This is a full chapter from one of the stories of my book True Crime Stories Vol.3.
The Disappearance and Murder of Ryan Lane
The modern world has provided all of us with some pretty amazing things that have made our lives easier. Cars and airplanes have made travel a breeze, while dishwashers, washers, and dryers have allowed us to have easier domestic lives.
And who can live without a smart-phone?
It is true that science and technology have made life in industrialized countries easier in some ways, but psychologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists have argued that our use of, and some would say dependence on, technology in our daily lives has been a major factor in the decline of interpersonal relationships.
One does not have to look very far to see some signs of this trend. Couples at restaurants out for dinner spend more time on their phones then they do talking with each other and people everywhere live in a virtual world where updating their social media sites is more important than developing relationships in the real world.
Marriage has long been considered one of the casualties of the modern age and now that we are firmly in the age of Internet, divorce rates are steadily increasing in the most industrialized nations.
Despite the now ubiquitous nature of divorce in the modern world, most people who find themselves in one eventually move on with their lives. Of course, things are more difficult when children are involved. Custody disputes can quickly turn an amicable divorce into one full of acrimony. Allegations of misconduct can be made and sometimes more than just feelings are hurt. Even so, most custody disputes end peaceably as both parents realize that years of bickering will only serve to further alienate their children and that a child needs to have a good relationship with both parents.
But in some rare cases, one of the parents involved in a custody dispute believes that he or she and the children involved will be better served if the other parent is taken out of the equation.
In February 2012, Ryan Lane was a twenty-four-year old father living in Calgary, Alberta, who was hoping to get closer to his young daughter. Life had not been particularly easy for Lane. He had trouble finding decent-paying employment and did not get along very well with the mother of his daughter, an ex-girlfriend who had fulltime custody of their child.
Despite these setbacks, Lane was young and determined to put his life on a positive path. He was working and had recently spoken with a lawyer about establishing specific times to see his daughter. His daughter’s mother, Sheena Cuthill, was protective of the child to the point of obsession and would rarely let Lane visit her. Initially, Lane was fine with the arrangement, but once he matured a little he decided he wanted to develop a relationship with his child.
Lane won a judgement in family court that allowed him visitation of his daughter. On February 6, 2012, he met with Cuthill at a local pizza restaurant to discuss the details of the visitation agreement.
All seemed well for Lane.
Then the next day Lane received a mysterious call from a stranger who asked to meet with him to discuss a custody arrangement. Lane’s family was immediately disturbed by the call and Ryan’s father Bruce warned against him going to the meeting.
“What’s he gonna do, stab me, or something?” said Ryan to Bruce.
Bruce pleaded with his son to let him come along, but Ryan insisted he go alone, as that was what the caller had stated. Ryan then walked to a nearby strip mall to meet the mysterious caller, but his father followed behind in his car despite his son’s objections.
Bruce Lane then watched as his son got into a red pickup, which then drove off.
Ryan Lane was never seen again!
As hours turned to days, it was clear to Ryan Lane’s family that something bad had happened to him. A missing person report was filed with the Calgary Police Department, and detectives followed up on the information about the custody dispute, the mysterious caller and the red truck. Although the situation looked suspicious to investigators and the Lane family was sure something had happened to Ryan, the Calgary police had no solid evidence that foul play was involved.
As the cold Calgary winter turned to spring and then summer, news reports of Ryan’s disappearance faded and it seemed to some that police interest in the case had also waned.
But the reality was that detectives were looking closely at Sheena Cuthill and her associates due to some tips they had received and a growing amount of physical and circumstantial evidence they had collected.
But there was still no body.
Murderers are sometimes convicted without the body of the victim ever being discovered, but prosecutors will tell you that their job is much easier if they have a body. Juries often tend to be skeptical and require plenty of evidence to convict a person of murder, especially in today’s world where both documentary and fictional television shows that profile the use of forensic evidence to solve crimes are commonplace.
In November 2012, the search for Ryan Lane finally came to an end when the charred remains of a human were discovered in a burn barrel in a remote area of northeast Calgary known as Beiseker. Although investigators believed they had found Ryan’s final resting place, the degraded nature of the body could not be identified through DNA profiling. A forensic anthropologist was able to determine that the remains were of a person between the ages of nineteen and thirty, which fit Lane’s age; but most importantly, a ring that Ryan’s family identified as belonging to him was found in the pile of ashes.
