, Erika claimed her purse was missing. Again, BJ brandished a gun. But one thing went differently for this couple: BJ didn’t think he and Erika had time to clean up another double homicide. So Melissa and Justin lived.

Meanwhile, when Josh and Geney didn’t return to work, their worried friends and coworkers filed a missing persons report. Ocean City PD searched their condo, but found nothing out of place. Their car was still in the lot, where it had been sitting for a while. The police put out flyers, issued BOLOs, and investigated, but found nothing.

Busted (Pun Intended)

So far, the Sifrits had committed the perfect crime. No one had connected them to the missing couple, and no bodies had been found.

But Erika’s weird addiction to Hooters merch did them in. Almost a week after the murders, the extremely drunk Sifrits broke into a Hooters, setting off a silent alarm. Police arrived on the scene and caught them red-handed. They were so drunk, BJ asked the cops if they could just put it all back and “we’ll be cool.”

Erika, however, began having a panic attack. She asked one of the cops to get her anti-anxiety pills from her purse. While going through her purse to get the medication, the cop found some very suspicious items: IDs belonging to the missing couple … and five spent rounds of ammunition.

Erika had her .357 Magnum in her waistband. They searched the Jeep and found two more handguns: BJ’s Sig Sauer 9mm and .45, along with flex cuffs, gloves, and ski masks. It was obvious there was more going on here than a simple robbery.

So the police searched the Sifrits’ condo. There they found more souveniers “Little Miss Scrapbook” had kept: two spent bullets, one of them with Josh’s blood still on it, and a stack of pictures, including pictures of Josh and Geney, and a key to their condo.

Then they searched the bathroom. Despite the Sifrits’ cleaning, there were traces of blood in the grout. In a sink stopper, they found hair and tissue. Under the sink, a bullet hole. On the window, Josh’s palm print.

Erika confessed soon after their arrest, claiming it was all BJ’s idea, and that she was a frightened, abused victim forced to play along. BJ, of course, blamed it all on Erika.

Erika tried to cop a plea deal by telling them where the bodies were, but one condition of the deal was that she had to pass a lie detector test. She didn’t. She was more involved in the murders then she had claimed.

After an extensive search of the Delaware landfill, only parts of Josh and Geney’s remains were found, so they couldn’t determine cause of death for Geney. Regardless, BJ was convicted of one count of first-degree murder and was sentenced to 38 years. Erika was convicted of both murders and sentenced to life plus 20 years. BJ will be eligible for parole in 2021, and Erika in 2024.

 

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Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, serial rapists and killers

The Ken and Barbie Killers: Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka

Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka were the perfect 80s power couple: they enjoyed every privilege, every benefit of the doubt, because they were pretty, white, and blonde. But there was no humanity behind their sparkling blue eyes. Together they were far more terrifying and psychotic than anything in a Bret Easton Ellis novel.

Paul was born August 27, 1964, into a deeply dysfunctional family. His father, Kenneth, was himself a rapist who even molested his own daughter. He also regularly abused his wife, Paul’s mother, verbally and physically. He often called her a “bitch” and a “fat cow,” terms Paul would later call his own victims. She became deeply depressed and gained a lot of weight, eventually isolating herself in the basement.

Despite that, Paul was known by friends and neighbors as a sweet, happy child with dimpled cheeks and curly blond hair.

When Paul was 16, he discovered that Kenneth was not his biological father. From that point on he hated his family, and once he moved out, he severed all contact with them.

After graduation he went on to attend the University of Toronto. It was there that his sadism began to bloom, and he began abusing his girlfriends. In fact, one of his ex-girlfriends went to the police several times to report him for abuse, rape, and threats, but nothing was ever done about it.

He began raping women in the Scarborough area in 1987. He would abduct them from bus stops and brutally rape them, often punching them, strangling them, cutting and penetrating them with a knife. The media dubbed him “The Scarborough Rapist.”

The Deadly Duo Meet

It was right around this time when he met Karla at a pet food convention; she was 17 and he was 23. It was instant attraction.

Karla was born May 4, 1970. The oldest of three girls, she was pretty and popular. She had normal, loving parents. She wanted to be a veterinarian and went to work for a vet clinic when she was a teenager.

Paul and Karla found they shared the same sadomasochistic desires – they fell into the role of master and slave right off the bat. As time went on, their relationship intensified, as did their sexual crimes. Meanwhile, Paul, with Karla’s full knowledge, continued raping women.

