The Serial Confessor (Updated)

This is another small entry taken from a true-crime book which I'm writing, a book about a series of murders set against the backdrop of a sleepy American town. This part is a digression dealing with the fabrications of caged psychopaths, the phenomenon of the serial confessor, who claims credit for crimes which he had not committed. While this is only a cursory look at the subject, I felt it formed something of a mini-story of its own, and was more or less ready to be posted.

Psychopaths, particularly high-functioning psychopaths, are well skilled at adapting their presentation – or, in other words, their mask – depending on the rewards and punishments available in a given context. If incarcerated, a psychopath will exploit the venues for his own gains, and will often seek replacement stimuli in place of those no longer available. He may, for instance, have to replace physical domination with psychological influence, manipulation, and controlling others like puppets. His satisfaction experienced in manipulating and deceiving people will correlate with the satisfaction he had once experienced when using force or violence to attain physical control over others, to dominate or destroy them.

Once imprisoned – particularly after spending years behind bars – numerous serial killers have made claims about having more victims, sometimes making them up, sometimes taking credit for actual unsolved cases, of which they may have either known earlier, or learned in prison. Their motives vary, from those direct and specific, dictated by basic needs, to those more indistinct, based in the psyche. They may include, for instance, expectations of profiting from the false confessions, simple perks such as snacks during new interviews with cold case investigators, traveling to “their” crime scenes, as well as the opportunity to have some degree of power, establish higher standing in prison hierarchy – and, of course, a chance to manipulate, control and dominate, a preciously rare opportunity in a world limited to a cramped concrete cell.

Caged one-time killers will sometimes try to capitalize on the serial killer phenomena and the notoriety that it brings, by claiming to have actually been serial offenders, long before committing the one murder which had sent them behind bars – particularly if the shroud of said notoriety makes the first time in their lives when they can actually feel a sense of importance.

Steven Hayes was a professional loser, a third-rate hoodlum who had spent his life attaching himself to more cunning criminals and following them around like a hopeful hyena, to feed on the scraps of their “scores.” In 2007, he followed his new partner-cum-leader, a young psychopath named Joshua Komisarjevsky, to a wealthy house in Connecticut.

Unbeknownst to Hayes, Komisarjevsky was fueled by other desires than monetary: he had actually targeted the house for the invasion because of a pair of young sisters living in there with their parents. Hayes was more interested in the “score” from the invasion than the girls; nevertheless, he had obediently and gleefully participated in the brutal abuse that followed and that culminated in a triple murder and arson of the house. Behind bars, he attracted people’s attention for the first time in his dull life. To maintain it, he tried to portray himself as a criminal mastermind – and a secret serial killer, undetected and unapprehended for years. His stories quickly unraveled, and he eventually admitted to fabricating them, but for a short while, when the media was still reprinting his words all over the world, Steven Hayes felt that he mattered.

Conversely, actual serial killers may not only inflate the number of their kills, but even their nature, to appear more grandiose and intimidating: one such example, Joseph Metheny, was a Maryland degenerate, who had preyed on hapless prostitutes within the easy reach of his dilapidated trailer, and his obscenely obese body. Jailed, the blubbery, gargantuan Metheny reinvented himself as a stealthy, lithe predator, who had supposedly targeted dozens of people across all social strata, and who somehow managed to avoid detection for decades, even going as far as selling the flesh of his victims as homemade sandwiches and hamburgers – a morbidly fanciful yarn, blithely eaten up and regurgitated by tabloids worldwide.

One of the most notorious “serial confessors”, and a strong contender for the top spot in this dubious competition, was Henry Lee Lucas of Texas, a degenerate, alcoholic, dull-witted transient, who gleefully admitted to every cold case with which he was presented, or of which he could think. The number of victims claimed by Lucas kept climbing like a desert skyscraper commissioned by a fanciful sheik: dozens of bodies supposedly left by Lucas and his partner in crime, Otis Toole, all over the US, quickly morphed into hundreds. Lucas could sniff out an opportunity, and when he found one, he took it.

The cozy life of a star witness, full of cigarettes, snacks, and trips to crime scenes all over the US, was the kind of an opportunity that the lifelong vagabond could not have foreseen in his wildest dreams. Investigators from all corners of America were coming to talk to him, treating him like a VIP. People who would have never given him a second glance were now anxious to meet him – and all he needed to do was to talk and confirm their questions. Sometimes he knew what to say based on information from the media, sometimes he had knowledge obtained via prison grapevine, sometimes he would simply make a lucky guess. Often, his statements were vague and more generic than fortune cookie predictions, yet thanks to the Forer effect – the same common psychological phenomenon that causes people to view superficial, imprecise generalities as specific and definite – they would be treated as revelatory.

On more than one occasion the desperate investigators would unwittingly leak out information during the interviews, or unconsciously hint at the right answer – and in spite of his two-digit IQ, Lucas was certainly cunning enough to spot useful clues, pick them up, and repeat them later as his own revelations. He ended up taking credit for over 300 murders (some of which occurred hundreds of miles apart, yet on the same days), and the yarn he spun became the inspiration for several books and movies (notably, John McNaughton’s famed thriller “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” and John Dwyer’s dark, gritty, nightmarish cult classic “Confessions of a Serial Killer”) before his confessing streak came to a halt and imploded, once the authorities realized the impossibility of his claims.

By the time the authorities put a stop to the nonsense, Lucas, who never set foot outside America, was even happily admitting to having committed multiple murders across the world, perhaps looking forward to foreign trips and getting the star treatment abroad.

For his part, Lucas’s partner Toole had made a number of unsubstantiated and dubious confessions as well, even claiming the unlikely responsibility for the 1981 abduction and murder of Adam Walsh, the son of future host of TV’s “America’s Most Wanted,” John Walsh.

