Pop culture has done a lot of work convincing us that serial killers are fiendishly clever and remarkably intelligent. Hannibal Lecter is like every college professor you ever met rolled into one with a charming little cannibal center. In real life, however, things don’t necessarily work like they do in the movies. For instance, a number of very prolific killers ended up getting caught because of some remarkably stupid mistakes.
10. The Trunk Mistake
It was back in 2008 when 22-year-old Jamie Fraley went missing. Police were interested in speaking to a man named Ricky Simonds Sr. about her disappearance. Jamie’s mother believed that Simonds knew what happened to her daughter, as the 49-year-old man was the last person to see her alive, as far as anyone knows. He was a person of interest and very likely would have been questioned by the police regarding Fraley’s disappearance. However, Simonds threw a wrench into the works.
Before Simonds could be questioned regarding the disappearance, he was found dead in the trunk of a car. Worded like that it sounds like perhaps somebody had killed him to cover up a bigger crime, but that’s not actually what seems to have happened. The trunk Simonds was found in belonged to his ex-girlfriend. She was the one who discovered him there and was as surprised as anyone. As far as the police were able to figure out, Simonds had actually hidden in the trunk with the intention of killing his ex-girlfriend. However, he got locked inside and died from the heat.
In an extra bit of weirdness, it turns out that Simonds was also the father of Fraley’s fiance. The younger Simonds also believes his father had a hand in the disappearance of his fiance, but it’s possible this mystery will never be solved.
9. Eric Edgar Cooke’s Weapon of Choice
They called Eric Edgar Cooke the Night Caller. He was an Australian serial killer active in the late ’50s and early ’60s. His method of killing puzzled the police because it was so inconsistent. He used a knife to kill once, he strangled one victim, he shot another, and even committed a hit and run. There was no connection between any of his victims, either. In total he committed eight murders that they’re aware of, as well as a host of other violent crimes.
Because some of his victims were killed at home, some were stabbed with scissors or knives, some were robbed, and some weren’t, it seemed like there was no real connection to the crimes. However, when a murder weapon was found it proved to be Cooke’s undoing.
It was 1963 when police found a rifle that had been hidden in a bush. Ballistics matched it to one of the victims and instead of just taking it as evidence the police set up an extremely Bugs Bunny-like trap. They created a fake duplicate of the gun, returned it to the bush and tied fishing line to it. Then they waited until somebody took the bait. Cooke ended up showing up 17 days later, grabbed the rifle, pulled the line and alerted police hiding nearby, who popped out and arrested him.
8. The Floppy Foul Up
One of the most infamous serial killers in American history was the BTK Killer. He terrorized the Wichita, Kansas area for several decades starting in 1974. That first killing saw a family of four tortured and ultimately murdered. Over the next 20 years, six more people fell victim and then in 1991 everything seemed to stop. And it would have ended there if not for the killer’s ego.
As it happens, a man named Dennis Rader was the BTK Killer. In 2004 the Wichita Eagle newspaper wrote an article about how the killer was likely dead or in prison since he hadn’t been heard from him so long. Rader read this and became annoyed. He wrote a letter to the paper taking credit for a 1986 murder and then continued to send a number of letters, as well as puzzles and other things, to media.
Rader got caught up in his own smug desire to take credit. In 2005 he sent a message to the local TV channel referencing a package that he left at a nearby Home Depot. Inside the package were plans for murders and a question. Rader wanted to know if a floppy disk that he sent to the police could be traced. He then asked them to answer him by placing an ad in the classified section of the local paper. An honest answer. So, the police placed an ad saying that using a floppy disk would be fine because they are untraceable, and Rader saved a file to a floppy disk and put it where the police could find it, confident that they would be unable to trace him. They then, of course, used it to trace him, discovering that Rader had actually used his own name to create the files and had printed them out from his church’s computer. He’s currently serving 10 consecutive life sentences.
7. Rifkin Got Sloppy
Serial killer Joel Rifkin was apprehended in 1993 and it is believed he committed as many as 17 murders. Rifkin was only convicted of nine murders, but he did get 203 years in prison for it. Rifkin had any particular MO that saw him picking up prostitutes, usually having sex with them and then killing them during or after the act. He would often put the bodies in barrels or buckets and hide them in rivers or around the New York-New Jersey area. Some of his victims were dismembered, and some have never been identified.
It was in June 1993, after Rifkin had killed his final victim, that the police finally caught up with him. However, it wasn’t for the reasons you might think. State troopers saw Rifkin’s truck drive by and noticed that it didn’t have a license plate. They were going to pull him over to give him a ticket but he ignored the lights and kept driving. Even with the sirens on Rifkin refused to pull over. In an attempt to elude them, he drove right into a light pole.
The police, who were right behind him, immediately handcuffed him as he got out of his truck and noticed right away the smell of a dead body. His final victim, Tiffany Bresciani, had been killed three days earlier and was in the back of his truck. He confessed to the murder right away, and soon confessed to many more. If not for a missing license plate, he may have continued for many years.
