Hollywood loves a psychopath. However, the ones we see on the silver screen rarely have anything in common with real killers. They’re often portrayed as highly intelligent, calculating characters. Barring a few exceptions, this is not the case in real life.
The simple truth is that many of them are able to kill for years without being caught because it is really hard to find a murderer who has no close connections to his victims, especially in the days before DNA and genealogy tests. As you are about to see, most of them are hardly criminal masterminds, and they all got caught eventually due to minor, stupid mistakes.
10. Henri Landru Skimps on Train Fare
Even though the killing spree of Henri Désiré Landru occurred a hundred years ago, he is still remembered as one of France’s most notorious serial killers. Known as the “Bluebeard of Gambais,” Landru’s modus operandi was to seduce young, wealthy widows and kill them for their money. Luckily for him, the First World War provided him with plenty of targets. In 1921 he was found guilty of 11 murders – ten women and the son of one of his earlier victims – but some suspect the total number might be a lot higher.
Landru’s downfall was caused by his own greed. He made several mistakes, such as keeping detailed records of all the possessions and financial assets he obtained from all his victims and refusing to get rid of incriminating goods, even when he was being investigated. Instead, he preferred to hide them, hoping that he could still sell them later.
Landru’s biggest blunder, however, was refusing to buy full-price tickets for his victims since he knew they wouldn’t need them. His standard procedure involved wooing the women for a few months in Paris until he gained access to their finances. At that point, he booked a journey for the two of them to his country home in the village of Gambais, where he killed his victims and burned their bodies. But because he only purchased round-trip tickets for himself, it made it clear that he knew ahead of time that the women would not be returning to Paris.
9. Maury Travis Goes Online
One simple rule for criminals should be that, if you’re not good with technology, maybe don’t try to use it to taunt the authorities. Take, for example, the case of Maury Travis, a killer active in St. Louis, Missouri, during the early 2000s. After he saw an article about his spree in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the then-unknown killer wrote to the newspaper, clarifying that he had murdered 17 women, not 12 as they had stated. He wanted them to get it right, so he also included a map that lead police to the remains of another victim.
Here’s the catch: the map he used was computer generated and he downloaded it from the online travel agency Expedia. Clearly, he thought this was all done anonymously, but he was wrong. Once the police realized where the map came from, they obtained a list of IP addresses from Expedia showing all the people who had recently visited their website. Only one of them was in the St. Louis area – Maury Travis.
8. BTK’s Floppy Disk Failure
While we’re at it, we absolutely have to mention the dumbest way that a criminal got caught due to technology. For over three decades, the man known only as BTK was one of the world’s most notorious unidentified serial killers, right alongside Jack the Ripper or the Zodiac. It looked like he would forever evade justice for his crimes… until 2004 when he decided to start communicating again.
At that point, BTK had been silent for over ten years. During the ’70s and ’80s, he wrote letters and postcards, but he thought that it was time for him to get with the times. He wanted to send something on a floppy disk, but was unsure if they could be traced or not. So what did he do? He asked the police. Yes, the same people who had been trying to catch him for decades. He wrote to them and actually asked “Can I communicate with Floppy and not be traced to a computer? Be honest.”
Shockingly, the police were less-than-honest with their reply and said that it would be fine. And the truly dumbfounding part was that BTK actually believed them. His next package contained a floppy disk, which still had metadata on it from a deleted Word document last used by someone named “Dennis” from the Christ Lutheran Church. And just like that, Dennis Rader, aka BTK, had been identified and arrested.
7. An Ill-Advised TV Appearance
Here’s a useful hint: if you are currently wanted for murder, maybe try to limit your television appearances to a minimum. This is one life lesson that Wu Gang chose to ignore back in 2011 when he appeared as a contestant on a Chinese dating show called Happy League under the name Liu Hao, a music teacher who won over the audience with his song-and-dance routine.
The good news was that the woman on the show picked Liu Hao over seven other candidates. The bad news was that a viewer at home recognized the music teacher as Wu Gang, who was wanted by the police for killing a man outside a restaurant in Jilin City 13 years earlier. One anonymous call to the police later and the dating show contestant had been arrested.
6. An Untimely Trip to Arizona
Over a one-year period during the mid-’80s, Richard Ramirez terrorized the city of Los Angeles under the guise of the Night Stalker, a killer who broke into the homes of his victims at night. He murdered at least 15 people before being identified thanks to a witness description and a fingerprint found on one of the cars he stole. Therefore, on August 31, 1985, all newspapers and TV stations in the city published the name and face of Richard Ramirez, turning him into the most notorious person in Los Angeles.
Ramirez himself was blissfully unaware of this. He had taken a bus to Arizona the previous day to visit his brother in Tucson. When he didn’t find him there, Ramirez boarded another bus and returned to LA on the morning of August 31, just hours after his face had been plastered all over the city. He got out of the bus and casually walked past members of the task force assigned to catch him. They didn’t spot him because they were busy monitoring all outgoing buses. Nobody thought the Night Stalker would actually come back to Los Angeles when he was the most wanted man in the city.
