Filed under: serial killers

Missing From Fort Bragg: 2nd Lieutenant Holley Lynn Wimunc

The soldier currently missing from Fort Bragg has been identified as 2nd Lieutentant Holley Lynn Wimunc, age 24. Holley Wimunc was part of Charlie Company and assigned to Fort Bragg’s Womack Army Hospital. Wimunc vanished Thursday morning. Her apartment was burned; authorities have determined that the fire was set. Wimunc’s car was still in the complex parking lot.

She was known to be going through a divorce. Early Friday, Raleigh’s WRAL-TV reported that Wimunc had once filed papers with the court to protect her from her estranged husband, John Wimunc. On her Facebook account, accessible only to her friends, Wimunc had begun calling herself Holley James (presumably her maiden name).

Wimunc claimed that her Marine Corporal husband “held loaded 9mm to my head; choked me. Threw me around living room…” While her allegations certainly make her husband a good suspect, the Fayetteville Observer published an article that stated, in part:

Wimunc’s husband, Marine Cpl. John Wimunc, was questioned by police Thursday, according to a Marines spokesman.

Maj. Cliff W. Gilmore, spokesman for the 2nd Marine Division, said Cpl. Wimunc was released back to his battalion Thursday after the Marines made him available for interviews.

The Marine Corps is keeping tabs on Wimunc’s whereabouts, Gilmore said…

The Observer also reported that Holley Lynn Wimunc was educated in Iowa, at St. Ambrose University. She was in the Army Nurse Corps and had been at Fort Bragg for nearly a year.

There are some elements in this missing persons case that make it difficult to ignore any possible connection with the June, 2008 murder of Spc. Megan Lynn Touma:

  • Both Touma and Wimunc were in the Army, and both were medical specialists — Touma worked in dentistry.
  • Touma was from Kansas. Wimunc was from Lafayette, Louisiana, but was educated in Iowa — a tangential Midwest connection.
  • Holley Wimunc and Megan Touma shared the same middle name, Lynn.
  • Wimunc was just one year older than Touma.
  • Touma and Wimunc were in perilous situations where their personal lives were concerned. Megan Touma was divorced and pregnant by another man who was already in a relationship, and Holley Wimunc was estranged from husband John, whom she alleged to be abusive.

The map embedded below illustrates another interesting detail of the Wimunc disappearance — Google indicates just 1.4 miles between Cross Creek Mall and Wimunc’s apartment complex at 142 Wayah Creek Drive in Fayetteville.

View Larger Map

John Wimunc, based on the claims made by Holley when she filed for court-sanctioned protection, might be an excellent suspect in his wife’s disappearance. But he’s not in custody right now, simply under observation. That could show a lack of convincing, hard evidence pointing towards a domestic answer to the riddle of Holley Wimunc’s disappearance.

Does Fayetteville, North Carolina have a serial killer, after all?

If there is a calculating serial at work, targeting women of a certain age, appearance, and profession, did he send the mysterious, Zodiac-like letter to the Observer?

If he did, I expect another letter soon.

The Touma murder and Wimunc disappearance may only be connected by the singular motivation of men who think murder is the best way out of a relationship. A single serial killer would be easier to deal with, in a way — all the possibilities are focused in one phantom psycho. Take him off the street, and that particular deadly path is at an end. Domestic homicide, however, is a much larger problem, one as old as human relations. We can’t put it away and remove its power to wipe loved ones from the face of the Earth. A serial killer is, at the very least, a concrete answer to the huge question of why such things happen.

Violence between two people who once pledged their love to one another is far more widespread, and ultimately, a problem that seems to elude any easy answers.

Links:

Holley’s MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/hollister024. Not much there anymore, if there ever was. Her “About Me”: “Hey, i’m your all american girl. funny bitchy and crazy. I’m 24, in the army…and hoping to get deployed soon :)”

This post will be updated and revised as needed.

Something is Going On in Fayetteville, NC…

Something strange and disturbing may be afoot in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Either a killer who harkens back to Northern California and the late 60s is truly at work, or a number of men have decided now is the prime time to rid themselves of troublesome women. Both possibilities are pretty damned spooky, in their ways. WRAL in Raleigh is reporting today that a Fort Bragg-based female soldier is missing and her apartment was burned.

Spc. Megan Touma, the pregnant soldier found murdered in a Fayetteville motel on June 21, was associated with a medical specialty. The newly-missing soldier’s name and rank have not been released, but according to WRAL, “she was believed to be assigned to Womack Army Medical Center.”

The missing soldier didn’t show up for work on Wednesday, and members of her unit went to check on her. They discovered a burned-out apartment. The fire was determined to be arson. In fact, cops were already processing the scene when the apartment building was evacuated for fear a new fire might break out, perhaps from accelerants still on the scene.

This missing soldier was going through a divorce, and authorities are seeking her husband for questioning.

The immediate question that may come to mind if you’ve read about the Zodiac Killer-like letter that accompanied the murder of Megan Touma is whether or not this is perhaps a second salvo in a serial killer’s war on the public in general and young military women, in particular.

Logically, though, another possibility presents itself: another psychopathic male has been following events in the Touma case and found himself “inspired” to take a novel and homicidal approach to his own problems with a woman in his life, perhaps hoping that the drama surrounding the Touma investigation might serve to help cover his tracks.

At the moment, my money’s on the latter explanation for this new Fort Bragg female soldier in peril. If another letter arrives in the mailroom at the Fayetteville Observer, I may change my mind. I’ll update and revise this post as needed.

[Hat-tip to Mysteriew at Websleuths.com.]

The Megan Touma Murder: Look, it ain’t the REAL Zodiac

People are free to talk about whatever they want on a message board, but let me make it clear that I reject one idea out-of-hand: the person who killed Spc. Megan Touma sometime around June 17, 2008 in Fayetteville, NC was not the actual Zodiac Killer.