In May 1990, one victim described Paul to the police, who generated a sketch that was sent out to the public. A former coworker of Paul’s called the police after seeing the sketch, but it wasn’t followed up. Months later, the wife of an old neighbor of Paul’s also called, and this time the police finally questioned Paul. But his good looks and charm led them to believe he was innocent. Even though they collected a DNA sample from him, it wasn’t compared to the victims for another two years – time enough for him to murder three girls and rape many more.

They Take Their First Victim

Paul’s entitled attitude led him to believe he deserved to take Karla’s virginity, but since he couldn’t do that, Karla, ever the faithful slave, arranged the next best thing. Karla knew Paul had been looking at her 15-year-old sister, Tammy. He would peep into her window and masturbate to her while she slept – all with Karla’s knowledge and approval.

So Karla hatched a plan to give him what he wanted. On December 23, 1990, at a family Christmas party, Karla and Paul gave Tammy cocktails laced with a sedative. Once everyone else had gone to bed, the couple took Tammy to the basement. There Karla held a rag soaked in the anesthetic Halothane – stolen from the vet clinic where she worked – over Tammy’s nose and mouth. Once the girl was unconscious, the couple began raping her and recording it with the video recorder Paul had gotten as a Christmas gift.

Sometime during the assault, the heavily drugged Tammy vomited and aspirated it, choking to death. After carefully cleaning up the evidence of what they had done, they called the EMTs. Despite the large, unexplained burns on Tammy’s face (a result of the Halothane), the police accepted the pretty young couple’s explanation that Tammy had simply had too much to drink and had choked on her own vomit.

This brutal psychotic act seems to have only brought the two closer. Soon after Tammy’s murder, the couple moved in together. At one point, Karla dressed up in Tammy’s clothes and pretended to be her while she and Paul had sex in her bed. Again, they recorded it – something they would do for every assault they committed.

But Paul still wasn’t satisfied; he blamed Karla for Tammy’s death – which was only a problem for him because she wasn’t available for him to use her anymore.

More Victims

So they decided to get another toy for Paul, a young teenager known only as “Jane Doe.” Jane knew Karla from the pet store where they had worked together, and she idolized the pretty older woman. So Karla invited her out to dinner, and just like she had done to her sister, laced her drinks with sedatives, took her home, and administered the Halothane. Again, both of them brutally raped and tortured her and recorded it. Unlike Tammy, however, Jane survived. She woke up the next day, sore and sick, but with no memory of what had been done to her.

Meanwhile, less than six months since her sister’s death, the couple (mostly Paul) was planning their wedding, a lavish affair including a horse-drawn carriage, an expensive bridal gown, and a sit-down meal of veal-stuffed pheasant. Oddly, Paul bragged to friends that the wedding was really a moneymaking affair, and that he expected to bring in $50,000 in gifts. Even more oddly, rather then Karla taking Paul’s last name, or even keeping her own, the couple both unofficially renamed themselves Teale after the fictional serial killer Martin Thiel from the movie Criminal Law.

Only two weeks before their wedding, on June 15, 1991, the couple stepped up their sick game. Up until now, they hadn’t meant to kill anyone. Tammy’s death had been unintentional, and Paul was actually angry with Karla for causing it.

But with 14-year-old Leslie Mahaffy, there was no anesthetic. Paul kidnapped her, and the couple held her captive for several days, raping and torturing her – and, of course, videotaping it. Once they tired of her, they killed her, dismembered her body, and encased the pieces in cement. Karla dumped them in nearby Lake Gibson.

On June 29, as the killer couple was making their vows surrounded by friends and family, anglers and boaters on the lake discovered the blocks of concrete containing Leslie’s legs, feet, and head. The next day, another boater saw her torso floating on the water. While the police were investigating the murder, Paul and Karla were honeymooning in Hawaii.

Nearly a year went by, and the couple apparently abducted and raped at least two more women, though they survived. As an interesting side note, Karla may not have had a conscience, but something kept her up at night. Sometime after Kristen’s murder, Karla went to a psychic for advice on how to exorcise the noises she kept hearing from the basement where Leslie had been dismembered.

In April 1992, the couple abducted Kristen French from a church parking lot. For Kristen, there were no drugs, no blindfold, and no hope of survival. They subjected her to the same brutality and rape as they had Leslie before killing her. Immediately after killing her, Karla left the room to do her hair for Easter dinner with her family. Her body, they simply dumped in a ditch.

The Beginning of the End

Paul’s viciousness would be his downfall. It was around this same time that Paul began turning his abuse onto Karla, and in early 1993 her parents convinced her to leave him and press charges.

