Most of us think of serial killers the same way we think about plane crashes or rare diseases — they happen to other people. But while Cracked’s brush with the nefarious Doritos Disemboweler has been well-documented across global media, our story pales in comparison to what ordinary people just like you have suddenly experienced in the middle of otherwise normal days. Like how …
The Night Stalker (not to be confused with the Original Night Stalker, because there are only so many credible names to give serial killers) committed a series of home invasions, sexual assaults, and murders around Los Angeles and San Francisco. The specifics are far too sad to get into here, but with nearly all of his 14 murders and dozens of other crimes having been committed between May and August of 1985, the sheer scope of his spree inspired an understandable level of paranoia. News coverage was constant, police patrols increased, and sales of guns and security measures like window bars skyrocketed. It was kind of a big deal.
James Romero didn’t know about any of that, because his family had been camping in Mexico before returning home to Mission Viejo, south of Los Angeles. Besides, he was a 13-year-old enjoying the twin wonders of having a girlfriend and an Atari, which didn’t leave a lot of time for reading newspapers. So when he was puttering around the backyard and garage at midnight and heard rustling, he assumed it was an animal. Then, when he heard footsteps and realized someone had been following him around the yard, he assumed it was a regular old prowler (the family’s garage had been burgled twice, because that was the ’80s equivalent of getting mold).
Ted Bundy is infamous for being played by Zac Efron in a bad Netflix movie, and also for murdering at least 30 women. His approach varied, but because he was regarded as handsome and charming, he tended to feign needing help with something to kidnap his victims.
And that takes us to Pam Prine, a freshman at Brigham Young University in 1974. While heading to class on a rainy morning, she was approached by a man who said he was from out of town, had spotted her umbrella, and was wondering if she would be willing to keep him dry as he walked to his car. Flattered to be receiving attention from “a handsome gentleman in a nice suit,” and wanting to set a good example as a helpful young Mormon, Prine agreed.
They went deeper and deeper into the parking lot, and then the man suddenly grabbed the back of Prine’s coat. Prine jerked away and ran, then turned around. The man asked why she had fled, said, “I wasn’t going to hurt you,” and suggested that she come retrieve her umbrella. Prine declined and kept running. She didn’t report the incident to security, and in fact felt embarrassed for overreacting. She thought she had probably freaked out over nothing, and left this poor guy with a terrible impression of BYU and the Mormon community.
Then, over a decade later, Prine found herself watching a rerun of a 1986 TV movie about Bundy (there hasn’t exactly been a shortage of movies made about him), immediately recognized a photo of him as the man who had sought her help, and understandably freaked out. We can never be 100% certain, but Prine did have the height, skinniness, and long straight hair parted in the middle that Bundy preferred in his victims, and Bundy had been active in Utah, taking one of his victims from the BYU campus.
Kenneth Alessio Bianchi and Angelo Buono Jr. were two abusive pimps who escalated to even nastier crimes. Their shtick was to impersonate undercover police officers, flashing fake badges and intimidating young women before forcing them into their car. Dubbed the Hillside Stranglers, they were responsible for 10 murders in Los Angeles between October 1977 and February ’78, and 24-year-old Catharine Lorre Baker was almost another victim.
The two men spotted Catharine walking and demanded identification. Her papers revealed her last name, and a photograph in her purse showed a young Catharine sitting in Peter Lorre’s lap. For younger readers who think that classic Hollywood was the Jean-Claude Van Damme era, Lorre had a lengthy filmography that included Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, the iconic Muscle Beach Party, and, creepily enough, the role of a serial killer who targeted little girls in M. Lorre died in 1964, but would have still been recognizable to most people back then, and after commenting on the relationship and asking her a couple questions, the men let Catharine carry on with her day.
The killer known as BTK (short for “Bind Torture Kill”), in an effort to prove to coastal elites that people in flyover country are just as capable of being monstrous, claimed 10 victims in Kansas between 1974 and 1991. Unlike the other killers listed here, BTK (eventually identified as Dennis Rader) maintained a respectable everyday appearance. He had a wife and two children, he was a Cub Scout leader and president of his church council, he worked a series of mundane jobs (including a few years spent installing security alarms for people who, in many cases, were concerned about his killings), and every now and then he broke into a house and brutally murdered its occupants before sending taunting letters to the police and media.
In 1979, Rader broke into the house of one Anna Williams. He had grown obsessed with Williams while stalking her as a potential victim and, having a good sense of her schedule, spent hours waiting for her to return home. But Williams followed up her square dance outing with a visit to her daughter, because she was a 63-year-old woman living her best life. The delay frustrated Rader, he left, and she finally came home to what appeared to be a routine burglary.
Then, two months later, Williams received a package containing some of her stolen possessions and a poem called “Oh, Anna Why Didn’t You Appear.” Select excerpts include “T’ was perfect plan of deviant pleasure so bold on that Spring nite” and “Spring rain would roll down from your nakedness to scent to lofty fever that burns within,” because Rader did not become famous for his sparkling command of the English language. Williams then left Kansas, hopefully to enjoy many more years of square dancing in peace.
As for Rader, the investigation into his crimes went cold after his final killing in 1991, and he likely could have lived out the rest of his life as a free man. But by 2004, he could no longer resist continuing his narcissistic letter campaign, and advancements in forensics did him in. In a bizarre detail, one letter asked the police to “Be honest” in telling him whether he could communicate with them via floppy disk without being traced. The police said, via coded newspaper message, “Oh yeah, totally bro, don’t even worry about it.” They received such a disk two weeks later, then immediately traced its metadata to a user named “Dennis” at Rader’s church. Even the most vicious serial killers will eventually be confused by the same technical issues that prompt your grandparents to ask you to install Netflix. New DNA evidence did the rest. Rader was shocked that the police would lie to him.