I’m not going to try and make anyone feel good about themselves on that score. I’m amazed I even feel the need to write this, but I do. To suggest that the real Zodiac killed Touma and then wrote the letter is patently ludicrous, as far as I’m concerned. If I’m somehow proved wrong, believe me — I’ll admit it in this space and apologize. If Zodiac is still alive — a big if — he is in his late 60s or 70s. As a killer like Gary Michael Hilton proved, age doesn’t bar people from being active serial killers, but in general, it doesn’t help. Even psychopaths become settled, less violent over time. If Zodiac went on killing after 1969, he only got better at it, and learned one lesson — not to call any attention to himself, any more. At least not in a way that might lead to his capture.

But yes, there are a few people making that very argument in comments and on some message boards, and as open-minded as I can be about various theories regarding a wide range of mysteries, I’m not that open-minded. So don’t bother at this blog, because I’ll either shoot you down or delete your comment if I’m really annoyed.

A poster using the nick “TheForeigner” on the message board associated with the best Zodiac resource on the Web, ZodiacKiller.com, noticed a fascinating and chilling coincidence. Tom Voigt, the site’s webmaster, posted the image created by “TheForeigner” to make note this coincidence. I took my cue from him and created the image you see on the left in Photoshop. I used the image the Zodiac imitator drew on the letter he sent to the Fayetteville Observer, claiming credit for Touma’s murder and calling it a “master piece,” and laid it over the cross-in-circle design of the Cross Creek Mall. The motel in which Spc. Touma was murdered is marked by a smaller version of the same symbol.

The investigation into Touma’s death — officially a homicide — is ongoing. Police have yet to publicly name a suspect, but they have been interested in another Fort Bragg soldier who may have been the father of Touma’s child — the Dental specialist was 7 months pregnant when she was murdered. The soldier in question was said to be at a Special Forces school studying psychological operations. As I noted here, that’s one good reason alone to suspect him in Touma’s murder. That the deaths of pregnant women usually come at the hands of the men they live with only adds to logical reasons to question this unnamed man and either arrest him or eliminate him as a suspect.

Here are a few of my ideas as to what may have happened, in order of most logical to most unlikley:

  • Megan Lynn Touma’s baby-daddy, whoever he was, was terrified of the financial burden that might be placed on him by the impending birth. He planned the scenario well in advance, right down to the location. The Zodiac-like letter is nothing but a ruse designed to confuse the investigation.
  • A real serial killer did it. He spotted the young, pregnant woman staying by herself and knew he had — in his book — an excellent target. He did some planning in advance, used a ruse to enter Megan Touma’s room, and then created his awful “master piece.” In this scenario the killer may be basically telling the truth in the letter to the Fayetteville paper — he has killed many times before, and he envies and wants to imitate the fact that the Zodiac was never caught. If this is what actually happened, the killer will write to another media outlet soon. He may even go further towards imitating Zodiac and include code of some sort. This killer’s code, unlike Zodiac’s, may be relatively simple and easy to solve — that, or it will be utterly senseless and never solved, because there will be no solution.
  • A woman who knew Touma was the killer. The Fayetteville Observer has reported that the Zodiac symbol found in the death room was drawn on the mirror with lipstick. The female killer may not have realized that Touma was only 7 months along and was intent on taking the baby. A variation on that scenario: Touma was killed out of jealousy.
  • The real Zodiac having committed the murder is easily the most outlandish choice. He would be older, possibly elderly now, and have no logical reason for re-announcing his presence. It is more logical to think he came out of ‘retirement’ to kill Christian camp counselors Lindsay Cutshall and Jason Allen in Sonoma County, CA in 2004. Cutshall and Allen were in Zodiac’s old stomping grounds and in a situation that seemed to trigger him in the past — a young couple alone in an isolated spot. I don’t actually think the Zodiac Killer committed that double murder, either, but it would be more logical than thinking he’s alive and well in North Carolina and killing pregnant young Army Specialists.

Of course there are other possibilities, but the ones above seem most prevalent in discussions on the Web.

I have no reason to think this, no tip to go on, but I feel some new developments in the Touma investigation will be announced tomorrow. I don’t know if they will be major, but I do feel strongly that the investigation into this case is intense and relentless. No matter what or who he is, Megan Touma’s killer is dangerous.

Bad Headline of the Day: Fox News Implies the Real Zodiac is Back

Previously, on The True Crime Weblog:

Zodiac’s Ghost: Letter citing infamous serial killer as inspiration claims kill in N.C.

I guess I’m off hiatus, now. It’s a little like being Michael Corleone — every time I think I’m out and ready to do something else, some psycho does something that pulls me back in.

So here ya go. Dumbest damned headline of the day, courtesy of the fabulous folks at Fox News:

Zodiac Ties Probed in Slain Pregnant Soldier Case

What do you think when you read that? I think — if I look at it as if I were someone with very little knowledge of this story — “oh, has the real Zodiac come back?”

A quote from the article:

A symbol similar to one often left by the nefarious Zodiac killer of the 1960s was scrawled in lipstick on a mirror in the North Carolina hotel room where Army Spc. Megan Touma was found June 21, police said.

A letter sent to a local newspaper and published last week also contained the symbol, a circle with a cross through it…

The rest of the article is pretty straightforward and gives us ‘the case so far.’ The worst thing is the headline, because it is misleading. At the moment, it is much easier to be skeptical of the letter sent to the Fayetteville Observer than anything else. Cleverly written as the letter was — the writer managed to ape the Zodiac Killer’s tone and attitude pretty well in just a couple of paragraphs — it beggars common sense to think a true, anonymous, serial-killing inheritor to the California killer from the late 60s has made himself known. The only “tie” I can see at the moment between the real deal and the writer of the letter in NC is the current unknown criminal’s co-opting of Zodiac’s symbol and his writing style.