6. The Tell-Tale Clog
Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen was convicted of six counts of murder back in 1983. It’s believed he killed 15 young men over the course of five years between 1978 and 1983. He was sentenced to life in prison with a recommendation that he serve at least 25 years. He ended up dying there when he was 72-years-old in 2018.
Nilsen was especially gruesome with his murders. He would strangle or drown his victims and then keep the bodies in his house for weeks or even months before dismembering them. The internal organs would be removed and he committed some especially unspeakable acts with the bodies. Many of the body parts were disposed of near his house but some of the smaller parts he flushed down the toilet. It was this that ended up leading to his capture.
A plumber responded to calls from Nelson’s neighbor and even Nilsen himself in early 1983 because of issues with the local plumbing. After opening the drain, the plumber discovered it was jam-packed with human flesh and small bones. Police came to Nilsen’s house, which smelled of rotting flesh, and he confessed fairly quickly, pointing out a body that was still in his home at the time.
5. The Grim Sleeper’s Pizza
Lonnie Franklin Jr. killed at least 10 victims between 1985 and 2007. The media was calling him the Grim Sleeper, in reference to the pause in his killing spree that took place from 1988 until 2002. His reign of terror finally came to an end thanks to a slice of pizza and a napkin.
Over the course of Franklin’s crimes he committed numerous sexual assaults as well as the murders. DNA was left at the scene, but nothing in the database matched the samples they had because Franklin was not in the system. However, they did end up expanding their search in 2010 and got a familial DNA match. The DNA was linked to Christopher Franklin, the son of Lonnie Franklin. Christopher was much too young to have committed the early murders and the DNA suggested it was a close family match so they started looking for his father.
In order to get their man, a police officer went undercover as a waiter at a restaurant where Franklin was known to eat. After his meal, the police collected the napkin and pizza crust from his plate and used it to match DNA to the victims. Franklin was convicted and sentenced to death. He was executed in March 2020.
4. The Salmon Thief
During the 1970s and 1980s Charles Ng and his partner Leonard Lake committed between 11 and 25 murders. Lake and Ng were known for raping and torturing their victims, as well. After Lake was caught, Ng fled to Canada, where he lived undetected for some time in Fish Creek Provincial Park near Calgary, Alberta. It was Ng’s penchant for stealing things that got the duo caught in California in the first place, and his tendency to take things that didn’t belong to him is what ultimately led to his demise.
Even though he was already wanted for multiple murders he still, for reasons unknown, shoplifted a can of salmon from a department store in Calgary. While attempting to resist arrest he shot the security guard in the hand, which led to him being charged and convicted. He was then later extradited to California, where he was given the death penalty and died by lethal injection in 1999.
3. Son of Sam’s Parking Tickets
David Berkowitz, better known as the Son of Sam, terrorized New York in the late 1970s. The high profile serial killings were heavily featured in the media and the killer continued his spree despite the police’s best efforts for months. Berkowitz managed to elude capture despite being the subject of what was the largest manhunt in New York City Police history. He killed six people and wounded many others and even sent letters to the police taunting them for their inability to catch him.
That Berkowitz couldn’t stop harassing people is what ended up getting him caught. He would send his neighbours anonymous letters that were unsettling and threatening. Police eventually began to find a pattern and identified Berkowitz as a suspect. Once they did so they were able to discover that Berkowitz had been using his own car as a getaway vehicle after each murder. When they cross reference parking tickets on the night of the last murder, Berkowitz’s car was there and had been ticketed. If not for his need to harass people and his laziness when it came to parking his own car that was registered to his name, he might have continued his murders for an indefinite amount of time.
2. The Watermark and Albert Fish
Be thankful that Albert Fish likely existed before your time because he was one of the most terrifying serial killers in history. Also known as the Werewolf of Wysteria and the Brooklyn Vampire, Fish claimed that he had upwards of 100 victims. Only three victims were ever confirmed and he was convicted in just one killing that got him sent to the electric chair in 1936.
Fish was more than just a serial killer, he was a serial rapist and cannibal and most of his victims were children. He apparently took some perverse pleasure in terrorizing the families of his victims as well, which led to his downfall. He sent a letter to the mother of his final victim explaining in gruesome detail what he did to the young girl. But the envelope he used was stationary that he found in the boarding home where he lived. And even though he removed the return address, he didn’t notice that the envelope itself was stamped with a watermark from The New York Private Chauffeurs Benevolent Association.
Police were able to trace the envelope to where it had come from originally, and finally to the boarding house where Fish had found it and mailed it. His defense tried to claim that he must have clearly been insane. The jury didn’t buy it, and sentenced Fish to death. Years later he would be, in part, the inspiration for Hannibal Lecter.
1. The ID Dropper
You’d be hard-pressed to think of a more foolish thing to do at the scene of a crime that you just committed than leave your ID behind. Aside from just staying there and waiting for the police to show up, this is about the worst thing you could conceivably do if you actually wanted to get away with your crime. Bafflingly, this is exactly what Peter Goebbels did.
Goebbels was a serial killer and rapist in Germany in the mid-1980s.Police were building a case and had already linked together four separate crimes when Goebbels left the scene of his most recent crime dropping his ID card behind him. Despite claiming that he was sick in the head, he ended up getting sentenced to life in prison.