They had a serial killer in their hands, and they let him go . . . and he killed agian. This doesn’t just happen in movies or crime novels; it occurs all too often in real life. Sometimes, the authorities simply don’t know who they have; other times, they don’t have enough evidence to hold them.
It can be terrifying to think that our supposed protectors can be so fallible. Despite the general diligence and commitment of law enforcement personnel, especially homicide detectives, in tracking killers down and bringing the monsters to justice, some of the worst of the worst can be so slick as to go undetected even when talking face-to-face to the very police officers who are tracking them. Here are ten times the police had their killer in their grasp and let him go free to kill again.
10 Arthur Shawcross
Arthur Shawcross was a serial killer who was active in the late 1970s and again in the late 1980s. He was convicted of ten counts of murder in December 1990. Shawcross’s deadly career took place in two different waves, the first of which was the murder of two children, ten-year-old Jack Blake and eight-year-old Karen Ann Hill. The body of each was found mutilated and raped. Shawcross would ultimately confess to the slaying of both children in 1972 and begin a 25-year prison sentence for his crimes. He wouldn’t be released until he was 57 years old.
Just shy of serving 15 years of his sentence, the parole board released him back into society in 1987. Shawcross would go on to kill again. After a ruthless two-year spree of mutilation, mayhem, and murder that took the lives of 11 prostitutes, Shawcross would eventually be tracked down and spotted by a police helicopter near one of his bodies after returning to the scene to relive his murder. After tracing his plates, police arrested Shawcross for his crimes, and he was sentenced to prison for the rest of his life, where he would die in 2008.
9 Henry Lee Lucas
Henry Lee Lucas is a name that will live in infamy as one of the most bizarre and macabre serial killers of all time. In combination with his accomplice and lover Ottis Toole, the duo would confess to hundreds of killings as well as rape, mutilation, and cannibalism. Toole confessed to the murder of Adam Walsh, son of America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh, in what would become a public spectacle of serial homicide. During his 23-year span of killings, Lucas would be released after having been caught on two separate occasions. In 1960, Lucas murdered his mother and began serving a prison sentence of 20 to 40 years, though he would only end up doing ten years of that sentence before being released in 1970.
Almost immediately after his release, Lucas would again be arrested, this time for molesting teenage girls in 1971. This charge would ultimately be reduced to kidnapping, and he was convicted, only to be paroled a second time and set free in 1975. In the late 1970s and 1980s, Lucas would go on to kill an undisclosed number of people. His confessions (although not entirely believed) would end up totaling more than 350 people. Only three (including his mother) have been confirmed. Regardless of the body count, the fact is that Lucas was right where authorities wanted him at least two times, and he was released to unleash ravenous fury on the world once again.
8 John Christie
John Christie was a cold, calculating British serial killer who was active in the 1940s and 1950s and would kill at least six women. Christie would pretend to have some knowledge of abortion (then illegal) or some medical procedure to lure his victims into a vulnerable state. Once he’d rendered them helpless with gas under the guise of surgery, he would rape and kill them. Christie would prove himself entirely heartless and willing to betray anyone and everyone for his own selfish desires when he murdered his wife and accomplice of more than a decade, Ethyl Christie.
In 1949, less than a year after a young couple by the name of Timothy and Beryl Evans had moved into the same flat complex, Beryl and their infant would go missing, and an investigation would soon begin. John Christie had promised the couple to perform some operation on Beryl, but instead, Beryl and their daughter Geraldine somehow ended up dead. Both victims were strangled.
Christie’s influence as a man of great public respect was so strong that even after the murder of Beryl and Geraldine, Timothy Evans would confess to the accidental death of his wife and newborn child—two murders he did not commit. Evans later retracted his statement, claiming that Christie had accidentally killed them in an operation gone wrong, handing the police their man. But police ignored Evans’s testimony that Christie was in fact a murderer and believed that Evans was the actual culprit. John Christie would testify against Evans, framing the man for the murder he himself had committed. Timothy Evans would be hanged for a crime he didn’t commit on March 9, 1950.
A more thorough investigation would have shown that it was Christie who was the murderer, and many more years of serial homicide could have been prevented. Christie would go on to kill four more people and was later convicted of murder and hanged in 1953. Timothy Evans would later be posthumously pardoned for the murders of Beryl and Geraldine Evans.