It seems the killer or killers had made their first mistake.
The location of Ryan’s remains would later prove to be a key piece of circumstantial evidence.
Once Ryan’s remains were discovered, homicide investigators were able to piece together the other evidence they had been collecting in the prior months to produce an arrest warrant for Sheen Cuthill, her husband Timothy Rempel, and his brother Wilhelm “Will” Rempel for the murder of Ryan Lane. Based on statements the defendants gave to police and Cuthill’s testimony at her murder trial, it was learned that the three plotted against Lane in order to prevent him from seeing his daughter.
According to Cuthill, the initial plan was just to intimidate and scare Lane away, but things quickly got out of hand. She claimed that the three met on the morning of February 6, 2012, at Cuthill’s grandmother’s home in northeast Calgary to discuss the details of the plan.
“I was expecting there was going to be a little rough-housing. I assumed there was going to be some fighting,” stated Cuthill in a Calgary courtroom. “I didn’t think what they were going to do to make it succeed.”
Cuthill’s courtroom testimony was valuable in answering who Ryan Lane met on February 7—Tim and Will Rempel—but it was short on important details. Essentially, Cuthill attempted to shift culpability in the murder from herself to the Rempel brothers.
But the mountain of evidence against all three clearly demonstrated that each was equally responsible for Ryan’s death.
When Sheena Cuthill and the Rempel brothers went to trial, they faced an uphill battle trying to refute what seemed like an endless line of evidence against them. Although much of the evidence was circumstantial, there was just so much of it that it could not possibly be explained away and the few bits of forensic evidence the prosecutors did have only served to corroborate the circumstantial evidence.
One of the most damning pieces of physical evidence in the case was the discovery of Ryan Lane’s DNA in both Will Rempel’s truck, which happened to be red like the one Ryan was seen getting into, and Tim Rempel’s jeep. The presence of the DNA could be explained away by a good defense lawyer perhaps, but it did not look good for the two brothers when it was revealed that they were caught on camera cleaning both vehicles inside and out the day of Ryan’s disappearance. It was also extremely suspicious that Will sold his truck, which was in good condition, to a salvage yard the next day for the far under blue book value price of just $128.40!
The location where Ryan’s remains were discovered also happened to become strong circumstantial evidence used against the Rempel brothers.
The burn barrel was located not far from a neighborhood where the brothers had both lived. Even more incriminating was the fact that both men had also worked at one time at the barrel’s exact location!
Perhaps the evidence that contributed most to the legal demise of the three defendants were the details of the crime they sent each other via text messages. Maybe they thought they would never be suspects in any crime if Ryan’s body was never found, or possibly they did not think their messages were saved, but the text messages were most damning because they essentially outlined the anatomy and chronology of the murder.
A 2011 series of texts between Cuthill and her husband, just after the courts awarded visitation rights to Lane, clearly implicate the mother in the conspiracy.
“Can I trust Will to have this done without the cops showing up on my doorstep?” Cuthill asked Tim Rempel.
In another message, Cuthill tried to allay Tim Rempel’s fears of getting caught.
“You won’t have any part in his mister ur gonna behanve n let ur brother deal with it,” she texted like a teenager. “I mean it Tim my answer will be no right now I won’t even consider it if you have any part of it.”
Within a couple of months Tim Rempel’s trepidation passed as a text he sent to his wife just two days before Ryan’s abduction demonstrates.
“Getting things ready scoured the best spot at the pit.”
To add to the incriminating text messages, the police secretly recorded phone conversations between the two brothers. Tim and Will apparently suspected that the police may be on to them because they spoke in a code during their recorded conversations. Many amateur criminals believe that using code words during a phone conversation will impede a police investigation and make prosecution difficult or impossible, but even professional criminals have been sunk by carefully coded phone conversations. One of the major pieces of evidence used against mafia kingpin John Gotti during his trial was a series of phone calls where the dialogue was spoken in code. Experts were able to quickly crack the code, which helped send Gotti to prison for the rest of his life.
But Tim and Will Rempel were no John Gottis!
The code the two brothers used was easily cracked by the Calgary police. One particularly damning conversation clearly had to do with the site where Ryan Lane’s body was burned.
