Was Israel Keyes the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of Modern Times?

A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Dec. 10 2012 3:00 PM

Was Israel Keyes the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of Modern Times?

Israel Keyes
Israel Keyes

Federal Bureau of Investigation

On Sunday, serial killer Israel Keyes was eulogized in a small funeral ceremony attended by his mother, four sisters, and a flamboyant evangelical preacher who, in his sermon, asserted that Keyes was now “in a place of eternal torment.” Keyes committed suicide on Dec. 2 in the Alaska jail where he was being held after his arrest for the abduction and murder of 18-year-old Samantha Koenig last February. The 34-year-old contractor had admitted to at least eight murders, and investigators suspect he was responsible for more. Now, police departments in the United States and Canada are combing their cold cases to see if Keyes might be linked to any of those crimes. 

The only other murder about which Keyes is known to have provided details is the 2011 killing of 60-something Vermont residents Bill and Lorraine Currier. In that exceptionally methodical crime, he flew from the West Coast to Chicago, rented a car, drove 1,000 miles to Vermont, murdered the Curriers after selecting them at random, and then disappeared. For the next year, Vermont police pursued a series of dead-end leads, while Keyes monitored coverage from afar.

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Keyes is a horror-movie villain come to life: a killer who haunts remote areas in search of random prey, and who kills for no reason other than the fun of it. An Alaska Dispatch story last week noted that an expert on serial killing called Keyes “among the top three organizers, thinkers and planners he'd studied.” Indeed, aspiring stranglers would do well to study Keyes’ methods. He killed far away from home, in different police jurisdictions. He had no personal connection to his victims, and acted from no evident motives. During his trips, he would turn off his cell phone and pay with cash in order to avoid leaving a trail. He stashed “murder kits” around the country. (The one found in Alaska included a shovel and Drano, to accelerate the decomposition of a dead body.) He spaced out most of his murders, and left the scenes of the crimes soon after he was finished—after killing Samantha Koenig, he hid her body in a shed and took off on a two-week cruise.

Many serial killers—Son of Sam, BTK, Jeffrey Dahmer—stick to a particular region, often close to where they live. This cuts down on travel costs, but also makes it easier for investigators to discern patterns. Many killers also tend to target specific types of victims—young women, runaways, ladies of the evening—which can help investigators put together a psychological profile. But the differences in his known victims suggest that Keyes was the rare serial murderer who didn’t care who he killed.

Keyes shared some things with other serial killers. He said that he killed because it was fun, a sentiment with which many other murderers would certainly agree. Like other serial killers, he appears to have had a drinking problem. (“I've got to drink every day to forget these things. You don't understand what I've been through,” he told a sister-in-law days before he was caught.) And he mentioned that he was saddled with two different personalities.

That same Alaska Dispatch story I mentioned earlier noted that Keyes “felt a connection with serial killer Ted Bundy because Bundy led a double life, too.” At first glance, Bundy is the serial killer whom Keyes most closely resembles. Both men were intelligent, meticulous, and confident. Both spoke about the feeling of power and possession they felt over their victims. Bundy talked about how drinking lowered his inhibitions. For most people, alcohol makes it easier to talk in potentially awkward social situations. But Bundy’s inhibitions were different—as he explained it, drinking made it easier for him to kill.

Yet there are a lot of differences between these men, too. While Ted Bundy spread his killings around, this seems more to have been a function of Bundy living in many different places than any particular strategy to evade detection. And, unlike Keyes, Bundy targeted specific victims: young, attractive women, many of whom had long hair parted down the middle.

In the end, Bundy got sloppy, and Keyes got sloppy, too. A figure in a face mask and driving a white Ford Focus was caught on camera making a withdrawal from an ATM with Koenig’s card. Later, he was spotted in the same car and found with the ATM card. It was an anticlimactic close to a previously unrestrained serial-killing career, an ending that must have embarrassed him. That’s why it shouldn’t be surprising that Keyes cut his wrists and strangled himself to death. It was a way for him to reassert control one last time.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.