About the case so far — one of Megan Touma’s fellow soldiers is under investigation. The soldier may have once been stationed with Touma in Bamberg, Germany and is now at the Fort Bragg-based U.S. Army Special Operations Command. NBC 17 in Raleigh, NC reports that the suspect was studying — wait for it — psychological operations (this won’t be news to anyone who followed comments on the previous post about this case — neither will the fact that NBC 17’s website loads slower than your teenager’s pimped-out social networking profile).

I don’t have a source to support this contention, but I am fairly sure that anyone learning U.S. Military psy ops studies killers like the Zodiac, BTK Strangler, and Son of Sam (David Berkowitz) at some point. Why? Because these letter-writing, taunting serials were individuals who used their acts and their communications with the police, press and public at large to commit a kind of domestic terrorism.

Dennis Rader (BTK) killed 10 people — that we know of. That’s bad enough, but he also became, for 3 decades, the boogeyman of Wichita, Kansas. Parents used BTK to caution their kids. Rader was a nebbishy, anal-retentive minor public official, but as BTK he cast a long, terrifying shadow.

David Berkowitz managed to terrify everyone in New York City and capture the attention of the nation one hot summer in the 1970s. Berkowitz was a lowly, withdrawn postal worker living in a shabby little apartment. But he was a monster in the mind of anyone reading newspapers or watching the nightly news broadcast.

And the real Zodiac Killer? We don’t know who he was, even today. Some people claim they’ve solved the case, others have their pet theories, sure — including me. But Zodiac remains a cipher. He was probably like Rader and Berkowitz — a small man in a small, nothing job. A nowhere man. But he had big plans. And when he put them into action, he cast a far more terrifying and monstrous shadow over the public than he ever truly cast standing on the street corner late at night, smiling as the sirens wailed in the distance.

Killers such as these performed psychological operations on the public. The men themselves were small, nobodies. Their homicidal creations, promoted to everyone through strange, mad letters, codes, threats, warnings — they intimidated thousands, even millions.

Isn’t that a key goal of offensive psy ops? I’m pretty sure it is. There are positive uses for psychological operations, of course — positive in the sense that they do not involve attempting to scare others. But if you have an enemy you’re trying to rattle before the bombs start to drop, you need to know how to push peoples’ buttons.

At the moment, it makes much more sense to me to suspect someone being trained in psychological operations of even thinking to write a fake “Zodiac is my hero” letter to the press than it does to think some blank-faced, prolific serial killer has finally announced himself to the public.

If the latter ends up being the case, it’ll be a hell of a story, and probably have me parked at this blog posting updates daily. But I’m doubtful. The explanation for the tragedy of this pregnant young soldier’s murder is likely to be much more prosaic, in the end.

Zodiac’s Ghost: Letter citing infamous serial killer as inspiration claims kill in N.C.

UPDATES AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS POST.

If there was ever a good reason to break my hiatus from updating this blog, this is it.

From FayObserver.com:

“‘I’m killer’ of Spc. Touma.

A quote from the article — bold emphasis has been added:

A person claiming to be the killer of the pregnant soldier found dead in a motel has written an anonymous letter calling the murder a “master piece” and threatening to kill again.

On Friday, sources requesting anonymity told The Fayetteville Observer that a symbol used in the letter is identical to one found written in lipstick on a mirror in the Fairfield Inn room where Spc. Megan Lynn Touma’s body was discovered June 21…

The Observer apparently received the letter Wednesday. It was dated June 17 (the symbols beside the date on the letter — @))* — seen if you click the image above to enlarge it, are the symbols over the numbers 2008 on a typewriter or computer keyboard) and postmarked June 24. You can read the full text of the letter by clicking on the screen capture, but I’ll make it easier by quoting — formatting, spelling and punctuation mistakes have been left intact:

To whom it may concern. The following is to inform that I am responsible for the dead body that was found on Saturday, June 21 @ 1130 in room 143 at Fairfield INN by Marriott off Skibo RD. It was a master piece. I confess, that I have killed many times before in several states, but now I will start using my role-model’s signature. There will be many more to come.

Fayetteville law enforcement are very incompetent. I basically, sat there and watch while investigaters were on site.

The writer signed off with the mysterious, 60s-era serial killer’s chosen symbol — a circle quartered by a cross. The Zodiac sign has been interpreted in many ways. Zodiacologists all know that one likely source was the Zodiac brand watch, which was sold in the 60s and 70s. Other possible inspirations were a scaled back representation of a typical chart showing the 12 houses of the Zodiac — Scorpio, Sagittarius, etc — or the cross-hairs seen through a rifle scope.

Lt. David Sportsman of the Fayetteville PD said that investigators think the letter is “valuable evidence.” He also said that it might be an attempt to misdirect not only the investigation into the death of Megan Touma, but the publics’ perception of the investigation.

Clearly trying to forestall any public outcry about a serial killer in their midst, Sportsman said “There is absolutely no reason to believe” that other killings related to the confessional letter have actually occurred.

Specialist Touma’s death has not been officially declared a homicide. Her cause of death won’t be clear until an autopsy is completed. According to the search warrant application filed by investigators, Touma was in “an advanced state of decomposition” when she was found. A clear cause of death may not be easily established.

According to the Observer, 23-year-old Megan Lynn Touma arrived in Fayetteville on June 12. She had been re-assigned to Fort Bragg, having previously been stationed at the U.S. Army Dental Clinic in Bamberg, Germany as a dental specialist. Touma didn’t show up for formation with the 19th Replacement Company on June 16. She was found on the 21st, and a “Do not disturb” sign had been on the door to the room she rented since at least June 17 — the date on the letter from the Zodiac admirer.

