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Cold-blooded Murderers: The Notorious Hall of Infame

Of all the cold-blooded murderers worldwide, the Zodiac killer of California, whose identity is still a mystery, remains the most audacious for his chilling messages

Cold-blooded Murderers: The Notorious Hall of Infame
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The capacity of the human mind for evil is as unbounded as its appetite for good. The dark etchings of the criminal mind continue to horrify and titillate people. Jack the Ripper, who murdered prostitutes in London as far back as November 1888, is still remembered by people across the world. Jack the Ripper was never caught. The franchise on the ‘Hannibal Lecter’ was a smash hit. Actor Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Lecter in The Silence Of The Lamb won him an Oscar for best actor. The killing of actress Sharon Tate, director Roman Polanski’s wife, by a cult leader in 1969 is also well known.

More recently, the cold-blooded murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and columnist of The Washington Post, shocked the world in October 2018. Jamal is said to have been strangled and his body was dismembered and buried in the garden within the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. He had gone there to get his visa. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud was suspected to have ordered the killing in which a 15-member team took part.

But there are other cases, perhaps, not as famous in India, which are a testimony to the evil stirring in the minds of desperate people. Many also have a back story that provides a glimpse of why the mind turned to murder.

The Gentleman Killer from Manchester

James Patterson Smith was the perfect gentlemen to his neighbours and acquaintances. He was an unemployed divorcee and extremely house proud. He was well-groomed, a non-smo­ker and a teetotaller. When he was arrested for brutal murder in April 1996, it shocked them all.

Smith met Kelly Anne Bates when she was just 14. The young teenager was babysitting for a friend of Smith. The young girl ignited his interest. He went up and began talking to her, spent the next few days pursuing her. When he won her confidence, he began advising her how to dress, how to wear her hair and make herself more attractive. After finishing school at 16, Bates moved in with Smith. This is when the charmer turned into a devil incarnate.

Soon, the beating and abuse began. She was tortured and locked up in the house for days. For four weeks after moving in with Smith, Bates was abused in every way possible. Both her eyes were gouged out from their sockets before she was drowned to death in a bathtub.

The Zodiac killer was suspected of killing five people, though he claimed in letters and ciphers to have killed as many as 37.

William Lawler, the pathologist who examined her body, said the wounds on her body were the worst he had ever seen. Her thighs bore burn marks from a hot iron and there were multiple stab wounds on her body caused by not only knives but also by forks and scissors. Her hands were crushed, and there were stab wounds inside her mouth, too. Her ears, nose, lips and genitalia were mutilated by spade and pruning shears. Sergeant Joseph Monaghan, a detective with the Greater Manchester Police who headed the enquiry, said later, “I have been in the police force for 15 years and have never seen a case as horrific as this.’’

Though Smith never admitted to killing Bates, he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. He had a long history of violence against women.

The Zodiac Killer of California

He was never caught. Operating in the Bay area of California for one year between 1968 and 1969, the Zodiac killer played a cat and mouse game with the police, mocking the authorities for outwitting them. It was a case of ‘catch me if you can’. The Zodiac killer was suspected of killing five people, though he claimed in letters and ciphers to have killed as many as 37. He wrote to newspapers beginning with the words, “This is the Zodiac speaking.’’ Some of the letters included ciphers, where he claimed that he was collecting victims as slaves for afterlife. He taunted the police saying if someone could decode the cipher, his identity would be revealed. A text known as the 408 cipher contained the message, “I like killing people because it is so much fun.” Another, the ‘340 cipher’, was not decoded until 2020. It began, “I hope you are having lots of fun in trying to catch me.”