After arresting him on the abuse charges, the Green Ribbon Task Force, formed in 1992 to solve the murders of Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French, wanted to question Karla more about Paul – and about a Mickey Mouse watch she was wearing that looked a lot like Kristen’s.

They questioned her for about five hours, but she didn’t divulge anything – yet. She got herself a lawyer, and he portrayed her as an abuse victim herself, forced to participate in Paul’s brutal crimes for fear of her life. They asked for a plea deal: in exchange for her testimony against Paul, she would plead guilty to manslaughter, and only be given 12 years. That deal, later called “the deal with the devil,” was quickly accepted.

The police searched Paul’s house for 71 days, but they could not find the alleged rape videos. However, Paul had told his lawyer that the videotapes were hidden in a ceiling light fixture in the upstairs bathroom. His lawyer found the tapes, but did not hand them over for evidence. Over a year later, his lawyer resigned, and a new lawyer, John Rosen, stepped in. Rosen did turn the tapes over to police – but too late. The prosecutors had already made the infamous plea bargain with Karla.

When law enforcement saw the horrific scenes on the tapes, it was obvious that Karla wasn’t the innocent bystander she pretended to be to get her plea deal. What they showed was so brutal that even seasoned detectives and reporters couldn’t hold back their emotion as the transcripts were read in court – and Karla had been a willing, and even eager, participant.

In September 1995, Paul was convicted of several offenses, including two first-degree murders and two aggravated sexual assaults. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole for at least 25 years in Kingston Penitentiary, Canada’s toughest maximum-security prison. He was designated a dangerous offender, making him unlikely to ever be released.

He was never tried for the Scarborough rapes, of which there are 19 known victims. There may be dozens more; some put the total figure at 43 victims.

Where is Karla Now?

Karla, meanwhile, finished her sentence in July 2005. She remarried and has three children. In an effort to hide from the public, she’s gone by several names, including Leanne Teale. The conditions of her parole were dropped in 2015, and in May 2017, she was outed for volunteering at a religious school in Montreal where her children attend, to great public outrage. That was the same year Paul came up for day parole and was denied.

The media and people in general continue to be fascinated with her – the question, “Where is Karla Homolka Now?” has generated countless headlines, and numerous social media groups have been created to answer that very question.

Why is everyone so obsessed with Karla, but not Paul, who was at least 50 percent of this deadly duo? I think for one, she is out walking around free, so there’s a lot of anger and resentment toward her.

But also, women who kill – especially when they kill with such cruelty and violence – are considered somehow worse than men who do the same. It upends the old Victorian notions of “feminine nature,” that women aren’t capable of such extreme acts of violence. Indeed it is rare; only 15 percent of serial killers are female and most of them kill quietly and domestically. The few female serial killers who kill along with men usually do so out of a dependent personality disorder: they are vulnerable, have a deep fear of abandonment, have suffered abuse, and are typically not well educated. Karla fits none of these characteristics.

She is an enigma, a psychopath and sexual sadist, a serial killer who is walking around free.

 

 

 

 

The San Francisco Witch Cult Killers

We’ll start off the month of lovers with one of the craziest killer couples: Suzan and James/Michael “Bear” Carson, the psycho “Witch Killer Cult” who terrorized San Francisco in the early 1980s.

Susan Barnes had been a seemingly normal suburban housewife in 1960s Scottsdale, Arizona. Her husband made good money, enabling her to be a stereotypical spoiled housewife. But she wanted more than that.

She began taking hallucinogens like LSD, mescaline, and peyote while she was hanging out with her sons’ high-school classmates. She also regularly seduced and slept with them – according to the rumor mill, she slept with 150 young men and boys.

When she turned 35, she began to have delusions and hallucinations – or as she called them, “visions” – even when she wasn’t on drugs. This was actually nothing new; since she was a child, she believed she was psychic.

Needless to say the infidelity, drug use, and budding psychosis shattered her marriage. She reinvented herself, and started spelling her name with a “z” instead of an “s.” She had visions telling her she needed to find a soulmate, a partner, a loyal disciple. That’s when she James Carson.

Originally from Oklahoma, Carson was also another non-conformist, middle-class dropout. Always bookish, he took a special interest in history, religions, and philosophy. He earned a degree from University of Iowa, where he met his wife. After graduation, they had a daughter and moved to Arizona. While his wife supported him, he was a stay-at-home dad and pot dealer. Things seem to work out that way for quite a while – by his daughter’s account, he was a loving and attentive father.