At first the Fayetteville paper honored a police request to not publish the letter. The authorities felt that it might cause a panic. Then the Observer received a tip that connected the letter to a “symbol at the death scene.” Observer Executive Editor Brian Tolley said, “We wanted to be responsible stewards of the information, to weigh our obligation to inform the public with the possibility of the damage we could do […] In the end, we just wanted to do what we believe was the right thing.”

What about the letter-writer’s claims?

I believe he is telling the truth about being an admirer of the Zodiac Killer. If you visit Tom Voigt’s comprehensive ZodiacKiller.com, you can find good copies of every letter the Zodiac wrote to the press in his years-long campaign of terror. Though the still-unknown San Francisco-area serial killer killed 5 and injured 2 between 1968 and ’69, he was sending letters to the press as late as 1974. The Zodiac was a publicity-seeking and savvy killer. His campaign of letter-writing and sending cryptic codes to newspapers showed a bent towards domestic terrorism, a tendency fully expressed in later years by The Unabomber and Wichita’s BTK Strangler, Dennis Rader.

The Fayetteville Zodiac admirer’s letter reveals his inspiration in some subtle ways. While Zodiac did use the word “masterpiece” in one letter without splitting it in two, that kind of mistake would have been classic Zodiac. An example of that sort of mistake from the Zodiac: he wrote the word “Christmas” as “Christmass” — possibly just an error, possibly his way of revealing that he understood the origins of the word.

Zodiac may have been a bit of an Anglophile — a lover of all things British. He quoted from the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta The Mikado in his letters, and his letter-writing mirrored the first publicity-seeking thrill killer, London’s Jack the Ripper. Zodiac misspelled numerous words in every message, but his use of grammar was as precise as an over-achieving British schoolboy’s. The Fayetteville Z-fan’s letter is too short to analyze his use of grammar with any degree of accuracy (and I’m not the world’s greatest grammarian), but the overall tone is clearly reminiscent of the killer the letter-writer claims to admire. Even the date on the letter, “17 June” is a British construction. Americans typically write “June 17” or “6/17”.

The person who wrote the letter to the Observer knew his role-model’s style, too.

From the Zodiac’s letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, dated October 13, 1969: “The S. F. Police could have caught me last night if they had searched the park properly instead of holding road races with their motor cicles (sic) seeing who could make the most noise.”

Fayetteville, 2008: “Fayetteville law enforcement are very incompetent. I basically, sat there and watch while investigaters were on site.”

Zodiac to the San Francisco Examiner on July 31, 1969: “I am the killer of the 2 teenagers last Christmass (sic) at Lake Herman & the girl last 4th of July. To prove this I shall state some facts which only I & the police know…”

Fayetteville, NC, 2008: “The following is to inform that I am responsible for the dead body that was found on Saturday, June 21 @ 1130 in room 143 at Fairfield INN by Marriott off Skibo RD.”

The letter smacks of someone who has read the Zodiac’s letters over and over and made it a point to digest both the attitude and the style of the California killer.

It is peculiar that the letter appears to have been composed on a typewriter (I’m not so convinced that you can’t get a typewriter-like product from a word processor and a printer, but I’ll save that argument for later). The killer may be trying to evade forensic detection by doing so, but typewriters are pretty rare nowadays, and perhaps even easier to trace than they were 30 or 40 years ago.

Also strange, and potentially chilling — the letter-writer’s claim that he has”killed many times before in several states.” On true crime message boards, people are already posting links to stories of other unsolved murders that might fit this killer’s m. o.

I’m not ready to buy into that claim. Here, the Fayetteville police may be correct — claims of many other murders in other states may be a lie intended to obfuscate the investigation into Spc. Touma’s death. Nationwide attention to this mysterious death in Fayetteville, NC could distract the public from potential clues to solving this crime right there in Fayetteville. The letter-writer could by trying to imply that he’s already moved on, isn’t even in that city anymore.

Chris, a fellow crime blogger and a poster on the message board associated with ZodiacKiller.com, made a succinct point about this in a thread discussing the Fayetteville letter. Chris wrote: “There is always the possibility that this is just an attempt at a cover-up. The fact that this woman was pregnant when she was killed raises that likelihood. Also, she was killed in a hotel room, indicating that she very likely knew her killer. This could just be a distraction from the obvious suspect –the would-be father of the child Touma was carrying.”

Chris may be right. After all, when you hear hoofbeats, you don’t typically think a herd of zebras is on its way to trample you. You hear hoofbeats, you think horses. Killers like the Zodiac are zebras. Panicky, psychopathic baby-daddies are, sadly, a dime a dozen — horses — when it comes to dead, pregnant women.

This post may be updated and revised.

Extra link: WRAL’s copy of the inventory of items seized in the search of Megan Touma’s motel room.

UPDATE 1.

Fayetteville police say they have a suspect. The NBC affiliate in Raleigh, NC reports that the Touma murder is being treated as a homicide, and police have begun analyzing evidence taken from an unnamed suspect’s residence.

Having someone under investigation may indicate that the letter was indeed a “red herring,” as suggested by fellow crime blogger Chris in a quote above.

You can read the article about the search of a suspect’s home on NBC 17’s website here, but be warned: the site is so heavily loaded with ads, flash videos and pop-ups it might as well be some teenager’s overly-pimped MySpace profile. Click at your peril, if you have a slow connection.

UPDATE 2.

