To outsiders it may seem that the American population has a bizarre interest in serial killers. There is plenty of evidence to support such a claim. There exists a huge list of books, feature films, and documentaries all giving grisly details of some of the most high-profile crimes in U.S. history.
This proliferation in content may lead many to believe that the United States has the market cornered on bizarre and brutal killers. But actually that is not the case. Serial killers have existed for centuries, many predating the American Revolution. Some of the strangest and most violent serial killers carried out their crimes over a thousand years ago.
It is generally accepted that a serial killer is a person who has killed three or more victims in separate instances over a given period of time. This means a person that breaks into a home and kills six inhabitants is not a serial killer. The definition also means that so-called angels of death, or nurses and doctors who kill patients, are lumped into the category.
That can be confusing to people who think of a serial killer as someone who lurks in the shadows and takes victims in violent ways.
If angels of death and all murderers who have claimed three or more victims are included in the count, then a case could be made that the U.S. is the serial killer capital of the world - or at least close to it.
Perhaps because of advanced crime fighting techniques and a relatively robust network of law enforcement agencies the American justice system has been pretty good in the last century at stopping killers before they could claim a large number of victims. A close look at serial killers over the last century would show that the most prolific killers have operated outside of the U.S.
While this is largely indisputable, it can be difficult to define which killers have claimed the most victims. This is because many of the killers are only convicted for a handful of their of crimes. Further compounding the problem of tabulating victims is the tendency by police forces to close cases by attributing victims to known killers in order to clear backlogs. And just as police are eager to inflate a killer’s numbers, a killer oftentimes is too. Many have been known to confess to murders they could not have possibly committed in order to gain more fame or in attempt to ingratiate themselves to the justice system and appear cooperative.
For these reasons it is difficult to define which killers from the last century have been the most prolific. The following list is an attempt to strike a balance between the number of victims a murderer has been proven to have killed and a best-guess scenario of how many deaths can actually be attributed to the killer. It does not include angel of death killers.
5 Gary Ridgway
Up To 90 Victims
The Green River Killer operated in Washington State during the 80s and 90s. It wasn’t until 2001 that police arrested Gary Ridgway in connection with four murders that had been attributed to the killer who eluded authorities for years.
After his arrest, Ridgway was convicted in 2003 of killing 49 women, many of whom were alleged prostitutes, and dumping their bodies along the banks of the Green River in an area between Seattle and Tacoma. He confessed to those crimes.
Ridgway has since claimed that his victim count is as high as 90. Unlike with other serial killers who have attempted to inflate their number of victims, police are inclined to believe to him. He has offered to help law enforcement officials find the remains of other victims, but his claimed tally has not yet been verified.
Ridgway is serving 48 consecutive life sentences. He will never be paroled.
4 Javed Iqbal
Up To 100 Victims
Javed Iqbal is considered the serial killer with the most victims in the history of independent Pakistan.
He was convicted in the year 2000 of strangling 100 young boys, dismembering them, and dissolving their remains in vats of acid.
In 1999, Iqbal sent a letter to a newspaper in Lahore, Pakistan confessing to the murders and giving directions to his home. Police subsequently raided the house and found the vats and numerous remains, many in carefully labeled plastic bags. They also found a second letter from Iqbal claiming that he planned to drown himself in the nearby Ravi River.
Police launched a massive manhunt, one of the largest in Pakistani history. Officials apprehended four young boys they claimed to be accomplices of Iqbal’s. Police believed he used the teenage boys to help him lure his victims to his home.
The manhunt was not successful in apprehending Iqbal, who eventually turned himself in to another newspaper. He told the paper he surrendered because he feared police would kill him without the benefit of a trial.
Prior to his trial he recanted his initial confession and claimed the whole thing was an elaborate and misguided hoax, staged to draw attention to the plight of missing and runaway children
A judge didn’t buy it. He was sentenced to die by strangulation in a public square.
"You will be strangled to death in front of the parents whose children you killed," the judge said at the trial. "Your body will then be cut into 100 pieces and put in acid, the same way you killed the children.”
Before that could happen, Iqbal was found dead in his prison cell. Officials claimed he committed suicide, but an autopsy showed he had been beaten severely prior to his death.
3 Daniel Camargo Barbosa
Up To 150 Victims
Daniel Camargo Barbosa was a brutal serial killer who operated in Colombia and Ecuador between the years of 1974 and 1986.
Prior to his first murder he was convicted of raping young girls in Colombia. He spent eight years in prison for those crimes. In 1974, after his release, he was convicted of raping and then killing another girl — his first murder — and promptly sentenced to 25 years.
He escaped from the Colombian prison to Ecuador in 1984. He went on a spree of killing at least 54 girls in that year. Police believed, at first, that the brutal murders were the work of a gang — refusing to believe that the crimes could be the work of a single person.
When Barbosa was eventually apprehended, he confessed to 71 murders and led investigators to many of the remains of his victims. Officials believe he was ultimately responsible for at least 150 murders.
Astonishingly he was sentenced to only 16 years for the crimes — the most allowed under Ecuadorian law. He was murdered in prison in 1994 by a cousin of one of his victims.
2 Pedro Lopez
Up To 300 Victims
Pedro Alonso Lopez is known to many as the “Monster of the Andes.” He is suspected of killing as many as 300 young girls between the years of 1977 and 1980 in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador.
Lopez was arrested in 1980 in Ecuador after he botched an abduction of a potential victim. He subsequently confessed to killing 103 victims. Police didn’t believe he could be responsible for so many, until he led investigators to a site where a flash flood had uncovered the bodies of 53 young girls. He was eventually convicted of another 110 killings and later confessed to responsibility for the deaths of 240 additional victims in Peru and Colombia.
He was released from the Ecuadorian prison in 1994. He was rearrested and deported to Colombia, where he was declared insane and admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
He was released in 1998 after being declared sane, and his current whereabouts are unknown.
1 Luis Alfredo Garavito
Up To 400 Victims
While the death tolls attributed to serial killers are often disputed, it is hard to dispute that Luis Alfredo Garavito is the most prolific serial killer from the 20th century.
He has confessed to the rape and murder of 147 young boys in Colombia. He is still under investigation for an additional 172 murders. He has been convicted of 138 brutal killings. Investigators claim to have reason to believe that he is ultimately responsible for as many as 400 abductions and murders.
Because his victims were mostly runaways and children from poor villages, it is difficult to get a firm fix on his terrible body count. However, the number of murders he has confessed to, coupled with the murders he is suspected of, put the total of his likely victims above any other on this list.
It is unclear when he started killing, but he was arrested in 1999. Due to a quirk in Colombian law, the most time he can serve in prison for the crimes is 30 years.
That has caused a public outcry to amend the law so he can not be released. Judicial reviews are pending that could force him to serve more time if he is convicted of other murders that weren’t part of his initial sentence.