Somewhere in the New York City area, a man is hunting down young women and callously killing them. He finds his victims online where they advertise their services as escorts and prostitutes. He is relatively young. He is also charming and persuasive, able to convince even the most cautious and experienced to let down her guard and go off with him in the night.
I have never met the man who has become known as "The Long Island Serial Killer," but he has much in common with the serial killers that I have spent time with over the years and interviewed.
Take Dennis Rader. From 1974 until 1991, he stalked and murdered ten people. I met with him twice in 2005 while he was in the Sedgewick County jail in Witchita, Kan. Unassuming, unremarkable, milquetoast: those are the words that immediately came to my mind. Rader, a pudgy, bespectacled sixty-year-old leaned into the glass that separated us and told the scariest story I had ever heard, made more frightening by the calm, unemotional way he told it.
Since he was in high school, he said, he had fanaticized about tying up women and torturing them. In 1974, he began to carry out his fantasy, beginning with the murders of an entire family that included a nine-year-old boy and an eleven-year-old girl.
He worked as a census worker, a utility company serviceman, and then later as an animal control officer in Park City, Kan. The jobs allowed him to choose his victims, complete strangers, and case their homes. His ordinariness, as well as the fact that he appeared to be a devoted churchgoer, helped him escape detection. Rader displayed no remorse as he told his story; rather he seemed proud of his "work" and wanted to impress me. Rader would send letters to the police and newspapers bringing attention to his killings. He became known as "BTK" for Bind, Torture and Kill after a reference he made in one of his letters. That need for attention is something Rader seems to have in common with "The Long Island Serial Killer."
"The Long Island Serial Killer" also enjoys strangling women. He may even have a type. Three out of his four victims were tiny and blonde. What's more, like Dennis Rader, the killer in New York not only seemingly craves attention, he has a sick need to reach out and hurt the families of his victims. In July 2009, a young woman named Melissa Barthelemy went missing in New York City. Days later, her little sister Amanda, who lived with their mom outside of Buffalo, N.Y., got a call that came from Melissa's cell phone. But it wasn't Melissa on the line, it was a man who over a series of seven phone calls terrorizing little Amanda, telling her that he had killed Melissa and would come to kill Amanda as well. We now know that man is the killer on Long Island. His last call came in late August. A year-and-a-half later, Melissa's body was found dumped along with three other young women on a secluded stretch of beach on Long Island. Melissa, like the other three women, had been strangled.
The killer in Long Island also has much in common with Arthur Shawcross, now dead, who once strangled and killed women in Rochester, N.Y. Shawcross began killing women in the 1980s before the Internet and online escorts. He found his victims on the streets of Rochester.
We know the killer on Long Island comes across as normal and unthreatening. How else could he have convinced experienced, cautious women to throw out their usual security measures and leave alone with him? Shawcross was like that too. He would hang out with the women who worked the streets of Rochester. He was married and friendly. He managed to elude detection, even suspicion, while he methodically killed woman after woman, sometimes three a month, until he finally was caught returning to where he had dumped the body of his last victim.
I interviewed Shawcross in the Sullivan facility, a medium-security prison in upstate New York. I was so uneasy and uncomfortable talking to him that I asked for a correction officer to stay in the room. Shawcross, overweight and unattractive, did not attempt to hide his contempt for all women, including me. His eyelashes would flutter uncontrollably and his lips would become a thin line of distaste when I would push him in the interview or contradict any of the details of his story. He refused to refer to his victims as "women"; they were all "whores." And while he had been in been in prison for almost 15 years by that time, each killing seemed to be still fresh in his mind. He corrected me when I mis-stated the order of the murders and appeared to relish telling how he committed them. He rubbed his hands together as he recalled strangling his victims. Ugh, I still shudder when I think back on that interview.
So who is the man who is taking the lives of young women in New York City and Long Island? How much can we learn about him by looking at other serial killers? While it would be a mistake to take the comparison too far, it is likely that the killer is hiding in plain sight. Like many serial killers, he is likely married or in a relationship. He is likely a man who watches crime shows, maybe even 48 Hours Mystery, because he displays a basic knowledge of investigative tools and how to avoid detection. He has a car which he has used to pick up his victims. Based on his voice from the calls, he is likely a white male, estimated to be in his late twenties or in his thirties. He will likely kill again. And, if investigators are lucky, he will make a mistake, just like Dennis Rader and Arthur Shawcross did, and finally be caught.
Watch 48 Hours Mystery Tuesday, July 12 at 10/9 c. for more on the Long Island serial killer.