As “PoorPaula” noted in the comments on this entry, someone using the name “Anibal” left an interesting comment on a post at Bonnie’s Blog of Crime about the Touma murder. This is most of “Anibal’s” comment, dated June 28 and time-stamped 4:46 a.m.:

This is regarding the murder of SPC Megan Lynn Touma….her boyfreind name was Sgt Edgar Patino..He is station in Fort Brag. He is aslo marry to Heileen Patino. He was also station he in Bamberg, Germany. I spoke to her the day before she left and she told me that was his baby and she was seven months pregnant. He was a buddy of mind. We were both assigned to 54th Egineer Batallion…

Keep in mind that Patino has not been mentioned in any other reports about this crime. As far as anyone knows right now, neither he nor anyone associated with him is a suspect or person of interest in the murder of Megan Lynn Touma. [Edited to add: “nursebeeme,” a trusted long-time reader of this blog, has indicated that Patino’s full name is actually Edgar Patino Lopez. The same tipster confirmed that Patino was at one time stationed in Bamberg, Germany.]

UPDATE 3.

I’ve gotten to where I think bloggers shouldn’t talk about what they see in their web statistics unless the blogger feels threatened and wants to make that public. But I did feel that it was worth it in this instance to note that this blog post has received several hits from servers owned by various Fayetteville-area publications since Edgar Patino Lopez’s name was added in update 2. That makes me believe that he may indeed be the person of interest in this case.

But at the moment that’s only a guess.

ETA: Nurse pointed out a new comment on Bonnie’s Blog of Crime — reporter Greg Barnes from the Fayetteville Observer asking Anibal to speak with him about Sgt. Patino. I can think of a lot of reasons why Barnes would want to talk about Patino, but right now, it’s pretty obvious what the main reason might be.

The Smiley Face Killers: An Opinion, Subject to Change

UPDATE AT THE END OF POST

This is an editorial about the so-called “Smiley Face Gang,” and the murders they may have committed. So far, I’m not buying it.

So far.

I get tips regarding crime stories in the news all the time. Recently, I’ve received a number of e-mails with links to variations on this story:

‘Smiley Face Gang’ Linked to 40 Murders.

I linked that story because it is more concise than many of the articles I’ve read so far. Quoting:

As many as 40 young men believed to have accidentally drowned may actually have been murdered at the hands of a vicious gang of killers.

That’s the conclusion reached by a group of retired New York City detectives who have spent the last 11 Years connecting the deaths…

Retired NYPD investigators Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte, working in concert with Prof. D. Lee Gilbertson of St. Cloud State University, believe they’ve uncovered a pattern of murders going back to 1997. That was when young Patrick McNeill vanished after a night out drinking in New York City. McNeill’s body was eventually pulled out of the Hudson River, his death declared a suicide.

Gannon, Duarte, and Gilbertson believe that as many as 40 similar deaths in the 11 years since McNeill died may be connected.

Gilbertson told NBC that “This is a nationwide organization that revels in killing young men.”

Kevin Gannon said that he believes this organization is “specifically targeting a small, narrow group of individuals,” namely healthy young college guys in their 20s. Race isn’t an issue for the killers, if they exist. Most of the victims have been white, but not all.

Generally, this gang is just going after young dudes out on the town. They supposedly use drowning as a method to both kill and conceal. Then they sometimes leave a smiley face spray painted somewhere nearby. Gannon and Duarte say they’ve found this surreal signature in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana.

Another reason this story is getting attention is the fact that at least one of the mysterious deaths possibly attributed to the Smiley Face Gang has indeed been declared a homicide.

Univ. of Minnesota student Chris Jenkins vanished on Halloween night, 2002. His body was found in the Mississippi River in February, 2003. Jenkins’s death was initially declared “undetermined” and the case closed. However, after tests were done in 2006, the Minneapolis PD re-opened the case as a homicide and apologized to the Jenkins family.

Other families who lost their sons and brothers in a similar way are beginning to support Gannon and Duarte’s theory.

This is a compelling story, no doubt about that. How could you ignore it? Fine young fellows in the prime of life meet their end in the night, in the water, at the hands of a shadowy cabal of killers. In the morning, only a macabre smiley face somewhere near the scene of the crime marks what happened there.

Sounds like a short pitch for a new suspense novel, doesn’t it?

That’s part of my problem with what Gannon, Duarte, and Gilbertson propose. It sounds too much like fiction. Granted, there will always be crime stories that are even stranger than fiction. It’s rare when one sounds perfectly suited to the work of Thomas Harris or Jonathan Kellerman. I guess in one sense, I’m just talking about the smell test. For me, this story hasn’t passed it, yet.

Two retired NYPD cops certainly lend weight to the tale. After all, both Gannon and Duarte have investigated everything on their own dime — that’s impressive and lends them further credibility.

At the same time, though — serial murder isn’t typically a group activity. There have been couples, of course — Paul and Karla, Doug Clark and Carol Bundy — but there is a lot of truth to the stereotype of the loner working in the shadows and the dark. Serial killers keep their counsel and they blend into society. Dennis Rader was a family man who was a bit prickly and obsessive-compulsive, but he remained free from police scrutiny for 30 years after he began killing as BTK. Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, was a typical schmoe working at a factory job. He kept to himself and a had a penchant for prostitutes, but DNA outed him for the monster he truly was.

Neither man (and there are many other examples I could cite) was what you’d call much of a team player. While Rader was involved with his church and the Boy Scouts, he wasn’t necessarily the guy on the team — he was usually in a leadership position, which likely suited his pathological narcissism just fine (in fact, it may have kept him from killing more than he did). Rader didn’t want to be the guy who passed the ball. He wanted to be in charge, making all the jump shots and calling the plays.

Serial murder seems like a pretty poor choice for a team sport. Eventually, someone has a little more vestige of a conscience than other members of the team, and they talk. That was how Charlie Manson and his Family were brought down — they were the closest thing to a serial killing team in modern history. But someone not in on Charlie’s grand plan did some talking, and the Family’s house of cards fell down.