“They found the kitchen,” Will told Tim after the police discovered Ryan’s charred remains. “But as hot as it was, there was no DNA.”
The mountain of evidence led the jury to quickly convict all three defendants of first degree murder on April 20, 2016. Even Sheena Cuthill, who testified against her cohorts, could not escape the fate she created for herself. The three killers were given life sentences and will not be eligible for parole for twenty-five years.
Check out True Crime Stories Vol.3 and see more chilling cases like this.
This is a full chapter from one of the stories of my book True Crime Stories Vol.2.
In 1912, Villisca was a small Midwestern town in Iowa with a population of just 2,500. Despite its size, it was a busy little town with trains coming and going every day, businesses up and down the streets, and it was home to the first publicly funded armory in the whole state. For many, the name ‘Villisca’ meant ‘pleasant view’ or ‘pretty place’. But regardless of the business successes and the beauty of the town, its history would be forever marred by one single event—the brutal and horrifying murder of eight people in one house, on one night, with an axe.
The Moore family was well liked in the community, and their affluence was well known. The members of the family were Josiah, who was 43 at the time, his wife Sarah, aged 39, and their children, Herman Montgomery, aged 11, Mary Katherine, 10, Arthur Boyd, 7, and Paul Vernon, 5. They were regular church attendees, and on the evening of June 9, 1912, the children had been participating in the Presbyterian Church’s Children’s Day Program. This program lasted until 9:30 p.m., and the Moore family invited two young girls, Ina Mae Stillinger, aged 8, and her sister Lena Gertrude, who was 12 years old, to stay the night in their home. All walked back to the home of the Moores, arriving somewhere between 9:45 to 10 p.m. No one is sure what time the family and their guests retired to bed that evening, or what if anything was amiss in the house when they got home. What is known, however, is that what did occur during the night in that house would become legendary, for all the wrong reasons.
On the morning of June 10, the next door neighbor, Mary Peckham, found it strange that the family next door was not up and about at 7 a.m. as they usually were. She was used to hearing and seeing the family members as they started their morning chores, but they hadn’t appeared, and the curtains were all closed. Mary decided to check on the family and went and knocked on the door, but nobody responded. She tried to open the door, but it was still locked. Fearing something was very wrong, she called Josiah’s brother Ross to investigate. Oddly, she first let the Moore’s chickens out of their coop—goodness knows why.
Ross arrived at the house, and like Mary he knocked on the door, shouting out in the hopes that someone inside would hear him. On receiving no response, he proceeded to unlock the door with his copy of the key to the house. Mary waited anxiously on the porch as Ross entered the house and made his way into the guest bedroom. The scene that greeted him was horrific—the bodies of the Stillinger sisters dead in the bed. Moore instructed Mary to call the local officer, Hank Horton, who arrived within a short period of time. It was Horton who further investigated the rest of the house, finding body after body of the Moore family, all with horrific head wounds. In the guest room where the bodies of the Stillinger sisters lay was a bloodied axe, and that was immediately identified as the murder weapon.
Though the injuries to each of the victims were gruesome, it was Josiah who seemed to have been dealt the most vicious blows. Unlike the others who had been bludgeoned to death with the blunt end of the axe, it was the sharp end that had been used on Josiah. In fact, his wounds were so horrific that his eyes were missing in his cut-up face. Gouge marks in the ceilings of the bedrooms had been created by the swinging of the axe; in some cases, these gouges were in the center of the room, not near the beds, and it was surmised that the killer must have been in some sort of wild frenzy, swinging the axe triumphantly after each kill.
The pillows on the beds were soaked in blood and spattered with brain matter. By the time the first doctor entered the house, the blood had congealed into a jelly, and clots were noticeable, and this indicated they had been killed somewhere shortly after midnight. Each of the victims had their faces covered with their bedclothes, and all lay in their beds as though they had been killed while sleeping, except for Lena Stillinger. Her body showed defensive wounds, suggesting she had tried to fight off the attacker. Her nightgown had been pushed up and her underwear removed, and her body had been posed in a sexual manner. Naturally consideration was given to the possibility she had been sexually assaulted or raped, but this was never determined without a doubt.
