Serial killers can be some of the most dangerous and hard-to-catch criminals that any law enforcement officer can come up against. Due to the serious nature of their crimes, many are meticulous planners. On the other hand, some killers can also be careless, lazy or quite simply make stupid mistakes. And with law enforcement watching and waiting patiently for any break in the case, even the tiniest mistakes can lead to an arrest. Here are four famous serial killers who were caught due to small mistakes.
TED BUNDY – TRAFFIC STOPS
Ted Bundy has been considered a suspect in the deaths of up to 100 women. By his own admission, he confessed to 36 murders before he was put to death by electric chair in Florida in 1989.
Bundy was first arrested in Utah in 1975 for aggravated kidnapping and attempted criminal assault. But how was he first caught? Bundy was driving down the street at night in a VW Beetle with his lights off. A police officer in the area saw Bundy and commanded him to stop. When Bundy refused, the officer pulled him over for a minor traffic offense and refusal to comply. Upon searching the vehicle, the officer found a gym bag in the car with a ski mask, ice pick, torn sheets and handcuffs. Bundy was taken into custody and eventually charged.
Bundy then escaped from prison. He was loose for four days before being spotted making an illegal U-turn. The police officer checked the vehicle’s plates and found that the car was stolen. Bundy was taken into custody again, for another simple traffic violation. But Bundy still wasn’t done: he managed to escape from prison again.
This time Bundy was out for 46 days. Once again he was driving a VW Beetle when he was pulled over. Close to the Alabama state line a police officer performing a random “wants and warrants” check found that Bundy’s Beetle was stolen. Bundy was taken into custody for the third and final time. Despite the magnitude of his crimes, each time the notorious serial killer was caught was due to either routine checks or minor traffic offenses.
DENNIS NILSEN – BLOCKED DRAIN
Dennis Nilsen was a Scottish serial killer who operated between the years of 1978 and 1983. During this time he killed twelve young men and boys. Nilsen, also known as the Muswell Hill Murderer, would lure the young men to one of his two North London homes where he would strangle and / or drown them. Nilsen would bathe and dress the bodies and keep them in his home for a time before disposing of them.
It was in the disposal of the bodies that Nilsen tripped up. Although he burned some of the bodies in bonfires and hid others under the floorboards of his home, he later moved into an attic apartment that gave him no easy way of getting rid of his victims. So Nilsen started to dissect the bodies and flush them down his toilet.
Bizarrely, Nilsen (along with other tenants of the building) complained about the plumbing being blocked. Plumbers were called in, and upon removing a drain cover at the side of the house they discovered small bones and pieces of flesh. The police were called in and Nilsen was eventually arrested. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and died in prison in 2018.
DENNIS RADER – FLOPPY DISK
Dennis Rader was a killer with a huge ego. He wrote letters to the media bragging about his murders and even gave himself his own nickname. In one letter to a television station, he suggested ‘BTK Killer’, standing for ‘Bind, Torture, Kill’. Rader killed ten people between 1974 and 1991 and very nearly got away with his murders.
The police had almost given up on catching the BTK Killer, considering it a cold case. But Rader needed attention and so started communicating with the media again, 13 years after his final murder. He wrote to a newspaper, claiming to be BTK and supplying details and photographs of his crimes as proof. Rader also wrote letters to TV stations and to the police themselves. Nilsen wanted to send the police even more information on a floppy disk but wasn’t sure if it was safe. Not seeming to understand that the police were trying to catch him, he did what an honest citizen would do – he asked the police if it would be OK.
The police answered Rader in a newspaper ad, telling him that it would be perfectly safe for him to send them a floppy disk. Rader sent the disk to a TV station and police digital forensic investigators immediately checked it for hidden data. They found metadata from a deleted Microsoft Word file that was still on the disk that gave them the name “Dennis” and the church where Rader served as president of the church council. This was the first thread of an investigation that led to the police tracing his car and eventually finding the DNA evidence that would convict him. Rader is still in prison today, serving ten consecutive life sentences.
DAVID BERKOWITZ – PARKING TICKET
In 1976 and 1977 New York City was being terrorized by a series of seemingly random shootings. The media had dubbed the mysterious shooter “The .44 Caliber Killer” due to the gun used in all the crimes. However, in May of 1977 a letter addressed to the police was found near one of the victims. In this letter, the murderer gave himself another name, the one by which he is still known today, the “Son Of Sam”.
The Son Of Sam was an active murderer and it seemed that all of New York wanted him caught. Not only were the police doing everything they could to track him down, but regular citizens were also aware of his crimes as they were extensively covered in the news. So when NYC resident Cacilia Davis was spooked by a suspicious man while out walking her dog at night, she took note. The next day she heard that the Son Of Sam had struck again in the area and her mind went back to the man she’d seen. She went to the police, but couldn’t remember any specific details that would help them track the man down.
Except for one small detail: she’d noticed that he was hanging around a car that was parked by a fire hydrant. “You know,” she said, “I saw cops giving out tickets.”
It was a small lead but it was the only one they had. The detective interviewing Davis reviewed all the tickets handed out in that area during the time of the murder. All the tickets were for local residents except for one: David Berkowitz. What was he doing all the way on the other side of the city at 2 a.m.?
The police tracked down the car and then Berkowitz himself. They apprehended him outside his apartment building and found in that same car a single-shot rifle resembling a submachine gun. And there under the seat, in a brown paper bag, they found the famous .44 Special caliber Bulldog revolver Berkowitz had used in his crimes.
Berkowitz confessed to the shootings and was eventually convicted. He is currently serving six consecutive life sentences. Berkowitz managed to kill six people and wound seven more during his year-long spree, but who knows how many more he might have killed if he hadn’t been tripped up by a simple parking ticket.