But so far, I’m just talking about my gut reactions and what I know of serial murder in general.

Another problem I have with this story is that it resembles other stories from the past that were eventually debunked to one degree or another. If not debunked, at least subject to a lot of skepticism.

In 1988, Maury Terry published The Ultimate Evil. He linked The Process Church — an outfit some see as Satanic (click the link to read the better-than-average Wiki on this “church”) — with the Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, the Zodiac Killer and Charles Manson. While Terry’s book was well-written and seemed thorough, it never made it out of the true crime/conspiracy theory pigeonhole — meaning that only those already disposed to believe in far-reaching and terrifying conspiracies among evil people think Terry’s work is the gospel truth. Most others take it with a grain of salt. Has it been thoroughly discredited? I don’t know. I know Terry’s theory has never been proven.

When Dennis Rader decided to resurrect BTK in 2004 and he began sending out new letters and packets of evidence to police, a slew of theories about BTK and his possible connections to other killers could be found all over the Web. Frequently they incorporated BTK into Terry’s wide-ranging band of killers. A guy named Ken Mosbaugh even managed to get Wichita TV station KSN to buy into his theory (mostly borrowed from Terry and some Zodiac theorists) that BTK was linked to Zodiac, Son of Sam, and Manson. Eventually Mosbaugh must have been debunked (Dennis Rader’s arrest probably helped), and KSN removed all trace of their report from their website. You can still read the article in question here, on a message board where someone copied it into a post.

Some folks were even sure BTK and Zodiac were one and the same. Dennis Rader’s arrest scotched all of that speculation. His real status as a Lutheran dog catcher in Park City, Kansas lacked a certain glamor. He’d never been part of any group of like-minded psychos at all. Rader might have admired what the Zodiac did, emulated the still-unknown California psychopath, but that was as far as it went.

One thing that made earlier theories of bands of killers using similar methods seem untenable was the lack of easy, fast communication. Were they burning up the phone lines, chatting about the next kill? Were they passing coded messages through classified ads? Possibly, but common sense really said no.

That’s one element in favor of the theory of the Smiley Face Gang — communication.

If this theoretical gang of killers exists and they began working in 1997, they had a still-new tool to work with: the Internet. People had been dialing into online bulletin boards since the 1980s by 1997, and the message board format was already hopping. Kansas serial killer John Robinson started seeking victims online in 1993, and he did it with chat rooms and message board posts.

Robinson could draw victims into his web from California and Indiana, and do it in relative anonymity.

The Web’s capacity for instant communication across great distances (chat rooms, forums) would permit the formation of a gang of killers. That doesn’t mean it has happened, yet.

I have some issues with the linking of the smiley faces to the crimes, too. How far away were the faces from the victim’s point of entry into the water? Was there a way to determine when the faces were painted? How was each dead man’s actual entry point into the river or body of water determined? In Chris Jenkins’s case, the water in his body was tested to find out where he’d been thrown (or fallen) in.

Television interviews with Gannon and Duarte are sometimes confusing. They frequently allude to knowing much more, even mentioning “witnesses,” only to turn around and say they can no longer afford to fund their investigations and the FBI needs to take over. They’ve gone public, yes… but the story remains maddeningly vague.

Overall, this may be a case where I will learn more and realize that something immensely strange and unprecedented truly is going on.

In fact, you could come back to this site and find I’ve come around completely to Gannon, Duarte and Gilbertson’s way of thinking.

After all, here in the South, we’ve recently had strikingly familiar disappearances — familiar to anyone who has followed the deaths now allegedly linked to the Smiley Face Gang:

Missing in Georgia: Justin Gaines” — Justin, age 18, vanished after a night of drinking on November 1, 2007. He hasn’t been found yet. If I had to guess, I’d say someone whom Justin thought he knew caused his disappearance. Still, he was athletic, a college student, and he vanished after a night of drinking.

HelpFindKyle.com — Kyle Fleischmann, age 24, disappeared November 9, 2007 after a night of drinking at the Buckhead Saloon in Charlotte, NC. Like Justin and most of the victims now attributed to the Smiley Face Gang, Kyle was athletic, attractive, and had been out drinking.

Could this “gang” have moved South? Branched out? Or is there something more basic at work — something having to do with youth, inexperience, and perhaps too much alcohol, on occasion?

For me, the jury is still out on the theory of the Smiley Face Gang. Count me among the skeptics, in general.

But my mind is still open. Hell, even as I was writing this, it occurred to me that one of the smiley faces found in Gannon and Duarte’s investigation had a cross between the face’s button eyes. That triggered a mental image from news footage of Charles Manson’s trial in the early 70s in LA. At one point, Manson and all his followers who were not incarcerated shaved their heads and carved crosses in their foreheads. After I imagined that, I remembered Manson saying in interviews since he was convicted that his followers were still out there. Who the hell knows? Manson tends to speak in vaguely menacing terms most of the time, but perhaps he’s been stating more concrete truth than anyone has realized. Maybe his followers have gone deeper underground than anyone realizes.

See? It isn’t hard to go down certain roads, once you start.

State your case, your thoughts in the comments below. Lively discourse is welcome; flaming and insults are not.

UPDATE

If I had time I’d write another post, but for now I wanted to make a note:

FBI disagrees with river drownings theory.

The following is a quote from the article:

The FBI says there’s no evidence to support a reported link between serial killers, and the river drownings of 40 college-age men in the Upper Midwest…

FBI Agent Richard Kolko told reporters that the Bureau took a look at information provided by Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte and concluded that most of the deaths in question “were alcohol-related.”

Let’s admit it — even the FBI’s skepticism won’t dissuade die-hard conspiracy theorists.