There were other strange things about the crime scene that made no sense at all. Although it is normal to pull the curtains closed on the windows, those which did not have curtains were covered with clothing that had belonged to the victims. Every mirror in the house had also been covered, which was truly bizarre. At the foot of Josiah and Sarah’s bed sat a kerosene lamp with the chimney missing and the wick turned to black. The chimney was eventually found beneath a dresser. Another lamp was found at the end of the guest bed, where the bodies of the Stillinger girls lay. It too had the chimney missing. The axe itself, although covered in blood, showed signs that the killer had tried to wipe away the blood to no avail. The axe was found to belong to Josiah. In the bedroom downstairs, a small piece of keychain was found that didn’t seem to belong to anyone in the house. On the table in the kitchen was a pan containing bloody water and a plate of food that hadn’t been touched. Up in the attic, two cigarette butts were located, and it was assumed that the killer (perhaps killers) had waited up there for the family to return home. This was perhaps the most terrifying piece of evidence—to think that this innocent family returned home following a pleasant evening only to be ambushed by someone waiting inside.
There were numerous suspects on the list, and one was even arrested and tried for the crime, though eventually he was acquitted. They ranged from transients to a reverend, and even a serial killer, but nobody was ever held accountable and brought to justice for this horrific massacre of the Moore family and the Stillinger girls.
Naturally, any transients or strangers were considered suspicious during the investigation into the murders. This is generally because people as a rule don’t trust strangers, and nobody wants to consider that maybe it was someone they knew. In small towns in particular, people are more wary of those they don’t know. One such man that fit this bill was Andrew Sawyer.
There was never any concrete evidence to suggest Sawyer had played a part in the killings. Instead, he was brought to light by a gentleman who worked for the railroad and had interacted with Sawyer on the morning of the murders in nearby Creston. Thomas Dyer alleged that Sawyer had appeared around 6 a.m. that morning looking for work. He was dressed in a brown suit, was shaven, his pants were wet almost up to his knees, and his shoes were covered in mud. Workers were highly sought after, so he was hired there and then. Later that evening, Sawyer apparently bought a newspaper with the murders broadcast across the front page, and he went off alone to read it.
Apparently, Sawyer was very interested in the murders, and he talked about them often with his fellow workers. Even more strange, he had a habit of sleeping with his axe next to him. He would later tell Dyer that he had been in Villisca the night of the murders but had left for fear of being considered a suspect. When considering all of the strange behaviors he had exhibited, Dyer handed Sawyer over to the sheriff on June 18, 1912.
Despite the statements Sawyer had made to his work colleagues and the intense interest he seemed to show in the murders, even placing himself in town on the night in question, it would later be proven that he was innocent. On investigation, it turned out that Sawyer had been arrested on that very night in a town called Osceola, also in Iowa, for vagrancy. Therefore, he had an alibi.
The Reverend George Kelly
Kelly was a man with a disturbing background who happened to be at the very same Children’s Day services the Moore family and the Stillinger sisters attended that day, June 9, 1912. Born in England, Kelly was a traveling minister who many regarded as being rather odd. It was claimed that he had suffered some type of mental breakdown when he was younger, and his adult behavior included lewd acts such as peeping and trying to get young girls to pose for him in the nude. Strangely, he left Villisca somewhere between 5 a.m. and 5:30 a.m., just hours after the murders had occurred and before the bodies were found.
Over the following weeks, he showed a strong fascination with the case. He began to write letters to the investigators, the police, and even the mourning family members. As expected, this behavior seemed suspicious to the investigators, and they in turn wrote back asking if Kelly happened to know anything about the killings. Kelly replied that he may have witnessed the crimes being committed and had heard sounds that evening. However, due to his history of mental illness, the police were unsure whether he was recalling facts because he was involved or whether he was just making it all up.
Kelly was arrested on a different matter in 1914, after having sent obscene material to a woman who had applied to work for him. As a result he was sent to a mental health hospital in Washington, which left the police unsure if he was the killer or not. However, in 1917 they decided to interrogate Kelly again, and following several hours of questioning, Kelly confessed to the crimes. Later he would recant this confession, claiming to be innocent after all. Two trials followed, and the jury obviously agreed with him, as the first trial resulted in a hung jury and the second led to an acquittal.
