(At last, the third in a series. Humor tomorrow.)
Again, I start with a story.
One night some years ago, when I was on the night desk at a Dallas newspaper, reports began to come in about a killing in Galveston. The dead woman, in her final year of medical school, had gone for an early morning run. Her body was found near a trail, stabbed five times.
She and her husband had separated not long before, and police were making a lot of noise about going out and finding the guy.
Because she was raised in Dallas, my job was to call her family home and learn more about her. The family's priest got on the line, and told me about her childhood, personality, interests and accomplishments. I told him how sorry I was for the family's loss.
The dead woman was just a few years older than me. We had had similar upbringings, and she was about to start her career, as I had done a couple years earlier. Later a photograph crossed the wires. She even looked a bit like me.
Two months later, her mother and father walked across the stage and received their daughter's posthumous medical diploma.
About the same time, I got a hand-written note from her mother thanking me for taking the time to write more about her daughter than the facts of her death.
(This thank-you note stuff does not happen often in journalism, but the one other time it happened to me was after I wrote about another young woman, an only child, who also was found dead, murdered, in an isolated area. I don't believe her killer ever was found. My story was about the effects over two years on her parents. Journalism is not for sissies.)
Anyway. It turned out the dead medical student's husband did not murder her. Coral Watts, a serial killer did.
Watts, who was clearly twisted in the head, said he had first killed when he was 15 years old. He never gave -- and experts never defined -- a reason for his murderous ways. Killing was just something he did.
By the time he was convicted, prosecutors estimated that he had stabbed, hanged, bludgeoned or drowned as many as 50 women. He was hard to catch because he moved a lot, chose victims at random and did not rape them and leave forensic evidence. Everywhere he showed up, though -- Texas, the Midwest, Michigan, Canada -- bodies were found. After his conviction on several murders, he bragged that his total body count might be as high as 100. When an oddity of Texas law voided his death sentence and opened the possibility of parole, he admitted that, if freed, he certainly would kill again.
The young doctor's mother had written to the killer in prison years earlier to say she forgave him, but when the parole talk started, she said, "that does not mean I want (him) released. . . . I want him there all his mortal life."
He never got his parole. Coral Watts died in prison, at 53, of prostate cancer. He lived 13 years longer than his oldest victim.
When we read about today's mass killers -- nut-jobs who use guns to kill as many people as possible all at once -- we want to say that this must stop. And I'm all for that. But we also need to pay attention to serial killers, who slay their victims in ones and two.
The mass killings are new, but serial killers have been with us forever. Most of them don't use guns. Most are driven by cruel and savage impulses. Virtually all of them want to avoid capture and to kill again. They don't want to die in a blaze of deadly glory.
It must have been easier to get away with this sort of killing in the past. You could change locations and identities pretty readily in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th.
As police cooperation and forensic research have improved, more of these killers probably are caught. But even now, it often takes years. And the grief these killers cause is every bit as deep as that caused by CNN's shooters of the month.
Here are some serial killers of the last 50 years.
The city had a prolonged rash of killings, starting in the late 1960s with the murders of a doctor and his family.
Several years later, a local man, Herbert Mullin, was convicted of shooting and stabbing 10 people (he may have killed five more) because voices in his head told him that was the way to prevent a major California earthquake.
Another local, Emil Kemper had murdered his grandparents when he was 15. Then, when he was released from juvenile detention at 21, he murdered six young women -- many of them hitchhikers -- by shooting, stabbing and smothering. He abused their bodies and then cut them up, often sexually abusing heads and hid the body parts. Later he beat his mother to death, raped her head and tried to pulverize her vocal cords in her kitchen disposal. Then he invited a friend of his mother's over and strangled her.
He is still alive in a California prison.
John Wayne Gacy, who worked as a clown, lured at least 33 teenage boys and young men to his home between 1972 and 1978. He assaulted all of them, then stabbed the first one to death and asphyxiated or strangled the others. Police found the remains of 26 of them in his basement crawl space.
Gacy was executed by lethal injection in an Illinois prison in 1994,
In Wisconsin, Jeffrey Dahmer raped, murdered and dismembered 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991. His techniques grew more offensive with time, and included necrophilia, cannibalism and preservation in his home of body parts.
Imprisoned, he was beaten to death in 1994 by another inmate.
Donald Harvey, a medical orderly in Kentucky, killed an unknown number of hospitalized patients to "ease the pain." Experts say he began in 1970 and picked up his pace because he enjoyed it and thought himself an angel of death. After his arrest in 1987, officials estimate he had killed between 37 and 57 people by poisoning, inserting coat hangers in their IV lines and various other techniques.
Harvey, imprisoned in Ohio on 28 life sentences, says his kill total is more like 87.
Two women, Gwendolyn Caroline Graham and Catherine May Wood met when they worked as nurses' aides in a Michigan nursing home in 1987 and quickly became lovers, practicing sexual asphyxia to achieve greater orgasms. Then they -- mostly Graham -- moved forward to asphyxiating Alzheimer's patients, which excited them. In a three-month period, 40 residents died at the home; officials identified eight suspicious deaths, and arrested both women for five of them.
Graham is serving a life sentence, Wood 20 to 40 years.
Genene Jones, a pediatric nurse in Texas, is estimated to have killed at least 11 and possibly as many as 50 children between 1977 and 1982.
While at work, she injected babies and toddlers with chemicals that caused cardiac arrest and hemorrhaging. The belief was that she wanted to act as the heroic savior to the children; in fact, many died. When she was accused and fired from one clinic, she moved to a second one and continued the practice.
Jones was convicted in two of the cases in 1984 and is serving concurrent sentences of 60 and 99 years.
Other Bad Guys
Donald Henry Gaskins murdered 13 people between 1969 and 1975, often beating and torturing them along the way. While serving eight life sentences in prison, he committed a final contract killing of a death row inmate, for which he was executed in 1991.
Richard Speck, who tortured raped and killed eight nursing students in a Chicago rooming house in 1966, previously happened to be in Michigan and Indiana when seven other women were raped and murdered, beaten and murdered or disappeared entirely. He died in prison of a heart attack at age 49.
Ted Bundy claimed he was drawn by pornography to ideas of torture. He raped and killed at least 36 young women in Washington, Oregon, Utah and Colorado in the 1970s. He escaped custody twice and was caught in Florida after killing two sorority members and a 12-year-old girl whose body he had dumped in a pigsty. He was executed in 1989.
MIlton Johnson of Illinois was first convicted in 1970 of torturing and raping a woman. After he was released from prison in 1983, his hometown and other cities where he spent time endured a rash of 20 savage killings. In two 1986 trials he was convicted of five killings and received two death sentences; five other murder prosecutions were deferred. He lives now in an Illinois prison.
Gary Ridgway, known in Seattle as the Green River killer, pleaded guilty to strangling 48 women in 1980s and 1990s. Most of his victims were prostitutes and teenage runaways. Their bodies were dumped near the river, and he often returned for sex with their corpses. In 2011, a 49th body was found, and Ridgeway confessed again and was given another life sentence.
Since then, Ridgway has tried to draw attention to himself by suggesting he may have killed many more women than have been found. Authorities don't know whether to take him at his word or to treat what he says as the narcissistic baiting of another loser whose only real accomplishment in life was to snuff lives out.