But as time went on, he began to get more antisocial and prone to angry outbursts. Due to his growing unstable behavior and his inability (or unwillingness) to get a job, his wife divorced him in 1977. Shortly thereafter, he met Suzan.

When they met, it was instant attraction. The first thing she said to him when they met was that his name was Michael. He said, “No, my name is James.” To which she responded, “No, you are Michael, an angel of God.” From then on, James went by the name Michael.

It was a match made in hell; James was looking for God, and Suzan was looking for a disciple. After they married, they tripped around Europe a while, and Susan developed her own religion from her drug- and psychosis-induced visions: a twisted, radical interpretation of Islam. Upon returning to the US, they began going by the surname “Bear” and described themselves as “vegetarian Moslem warriors.”

However, their religion was not all tofu and white light. For one thing, they believed insulting a woman was tantamount to assault, and deserving of death. For another, they believed there were witches surrounding them, using their mental powers to control others. And they believed it was their duty to kill all witches.

This kind of shared madness is called folie á deux, or, more clinically, shared psychotic disorder. It is a rare delusional disorder shared by two or, sometimes, more people with unusually close emotional ties. The delusions are usually induced in the passive partner – in this case, Michael – by the active one – Suzan.

Up until now their cult had consisted of only two members. So they began looking for recruits in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. In 1980, Haight-Ashbury was still a major epicenter of the counter-culture and drug culture. There they met Keryn Barnes at a party. Though most people were repulsed by the Bears’ odd and even hostile behavior, Keryn, an open-minded spiritual seeker, found them fascinating.

She invited them to come live with her, where they continued nearly non-stop tripping, drinking, and getting high. Before long, Suzan began to see Keryn as a witch. Maybe she felt threatened by the pretty younger woman, or maybe she really did believe Keryn had evil psychic powers. Either way, she and Michael murdered her as she lay sleeping on the kitchen floor, beating her to death with an iron skillet and stabbing her over a dozen times.

When the police found Keryn’s bloody body, they also found a scene straight out of Helter Skelter: the walls were covered in strange religious symbols and one word: “Suzan.” Through their investigation, they discovered that Michael and Suzan had been living with Keryn, and were likely suspects in her murder. However, the Bears were long gone.

They fled north and stayed an abandoned cabin in the Oregon woods Suzan called “Allah’s mountain,” until they were kicked out by a park ranger. Later, another good Samaritan let them stay in his treehouse. But their weird, combative behavior soon grated on the owner, and he kicked them out. Suzan, however, was not going to take this lying down. She instructed Michael to take revenge on the owner. So they robbed his house, taking, among other things, a handgun, and then set it on fire.

So they headed back to California, getting jobs as caretakers of a marijuana plantation in Humboldt County. However, when a friend of the owner, Clark Stevens, came up to work on the operation, he and the Bears butted heads quickly. They argued, and when things got heated, Clark said something that offended Suzan. For this offense, she ordered Michael to kill Clark. Ever her faithful disciple, Michael shot him dead with the stolen gun. They poured kerosene over his body, set it on fire, then covered it with chicken litter.

Now the Bears were on the run again. A man named Jon Hellyar picked them up hitchhiking near Bakersfield. Suzan told Michael as soon as she saw Jon, she knew he was a witch and they would have to kill him. Sure enough, they began arguing as soon as the Bears got in his truck. Apparently his leg touched Suzan’s, and this was a death sentence. They struggled, and Jon was able to pull over and get out of his truck. The Bears followed him. They stabbed and shot him right on the side of the highway, in full view of passing drivers, who called the police. Suzan and Michael drove off in Jon’s truck, which was quickly spotted by police. After a high-speed chase, the couple was arrested.

While they were in custody, they arranged a rambling, six-hour press conference where they laid out their twisted beliefs and reasoning for the murders. They showed no remorse, and in fact, thought they should be heroes for killing witches.

Regardless, they were tried and found guilty and sentenced to 75 years to life. They came up for parole in 2015; Michael declined parole, and Suzan was denied because she was still unrepentant for the murders. Their earliest official release date won’t be until 2059.

But that is not the end of the strange story of the Witch Killer Cult. Authorities think they may be responsible for nearly a dozen other murders in Europe and the United States, but don’t have enough evidence to bring charges.

All the Real Killers in American Horror Story, Pt. 4

Season six was really a fun change of pace – very meta-on-meta. As a fan of low-budget true-crime shows, I got a kick out of AHS’ treatment of them: the victim interviews, the cheesy re-enactments, and a cameo by my favorite historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin!