Other sources:

The (smiley) face of a killer?” by Mike Celizic, for TODAYShow.com.

A Black Widow’s Trail?

(A mild health issue has slowed my writing for a couple of days. The following really couldn’t wait, in part because I’m sure some readers will find this unfolding story just as fascinating as I do. I decided to be careful with this post because it touches on a long-term, ongoing investigation that stretches from Missouri to Utah. Only a few names are real, the rest are pseudonyms and marked with asterisks [*]. At the moment, I only have public records and a source close to one family involved in this story to go on for background info, so some details are sketchy, but that will change. To my knowledge, no arrest has been made in this case.)

Eugenia Howell* married Dennis Spriggs in 1967. A photo made 5 years after the couple tied the knot showed a slender woman with a pleasant face, long straight nose, engaging smile. By 1972 the pair had two children, and Eugenia Spriggs was occasionally working as a subsitute teacher. When she wasn’t taking care of her kids or substituting, she was involved with the Rho Delta Chapter of ESA International, a leadership and service organization for women. In November, 1972, Mrs. Spriggs received the organization’s highest honor, the First Pearl Award. A local paper said the award was given for “educational and philanthropic accomplishments.”

Dennis Spriggs passed away 20 years after his wife received the First Pearl Award. He was 47. There was no autopsy. Spriggs was buried with little fanfare in the Highland Park Cemetery in Kirksville, Missouri.

Eugenia moved on to Ottumwa, Iowa. She married Ray Don Ford*, became a member of the Ottumwa Chamber of Commerce. It only lasted a few years — a petition for the dissolution of the marriage was filed by either Mr. Ford or his counsel on August 27, 1998.

Then something happened to Ray Ford. Just 3 weeks after he filed for divorce from the former Mrs. Spriggs, a new petition was filed. The court records regarding the “Guardianship of Ray Don Ford” indicate the guardianship was “involuntary.” A new petition was made on December 2, 1998. This motion was to appoint a “guardian and conservator” for Mr. Ford. At 59, Ray Ford apparently could no longer care for himself.

Eugenia Spriggs Ford moved West, to Utah. In June, 1999, Utah’s business journal, The Enterprise, reported that she had been appointed executive director of the Murray, UT Chamber of Commerce. The Fords’ divorce was final on September 9, 1999.

That same year, Mrs. Spriggs Ford married Brice Fulton*, a fifty-something father of 6 (by a previous marriage) and an Industrial Engineer who worked for UPS.

In 2003, Brice Fulton’s heart nearly gave out. After a cardiac arrest Fulton received a Left Ventricular Assist Device. He lived 3.5 more years, and died on January 4, 2007.

Just over one year later, police were in the Highland Park Cemetery in Kirksville, Missouri. They were there to dig up the remains of Dennis Spriggs. The following quote is from an article published February 27, 2008 on ABC4.com, the website for Salt Lake City’s ABC affiliate:

The FBI may be on the trail of a serial killer with Utah ties. ABC 4 News has learned agents have ordered at least three bodies exhumed as part of their investigation.

One body was buried in the Highland Park Cemetery in Kirksville, Missouri. 47-year old Dennis Spriggs died back in 1992. It was an apparently unremarkable death. The local newspaper made no mention of it. But now investigators have reason to believe he may have been murdered, so the Adair County Coroner, Brian Noe, dug up the body and took it to the state medical examiner’s office for an autopsy…

Coroner Noe went on to say he had questions about Spriggs’s death that needed answers. He wanted to determine “an exact cause of death.”

On February 28, 2008, Kansas City, MO TV station KMBC published a similar article on their website about the Spriggs exhumation. From that piece:

The FBI in Salt Lake City confirmed that similar procedures have been performed on two bodies in Utah and that their offices in both states are working together. The FBI said the investigation has been going on for months but is expected to wrap up very soon…

Eugenia Spriggs left behind her widowhood and traveled to Iowa in the early 1990s, where she became Mrs. Ford. A few years later, something happened to Mr. Ford that left him incapable of caring for his own affairs — just as he was in the process of divorcing Eugenia.

Mrs. Spriggs Ford ended up in Utah, married to Brice Fulton. He nearly died in 2003, but lasted another 3-plus years, passing away “quietly” at his home, according to his obit.

One woman, moving across the years from Missouri to Utah, leaving either dead or infirm men along the way.

She is said to be charming, attractive, intelligent. She’s always found her way into socially prominent situations. Eugenia was a leader in the Rho Delta Chapter of ESA in the late 60s and early 70s, and some online records still listed her as executive director of the Murray CoC, though she could not be found on the Chambers’ website.

When Dennis Spriggs’s body was autopsied in late February, it was reported that tests on his remains may take a few weeks to come back.

Is the pseudonymous Eugenia Spriggs Ford Fulton a “serial killer,” or simply one of the unluckier people you’ve ever heard of? Those tests may give us an idea.

*= Pseudonym

The Ultimate True Crime Tale: Jack the Ripper

In May this year a major exhibition will open at the Museum in Docklands, London — “Jack the Ripper and the East End.” From the museum webpage about the exhibition:

From police files and photographs to letters from the public and the supposed Ripper himself, examine, for the first time, surviving documents and artefacts from the investigation and follow the crimes as they unfolded…

Few unsolved cases out there have sparked as much interest as the brief spree of prostitute murders committed by an unknown killer in London in 1888. A fictionalized account of the Ripper’s crimes once put this line in the killer’s mouth: “One day men will look back and say that I gave birth to the twentieth century.”

