How an Australian helped identify America’s ‘worst serial killer’ Samuel Little
Samuel Little’s modus operandi was strangling women for sexual gratification. (Supplied: Prince George’s County Police Department)
It was a confession of pure evil, a stunning moment, and Bundaberg-born forensics specialist Angela Williamson was thrilled.
- Samuel Little confessed to more than 90 murders
- The killings took place across at least 14 states, stretching back nearly half a century
- Only 36 of the murders Little confessed to have been verified so far
It was in May, in southern California.
The US Department of Justice senior policy adviser was sitting with her FBI colleague Christie Palazzolo watching on a TV, while in an adjoining interview room a Texas ranger named James Holland tried to win the confidence of a 78-year-old murderer serving three life sentences.
The man — Samuel Little — had no more appeals to lodge. His health was failing.
Heart disease and diabetes had taken their toll on the former boxer who had spent much of his life travelling the US living in his car.
Forensics specialist Angela Williamson was part of the team that noticed the pattern that linked Samuel Little to unsolved killings. (ABC News: John Mees)
Little’s name had come up at a cold case conference after suggestions about the extent of his crimes had swirled around him for years.
Investigators had nothing to lose.
They had trawled through an FBI violent crime database and noticed a disturbing pattern among a few unsolved killings that matched Little’s modus operandi — vulnerable women strangled for sexual gratification.
But they had no inkling the monster in front of them would suddenly start confessing to more than 90 murders, across at least 14 states and stretching back nearly half a century.
“It took about 30 minutes for Mr Little to develop a relationship with the ranger, then he just started talking and kept on talking,” Ms Williamson said, her Queensland accent losing its slight American lilt as we chat.
“I was pleasantly surprised and thrilled knowing the gravity of what it meant — long-awaited answers for dozens of families,” she added.
Samuel Little’s confession matched the case description for a violent killing that took place in Maryland. The victim’s bones were found by a hunter in the woods months later. (Supplied: Prince George’s County Police Department)
A transfer to Texas and many weeks of interviews followed.
Ms Williamson and Ms Palazzolo are still trying to meticulously confirm the killings and have called in cold case detectives from across the country.
The investigators said Little could be charismatic and had a pretty good memory.
Places, streets, trees and cars where he struck are stuck in his mind.
Only one or two murders have been muddled. Is it 90, 91 or 92 in total? They are still not entirely sure, though they are confident it is about that number.
Unlike some psychopaths, he refuses to claim credit for cases that are not his work, and reliving his evil deeds seems to make the old man excited and give him pleasure.
“I don’t question his credibility at all,” Ms Palazzolo said.
“I think he really is responsible for all the cases he’s told us about, it’s just a matter of finding them.”
Only 36 have been verified so far.
By the time they are done, investigators anticipate Little will be confirmed as the most prolific serial killer in American history.
“Focusing on ‘the horror’ is counterproductive,” Ms Williamson said, after I asked how hearing the confession affected her.
“You focus on the details of the crimes.”
Getting justice and closing the “coldest of cold cases” is the driving passion of the University of Queensland graduate, who moved to the US in 2002 after becoming a specialist in molecular biology and biochemistry.
“It is an honour … to help be the voice for the victims and their families,” she said.
“When you do this kind of work you also get to experience the best of humanity in the form of amazing law enforcement personnel who work tirelessly.”
A map shows the sites of suspected murders by Samuel Little, considered America’s ‘worst serial killer’. (ABC News)
‘He is every female’s worst nightmare’: cold case detective
In May or June 1972, Little picked up a woman near a bus station in Washington DC.
She was driven towards Baltimore and never seen alive again.
Her bones were found by a hunter in the woods about six months later.
The woman’s identity is still unknown, the crime scene is now a suburban intersection and Prince George’s County cold case detectives Bernard Nelson and Gregory McDonald never thought the killer would be caught.
“We got a call after Little’s confession and this case matched his description,” Sergeant McDonald said.
The pair travelled to Texas to speak to the murderer.
They had to wait in line as authorities from other parts of the country were seeking information about their long-cold cases too.
Prince George’s County detectives Bernard Nelson, left, and Gregory McDonald, right, did not think the killer behind the 1972 murder would be caught. (ABC News: John Mees)
Little told them he had wooed the woman over three days and at one stage planned to travel the country with her.
But during consensual sex, the monster within suddenly emerged.
He choked her — but did not kill her — while she spluttered the words, “I’m too young to die”.
When the woman regained consciousness and tried to flee, Little followed and told detectives how she stared up into the moonlight while she took her last breath.
“Talking with Samuel Little was chilling,” Senior Colonel Nelson said.
“We’ve talked to many killers in our past, in our years in homicide, [and] he is a true monster in every sense of the word.
“He is every female’s worst nightmare. Talking with him is something I haven’t experienced before.
“He would describe murders as if it’s average, it’s normal for him.
“He said this is who I am, this is what I do.”
How did he get away with it for so long?
On the surface, it seems shocking a mass murderer could get away with his crimes in a developed country for so long.
Little had a long record of violence.
He had been arrested nearly 100 times, yet served less than 10 years in prison before detectives tracked him down at a homeless shelter in Kentucky in 2012.
It was a DNA match that ultimately helped put him permanently behind bars for killings in California in the 1980s.
During his sentencing in 2014 he continued to claim his innocence, interrupting grieving family members with shouts of “I didn’t do it”.
The crime scene from the 1972 killing in Maryland is now a suburban intersection. (ABC News: John Mees)
Little was hard for authorities to track. He mostly operated on the fringes of society, in dangerous neighbourhoods, near brothels or bars.
Many of his victims were either poor, part-time sex workers or addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Authorities describe them as “vulnerable” or “high-risk” victims, women who are sometimes not reported missing or whose deaths are not always given high priority by resource-strapped police.
Little also moved around a lot, and jurisdictional issues almost certainly helped some cases to slip through the cracks.
“The United States has 19,000 police departments that don’t always talk to each other,” Professor Thomas Mauriello from the Criminology and Criminal Justice Department at the University of Maryland said.
“In fact, and my students have experienced this, detectives in the same room could be working two different cases and have the same suspect and they don’t even know it.”
Case shows the world the benefit of sharing information
The FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP) is playing a role in helping link Little to his many murders.
It is a national database, created in the 1980s, of solved and unsolved crimes, designed to improve information sharing across jurisdictions.
A very small team of analysts such as Ms Palazzolo toil away trying to find behavioural patterns — or a “criminal signature” — by comparing rapes and killings.
Critics in the US say ViCAP is badly in need of more resources and staff, and say it is underutilised by local police, who are not forced to submit their cases to the program.
The female victim from the 1972 killing is still unknown. (Supplied: Prince George’s County Police Department)
But those who use it regularly — such as Ms Williamson, who works as a liaison to ViCAP — say it’s vital because as DNA technology has become more sophisticated, calculated killers and sex offenders have become more careful not to leave traces behind.
“I’m obviously familiar with Australia and the US … and I would definitely recommend adopting a similar [behavioural-based] program,” she said.
She added sharing information faster stops more people becoming victims, and warned America is not alone in grappling with undetected serial killers.
“There are perpetrators like Little in Australia for sure,” she said.
“Perhaps they are not as prolific … but there are certainly more here.”
Down under, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission facilitates the sharing of information across police jurisdictions.
It has recently put in place a new National Criminal Intelligence System, after a pilot program, and oversees the National Police Reference System.