But were there any real killers in season six? Do you even have to ask?

The Angels of Death

Obviously, the nurses Miranda and Bridget Jane (played by Jenna Doolittle and Areana Cirina in “real” life, by Maya Rose Berko and Christian Rakes in the “re-enactment”) are dead ringers (pardon the pun) for Gwendolyn Graham and Cathy Wood. Graham and Wood were lovers who made a game of killing the elderly patients in the Alpine Manor nursing home where they worked in 1987. The object of the game was to choose victims by their initials to spell out the word “MURDER.” But that proved too difficult, so they gave up and just started just killing at random, eventually taking the lives of five victims.

They nearly got away with it, too. Since their victims were elderly and in poor health, their deaths were ruled as from natural causes.

However, Graham and Woods’ relationship did not last. They broke up, and Wood married a man whom she confessed the murders to. After he and Wood divorced, he went to the police. While Graham was given five life sentences, Wood got a lighter sentence for her cooperation, and is expected to be released in 2021.

The Bean Clan

The Polk clan gives a huge nod and wink to the Peacocks from one of the darkest and most horrifying X Files episodes, “Home.” However, their gruesome dietary practices also reflect another murderous clan who may or may not have been real: the cannibalistic Bean clan of Scotland.

Alexander “Sawney” Bean and his wife, Agnes Douglas, lived in a sea cave on Scotland’s southwest coast. Over time they had 14 children, and, through incest, 32 grandchildren. The family would rob and kill unsuspecting travelers, then bring the bodies back to their cave for dismemberment and roasting – or salting and pickling, to save for later.

It’s rumored that over a span of 25 years, the clan murdered over 1,000 people, spawning terror and rumors in the neighboring towns. Some blamed the innkeepers, some blamed evil goblins living in the wilderness or kelpies who lived in the lochs and rivers.

Legends differ on how they were caught. Some say one of their intended victims was rescued by another traveler. They brought the authorities to the Beans’ cave, led there by hunting dogs following the the odor of human decomposition. Inside, they found body parts hung up to dry as well as stolen valuables scattered throughout the cave.

Another version states a wanderer came upon them roasting a human body over an open fire and went for the authorities.

In any case, the Bean clan met a horrific end. The women and children were strangled before the stake, their last agonizing moments spent watching the men be slowly dismembered and left to bleed to death, before they (the women and children) were set on fire.

Yet it is not certain the legend is real. For one, the name “Sawney” was the popular English nickname for a stereotypical Scot, much like “Paddy” for the Irish. For another, the date of their existence isn’t known; some say the Bean clan killed in in the early 1400s, but others say it was at the turn of the 17th Century. Like with most legends, there may be a bit of truth underneath a lot of hyperbole.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to look at season seven until it comes out on Hulu, so stay tuned and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Next month is February, the month for lovers, so we’ll be looking at Couples Who Kill…

All the Real Killers in American Horror Story, Part 3

Season five has so many real killers in it, it gets its own post!

H.H. Holmes

The insane architect of the Cortez, J.P. March (played by Evan Peters) is largely based on a real serial killer: H.H. Holmes (real name, Herman Webster Mudgett).

Holmes built his “murder castle” just outside of Chicago in 1893, just in time for the Columbian exhibition. Like the Cortez, his hotel was a deranged masterpiece designed to confuse, kill, and dispose of its inhabitants. Like March, Holmes would fire contractors who saw too much or asked to many questions – though he would just fire them without pay, not execute them. Holmes’ murder castle had doors that opened onto brick walls, staircases then went to nowhere, sealed rooms with poison gas piped in (and a peep hole where he could watch his victims’ death throes), and a chute for delivering the bodies to the basement, where he could strip their flesh and sell their skeletons to anatomy schools.

The Devil’s Night Guest List

In episode 4, March hosts his annual Devil’s Night dinner, where real serial killers he’s mentored are invited back from the dead. The guest list includes:

  • Jeffrey Dahmer, played by Seth Gabel
  • The Zodiac killer, played by an unknown actor
  • Richard Ramirez, who actually stayed at the Cecil Hotel (see below), played by Anthony Ruivivar
  • John Wayne Gacy, played by John Carroll Lynch. Lynch has played serial killers before, including the main suspect, Arthur Leigh Allen, in the movie Zodiac and Twisty the Clown in season four. But as great an actor as Lynch is, I don’t think he really got Gacy was an outgoing, ambitious glad-hander – someone who recruited prominent men into the Jaycees and hobknobbed with politicians. Lynch portrayed him as a somewhat dull, almost childish character, more like Twisty than the real Gacy.
  • Aileen Wuornos, played by Lily Rabe. Rabe’s Wournos was incredible – maybe even better than Charlize Theron!
  • Gordon Northcott, the Wineville chicken coop murderer, played by Luke Baybak. As an aside, apparently Hazel’s son was one of his victims, as she reveals earlier in the episode. This was one detail that I found, well, off-key. What was the purpose of that scene? Why didn’t Hazel attempt some sort of revenge on Northcott at that evening’s dinner? This just doesn’t make sense!

