There’s nothing a true crime enthusiast likes more than a shocking cold case. Whodunit… and why? Unsolved crimes let the armchair sleuth dig in and root around in the past. What did the police miss? Is so-and-so really an alibi? Is there a connection between those two disparate dots after all? There are famous cold cases that continue to hold a fascination for the public, and whole schools of criminal study devoted to famous serial killers –Ripperologists, for example. In other words, true crime is popular culture’s most wanted.
“Humans are fascinated by evil,” says bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin. “We wonder where it comes from and whether we ourselves could every carry out such an act.” But we also wonder if we can solve the case… put together the pieces of the narrative that have long eluded seasoned detectives and investigators. We want answers. It’s our way of restoring order to chaos. All crimes are narratives, and we like a good story, especially when there’s a complex mystery at the center. Here are 10 of the most shocking cold cases.
10. The Black Dahlia
It’s Hollywood’s most famous murder case, a gruesome, sensationalist story that’s spawned books, TV series, and films. On January 15, 1947, 22-year old aspiring actress Elizabeth Short was found dead in Los Angeles, her body cut in half and severely mutilated. In a lurid Tinseltown twist, the murderer cut gashes into the corners of Short’s mouth, creating a ghoulish smile. Her corpse was also drained of blood. According to Brian Carr, a detective with the Los Angeles police department, “The case took on a life of its own. I think for two months it was front-page news in all the local papers every day.” People confessed, only to be released because of lack of evidence. Conspiracies and urban legends about the murder were as prevalent as Hollywood scripts. No charges were filed
9. The Lady of the Dunes
The Lady of the Dunes is one of the oldest cold cases in Massachusetts. On July 26, 1974, a thirteen-year old girl walking her dog on Race Point beach in Provincetown discovered a woman in the sand dunes. The victim’s hands were amputated, and small piles of pine needles set on the sand in place of her hands. The body was serenely positioned in the sand, and there was no sign of struggle; the woman was lying face down on a green beach towel, her Wrangler jeans and bandana folded into a makeshift pillow. The Lady of the Dunes has never been identified, and her killer remains a mystery.
8. The Zodiac Killer
The self-proclaimed Zodiac killer murdered five people in California’s Bay Area between the late 1960s and early 1970s. The killings were random but generally targeted couples –the first murders were a pair of high school students parked on lovers’ lane. The Zodiac killer toyed with Bay Area law enforcement, sending local newspapers a series of taunting, cryptic letters. The letters took credit for the murders and included a three-part, 408-symbol cryptogram, which the killer claimed contained his motive and identity. The Zodiac, however, was never caught and the unsolved murders and elaborate ciphers continue to fascinate investigators and cold case enthusiasts.
7. America’s Unknown Child
In February 1957, the body of a boy between ages four and six was discovered in a cardboard box in a wooden area of Philadelphia. Despite several clues –a plaid blanket, a cap found nearby –the case went cold. Discovering the identity of the boy and his killer became a lifelong obsession for Philadelphia detectives Bill Kelly and Sam Weinstein. While theories have emerged over the years –some say the boy belonged to the stepdaughter of a man who ran a nearby foster home –the case remains cold. An episode of Law & Order was created around America’s most famous unsolved child murder, and the story was profiled on America’s Most Wanted. The “Stranger Danger” child safety campaign was a direct result of the case.
6. The Hall-Mills Case
The story unfolded in New Jersey in 1922. The bodies of a man and woman were posed side-by-side next to a crab apple tree. Both victims had been shot. Episcopal priest Edward Hall was having an affair with Eleanor Mills, a member of his church choir. The priest’s wife and two brothers were the main suspects in the double murder, but they were acquitted in a 1926 trial. Still, there are many theories about the identity of the killer(s). Some say the Ku Klux Klan was involved, while others suggest the killers were local teenagers. With a contaminated crime scene, contradictory witnesses, and slew of suspicious persons, the Hall-Mills murders are often cited as the first example of a “media circus.”
5. The Case of Missing Feet
Why are disembodied feet washing ashore in British Columbia? According to Time, since August 2007, fifteen human feet have washed ashore near Vancouver. No bodies… just feet, and most of them still clad in sneakers. DNA tests matched one of the feet to a man who’d been missing, but there are several theories as to how the other feet ended up on shore: boating and plane accidents, victims of murder, suicide victims, victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami. While there’s no evidence the feet were cut off, most investigators believe it’s the work of a serial killer.
4. JonBenet Ramsey
On December 26, 1996, John Ramsey found his 6-year old daughter JonBenet dead in the basement of their Colorado home.
Money. Privilege. A fixation on beauty. A ransom note demanding $118,000. A botched police investigation.
With more plot twists and red herrings than an Agatha Christie novel the death of the young beauty pageant queen is one of the nation’s most notorious unsolved crimes. John Ramsey, his wife, Patsy, and their 9-year old son Burke were the main suspects in JonBenet’s murder, but none of them were ever charged. While DNA later pointed to an “unexplained third party,” the court of public opinion had already stained the family. According to the Daily Beast, crime enthusiasts still make visits to the abandoned 7,240-square-foot Tudor home where the murder took place.
3. Chicago Tylenol Poisonings
The hysteria was reminiscent of the Salem witch trials. In the fall of 1982, seven people in the Chicago area died from taking Tylenol pills laced with cyanide. The police concluded that someone was tampering with the drug on store shelves. But who… and why? At the time, psychologists called the killer so strange that their normal profiling guidelines “just don’t work.” According to Time, “police cruisers, rolling through Chicago streets, blared warnings over loudspeakers.” The tampering inspired copycat incidents –pills tainted with rat poisoning, pins and needles in candy bars, etc. The Tylenol killings created a revolution in product safety standards. The police never arrested anyone for the seven murders.
2. The Alphabet Murders
The “Alphabet Murders” took place around Rochester, New York in the early 1970s, perplexing law enforcement officials with a series of strange but methodical common denominators. The victims, three girls, were eerily similar. Carmen Colon, Michelle Maenza, and Wanda Walkowicz all came from single parent households, were Roman Catholic, and had learning disabilities. The cold case is called the “Alphabet Murders” because the bodies of each of the girls was found in a town with the same initial as their first and last names. Suspects included Carmen’s uncle, Kenneth Bianchi (The Hillside Strangler) and Joseph Naso, a local photographer.
1. Jack the Ripper
1888. Whitechapel, London. Between August 7 and November 10, five prostitutes were found dead. The reign of terror in London’s East End only lasted 12 months, but the identity of Jack the Ripper has been the subject of hundreds of movies, books, and articles. The newspapers of the day gave a sensational amount of coverage to the crimes, turning the Whitechapel murderer into a menacing media figure and international phenomenon. Scotland Yard’s failure to identify the Ripper not only led to public outcry, but to a host of conspiracy theories. Was Jack the Ripper a member of the royal family? Was the killing spree part of a covert Masonic plot? Was the murderer a doctor or the Danish-German artist Walter Sickert, a theory often floated by Ripperologists. Since 1888, more than 100 suspects have been named.