State Senator Frank F. Jones
As a suspect, Senator Jones was perhaps the least likely to have been behind the murders. However, there was a rumor that he had hired William ‘Blackie’ Mansfield to commit the crimes following an issue that had arisen between the Senator and Josiah Moore. Josiah at one time had worked for the Senator at his implement shop for several years and then left his employment so he could open up his own store. This resulted in the Senator losing a lot of his customers to Josiah, including a very lucrative dealership with John Deere. There were also rumors around town that Josiah and the Senator’s daughter-in-law had an affair, though this was never substantiated. Would a man such as the State Senator have ordered the assassination of an entire family over something such as lost business and possible adultery? The investigators clearly didn’t think so, as this matter was not taken any further, at least where the Senator was concerned. Mansfield, on the other hand, was an entirely different matter.
William ‘Blackie’ Mansfield
Mansfield came to light as a potential suspect not only because of the rumor of his being hired by the Senator, but also because of murders he subsequently committed following the massacre in the Moore household. Two years after the murders in Villisca, Mansfield was suspected of murdering his wife, child, father-in-law and mother-in-law in very similar circumstances, which made the authorities take a much closer look at Mansfield. He was linked by circumstance to the axe murders in Colorado Springs just nine months before Villisca and another axe murder in Ellsworth, Kansas. He was also suspected of being the perpetrator of axe murders in Paola, Kansas, just four days before the tragedy at Villisca. Furthermore, he was a prime suspect in the axe murders in Illinois of Jennie Miller and Jennie Peterson. More axe murders occurring around the same time period were also considered to be the work of one man. The similarities between all of these murders were spine-tingling.
Each of these murders was committed in the same manner, which would indicate they were done by the same person. All victims were attacked with an axe, and the mirrors in each home had been covered. A kerosene lamp was left burning with the chimney removed at the foot of each bed. A basin containing bloody water was found at each scene, where the murdered had obviously tried to clean himself. Gloves were worn at each crime scene, leaving no trace of fingerprints. The coincidences were just too good to be true, and although we have more access to media information these days, back then the chances of there being a copycat killer or killers roaming the streets were less likely.
In 1916, the Grand Jury agreed to embark on an investigation and Mansfield was arrested. He was transported from Kansas City to Montgomery County to face questioning. Despite all of the evidence that seemed to indicate he was the murderer, Mansfield was found to have a legitimate alibi for the night of the murders in Villisca and so was set free without being charged. He would then bring a lawsuit against the detective who had pursued him as a suspect, Detective James Wilkerson. Mansfield won his case and was awarded the staggering amount of $2,225. This was a huge amount in those days. Some speculated that the Senator played a part in getting Mansfield released, but this was never proven.
Henry Lee Moore
Henry, who was no relation to Josiah Moore and his family, had been convicted of a double axe murder months after the murders in Villisca. Henry had killed his mother and his grandmother, and there was much suspicion that Henry was actually a serial killer. The crimes were very similar, especially as the same type of weapon was used, but there was never any evidence to link him to the Moore family murders. He was always considered a suspect, however, and he was never completely ruled out.
Remarkably, the coroner called the jury together and began the inquest on June 11, 1912, just two days after the murders had taken place. Nowadays it can take months or years for an inquest to take place, let alone in the same week! Anyway, the county coroner at the time was Dr. Linquist, and he and the members of the jury all visited the Moore house to view the scene and the bodies before they were removed. A temporary morgue was set up at the local fire station, and the bodies were finally moved there around 2 a.m. on the June 10.
A total of fourteen witnesses were called to testify at the inquest, and they were as follows:
- Mary Peckham—the neighbor who raised the alarm that something was wrong at the house
- Ed Selley—an employee of Josiah, Ed had arrived to take care of the animals
- J. Clark Cooper—the first doctor to enter the house following the discovery
- Jessie Moore—Ross Moore’s wife, who took the call from Mary
- F.S. Williams—the doctor who examined the bodies
- Edward Landers—was staying just up the road at his mother’s house and claimed he heard a noise around 11 p.m.