The Cecil Hotel

Perhaps the most interesting “real killer” in season five is the hotel itself, which seems to be an amalgam of H.H. Holmes’ murder castle and a real hotel in LA called the Hotel Cecil.

The Cecil, also done in the art deco style, was built in 1925. It had 700 rooms and was very tony at the time. But the stock market crash of ’29 caused financial problems for the owners. Soon the neighborhood turned seedy, and the Cecil became a hostel for the shady and sick – much like the Cortez.

Over the years there have been not one, but two, serial killers who have called the Cecil their home. Richard Ramirez lived on the top floor while he was killing in the mid-1980s, and Jack Unterweger murdered three women while living there in 1991.

In addition, there have been 16 unnatural deaths at the hotel, including almost a dozen people who committed suicide and several others who attempted to. In 1962, one woman leapt to her death and landed on a pedestrian, killing him too. One man was fatally pinned to the building by a truck, and in 1994, a 19-year-old woman gave birth in the bathroom and threw the newborn out the window to his death.

Recently, in 2013, the Hotel Cecil tried rebranding itself with a renovation and new name, Stay on Main. But that was not enough to overcome the apparent curse of the Hotel Cecil. On Feb. 19, the naked, decomposing body of Elisa Lam was found in the hotel’s water tank after guests had complained of a foul odor and bad taste in the water. She had been missing for three weeks by then. The last images taken of Lam were hotel surveillance footage that showed her acting very strangely, as though she were afraid someone were following her, though no one else could be seen.

Though the cause of her disappearance and death was ruled accidental, questions still remain. For one, how could Lam have gotten onto the roof, when a locked door and fire escape are the only ways to access the hotel’s roof? The door, which only employees can reach, is also equipped with an alarm. Why didn’t it sound? The water tank itself is also extremely difficult to access, and authorities had a difficult time getting her body out. What really happened to Elisa Lam may never be answered.

 

Tune in next week for all the real killers in season six!

All the Real Killers in American Horror Story, Pt. 2

I hope you liked last week’s rundown. Let’s take a stab at the next two seasons, shall we?

AHS Coven – Season 3

Season three might not have the most real killers, but it has the most recognizable.

The Axeman

The Axeman of New Orleans, played by Danny Houston, was a real serial killer who terrorized New Orleans in 1918 and 1919. He would remove his victims’ door panels with a chisel, enter their homes, then kill one or more of the residents with their own axe or straight razor. Nothing else would be taken from the home, besides their lives.

Most of his victims were Italian or Italian-American, causing some to believe the murders were ethnically motivated. His primary victims were women; he only killed men when they tried to protect women. This leads some modern criminologists to believe he was a sexual sadist.

On May 13, 1919, with a dateline from “Hell,” the Axeman (or someone claiming to be him) wrote a letter to “the esteemed morals of New Orleans.” Claiming to be a demon, he wrote that he would “pass over” New Orleans the following Tuesday at 12:15 a.m. and would spare anyone whose home was playing a jazz band in full swing. That night, every dancehall in the Crescent City was packed, and hundreds of professional and amateur musicians played. No one was killed that night.

The Axeman had killed six and injured a dozen, but was never caught.

The Savage Mistress

The other serial killer featured in season three was far more cruel and sadistic – and also never faced justice: Mad Madame LaLaurie, played by Kathy Bates. Madame Marie Delfine LaLaurie was born in 1787 into the New Orleans wealthy elite. She was known as kind and courteous to her social equals. She even freed two of her slaves.

Her third marriage was to the less wealthy Dr. Louis LaLaurie after she bore his child out of wedlock. Soon after their marriage, stories about her cruelty to her slaves began to emerge, and multiple complaints were filed against her for it. In an eerie reflection of Elizabeth Bathory, for whom she has been repeatedly compared, she flew into a rage when a 12-year-old servant girl named Leah (or Lia) pulled a tangle while brushing her hair. Fleeing from the furious, whip-wielding mistress, Leah jumped from the roof to her death. Witnesses later saw LaLaurie burying the girl’s mangled corpse, so she was fined $300 and forced to sell her nine slaves. But like rich people everywhere, she was able to buy her way out of punishment. Her family members simply purchased the slaves and sold them back to LaLaurie.