Ramirez finally realized he had been discovered when he stopped at a liquor store and saw his face on the cover of a magazine. Just moments later, a patron recognized him and screamed. Ramirez ran away in a panic and tried to steal a car, but the locals soon descended upon him. When police arrived to arrest the Night Stalker, they probably saved his life from the angry mob.
5. Murder Weapon in a McDonald’s Bag
The murder weapon can often serve as a key piece of evidence that can secure an arrest and a conviction, which is why criminals usually try to dispose of it carefully.
Of course, that’s not always the case, as we found out back in late 2017. There had been four murders in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa, Florida. The victims seemed to be selected at random, but they were all shot with the same gun. Therefore, find the gun and you find the killer.
We move on to a Tampa police officer who was having lunch at a McDonald’s when they were approached by one of the employees with a strange story to tell. They said that one of their colleagues, Howell Donaldson III, had handed them a paper bag and asked them to bury it somewhere where nobody would find it because he had to leave the state. He also made them promise not to look inside the bag, but of course, they looked and found a gun – a .40-caliber Glock loaded with SIG brand Smith and Wesson ammunition, to be specific – just like the murder weapon.
From that point on, the case was fairly straightforward – the gun was matched to casings found at the crime scenes and Howell Donaldson was arrested and is currently awaiting trial.
4. The Urge to Confess
Here’s another helpful hint: if you are the kind of person with skeletons in their closet, maybe don’t appear in a documentary about them. And if you do, definitely don’t admit to the crimes while you’re being recorded.
New York real estate mogul Robert Durst did the exact opposite when he starred in a 2015 miniseries titled The Jinx about some unsolved deaths in his life: first, his wife who disappeared in 1982, then his close friend Susan Berman who was shot execution-style in 2000, and, finally, his neighbor who was killed and dismembered in 2001.
As far as the third one was concerned, Durst actually admitted to it back in 2003, but claimed self-defense and was only found guilty of evidence tampering. The other two, however, remained unsolved and because Durst had always been suspected, he thought he would take part in the documentary and finally clear the air. Which he did, just not in the way he expected. During a bathroom break, Durst forgot that he had a live mic and, while rambling in front of the bathroom mirror, he admitted to killing them all.
This became the “gotcha” moment of the documentary and, unsurprisingly, official charges came after it aired. Durst tried to claim that he was “high on meth” as a defense, but it didn’t work and he was found guilty of first-degree murder.
3. Name and Address, Please
Most criminals try to leave as few things as possible behind at a crime scene that could be traced back to them. Normally, we would be referring to things like fingerprints or DNA, but in the case of Peter Goebbels, we have to go a bit more basic because he made the mistake of leaving behind his ID card.
Active during the mid-’80s, Goebbels raped and strangled four women in Berlin. While the homicide unit was investigating the murders, another division was dealing with an attempted rape where the criminal was scared off by bystanders and took off running, dropping his identification on the ground. He was 23-year-old factory worker Peter Goebbels, who admitted to the rape but denied any involvement in the murders. However, a witness identified him and he got life in prison.
2. A Barbershop Blunder
Earle Nelson is one of the most ruthless killers that you’ve probably never heard of. Convicted and executed in 1928 of 22 murders, he was suspected in several other slayings and may have been North America’s most prolific killer of the early 20th century.
He was often referred to in newspapers as the “Gorilla Man” or the “Gorilla Killer” due to his giant, freakishly-strong hands which he used to strangle his victims. Towards the end of his crime spree, Nelson fled to Canada to evade the police, where he continued killing.
He was identified with the help of a barber from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, the location of Nelson’s final murders. The barber remembered him because he came into his shop for a shave and a haircut with dried blood in his hair. Even back then, this was highly suspicious, so when the barber heard that the police were looking for a killer in the city, he gave them the description of the man, and Earle Nelson was apprehended a week later.
1. Careful Where You Park It
It seems that the number one stupid mistake that foils crime sprees is bad driving. There are quite a few examples: Joel Rifkin drove without a license plate with a body in the trunk; Ted Bundy was caught driving a stolen car; Randy Kraft was swerving all over the road with his latest victim in the passenger seat. But probably the most notorious example is that of the Son of Sam, who was ultimately identified and arrested due to a parking ticket.
Over the span of one year between 1976 and 1977, the Son of Sam unleashed terror on New York City by attacking random couples at night. But he screwed up at the scene of his final shooting by parking his car next to a fire hydrant and getting a ticket. He also left a terrifying impression on a passer-by named Cacilia Davis, who was out walking her dog. After she heard of the shooting, she contacted police and told them of the suspicious man she saw. Crucially, she also remembered seeing a cop ticketing cars that same night, so police checked their records, hoping they might get lucky.
And they did! They found one car registered to David Berkowitz, who lived 25 miles away from where the car had been parked. A search of the vehicle yielded the murder weapon. Berkowitz was arrested and soon confessed to being the Son of Sam.