- Ross Moore—Josiah’s brother, the first person to gain entry to the house
- Fenwick Moore—also Josiah’s brother
- Marshall Hank Horton—the first officer to enter the house
- John Lee Van Gilder—Josiah’s nephew
- Harry Moore—Josiah’s brother
- Joseph Stillinger— the father of the murdered Stillinger girls
- Blanche Stillinger—sister of the murdered Stillinger girls
- Charles Moore—another of Josiah’s brothers
Most of the witnesses were called to testify regarding what they had seen when entering the house that day. The descriptions given by some were gruesome to say the least, but their testimony was all consistent. Josiah’s brothers were called largely to speak of any troubles Josiah may have had or been in, such as business problems. None could say that they were aware of any issues or of anyone who wished to cause the family such terrible harm. One brother, Charles, was asked to testify regarding whether the axe belonged to Josiah or not. Although he couldn’t say it was for sure, he did state that Josiah owned one similar. It must have been a terrible burden on both the Moore and Stillinger families to have to endure the inquest so quickly after the tragedy. They barely had time to digest what had happened before being thrust into a courtroom to discuss it, and the details must have been truly shocking. Particularly for the father of the two little Stillinger girls who had simply gone to a friend’s house for the night.
On March 19, 1917, a reverend by the name of J.J. Burris, who was the pastor of the Church of Christ in Oklahoma, traveled to Red Oak because of a deathbed confession he had received. Burris was subpoenaed by the grand jury of Montgomery County to give evidence regarding this confession of the murders of the Moore family. Burris had claimed that a man whose name he could not remember had summoned him to his hotel room so that he could confess his sins before dying. This took place in July 1913, just over a year after the murders had been committed.
Burris stated that when he arrived at the man’s room, he could tell straight away that he was near death, and despite his physical state, the man began to talk the minute he entered the room. The man claimed that he had committed many sins, but the worst was the murders in Villisca. He had been living in the town at the time, working in the blacksmith industry, and his sister had been married to a physician in Villisca before moving to Radersburg. He was unable to speak for long due to his deteriorating condition, and as such was incapable of giving any details. Burris estimated the man to be around twenty-five years old, and it was believed he had part ownership in a blacksmith business in Radersburg.
Because the story was unclear, Detective Wilkerson decided that it would not stand up in court, as too little information was available. The man who had made the confession was dead and unable to stand trial anyway. The story was pushed aside as irrelevant.
George Meyers Confesses in Jail
In March 1931, a prisoner in a county jail in Detroit who was awaiting sentencing for burglary made a startling confession, stating he was the one who had committed the axe murders in Villisca. Meyers had been under interrogation for around five hours by detectives at the time of his confession, following an anonymous tip that he was the man they were looking for. It was believed that Meyers’ fingerprints had been found at the murder scene; however, this was unlikely as no fingerprints were found in the Moore house.
Meyers’ confession stated that he had been hired to kill the family by a businessman, though he could not recall his name. The price on offer was $5,000—a huge amount. He claimed his name had been given to these people through acquaintances in the Kansas City underworld. This acquaintance escorted him to Villisca to meet with the man who wished to hire him. He was shown the house where the family lived and told to kill them all. A deposit payment of $2,000 was given, and Meyers was told he would receive the rest after the job was done. Meyers then entered the house shortly after midnight and slaughtered the two adults and four children with an axe. When meeting with the businessman afterwards he was told he would have to wait for the rest of the money. Meyers decided it was best to flee town before the sun came up for fear of being caught.
Now, if you read that carefully, you would see what the problem was with Meyers’ confession. George Meyers only confessed to killing six people that night—two adults and four children. But there were eight killed in that house, not six. He flatly denied killing the Stillinger girls, only the Moore family. Although there had been a witness story that claimed three men had been overhead talking in the forest near the house the night of the murders about committing the crime, and this seems to fit with Meyers, his acquaintance, and the businessman, there is no way Meyers would have gotten the number of victims wrong. Therefore, it was decided that this confession was nonsense, and no further action was taken against him for the crime. To date, nobody has ever been charged with these murders, so the case remains unsolved.
Check out True Crime Stories Vol.2 and see more chilling cases like this.
Read a Chapter From My New Series, True Crime Stories
Last month I released the first book in my new book series “True Crime Anthology” called True Crime Stories. Most of my other books are about serial killers, so I thought that I would make a new series of books that focus on other murder cases and compile a bunch of shorter stories in to one book. This was something new for me and it’s been a great success as I’ve got a lot of positive feedback from True Crime Stories Vol 1.
This is one of the cases from this book. If you like it, you can find the full book with the other 11 cases HERE.