7 Ted Bundy
Ted Bundy, the infamous poster boy of American serial killers, would end up confessing to the murders of at least 36 women, though the real number of people he killed may very well exceed 100. His brazen killing spree spanned seven different states between 1974 and 1978. He was eventually captured in Florida. Beginning in Washington, Bundy killed two women openly on the same summer day in a public park with hundreds of witnesses around, luring each of them to a remote location to be murdered. Following these murders, an investigative team was assembled to find the man known only as “Ted,” who was driving a tan or brown Volkswagen Beetle, after police interviewed witnesses of the Lake Sammamish kidnappings. Ted Bundy, however, would then move to Utah to attend law school.
During this time, Bundy was maintaining a relationship with Elizabeth Kloepfer, his on-again, off-again girlfriend who noticed his bizarre behavior and began to make the connection between Bundy and the man police were looking for known as “Ted.” During the murder spree, Elizabeth actually reported Ted to the authorities three times and stated how much he resembled composite sketches, not to mention his unusual behaviors, like keeping crutches with him (a ruse to lure innocent victims to “help” him) when he wasn’t injured. Kloepfer would even find Bundy trying to destroy evidence used in a murder at one point. At this point in time, police were receiving hundreds of tips about the infamous “Ted” and were unable to follow up on all of them with 1970s technology, and Bundy remained free to kill. This would be the beginning of many times Bundy would be right in the grasp of law enforcement but would slip away to murder again.
6 Ed Kemper
When it comes to brazen serial killers, Ed Kemper rivals everyone at the top. Kemper, aka the Co-ed Killer, was a ruthless serial murderer who didn’t mind killing out in the open and would even go hang out at local bars during his murderous heyday in the 1970s and talk with the cops about the serial killer on the loose. His murderous reign would come to a close in 1973, when Ed killed his mother, no doubt who fueled his rampage, and finally turned himself in to authorities.
But the early 1970s wave of killings wasn’t actually Kemper’s first. Before he began locking women in the trunk of his car before ultimately beheading them and keeping their bodies in his apartment for a series of days, Ed had been tried and convicted for the murder of his grandparents. He would be sent to Atascadero Hospital for the Criminally Insane in 1964, but he would be released into his mother’s care after only five years in 1969. From here, he would go on to pick up hitchhiking female students, kill them, decapitate them, and have sex with their corpses.
5 Gary Ridgway
Possibly the most terrifying on this list is the story of Gary Ridgway, aka the Green River Killer, due to his notably long killing spree in which he went undetected for almost 20 years. Ridgway had one of the longest serial homicide sprees in recorded history, killing from 1982 until 1998 (though he may have killed as late as 2001). With DNA technology not as strong as it is today, Ridgway was interviewed by police in his home and added to a short list of suspects of who might be the Green River Killer. Ultimately, however, there wasn’t enough solid evidence to arrest Ridgway and take him to trial, and the police were forced to let him go.
Ridgeway was able to keep his composure under investigation and maintain a seemingly normal life on the surface, leading police to second-guess the evidence used to establish him among their list of suspects. Gary Ridgway would then be free to kill again, amassing a long list of victims. He would eventually be convicted of 49 counts of murder and confess to over 70 killings. It’s believed he may have killed over 90 people.
4 Ted Bundy (Again)
Ted Bundy’s uncanny ability to evade capture earns him a second mention on this list. As investigations progressed and the body count piled up, Bundy had moved to Utah to attend law school. Women there began to turn up missing upon his arrival. Disappearances would also be occurring in surrounding states like Idaho and Colorado, which would later be found out to be the work of the same madman.
In 1975, Ted Bundy was pulled over, and police would discover his rape and murder kits in his Volkswagen Beetle. They were finally able to make the connection and start piecing together the idea that Bundy was the “Ted” whom authorities had been looking for all along. Ted Bundy would be charged and convicted of kidnapping a woman who had gotten away and sentenced to 15 years in prison while police linked the rape kit items found in his car to missing women. They were closing in on Bundy and had him in custody.