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Devils Incarnate: Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa; a still from The Silence Of The Lamb

His gory journey began with high school teenagers out on their first date, Betty Lou Jensen and David Arthur Faraday, on December 20, 1968. Michael Renault Mageau, 19, and Darlene Elizabeth Ferrin, 22 were shot on July 4, 1969 in the parking lot of Blue Rock Springs Park in Vallejo. Mageau survived the attack. Bryan Calvin Hartnell, 20 and Cecelia Ann Shepard, 22 were stabbed on September 27, 1969 at Lake Berryessa in the wine-growing area of Napa County. Hartnell survived but Shepard died of her injuries on September 29, 1969. Shepard was stabbed 10 times, sustaining five wounds each in front and on the back. Paul Lee Stine, 29, was shot and killed on October 11, 1969 in a San Francisco neighbourhood.

The Zodiac killer remained a challenge and the police across California tried to identify the murderer. As late as October 2021, a group of 40 former policemen, military intelligence officers and journalists, calling themselves the Case Breakers, identified Gary Francis Poste, who died in 2018, as the Zodiac killer. The Case Breakers claimed that evidence from Poste’s darkroom matched scars on the forehead of the killer that were on a sketch of the Zodiac cipher. But serving police officers are not convinced. The non-profit Case Breakers say that some of their FBI contacts have also been convinced.

It was one of the most daunting cases, which still sends a chill down the spine.

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The Cannibal from Japan

Issei Sagawa belonged to a wealthy Japanese family. He was particularly attracted to tall western women. He was arrested by the police for attempting to rape a German woman in Tokyo when he was 23.

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Catch Me if You Can: A poster of the 1971 movie on the killer. Photo: Getty Images

He befriended a Dutch woman Renee Hartebeest while studying abroad. One evening in June 1981, he invited Renee home to work on a poetry assignment. During the course of the evening, he shot dead his classmate. Over the next two days, he ate various parts of his friend’s body. It was when he was trying to dispose of the remains of her body into a nearby lake that he was apprehended by the police. After two years in police custody, Sagawa was declared insane by the doctor and sent back home to Japan.

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He had to serve time in a mental institution. But soon enough, Sagawa signed himself out of the institution as doctors there said he had regained his sanity. He lived a free man until his death on November 24, 2022 due to pneumonia in a Tokyo hospital.

New South Wales’ Hannibal Lecter

Katherine Mary Knight, known as the female Hannibal Lecter, was the first woman to be given a life sentence without parole. Obsessed with knives, Knight was an expert abattoir hand, who was appreciated for her skills at chopping meat. Knight was also a socialiser, loved meeting people and spending evenings with friends in bars and restaurants. Nobody could imagine that she could do what she did.

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Knight was also a socialiser, loved meeting people and spending evenings with friends in bars and restaurants. Nobody could imagine that she could do what she did.

She and her partner John Charles Thomas Price lived in the small town of Aberdeen in New South Wales. On February 29, 2000, Knight stabbed her partner 37 times in various parts of his body and then beheaded him. That was not all. She dragged his body from the hallway to the lounge and proceeded to skin the corpse. Her skill as a meat worker came into play. “This was carried out with considerable expertise and an obviously steady hand, so that his skin—including that of the head, face, nose, ears, neck, torso, genital organs and legs—was removed so as to form one pelt,’’ Supreme Court Judge  Barry O’Keefe noted during the trial. He added, “So expertly was it done that, after the post-mortem examination, the skin was able to be re-sown onto Mr Price’s body in a way which indicated a clear and appropriate, albeit grisly, methodology. At some time after Price had been skinned, the prisoner hung his pelt on a meat hook on the architrave of the door of the lounge room, where it remained until it was later removed by investigating police.”

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She is said to have cooked parts of his head and tried to serve it to Price’s children. The arrival of the police put a stop to the meal. She was the product of a dysfunctional family. Her mother had multiple partners and would give intimate details of her sex life to Knight. She was raped several times by her mother’s lovers but no complaint was tolerated. With a horrific experience in her teenage years, Knight hated men. Yet she had a series of affairs and Price was one of her last partners.

She is alive and is living out her life sentence. 

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(This appeared in the print edition as "The Notorious Hall of Infame")

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