The Murder of Little Anna Palmer
What type of person could kill an innocent child? This is a question that psychiatrists, psychologists, and penal experts have attempted to answer now for decades through interviews and examinations of known child killers. Unfortunately, all the studies have apparently failed to unlock the secrets to what makes a child killer tick because the murder of children keeps happening.
With that said, child murder is still a relatively rare phenomenon, and children who follow basic safety rules are usually exempted from the worst category of criminals, which makes the next case all the more frightening.
In 1998, ten-year-old Anna Palmer was like any other kid her age—she liked to spend time with her friends, pets, and family. Most importantly, Anna followed her mother’s safety rules, but none of that helped the poor little girl when she was brutally murdered on her family’s porch in broad daylight on September 10, 1998.
September 10 began just like any other in the Palmer household in Salt Lake City, Utah. At around 5 p.m., Anna called her mother Nancy at work to ask if she could play outside with some neighborhood kids. The Palmer’s neighborhood was very safe and everyone knew each other, so it was common for all the kids to meet up and ride bikes or play games like hide and seek. Fifth grader Anna was allowed to take part in the neighborhood activities as long as she told her mother where she was going and came back home at a specific time, usually before dark. Nancy told Anna that it would be fine, but that she should be home by 7 p.m. when she arrived home from work.
When Nancy came home at 7, she was surprised to see Anna lying on the front porch, but when she got closer her surprise turned to horror—little Anna was stiff and in a pool of blood. The petrified mother immediately called 911 and attempted to conduct CPR on Anna, but the poor little girl’s throat was gashed and her spinal cord was severed. Anna was dead before Nancy got home.
An autopsy revealed that Anna was beaten and stabbed five times. Either the gash to the throat or the stab to the spinal cord could have killed her. Anna was also sexually assaulted.
After the initial shock of the horrific murder wore off, the mood of the residents of Salt Lake City turned to fear and anger. If such a despicable murder could happen to a girl that seemingly followed all the safety rules and who lived in a safe neighborhood, then no child was safe. The people were also angry, and in the religiously conservative state of Utah, people had biblical retribution on their minds.
The Salt Lake City police had to move fast to catch Anna’s killer.
Homicide detectives with the Salt Lake City police department immediately went to work by canvassing Anna’s neighborhood and interviewing her friends and family. The case was as bizarre as it was heart wrenching due to the circumstances of little Anna being abducted and murdered all within a matter of minutes, near a busy intersection, and during daylight hours. Despite those facts, no one had seen her taken or murdered.
Or did they?
Detectives quickly put together a timeline for the last two hours of Anna Palmer’s life, which helped bring to light a suspect.
After she got off the phone with her mother, Anna walked a few houses down to meet her friend Loxane Konesavanh. The two girls went to a local park and spent most of the next two hours swinging. When it got close to 7 p.m., Anna, being the safe girl who followed her mother’s rules, began to walk back home with Loxane. The two girls then noticed that a man was following them, so remembering “stranger danger,” they let him pass and said nothing to him. Loxane said that when the man passed them, he turned and glared at Anna.
The two girls then stopped at the yard of fourteen-year-old Amie Johnson to see her new kitten. Loxane then went home a different way than Anna, but Anna was apparently accompanied by the man the two girls had seen before.
“He creeped me out personally,” said Johnson, who witnessed the mysterious man walking with Anna. “I looked back and Anna was walking home, and he was still walking behind her like a crazy person. I looked again and no one was there.”
Adult neighbors also reported seeing a young man who fit the girls’ description lurking around the area earlier in the day. Witnesses said he looked drugged or drunk, but none knew who he was. A man matching the description was also seen walking around the scene of Anna’s murder.
Did the killer return to the scene of the crime?
The lead sounded promising to investigators, but identifying the creepy stranger would prove to be extremely difficult. Detectives interviewed everyone who lived in the neighborhood and paid special attention to all known sex offenders. In total, the Salt Lake City Police Department interviewed over 200 people in connection with the murder of Anna Palmer.
Anna’s family also got involved by making public appeals via the media for anyone with any information about the little girl’s murder to come forward to the police. Further incentive was added with an $11,000 reward for information leading to the killer’s arrest and conviction, but still no one came forward. The case quickly became cold.
Although the case may have gone cold, little Anna took an important clue from the killer that ultimately led to his arrest. Despite her size, the little girl ferociously fought her attacker by scratching him, which left some of the killer’s DNA profile under her fingernails.
