Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bob Berdella: The Kansas City Butcher

The Confession

Robert Berdella
Robert Berdella

While the possibility hung over their heads that Berdella might be sitting on a substantial number of unspeakable crimes, prosecutors mulled it over. They wanted to know how many deaths were involved, and the defense attorneys offered only the information that the final toll was no more than a half dozen.

Prosecutors decided to accept the deal and preparations were made to record everything that Berdella revealed. In a small conference room in the basement of the Kansas City jail, under oath, he described what he had done, and the final report, says Wecht (who read it), came to 717 pages.

It was December 13. Two prosecutors, two detectives, two defense attorneys, a court stenographer, and Berdella were seated around a table on folding chairs. It took three long, weary days, but Berdella finally told all.

The crime spree began four years earlier in 1984. All of the victims had been abused and all had died inside the Charlotte Street house.

The first one was Jerry Howell (Wecht spells it as Holwell), with whom Berdella had a prior acquaintance. They had engaged in a sexual relationship for a couple of months. Berdella said that he had assisted Howell in paying for a lawyer and Howell had refused to pay him back. Berdella picked him up on the evening of July 4 and took him home, where he fed the young man a variety of tranquilizers. When Howell passed out, Berdella had sodomized him repeatedly. He used a carrot or cucumber to continue to assault him, and then bound him to keep him at the house. Berdella went to work and returned that evening to repeat the assault. He injected Howell with several substances to keep him subdued, and beat him with a metal rod. At about 10 p.m., Howell died. Berdella claimed that it had surprised him. He had not expected this turn of events and he figured that Howell must have accidentally aspirated his own vomit, triggered by the drugs.

To drain out the blood in preparation for dismemberment, Berdella hung the body upside down by the feet. Because this excited him, he took a lot of photographs. Then he took the body down and used kitchen knives to cut it into manageable pieces. For some parts, he used his chainsaw.

To dispose of Howell, Berdella placed the pieces into bags. He then set them out on the curb, wrapped in several layers of paper and plastic, to be picked up on Monday with the trash. He also bagged and set out Howell's clothing and the instruments he had used, to get rid of evidence. A week or two passed before he actually sat down and made notes about the incident.

The next victim, Robert Sheldon, had stayed at Berdella's house several times, and showed up for the last time on April 10, 1985. On that day, he became a captive. Berdella did the same things to Sheldon as he had done to Howell, but this time he added something: an injection of Drano into the left eye. The idea was to permanently blind him to make him a better long-term captive. He also did more damage to Sheldon's hands with various implements. When it seemed that Sheldon might be discovered by another visitor, Berdella put a bag over his head and suffocated him. That was on April 14, so he had been captive and subjected to these vile treatments for four long days. While Berdella cut him up in the bathtub and put the pieces out with the trash, he kept the head in a freezer for a few days and then buried it in his backyard.

Only a couple of months went by before the next victim, Mark Wallace, stumbled into the viper's nest. Berdella killed Wallace quickly, after some experimentation with electric shock.

The Collector
The Collector

Under questioning about this crime, Berdella considered the influences that might have been a factor. He said that he had seen a film as a teenager called The Collector that had planted a dark fantasy in his mind (he was 16 and it was 1965). The man in the film, based on a novel by John Fowles, is driven by the need to capture a woman and keep her imprisoned while he develops a relationship with her. Eventually she dies and he decides that it was her fault. He ponders what he needs to do with the next captive to make it a better experience for him and then goes in pursuit of her. Berdella said that this movie gave him a framework for feelings he was already having.

James Ferris
James Ferris

That September, when Walter Ferris asked if he could stay at Berdella's house for a while, he found more than he was looking for. While Berdella was injecting and torturing him, Ferris died from either an overdose or from the wrong combination of drugs. He, too, was cut up and placed on the curb.

Todd Stoops had stayed with Berdella prior to his eventual captivity, but in June 1986, he came into Berdella's lair for the last time. Berdella injected him and subjected him to sexual assault, including shoving his entire fist into Stoops' rectum. Eventually, Stoops began to bleed heavily, which was indicative of a rupture. Stoops developed a fever, so Berdella administered several different types of animal antibiotics. He also injected Drano into Stoop's eyes and voice box, and continued to assault him. Stoops never got better, and on July 1, he died. Berdella cut him up and placed the wrapped body parts in the basement for nearly a week.

The last one to die, Larry Pearson, had been a male prostitute, whom Berdella said he had met in the spring of 1987. He made Pearson a captive near the end of June. Pearson was more cooperative than the other men, so Berdella did not have to use as much "discipline" on him. He said that he kept Pearson around as a sex slave for about six weeks. He even thought of putting the dog collar on him first, before he had used it on Bryson. But finally Pearson had apparently decided that enough was enough and had tried fighting back. Berdella knocked him out to subdue him and he died. This head he also kept and put into the freezer.

Inexplicably, according to Wecht's report, he had dug up Sheldon's head and replaced it in the ground with Pearson's. Taking the skull inside, he had removed the teeth and placed the skull in the closet.


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