Updated: Dec 30, 2021
When a person is murdered, their loved ones -- and often the public -- want the killer to be brought to justice as soon as possible. Much of the time, this does happen. But some killers evade law enforcement long enough to kill at least three people, officially making them serial killers. Many serial killers are eventually captured, but some remain under police radar for years, even decades. Here are five serial killers who have never been caught.
1. The New Orleans Axe Man
On May 23, 1919, Joseph and Catherine Maggio were brutally attacked in their home in New Orleans. While Joseph survived, Catherine's neck was so brutally severed it nearly decapitated her. It was one of the most gruesome murders the New Orleans Police Department had seen at the time.
This attack is largely thought to be the first of the killer who would come to be known as the New Orleans Axe Man. From 1918 to 1919 (though some theorize the killings start as early as 1910), the axe man terrorized the city. He was known for targeting Italian grocers -- possibly due to xenophobia or anger over a job loss -- and for using weapons from the victims' homes. Overall, at least a dozen attacks are thought to be the work of the axe man.
According to one popular legend, on March 13, 1919, the Axe Man wrote a letterto New Orleans newspaper The Times Picayune. In the letter, he threatened another attack in the early morning hours of the following Tuesday, March 19th. However, he promised to spare anyone who played jazz music as he was "very fond" of it. On the night of March 18, jazz could be heard from houses and clubs all over the city. No attacks were reported.
In June 1918, Louis Besumer and his female companion, Anna Lowe, became the next alleged victims. Both survived the initial attack, but Lowe died of her wounds on August 5. She named Besumer as her attacker before succumbing to her injuries and, although she was thought to be "frequently delirious" while clinging to life, Besumer was tried for her murder. However, in May 1919, the jury deliberated for 10 minutes before acquitting him. Lowe's murder has never been solved, and she is thought to be a victim of the axe man.
Other suspects included Iorlando Jordano and his 17-year-old son Frank. The two lived next door to the Cortimiglia family, who was attacked on the night of March 9, 1919. The attack injured husband and wife Charlie and Rosie, but left their two-year-old daughter, Mary, dead.
The Jordanos were tried and convicted for the attack on the Cortimiglias. Iorlando was sentenced to life in prison, while Frank received the death penalty. But in 1920, Rosie retracted her already shaky statement that claimed the Jordanos were her attackers. Both men were soon released. The murder of Mary Cortimiglia and the attempted murder of her parents is largely believed to be the work of the axe man.
The last alleged attack occurred on October 27, 1919 and claimed the life of Mike Pepitone (whose widow, Esther, would go on to be acquitted of murder herself). The Axe Man has never been caught..
2. The Long Island Serial Killer
It was May 1, 2010. 24-year-old escort Shannan Gilbert travelled from her home in New Jersey to Long Island to see a client she met on Craigslist. She was never seen again.
In December of that year, while searching for Gilbert's body on New York's Gilgo Beach, police found the remains of two more missing women. Further searches have uncovered a total of eleven bodies, including Gilbert's in 2011. Most victims were young, female escorts, though the remains of a toddler and an Asian male were also found.
At first, police believed the area was a dumping ground for multiple serial killers. But then, family members and friends of the victims began receiving taunting phone calls at their homes. The calls were usually in the evenings and came straight from the victim's cell phones. When these loved ones answered their own home phones, they would hear the voice of a man who, in one case, admitted he had killed the woman whose phone he was using.
No arrests have been made in relation to the deaths. However, one possible culprit is John Bitrolff, a Long Island carpenter who murdered two prostitutes in the area in 1994. In September 2017, Bitrolff, now in his fifties, was given two sentences of 25 years to life for the crimes. He's thought to be connected to at least some of the Gilgo Beach murders, but only time will tell.
3. The Tylenol Murders
Today, over the counter pain relievers come in solid capsules, impossible to open without crushing. However, this hasn't always been the case. Until recent decades, these medications were sold in openable capsules that could be filled with whatever the owner wished. But in 1982, this all changed.
In the early morning hours of September 29, 12-year-old Mary Kellerman, a resident of the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove Village, took a Tylenol capsule to quell a sore throat and runny nose. By 7 am, she was dead.
Over the next few days, six more deaths in the Chicago area would be linked to Tylenol. Johnson & Johnson, the company that manufactured the pain reliever, ordered a recall of every bottle on the shelf, a move that cost them over $100 million. Upon investigation, capsules in three of the bottles were found to be laced with cyanide.
Several interesting theories have been brought forth concerning this case. At one point, serial killer Ted Kaczynski, aka "The Unabomber." was considered a suspect, a theory some still believe. However, the most prominent suspect has always been James Lewis.