1998 was still early in terms of the CODIS database, but forensic experts with the Salt Lake City police dutifully collected a sample where it would be entered at a later time.
In 1998, California native Matt Breck was nineteen with no direction in his life. He originally came to Utah with his brother Tom after Tom’s friend, Todd Clark, told the two that they could find steady employment and a chance to start over in the Beehive State. Not long after they arrived in Utah, Tom found steady employment, but things did not go that way for Matt.
Clark said Breck thought of himself as a tough guy who would rather spend the day drinking than working. He also said that Breck tried to pick fights with people and liked to carry knives, which he proudly showed to anyone interested. Clark’s wife was particularly creeped out by the younger Breck and claims she told a police officer she knew to take a look at Matt when she heard about Anna’s murder. Around the time Anna was murdered, Breck was charged with a violent felony in an unrelated case, but had the charged lowered to misdemeanor and served very little time in jail.
Most importantly, no DNA was taken from Breck during his short stay in the county jail.
After he got out of jail in Utah, Breck headed north to Idaho, but instead of getting a new start, his criminal behavior got more extreme. He was convicted of a burglary charge in 1999, served two years, and was released in 2001. Not long after his release, he was picked up on a child molestation charge and given a lengthy prison sentence.
A sample of his DNA was also taken and entered into the CODIS database.
The CODIS system needs to be constantly updated, and agencies that are looking for a match from a DNA sample need to continually check the system—emails are not sent when/if a match is made.
In late 2009, detectives from Salt Lake City finally received the news they were waiting for—a match had been made in the CODIS system to the DNA recovered from under Anna’s fingernails. Authorities then went to the Idaho prison where Breck was incarcerated and questioned him about the murder of Anna Palmer. He admitted that he lived in the neighborhood at the time, but denied involvement in her murder or of even knowing the little girl. It was at that point that police knew they had their man.
Breck was then extradited to Salt Lake City and charged with first degree murder and aggravated sex abuse of a child. Utah is a death penalty state and if the death penalty was created for any one person, it would be Matthew Breck. Feeling the anger of the residents of Salt Lake City upon him, Breck took the sensible option and pled guilty to murder in 2011 in order to receive a sentence of life without parole.
Some think that Breck got off easy, but the reality is that as a high-profile child killer, his life in a maximum security prison will not be easy. Breck will be sent to one of Utah’s tougher prisons where he will probably have to spend most of his life in a protected wing where he will have few luxuries and only be allowed out of his cell for limited periods. If he decides to enter general population, if he even has that option, where he will be afforded more luxuries and freedoms, he then runs the risk of being beaten, raped, or even murdered by any number of inmates. Child killers are at the bottom of any prison hierarchy, which means that Breck will constantly have to watch his back.
Whether Breck chooses to take his chances in the prison’s general population or he checks into protective custody, he most certainly has a miserable life ahead of him.
The tragic and strange case of Anna Palmer’s murder could only have been solved through scientific advances, namely the CODIS database. As Sam Gill, the district attorney who prosecuted Breck said: “It was through science that this poor girl, who was tragically and horrifically murdered in our community, was able to basically point to her killer.”
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A priest, a homeless man, small children, a drug dealer and a witness….these are just some of the supposedly random victims of Herbert Mullin. In just four short months, he managed to kill 13 people, using a range of weapons and reasons. But were they all random victims, simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, or was there a much more sinister plan behind them all?
Of all the American serial killers, Herbert Mullin is perhaps the most bizarre. His killing spree spanned 13 victims, and his battles with mental illness and addiction were well publicised throughout his trial. But was he really mentally ill? Can a psychopath be so clever he can fake it? Whatever the truth, his murders left a permanent mark in, California history.
Santa Cruz became known as the California murder capital of the world, partly due to Herbert Mullin. When you think of true crime California, you are reminded of the likes of Edmund Kemper III, John Linley Frazier and Herbert Mullin, all of whom committed their bloody rampages across California at the same time.
Mullin’s beliefs that killing innocent people would prevent a major earthquake from occurring was indicative that not all was well inside his brain. Was Herbert a very intelligent and scheming man whose plan all along was to kill to hide an act of revenge? The answers may lie inside the pages of this book. You will have to read through and make that decision for yourself.