Though the words were a writer’s creation, they were true, in a way. There was something undeniably modern in the way this serial killer was covered by the media at the time. The fact that today there is still interest in an exhibition tells you how media exploitation of the fear generated by the Ripper’s crimes made a lasting impression all over the world. It’s not like there weren’t other sprees before and after the Ripper. Here in the Atlanta area we had our own “Ripper” between 1909 and 1911 (link goes to a blog post I wrote 4 years ago for the Atlanta Metroblog). A killer described as a “well-dressed” black man preyed on light-skinned black women. He may have killed as many as 20 young women before he was done.

The Atlanta killer was even called a “Ripper” by papers at the time. So just twenty some odd years after the fact, Jack’s legacy was alive and well in the Atlanta press, too. The “Ripper” appellation has been trotted out by reporters on a regular basis for 120 years now, thanks to Jack. Only the American Zodiac Killer even comes close to the Ripper for lasting interest in an unsolved series of murders. In addition to killing in a random, brutal manner, both Zodiac and the Ripper were media whores, taunting the public with letters, and in the case of the Zodiac, coded messages (there’s a lot of controversy over the Ripper’s letters — many Ripper messages were believed to be hoaxes at the time of the murders).

A trip to the Docklands museum would permit an unique look at the Ripper murders as they happened, and perhaps even provide some new insight. For those who know the case well, the documents on display might even raise new questions about who the killer really was. Countless theories have been floated, but none of them could ever truly be proven.

Whoever he was, Jack the Ripper crossed long ago from true crime history into legend. Today he’s more like a mythical monster, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s Monster. The real police documents about the case might provide a look at the Ripper when he was just another blood-soaked shadow flitting around a corner in the fog-shrouded night. A window into the time before that shadow grew into something even more monstrous, the embodiment of a nightmare.

And for some, a sick inspiration.

Additional link: Casebook.org — the most comprehensive site on the Web about the Ripper.

Some Random Things

MY OWN ANGLE ON THE ALLEGED McCAIN SCANDAL

I’ve got a short item up at Radar‘s “Fresh Intelligence” documenting mysterious online posts made well in advance of the New York Times article that first hit the Web last night:

Anonymous Web Poster Had Goods on McCain, Times.

It all may be much ado about nothing, these allegations of improprieties on McCain’s part, but I do have to wonder how someone cottoned onto the more prurient aspect of the story well in advance of the biggest paper in the nation. Inside information, perhaps?

If you like any piece posted at RadarOnline.com, please click “Recommend it” at the bottom of the post.

THANK YOU, AGAIN

I am so grateful to everyone who has responded to this post, both with donations and in the comments. I just don’t think I can say that enough. You are helping more than you know.

THIS HAS BOTHERED ME FOR A WHILE

This is an appropriate question to ask on a crime blog, I think.

A few years ago I was singing at a large, wealthy Catholic church in Buckhead. It was a paying gig for me and a tenor friend of mine, and a good one. The music director, though, was kind of demented. Just plain, old-fashioned crazy. One example — he seemed to completely improvise his pre-service music on the organ. And we’re not talking about brilliant improvisation, either. Just noodling. No one noticed.

Anyway, one Saturday (Saturday evening mass) something very strange happened. While we were in service, someone took dumps in the stairwell leading from the ground floor up to the balcony, where the organ and choir were located. The phantom crapper dropped loads on two landings, if I recall correctly.

To any psychologists, profilers, or psychiatrists out there: what could possibly be the psychology behind that? I only encountered such strange behavior one other time in my life, when I worked at a large department store in Knoxville. Shortly after a police crackdown on guys trysting in a bathroom on the second floor of that store, somebody took a dump in a stall in a mens’ changing room.

What the heck is going through the mind of a phantom crapper? I can figure out a lot of things, but that one mystifies and bothers me to this very day.

MY VISIT TO THE ER

I had to go to the ER yesterday, but not for myself. Read this post at my personal weblog to see why. And remember to do the Pirate Dance.

OTHER STUFF

I’m behind in posting a couple of entries I’d planned for this blog, but I’m still welcoming suggestions for current, unsolved serial cases to cover in a post. Leave links and info in the comments below — and thank you to those of you who have already done this on a previous post.

Joseph Edward Duncan Pleading Guilty Again

Joseph Edward Duncan III, still one of the most complex, evil criminals I’ve ever written about, will plead guilty on December 3 in a federal court in Boise, Idaho. Duncan had already pled to state charges related to kidnapping and murder in May, 2005, but it seemed for some time that he might fight the federal case against him.

Duncan will now face a penalty trial in Boise on January 28. A jury will be tasked with deciding whether or not the man who has now basically admitted to kidnapping, child rape and mass-murder should get the death penalty.

Jet Duncan’s weblog is still online: http://fifthnail.blogspot.com/. A second blog was posted on his behalf after his arrest: http://5nrevelations.blogspot.com/. The latter blog was where Duncan wrote [prior to pleading guilty to anything anywhere]:

And a very good friend of mine who happens to be a “serial killer” told me that he committed more sex crimes during the two years he was on parole (including killing three children) than he did in the entire five years he was not on parole. In fact—he tells me that while he was not on parole he committed NO crimes until the police started doing illegal quarterly registration checks at his home (coming to his house to make sure he was complying with the law). He said that was when he started looking for control again—to prove (consciously and subconsciously to himself) that “they” couldn’t control him.

Both weblogs give readers an unprecedented look into the mind of a sexually sadistic psychopath.

Neither contain content that is objectionable on the surface. Reading the original Fifth Nail in particular is remarkable in that after a while, Duncan’s voice seems to lodge in your head… a profoundly unsettling, nausea-inducing experience.

There will always be more to write about a monster like Jet Duncan. Jules Hammer runs an entire blog and Web community dedicated to discussing Duncan, his crimes, and related issues. Check out The Cellar for links to many of the other sites created by Duncan, and for some remarkable insight into the deadly swath this innocuous-looking serial killer cut through the lives of so many innocent families.

Source: KXLY.com