Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bob Berdella: The Kansas City Butcher

Continuing Ambiguity

Aside from drops of blood on items sitting in the cellar, detectives found a large area on the floor in one corner that glowed blue when sprayed with the fluorescing chemical. It appeared the blood that had been there probably settled into the cement. That was good indication that someone had bled a lot. They took photographs. Then they brought a bucket and some other containers down from a gardening shed. These they also sprayed with Luminol, which only fluoresces in a darkened area, and found the clear indication that they had contained blood.

They broke up the cement where it appeared that someone had repaired a spot, fully expecting to find a body buried beneath.

Once they had torn up the backyard and found nothing, they turned their attention to the front. Digging carefully, they looked for even the tiniest bone fragments or teeth, anything that could tell them if Berdella had used the yard to hide evidence. As they worked, they knew there had been speculation that Berdella had fed human remains to his dogs. Finding meat in his freezer that bore no labels, they sent it out for testing. The results indicated that it was beef.

Robert Berdella
Robert Berdella

While neighbors knew very little about Berdella's secret life, it seemed clear to detectives that one population in the city would likely know much more: the available men who hung out in areas where they could be picked up by other men for "dates." Getting them to talk was dicey, since their trade was illegal and some even had families and did not want their business exposed. Many were addicted to drugs.

Several did talk, nonetheless, and it was clear to police that Berdella's Toyota Tercel was well-known in the area. He often drove through looking for men. Even more interesting was his reputation among these men. They considered him dangerous. Yet no one offered something that the police could use as proof of deeds more nefarious than picking up men.

Still, some names turned up. Todd Stoops, Robert Sheldon, Larry Pearson, and Mike Wallace had all disappeared. Using computerized databases at the FBI, investigators found relatives of the missing men and managed to acquire medical records and dental charts. They also got photographs to compare against the disgusting Polaroids found in Berdella's home.

They estimated that there were about 20 different men in the more than 300 photographs, and some of them had been identified as different men by different people. The detectives realized that they might not be able to identify them all, and even that some may be alive and well. Certainly, they had found men who had lived in Berdella's home who had come to no harm. Some had never even been approached for sexual favors, and some who had may have enjoyed the activities. So Berdella had picked only some men as potential slaves, to be held against their will, and of those men, he may have killed only a few. It was difficult to tell.   

Both skulls, according to Jackman and Cole, were identified as belonging to specific men whose presence in Berdella's house could be proven by other means—items that belonged to them, logs of what Berdella had done to them on which he had sometimes written names, and photographs. The skull in the closet, found first, belonged to a young man named Robert Sheldon. The one in the ground was identified as Larry Pearson's. (Wecht has this order reversed in his book.)

Since Pearson's identification occurred first, prosecutors charged Berdella with his murder and prepared to seize his home under state forfeiture laws. In evidence, they had photographs, a 58-page diary about the encounter, capture, torture, and apparent deaths of several young men, and the teeth and skulls. Yet they were still preparing and hoping for more evidence, and they fully expected to go to trial. They were in for a surprise.

At his arraignment, in a preemptive move to exploit a legal technicality and take the death penalty off the table, Berdella pleaded guilty to killing Larry Pearson. Prosecutors were caught off guard, says Wecht, but they decided to accept it. They still had another skull that was in the process of being identified, so they could file more charges later.

Berdella admitted to the judge that he had killed Larry Pearson by asphyxiation. He had placed a plastic bag over Pearson's head, secured it with a rope, and let him die. He acknowledged that he was aware of what he was doing and that it was wrong.

Then Robert Sheldon was identified with dental records. This time, prosecutors notified the court in advance that they were seeking the death penalty, which was their own preemptive strike against Berdella. He pleaded not guilty and the expected trial was now set.

But Berdella's attorneys offered a deal: Berdella would make a full confession, giving detectives the details about his sadistic assaults and naming names, in exchange for life in prison and for the police dropping their efforts to seize his house.