Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bob Berdella: The Kansas City Butcher

The Monster's Lair

In another closet, the officers found a bag full of human vertebrae. These were sent to the lab for analysis. All around the house, they found pieces of paper on which the names of men were written, and a man's passport. They traded theories about how to interpret what they were finding, alternating between murder and extreme sexual practices, but they worked for hours without finding something that resolved this issue.

Weird masks and books on occultic practices gave an ominous cast to it all. That brought in a police officer who knew a lot about satanic crimes. She made notes about suspicious items and prepared to track down what they might mean in sexual or death rituals.

Another team got a warrant to search through Berdella's pseudo-Goth hippie shop in another part of town, Bob's Bazaar Bizarre. There he sold folk art and weird artifacts, from lava lamps to roach clips. The place turned up nothing. His car, too, offered no clues.

The Serial Killer Files
The Serial Killer Files

Officers questioned neighbors about suspicious events, says Harold Schechter in The Serial Killer Files, and they received the answers typical of those who have seen no evidence of a depraved mind. Neighbors thought of Bob Berdella as a friendly, quiet man who had assisted in programs like "Crime Watch." He had told people that he invited troubled young men to his home to help them when they had nowhere else to go. One neighbor did think it was odd that Berdella worked in his backyard garden after dark, and in Mortal Evidence Cyril Wecht writes that some acquaintances were concerned about how junky things were getting around the Berdella house.

Mortal Evidence
Mortal Evidence

It turned out that Berdella had actually been investigated in 1985, three years earlier, over the disappearance of two young men, Jerry Howell, 19, who went missing in July 1984, and James Ferris, 25, who vanished in September 1985. A man named Todd Stoops had informed police that he had seen both men with Bob Berdella. Police had advised Stoops, who had stayed in Berdella's home on several occasions, never to go back. Eventually he, too, disappeared.

Jerry Howell
Jerry Howell

During the investigation for Ferris and Howell, Berdella admitted knowing them but denied any wrongdoing. Police kept him under surveillance for a while but eventually dropped the investigation for lack of leads or evidence against Berdella.

Robert Berdella
Robert Berdella

To detain Berdella while they continued to search, the police charged him with nine felony counts and the judge ordered him held without bond. On April 4, 1988, Berdella was arraigned on seven counts of sodomy, one count of felonious restraint, and one count of first degree assault.

Attention was focused on Berdella's backyard, especially when it appeared that one area had recently been worked on. That area looked too small to contain a body, but a team brought in a backhoe and started to excavate. They set out to work carefully to avoid damaging evidence that might be buried there. But the second time the shovel went into the ground, it pulled out what they were looking for: the clear stench of death and another human skull. Or rather, a head. It had some tissue and hair still clinging to it, as well as a vertebra.

John Wayne Gacy
John Wayne Gacy

Detectives wondered if they were faced with a case like that of John Wayne Gacy in Chicago in 1978, where bodies were found in the crawlspace beneath his house and in areas around his yard. They continued to search for bodies.

It became an urgent matter now to ascertain whether these skulls had belonged to any of the men whose names and possessions had been found in the house—men who had been reported missing.

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