Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Murder Cop: A Profile of Vernon J. Geberth

Betrayed by a Computer

In St. Louis, Missouri, in 2001, police linked six murders of prostitutes with DNA from semen and entered the profile into CODIS (Combined DNA Information System).  No matches were found.  Then Bill Smith, a reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, wrote stories about the victims and received a letter in response.  The writer provided a map to "victim number 17," which led police to skeletal remains.  The detectives then looked at the computer-generated map, enlisting the Illinois State Police Cyber Crime Unit for assistance.  Mark McAmish recognized the map as one from the Expedia.com Web site.

He contacted Expedia to get the IP addresses of computers that had visited the Web site.  They provided a list, and on it was an address just outside St. Louis for Maury Travis.  A background check revealed that he was a convicted felon, so detectives went to his home with a search warrant and found evidence of the possible torture and murder of several women.

Maury Travis
Maury Travis

They showed Travis photographs of the victims and he denied knowing them.  But then he asked to see the "murdered" girls again.  They had not mentioned that the women were dead.  He broke down, cursing the Internet, and said he would lead them to another victim dump site, but then asked to be taken to jail.  There he requested a can of soda, from which the detectives extracted a sample of his salvia for DNA analysis.  It matched the semen from two of the victims.  They also got a match from tread marks from one of the victim's legs to Travis's car.  Eventually they linked him to twelve unsolved homicides, but then he committed suicide in jail.

Travis' videos of what he had done to his victims were among the tapes that Geberth reviewed as he wrote his book.  What he saw was outright evil.

"My definition of evil," he said, "is anything that intentionally destroys life.  In Practical Homicide, I talk about a psychology of evil on the part of people who kill.  The homicides at the World Trade Center, which created the biggest crime scene that I have ever seen in my life, were an act of evil. As is genocide perpetrated by religious fanatics.  Blowing up innocent people is evil, as are sexual psychopaths and serial murderers who kill because they like it they turn it into some kind of sexual sport. These killers have conscious and detailed plans for murder, and they certainly know right from wrong. They just don't give a damn."

Among them is a notorious killer who strung out his crimes over three decades. Geberth was involved in the case from several angles.

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