In 1834, the depth of her sadism was finally exposed for all to see. On April 10, 1834, a fire broke out in the LaLaurie mansion, set by a slave who had been chained to the stove and left to starve. She later confessed that she had set the fire as a suicide attempt to avoid being taken to the attic, because no one who was taken there ever came back.

As LaLaurie scrambled to save her valuables, townsfolk rushed in to help her. In the attic, they found “seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated … suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other.” They said they been imprisoned there for months. Details of the abuse have grown more fantastic over the years, including tales of slaves limbs being broken and reset an odd angles and other ghastly medical experiments. Though their conditions were torture by any standard, iron masks, collars with inward facing spikes, and beatings were actually common punishments used on slaves at the time.

Even in slave-holding New Orleans, however, this was more that they could tolerate. A mob of local citizens descended on the LaLaurie mansion and “demolished and destroyed everything upon which they could lay their hands.”

LaLaurie escaped with her slave driver to Paris, where she lived out the rest of her days in comfort and freedom. Her body was later exhumed and returned to New Orleans.

AHS Freakshow – Season 4

Season four, while being deliciously grotesque, doesn’t feature a lot of real killers. The most obviously inspired character is Twisty (played by John Caroll Lynch, no stranger to playing serial killers), a creature who is based on Pogo, the clown John Wayne Gacy would dress up as. Gacy would often entertain children dressed as Pogo, and, sometimes, he would dress as Pogo to assault and kill his victims.

There is one more serial killer that provided some inspiration for season four: Jeffrey Dahmer. In episode 5, “Pink Cupcakes,” Dandy begins choosing his victims by trawling the gay bar, just like Dahmer. Later, there is a scene at the bar where you can see a flyer in the background. It has a sketch of Dandy’s clown mask and says, “WANTED MAN.” This is also a callback to Dahmer. Many in Milwaukee’s gay community knew too many men and boys were going missing to be a coincidence. Thanks to the bigotry of the Milwaukee PD, the gay community had to try to solve the problem themselves, and to do so, they did put out flyers with some of the missing men’s photos on them. It’s a small detail, but it’s the kind of thing I love in this series.

Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments!

Join us next week when we’ll look at the real killers featured in seasons five and six.

All the Real Killers in American Horror Story, Pt. 1

There are so many things I love about this series! I love how it moves around in time (I’m a sucker for anything vintage), the diversity of the cast, and the dark, intricate plotlines sprinkled with just a touch of camp. It’s absolutely delicious, like all the best nightmares are.

Another thing I love about American Horror Story is how Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and the other writers take characters and stories from real life. So in this series, I’m going to look at all the real psychos, sadists, and serial killers featured on the show.

AHS Murder House – Season 1

First, Tate Langdon (Evan Peters): he’s a troubled, moody loner, a teen who dreams of taking out his revenge on the classmates who shunned him. In episode 5 (“Halloween pt. 2”) we find out he actually did shoot up his school – then was himself shot – in the 1990s.

When most people think of a school shooting in the ‘90s, they think of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others, then turned their guns on themselves. Like the character Tate, they wore black trenchcoats and listened to Goth music.

But that wasn’t the first school shooting in America. There have been many shootings at public schools over the years, going back to the 1700s. Most were acts of revenge, committed by one person against another at a school. Others were the result of a fight breaking out amongst armed students. The modern type of school shooting, where a student (or students) comes to the school and targets fellow students and teachers for the express purpose of taking as many lives as possible, is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The first mass murder (four or more fatalities) at a public school (not a college), where the shooter arrived with the express purpose of killing many others (as opposed to a fight breaking out or an act of revenge on a specific individual): that dubious honor belongs to Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

A year before the Columbine massacre, on March 24, 1998, Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson, aged 11 and 13, pulled a fire alarm then ran to a wooded area, firing on teachers and students as they exited. They killed five people and wounded 10 others. When police apprehended the boys, they found they had stocked a stolen van with food, clothing, and camping equipment as well as 13 fully loaded firearms and 200 rounds of ammo. At the time, it shocked the nation…yet only a year later, the Columbine massacre eclipsed it, setting off a very dark and deadly trend that unfortunately continues to this day.

