There are plenty of Hollywood villains who have left their mark on nightmares – Hannibal Lector and Jason are just a few. The true terror lies in the fact that many of these icons of horror were inspired by real-life killers. A serial killer is a person who kills three or more people for some sort of psychological reason. The life of a serial killer may be tragic, or it may seem to spring from nowhere – many serial killers give no outward hint as to their inner turmoil. There have been hundreds of serial killers over the years and across the world; below are twelve of the most infamous to have been represented by a criminal defense attorney.
Richard Angelo, the “Angel of Death,” killed 25 people on the pretext of saving them. When he began working the night shift as a nurse, he developed a plan where he could easily “play” the savior; he would inject his patients with drugs, bringing them close to death, and then swoop in and “save” them from his own injections. Most died before he was able to perform his miracles and it wasn’t until one of his victims managed to call for help using his call button that the drugs were discovered. He was sentenced in 1987 to 61 years to life in the Clinton Correctional Facility in New York.
Despite his intelligence, David Berkowitz grew tired of school and turned to a building fascination with larceny. The first attacks were against two women on Christmas Eve, 1975. Berkowitz claimed that the demon in his neighbor’s dog demanded their blood. He proceeded to murder six victims, sending extensive, teasing letters to the police, identifying himself as “Son of Sam” and “Mr. Monster.” Berkowitz was found and arrested on August 10, 1977. On June 12, 1978, he was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.
A member of Ted Bundy’s defense team, described him as “the very definition of heartless evil.” Bundy’s usual method of attack, beginning in 1974, was to use his good looks, perhaps coupled with a feigned injury, to attract young women to his car. He took raped and murdered them, then mutilated and dumped the bodies on the side of a mountain. Bundy returned to touch up the faces with makeup and have intercourse until they were decomposed. He was caught and charged with 30 homicides, though he claimed the number was higher. He was executed in 1989.
Cunanan is most famous for the murder of Gianni Versace, a fashion designer. Andrew Cunanan was born in California, as the youngest of four children. He later settled in San Francisco, where he frequented high-class gay bars as a prostitute. In 1997, Cunanan went on a killing road trip that began with two of his lovers, Jeff Trail and David Madson. He was the first person from San Diego to make the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. He killed five people and to avoid capture, took his own life eight days afterwards, on July 23, 1997.
There are few serial killers who achieve such notoriety for the hideousness of their crimes, but Jeffrey Dahmer is one. Dahmer was born in 1960 and was fascinated with dissecting dead animals as a child. His first victim was a hitchhiker named Steven Hicks in 1978 – in 1987, he began a thirteen-year killing cycle, during which he would lure men with promises of sex or money to the basement of his grandmother’s home. Once there, he would kill them, have sex with the corpse, and then dispose of the corpses, keeping fragments as souvenirs. By his arrest in 1992, Dahmer had killed fifteen men. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, but was killed by a fellow inmate.
Known as the Gray Man, the Werewolf of Wysteria, the Boogey Man, and the Brooklyn Vampire, Albert Fish was a truly vile child rapist and cannibal. He was born in 1870 to a family with a history of mental illness, and found pleasure in physical pain. Upon his arrival in New York City in 1890, Fish said he began raping young boys, even after his arranged marriage. He began to self-harm, including shoving needles into his groin. His first murder was 10 year-old Grace Budd, and he was finally executed in 1936 with a victim count of six children, and another three suspected.
John Wayne Gacy
One of the more terrifying serial killers, John Gacy killed and raped 33 teenage boys and men between 1972 and 1978. Gacy was known as the “Killer Clown”, as he would dress up as “Pogo Clown” for charitable events. He was first jailed for multiple counts of sodomy in 1968, and after his release, began killing in 1972. He was charged with murder in 1980 and sentenced to the death penalty, which was carried out in 1994 by legal injection.
The real-life inspiration for cinema terrors like Buffalo Bill, Leatherface, and Norman Bates, Ed Gein killed 15 women between 1947 and 1957. He had a love-hate relationship with his mother, and stole newly buried women who resembled her to use their skin and bones for masks, jewelry, bowls, and chair covers. Gein is somewhat of an anomaly, since he only has two murders attributed to his name, but gained infamy in his desire to make a “woman suit,” so he could pretend to be female. He was jailed in 1957 on a count of first-degree murder and sent to a mental hospital until his death in 1984.
Belle Sorenson Gunness
The only lady on the list, this “Hell’s Belle” killed at least 12 people. Her first victim was her husband Mads Sorenson, who died of apparent heart failure, and Sorenson collected the two life insurances on him the day after. Sorensen posted personal ads seeking a husband looking to “join fortunes” – no suitor ever returned from her farm. There was a fire in 1908 during which her four children, already dead, burned. A total of twelve victims were uncovered in the hog pen, but the total number is said to be around 49. Sorenson was never captured.
Rather than work alone, Charles Manson recruited and created the “Manson Family”, a quasi-commune of young women. After his release for lesser crimes, he moved in with Mary Brunner and 18 other women, whom he developed into followers and sexual slaves by creating his own philosophy, styled on Scientology. With his followers, Manson murdered five people. Manson was originally sentenced to death, but it was reduced to life imprisonment, and he is currently serving his sentence at Corcoran State Prison.
Herman Webster Mudgett
Herman Mudgett was born in 1861. While in medical school, he stole and disfigured corpses in order to claim death insurance money on each body. His claim to infamous fame was the “Murder Castle,” a hotel he built in 1893 with over 100 windowless rooms, stairs that led nowhere and doors that opened only from the outside. Mudgett used the hotel to kill as many as 200 people (he confessed to 27, but only 4 were confirmed), after which he would dissect and sell the remains to medical schools. Mudgett was arrested in 1884, and executed by hanging in 1896.
It’s not known exactly how many women Gary Ridgeway killed, He was convicted of 49 murders, but confessed to almost double that number. Ridgeway, “The Green River Killer,” had an insatiable sexual appetite, which he fulfilled through prostitutes and his three ex-wives and girlfriends. His murders took place through the 1980s and 1990s; his victims were usually prostitutes or runaways, whom he raped and killed by strangling. He left the bodies in nude clusters, and would return to engage in sex with the corpses. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.