DREAD: THE UNSOLVED Explores the World of Serial Killers

I was raised in a crime household. That’s not to say we did crimes or even participated in crimes (even minor ones). CourtTV was the word of the day. One of my earliest memories was watching Paradise Lost on HBO. It’s a documentary about three teens falsely accused of murder (trailer below). In the latest episode of DREAD THE UNSOLVED, Jans Holstrom investigates some of America’s most prolific serial killers.

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Most of us would like to know what pushes people to kill. Some of us want to know way more than others, but the urge is there. I wake up every day, go about business, and don’t murder anyone. How can someone decide that killing is what defines them? Of course, some serial killers lived lives outside of their dark escapades, but it’s a relative few. Various sources tell us that at any given time, there are 50 active serial killers in the world. Most of them won’t be caught. Chin up though, because your odds of being killed by a serial killer are roughly 0.00039%.

So why do we elevate serial killers to an almost celebrity status? We are afraid. We don’t like that a person can wantonly slaughter other people. It’s understandable because we’re people. When it comes to their notoriety, we, as a society, like us some grim details to make our lives a bit more livable. It’s in this tradition of poring over the details of serial killer cases, that I want to talk about the most prolific serial killers in history.

I’m Jans Holstrom, and this, is Dread: The Unsolved

So to begin: What makes a serial killer prolific? We could look purely at known body count of course. Doing so would bring us to Samuel Little, who thankfully died in prison on the last day of 2020. He would beat and strangle women in marginalized and vulnerable communities, because he knew the police wouldn’t put as much effort into investigating. Honestly, based on that last sentence alone, we could pin the police as collectively the most prolific serial killers, but that’s a subject for a different piece.

If we’re going by number then we’ve solved the case! Samuel Little, with his confessed-to body count of 93, easily takes it for most prolific based on numbers alone. That’s too simple. We’re not simple here. We want to, of course, get into the nitty-gritty of prolific killings. It’s dirty work, but by god, Jans Holstrom is here for it. Let’s go deeper. Who is the most prolific that hasn’t been caught?

Well in the late 90’s, college-aged dudes be drownin’. Now this seems to be the tragic outcome of drinking and swimming, or drinking and being anywhere close to a body of water. Retired New York City Detectives Kevin Gannon and Anhony Duarte, along with criminal justice professor Dr. Lee Gilbertson think different. In their eyes, these accidental drownings are the work of a highly organized killer or killers. Dubbed “The Smiley Face Killer” after crime scene photos showed that often these young men were found near smiley face graffiti. You know, the smiley face? The simplest thing to draw? Two dots and a curve, yeah? That was everywhere.

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Gannon and Duarte decided that this graffiti wasn’t a coincidence. From the late ’90s to as recently as 2017, 45 college-aged males can be loosely connected to the modus operandi of The Smiley Face Killer. Now for some quick facts: These men were found drowned in 11 different states. They were almost always found after leaving a bar or party with alcohol. The smiley face graffiti was found in at least 12 of these cases. Twelve out of 45 almost passes this out of the realm of unbelievable to slightly believable. Then again, maybe people just like drawing smiley faces? I personally think there’s something to go off of here, even if mainstream law enforcement thinks there isn’t. I’ll leave it up to you to decide for yourself, of course.

So if The Smiley Face Killer is real, I’d consider them to be pretty prolific. 45 college-aged males that had been drinking is a hefty body count. Why don’t we go a bit deeper? Let’s get into a mystery with some seriously creepy vibes. Maybe we talk about Chicago.

A killer has been stalking the streets of Chicago. We don’t know who they are or why they do it. We don’t know if they’ve stopped. Dubbed “The Chicago Strangler”, they’ve been killing in Chicago since at least 2001. In that time, at least 55 women have been murdered. Having no discrimination in age, they’ve killed women as young as 18, and as old as 58.

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Much like Samuel Little, they’ve been targeting marginalized and vulnerable communities to draw less police attention. The M.O. is strangulation. He left women in snowdrifts, burned in dumpsters, and some just lying in public places. In 2018, the list of unsolved murders from 2 separate suspected serial killers was combined. This combined list now comprises 55 women The Chicago Strangler may have killed. I usually have an idea of a killer here. A faint inkling through investigation who might be behind this.

What’s scary about this, is that no one knows anything. Beat police, detectives, private investigators, and even amateur sleuths like me have all come up empty. Whoever is doing this is lucky. They’ve chosen a part of Chicago that isn’t well-policed. They’ve attacked at night. In 2019, the Chicago Police Department gave us all a cheery update. They stated that they believed there are actually multiple serial killers operating out of Chicago.

Is that prolific? Certainly, the most prolific that police haven’t caught. Let’s move on to lighter fare. Who is prolific through sheer luck? Well, that honor of course goes to Dennis Rader, also known as the BTK killer. Rader was killing for so long, that technology was able to pass him by. In 2005, high on his own superiority complex, Rader decided to send a taunting letter. This was 2005. He had to get with the times.

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How better to show you’re “hip” and “with it” to send your letter on a floppy disc? That is truly the most innovative way to send something digitally in 2005. The only problem was technology truly had passed by Rader. He figured he’d just ask some people that would definitely know if a floppy disk could be tracked. He asked the police. They were more than helpful and told him that a floppy would be hella safe. So Rader took the word of the police and sent a purple Memorex floppy to a TV station in Wichita, Kansas.

The police of course got this floppy and got to digging. There was a Word document on the floppy with metadata indicating that it was from Christ Lutheran Church, and last edited by “Dennis”. This, combined with some sleuthing, led the police to Rader. When the cops arrested him they asked, “Mr. Rader, do you know why you’re going downtown?” All he could say was, “Oh, I have suspicions why.”

Thanks for hanging out with DREAD THE UNSOLVED! We’ve talked about smart killers, lucky killers, unknown killers, and now I want to know if I missed a killer. Drop a line in the usual place with DREAD THE UNSOLVED suggestions. Who do you think is the most prolific killer and why? I’m also now on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook! There are even more places for you to talk to me about your mysteries. Next week, on DREAD THE UNSOLVED we’re gonna look at the spirit board. Can it contact ghosts, or is it just used to mysteriously make money disappear from your bank account? We will see!

*If you also have a mystery you’d like Jans to investigate, email us at TheUnsolved@dreadcentral.com with DREAD: THE UNSOLVED in the subject line!

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