While imprisoned for kidnapping, Bundy would be brought up on charges of murder, and the police were certain they had their man. In court, he defended himself, being a student of law and a charming well-spoken narcissist, thinking he was best-suited for the job. Whether it was calculated all along or just a seized opportunity, the world will never know, but it was in the upstairs law library where Bundy would make his escape. After being briefly left alone to research legal issues pertaining to his own defense, Bundy opened a second-story window and jumped out onto the street below and made off on foot. At this point, the FBI launched a nationwide manhunt and issued a $100,000 reward for Bundy’s arrest . . . but this wouldn’t be the end of the antics of the Campus Killer.
3 Andrei Chikatilo
Andrei Chikatilo, aka the Butcher of Rostov, was a Ukrainian-born serial killer who would rape and murder over 50 people. He was convicted of 52 murders out of 53, though he claimed a body count of over 56 persons, and would be executed by a single gunshot to the back of the head, behind the ear, in 1994. Sexual problems and dysfunction color Chikatilo’s story, who struggled for years to overcome anxiety, terrible shyness, and an inability to perform sexually even after he married his wife.
The Butcher of Rostov would frequent train stations and other public places near woods or secluded areas, where he could easily lure young, pretty victims away to be murdered. Andrei would commit his first murder, that of Yelena Zakotnova, on December 22, 1978, choking, stabbing, and raping the young girl before disposing of her body. Police had a lot of evidence, including her blood in the snow outside Chikatilo’s house and even an eyewitness who could place him there with the victim on the day of the murder. But ultimately, another man, Aleksandr Kravchenko, was the one police would arrest for the crime and eventually execute in 1984, though the real killer would turn out to be Chikatilo.
This wasn’t the only time Chikatilo evaded police with a narrow escape. In 1984, after nearly a decade of murders around train stations, police were staking out rail lines and stations, and Chikatilo would be arrested for groping a female passenger at a train station. A search of Andrei’s belongings would reveal a large knife and other rape kit items, and police would even test his blood, but an error in the limited testing equipment of the day would pull up a mismatch between Chikatilo’s blood and the blood and semen found at the crime scenes of the murders. The police, lacking strong evidence, had no choice but to let Chikatilo go. He would go on to kill for another six years.
2 Jeffrey Dahmer
Even Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee Cannibal himself, was once almost caught by the police, only to be let go to murder freely again. Jeffrey Dahmer was a cannibal whose name rings in infamy as synonymous with “serial killer.” Between 1978 and 1991, Dahmer would kill 17 males in one of the longest killing sprees in history. He would also cannibalize his victims and do other things to them as well, such as photographing their dead bodies and trying to drill holes in the heads of his drugged victims in an attempt to create living zombies.
Jeffrey Dahmer had already taken the lives of several men on the night of May 27, 1991. Police received a call about a young, nude Asian boy wandering aimlessly in the streets. Dahmer had drugged the boy and planned to murder him, but he got drunk and fell asleep instead, and the boy wandered into the streets. Upon arriving at the scene, police investigated and interviewed all witnesses, but Dahmer was quick on his feet and somehow managed to convince police that the 14-year-old soon-to-be-victim was really his 19-year-old lover who’d had too much to drink. Against the protests of witnesses, police let Dahmer and his victim go. The boy would later be murdered and dismembered.
1 Ted Bundy (Yet Again)
Sometimes you have to give credit where credit is due, and when it comes to police evasion, there has never been a criminal quite like Ted Bundy. He undoubtedly deserves all three mentions on this list. Between his weird ability to transform his appearance and become a totally different person to his constant close calls where he escaped the police closing in on him in one way or another just in the nick of time, Ted was almost something out of a television show.
We left off with the Bundy story with him jumping out of a second-story law library window and walking right out of custody. He was on trial for murder and had already been convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was free to roam again, though his newfound freedom wouldn’t last very long; he would be captured within six days in Aspen, Colorado, not far from where he’d initially escaped. But that’s not the end of the story.
On New Year’s Eve, after sitting in jail for a while, Ted would carve his way through the ceiling, crawl to the main jailer’s office, obtain the keys, and escape the jail. He walked right out the front door. If you don’t think Ted Bundy earned all three spots on this list, you are officially crazy.
I like to write about horror, psychology, philosophy, and history. The real world is more fascinating than any fiction.
Read about more serial killers walking free on 10 Terrifying American Serial Killers Still At Large and 10 Serial Killers Who Escaped From Custody.