Another real killer featured in Season 1 was Richard Speck – the murder of the nursing school students is nearly identical to his 1966 mass murder. The main difference is that in real life, Speck raped, beat, and stabbed eight women.

The final real killer in Season 1 has to do with maybe the most famous real-life murder victim, the Black Dahlia. In episode 9, “Spooky Little Girl,” she’s raped, then accidentally murdered, by a dentist while under sedation. When I first saw this scene, the story seemed familiar, but I couldn’t put a name to who the real murderous dentist was. So I Googled it. Turns out, it wasn’t just one dentist who would rape his patients while under sedation – many, many doctors of various specialties have been found guilty of this. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did an excellent investigation into the problem and found it’s rampant in the medical community – they uncovered over 2,400 cases of doctors across the nation publicly sanctioned by medical authorities after being accused of sexually abusing patients. But many perps are never removed from medical practice. They just move away and start abusing patients again. Fortunately, unlike AHS’ Black Dahlia, their victims survived.

AHS Asylum – Season 2

The setting for Season 2 is Briarcliff Manor, an insane asylum where people were kept in horrible conditions, subjected to abuse and neglect … and treatments like electroshock therapy and forced lobotomies. It’s like something straight out of the pages of a horror novel. Actually, it’s from the pages of history books.

Insane asylums began in the late 17th century. Often the goal of these institutions was merely to keep the patients docile, so they were left in cell-like rooms, chained, put in straight-jackets, and later, drugged. Psychiatry was in its infancy, so mental illness was not well understood. Women, in particular, were labeled “mad” for nearly any infraction of the strict social code. Offenses like masturbating, defiance, or even not smiling enough could get a woman committed.

The most infamous of these was Bedlam (Bethlem Royal Hospital), the oldest institution for treatment of mental illness. It was built atop a sewer that frequently overflowed into the building. Patients were spun in suspended chairs, beaten, starved, dunked in ice baths, and other atrocities. Many didn’t survive. Edward Wakefield, a Quaker, exposed its abuses in 1814.

The character Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) may well have been inspired by the intrepid Nellie Bly, (the pen name of Elizabeth Cochrane) who, in 1887, had herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York City. She then exposed the filth, beatings, neglect, and torture there. She published a series of newspaper articles, “Behind Asylum Doors,” which were later collected into a book, Ten Days in a Madhouse. The exposure helped legislators increase the institution’s budget and the abuses stopped.

While Briarcliff was undoubtedly an amalgam of many of these awful places, the one that seems to track the closest is Willowbrook State Hospital. First exposed by newspaper reporter Jane Kurtin, the horrifying conditions of the hospital were aired by Geraldo Rivera in 1972 in a special called “Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace.” The “investigative report” done by Lana Winters is a thinly-fictionalized, nearly shot-by-shot remake of Rivera’s piece.

Probably the most obvious – and evil – real killer in Season 2 is Dr. Arthur Arden/Hans Grüper (James Cromwell). He is explicitly an avatar of the Nazi Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele. Both did horrible, unethical, and cruel experiments – without anesthetics – on women, children, and twins in Auschwitz.  Both were deceptively kind, as shown in episode 4, “I am Anne Frank, pt. 1,” where the younger Grüper (John Cromwell) is shown giving treats to the children in the camp.

However, unlike Mengele, who lived out the rest of his days in Brazil, Arden’s fate was more fitting. As Executive Producer Ryan Murphy put it, “… the image of a Nazi doctor going into an oven is sort of a brilliant metaphor of him literally paying. Obviously, he’s a terrible character but I thought his end was very justified and somewhat poetic.” Perhaps not coincidentally, the character’s surname, “Arden,” means “they burn” in Spanish.

Bloody Face is a Frankenstein’s-monster mix of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Norman Bates, and Buffalo Bill. And who are all those fictional monsters based on? The Butcher of Plainfield, Ed Gein. Dr. Oliver Thredson/Bloody Face, like Gein, is obsessed with his mother and her skin. Like Gein, he made furniture and objects out of human remains – specifically, like Gein, a bowl made from a skull and a lampshade and mask of human skin.

There is one real-life killer ascribed to AHS that I don’t think holds up. Some are saying Grace Bertrand (Lizzie Brocheré) represents Lizzy Borden. She did murder her father and step-mother with an axe; but that’s where the similarities end. Borden was a stout, no-nonsense woman, used to getting her own way – nothing like the waifish, mewling Grace. She wasn’t French either.

Of course all this is a matter of opinion. I’m interested in hearing other theories! Let me know what you think in the comments. And tune in next week for seasons 3 and 4!