When Gary Ridgway was arrested in 2001 and subsequently convicted in 2003 of 49 murders, it answered a question that police in Washington state had been asking for nearly two decades: Who is the Green River Killer?
Police suspect Ridgway killed between 49 and 90 female prostitutes during the years he was dumping bodies along the banks of the Green River between Seattle and Tacoma. He had originally been suspected of involvement in the murders in 1982 after police began discovering the bodies. He passed a polygraph test in 1984 and police turned their focus to other suspects.
In 2001 he was linked to four murders by DNA evidence.
His arrest closed a case that had nearly gone cold. Prior to 2001, few had any hope that the identity of the Green River Killer would ever be uncovered. Indeed, many believed that Ted Bundy, the executed serial killer who once lived in Washington, could have been the true killer.
Despite their best efforts, police are not always able to solve crimes like Ridgway’s. The United States boasts an extensive list of serial killers who have been stopped and brought to justice. But there are a few cases, even high-profile cases, that police just never could crack.
Other serial-murder cases go unsolved because police never suspect that a set of individual crimes are actually part of a string of related murders. Not until some savvy sleuthing from a fresh-eyed detective is it discovered that an old murder actually fits a pattern. Once discovered, such a pattern can lead to other clues and those clues may lead to an arrest.
Or the pattern simply remains a theory, just a loose grouping of coincidences that point to nothing more than similar murders. Those are the theories and cases that captivate the minds of thousands.
Because moviegoers and true-crime buffs love to get caught up in such mysteries, these unsolved murder cases and the accompanying theories are studied just as closely as the mysteries that have been solved.
Indeed, the theories surrounding unsolved murders leave more room for the imagination to run than the grisly details of, say, Ted Bundy’s work.
Here then is a list of five of the strangest unsolved serial murders in recent history and the accompanying theories.
5 The Zodiac Killer
Other than Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer is probably the most famous, most baffling and most sensational unsolved serial murder crime in history. The story of the crimes is complete with an audacious killer who taunted the police and press in Northern California with riddles and “cryptograms” for six years.
Because the crime went unsolved and because the suspected perpetrator did taunt the police it is unclear just how many victims the Zodiac Killer took. The generally accepted number is seven victims (two actually survived) although the killer himself claimed the number was as high as 37.
The first confirmed murder happened in 1968 the last was in 1969. Police suspect Zodiac’s involvement in murders up to 1971. The last known communication between the press and the killer came in 1974. After three years of silence Zodiac sent a final taunting letter to the San Francisco Chronicle.
After that communications ceased. Murders that fit the Zodiac’s profile stopped happening and police never arrested a suspect.
But that was not for a lack of trying. The police and the press both floated numerous, complicated theories; 2,500 suspects were questioned. In 2004 the San Francisco Police Department marked the case “inactive,” only to reopen it in 2007.
The case has provided inspiration for numerous feature films, including Dirty Harry.
4 The Smiley Face Killer
Two former New York detectives think they have an answer to explain over 40 accidental drownings throughout the United States.
Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte had promised the parents of Patrick McNeil that they wouldn’t rest until they could sufficiently explain the death of their son.
McNeil was a student at Fordham University in 1997 when he went missing, having been seen for the last time leaving a bar in New York. Two months later his body washed up along the banks of the East River.
In 2002, another college student, Chris Jenkins, disappeared in Minneapolis. He, like McNeil, was a popular, athletic and successful student. He had also disappeared after a party where he had been drinking.
Police originally ruled his death an accidental drowning once his body turned up in the Mississippi River, but they reopened the case as a homicide at the insistence of his parents.
The case caught the attention of Gannon and Duarte. Working backwards from where both bodies were found, using GPS and information on water flow, the detectives believe they have been able to pinpoint where the bodies were dumped into the rivers.
At each site they found some version of a smiley face painted on a nearby tree or wall. For that reason, the theory came to be known as “The Smiley Face Killer” theory.
The two put their methods to work on numerous other accidental drowning cases across the country. They believe they have uncovered the existence of either a single killer or gang of killers responsible for over 40 deaths in the Midwest and New York.
All of the victims are young, athletic college students who were last seen leaving a party, probably intoxicated. They have also been able to pinpoint a dumping site for each victim and managed to turn up a painted smiley face at each one.
Some law enforcement officials dismiss the theory. No arrests have been made in any of the cases.
3 The Phantom Killer
The case of the Phantom Killer is sometimes referred to as the Texarkana Moonlight Murders. Between the months of February and May, 1946 four couples were brutally attacked and then shot with a .32 caliber handgun. Most of the attacks happened in secluded, “lover’s lane” type areas just outside the city limits of the small Texas town. Three of the eight victims survived the attacks, all of which happened about three weeks apart.
For the four months in which the attacks occurred residents of the town lived in near constant fear. The fourth attack occurred in the home of the victims’ and many believed the killer was growing more bold. Because a different gun was used in that attack police later decided that it had nothing to do with the previous three attacks.
The string of murders ended as abruptly as it had begun, the killer seemingly receding into the shadows.
To this day no one really knows who was responsible. Some believe the murders closely resemble the modus operandi of the Zodiac Killer. Given that the crimes occurred nearly 20 years apart many dismiss that theory.
Another theory is that the killings were the work of Youell Swinney who moved to Texarkana shortly before the attacks began. His wife fingered him for the crimes but her stories proved unreliable. Police still arrested and questioned him but he never confessed. They later put him in prison for car theft. There was not another attack once he was initially picked up.
The events in Texarkana inspired the movie The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
2 The Alphabet Murders
There are actually two cases of Alphabet Murders in the United States. And they both have disturbing similarities. The case that remains unsolved happened in the early 1970s around Rochester, New York.
Between November, 1971 and November, 1973 three young girls turned up missing only to be found dead a few days later. Their names were Carmen Colon, Wanda Walkowicz, and Michelle Maenza.
Police were convinced the assaults and murders were linked. Once the press put the alliterative last names of the victims together the murders were dubbed the “Double Initial” killings but that was later changed to the catchier “Alphabet” murders.
The cases remain unsolved to this day. Any suspects that police have identified have been exonerated though DNA testing.
In 2011, 77-year-old Joseph Naso was arrested for killing four women in California in the late 70s. The victims’ names were Roxene Roggasch, Pamela Parsons, Tracy Tofoya, and (another) Carmen Colon.
Naso had been born in the Rochester area and police thought they finally had the man responsible for killing the young, New York girls. It seems, though, the similarities between the murders ended with the names, which is still a creepy coincidence.
Police were suspect of the theory because evidence showed Naso typically attacked and murdered prostitutes, not young girls. They finally gave up on him as a suspect when his DNA did not match evidence taken from Walkowicz’s body.
In 2013, Naso was sentenced to death for the California murders.
1 The Daytona Beach Killer
The Daytona Beach Killer is the name area police have given to a suspected serial killer they believe is responsible for the deaths of four women in the Florida beach town.
Three of the women were killed between December 2005 and March 2006. A fourth body was discovered in 2008 but police believe the woman was killed in December of 2007. DNA evidence links the victims. That is the strongest indicator that the murders are the work of a serial killer. The women also had similar physical attributes; they were all shot in the back of the head, and were either suspected to be prostitutes or had a history of drug problems.
Fear of repeated killings gripped the beach community in the winter months in the years after the bodies were discovered.
The FBI theorizes that the murders could be linked to the deaths of 28 other women in the state — all suspected murders, possibly the work of a long-haul truck driver.
If that turns out to be the case, it could mean that a killer is still prowling the interstate highways of the Sunshine State. And that would be the most chilling prospect of the unsolved murders listed here.