A month after the original murders, Lewis wrote a letter to Johnson & Johnson, offering them $1 million if they wanted the killings to stop. He ended up serving 12 years in federal prison for extortion. While he has never fully left police radar -- his home was even searched in 2009-- neither he nor anyone else has ever been arrested in connection with the murders.
4. The Tube Sock Murders
On Friday August 9, 1985, Stephen Harkins and his girlfriend, Ruth Cooper, went on a weekend trip to Tule Lake, about a 45 minute drive from their home in Tacoma, Washington. But neither of them showed up for work Monday and co-workers grew concerned. Two days later, on Wednesday, August 14, Harkins's body was found in a forest close to Tacoma. The cause of death was a single gunshot wound to the head.
Cooper's body wasn't found until two months later. Although she too had died from a gunshot, she also had a tube sock wrapped around her neck.
In December of the same year, two-year-old Tacoma resident Crystal Robertson was found wandering in a K-Mart half an hour away in Spanaway. Crystal's parents, 36-year-old Mike Riemer and 21-year-old Diana Robertson, were nowhere to be found. When asked about their whereabouts, Crystal would only say "Mommy is in the trees.”
Two months later, Robertson's remains were found in a pickup truck on Washington State Route 7. Her cause of death was stabbing, but she, like Ruth Cooper, had a tube sock wrapped around her neck.
For over a decade, Mike Riemer was the prime suspect in all three murders. A note found in the truck read "I love you, Diana" and was thought by Robertson's mother to match Riemer's handwriting. Riemer also had a history of domestic violence, as well as experience as an animal trapper, giving him the skills necessary to survive outdoors and possibly avoid detection for long periods of time.
But in 2011, Riemer's decomposed skull was found a mile away from where his girlfriend's body had been discovered years earlier. Although a few theories have been put forward -- including the idea that Riemer was actually involved -- all four murders remain unsolved.
5. The Smiley Faced Killer
This story is a little unusual. Most of the deaths on this list have been confirmed as homicides. But the theory of the smiley faced killer puts forth the idea that a murderer (or murderers) is responsible for a string of drownings across the northeastern United States.
The theory was proposed by retired New York City detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte in 2008. In 1997, the pair had investigated the death of Patrick McNeill, whose body was found near the Brooklyn pier in April. An autopsy report showed no outward trauma or injuries, making foul play unlikely; however, his manner of death was listed as 'undetermined.’
In 2003, Gannon and Duarte worked a similar case, that of 21-year-old Chris Jenkins. The University of Minnesota student's body washed up in the Mississippi River in February, four months after his disappearance on Halloween night. His death was initially ruled an accident, but later changed to homicide.
There were outward similarities in the cases: Both victims were young white men who purportedly drowned. And they weren't the only ones. Upon further investigation, Gannon and Duarte found 40 similar cases, spanning 25 cities in 11 states. Many of the drownings were connected by what would become this alleged killer's trademark symbol: A graffitied smiley face in the areas where the bodies were found. Notes were even found at some of the crime scenes, reading things like "Evil Happy Smiley Face Man" and "sinsiniwa.”
However, the theory has largely been met with skepticism. In 2008, the same year Gannon and Duarte went public with their theory, the FBI released a statement saying they had found no links between any of the deaths. The La Crosse Police Department in La Crosse, Wisconsin, which investigated eight of the drownings, also released a statement that year. In it, La Crosse Chief of Police Edward Kondracki reminded the public that every drowning had been thoroughly investigated and no smiley faced graffiti or links between any of the deaths had been found. The statement also claimed that males make up 90 % of drowning victims age 15 to 24 -- the primary gender and age range of the victims.
Sill the theory persists. Are these deaths nothing more than tragic accidents, often caused by a dangerous mix of alcohol and large bodies of water? Or is there really a killer -- or killers -- out there?
Do you have any thoughts about the cases discussed here? Let me know below.
If you have information about the open cases listed here, contact information is below.
Nassau County (Long Island Serial Killer)
Chicago/Cook County (Tylenol Murders)
Cook County Crime Stoppers: (800) 535-7867
Chicago Police Department: https://home.chicagopolice.org/inside-the-cpd/contact-us/
Minneapolis (Chris Jenkins)
Minneapolis Homicide Unit: (612) 673-2941
Crime Stoppers of Minnesota
online form to submit a tip: https://www.p3tips.com/tipform.aspx?ID=674&
Long Island photo: John Gillespe/Flickr
Tylenol photo: Katy Warner/Wikimedia Commons
Photos licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
Smiley face photo: bixentro/Flickr
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/