Perhaps the most notorious serial claimer since Lucas was Richard Kuklinski, a bloated New York conman arrested for killing several business acquaintances over shady deals and owed money. Behind bars, Kuklinski reinvented himself as a dreaded mafia hitman, and began spinning dozens of outlandish tales.

Kuklinski, of Polish heritage, claimed to have been a trusted insider in the Cosa Nostra, where the very idea of being made – that is, inducted into the “brotherhood” as a fully-fledged member – carries the fundamental requirement of Sicilian blood in the family, on the father’s side. Obese and huge, he claimed to have been an invisible mob hitman, present – yet somehow never noticed, remembered, nor even known by any New York mobster of the era – at the scene of numerous infamous mob murders, from the notorious assassinations of underworld bosses “Big Paul” Castellano and Carmine Galante, to the rubout of genuine – and genuinely feared – mob killer Roy DeMeo, to the abduction and shooting of Teamster President James Hoffa.

As has been the case with many other mythomaniacs, Kuklinski’s tales grew more ridiculous with time, revealing their actual sources – the worn-out pages of cheap “detective magazines” of the 1950s and 1960s, full of lurid nonsense with no grounding in reality – as he talked of concocting undetectable poisons, spraying cyanide into victims’ faces in busy crowds (this particular fanciful yarn was lifted from "The Property of a Lady", Ian Fleming's 1966 story about James Bond), freezing his victims’ bodies to falsify the time of their demise, and performing hundreds of feats equally miraculous, and equally easily disproved by basic principles of chemistry, biology and physics.

In addition to the “detective” rags of his youth, Kuklinski seemed to have taken inspiration from old horror comic books, feeding his awed, gullible audience ridiculous stories of capturing people and imprisoning them in mysterious dark caves around New York, caves whose existence and location was known only to Kuklinski and hundreds of famished rats, which would descend upon the hapless victims to devour them over many days – a hideous, torturous fate, which Kuklinski would record for his own pleasure on old-time cameras lit by infrared lights, and powered by conveniently located and exceptionally quiet generators, or perhaps by magic. New York’s esteemed reporter and mafia expert Jerry Capeci scoffed at the laughable claims, dismissing Kuklinski as the “Forrest Gump of mob hits,” but Kuklinski’s balderdash is still quoted as gospel by many oblivious readers, as well as opportunists looking to capitalize on his lies.

The life of Leszek Pękalski paralleled Henry Lee Lucas's existence so much that the two men were like a pair of worn coins, found discarded in a dusty corner of a currency exchange - each one stamped in a different country, yet made of the same amalgam of metals. At various stages of their lives, they even shared similar looks - small, unkempt and disheveled, with facial disfigurements that seemed greater in their minds that they actually were in reality (a glass eye in Henry Lee Lucas's case, a slightly malformed palate and misaligned teeth in Pękalski's), increasing their complexes and adding to their resentment. Both men had low intellect and significantly impaired adaptive functioning. Both were maladaptive drifters, abandoned by their own families and shunned by others, always moving about across their respective countries, never taking roots anywhere. Both survived on begging and petty crime. Both would eventually be arrested for murder, and would go on to admit to multiple additional homicides.

In Pękalski's case, it was his 1992 arrest for the rape and murder of a teenage girl in Poland's Pomerania that grabbed the attention of an investigator who had noticed similarities to an earlier unsolved case. Questioned, Pękalski readily confirmed his involvement in the crime - and in a number of others.

Within days, Leszek Pękalski, the pathetic misfit who had spent his life being, at best, ignored by everyone, became the center of attention of investigators, guards, doctors, journalists - the kind of people whom so far he could only occasionally see on TV. Had they encountered him before, they would give him a birth as wide as the fields and meadows of his tiny home village of Osieki in northern Poland. Now they were standing in lines to talk to him, calling him "mister", eagerly listening to his stuttering words, bringing him snacks, taking him on trips - and, above all, giving him oodles of attention.

And it was on that attention that Pękalski fed, overcompensating for a lifetime of its absence. In spite of his cognitive impairment and his stunted intellect, Pękalski - like Lucas before him - possessed the ability to sniff out profitable opportunities. He ended up admitting to over 90 murders, claiming that since his teenage years, he had been travelling all over Poland by foot, by train and by hitchhiking, robbing, raping and murdering at will for over a decade, making children, women and men his victims indiscriminately, as opportunity allowed. He claimed to have committed his first murder in 1982, at the age of 16, and to have gone for a decade before finally being apprehended.

The media across Poland loved Pękalski. Only a few years after the fall of communism, they were going through a new boom, eagerly enjoying the lack of censorship. Hundreds of exploitative tabloids, TV shows and books were coming out, vigorously looking for salacious thrills to feed to the public - and the bloodier and scarier the stories were, the better they sold. The subject of serial killers was all the rage, but they seemed so rare in Poland - the last two ones to have truly captured public attention were Zdzisław Marchwicki, "The Vampire of Silesia", back in the 1970s, and Paweł "The Scorpion" Tuchlin, in the 1980s - that foreign killers, notably the most infamous ones from USA, were filling the niche, with the gruesome tale of Ted Bundy being particularly popular. Yet now, it seemed, here was Poland's own brand new monster, a bloodthirsty grunting ogre with more victims than even the beast of American legends could boast. Within weeks of his arrest, Leszek Pękalski was a household name across Poland, permanently accompanied by a new moniker: "The Vampire of Bytów", a call-back to the infamous serial killers of older days, and a helpful reference to a town in Pomerania. Pękalski was not, in fact, from Bytów, but rather from a nearby village, but such details did not matter. He was no longer his old self now, anyway. He was a living horror story, with which to scare the children, one another - and, above all, oneself.

Yet, just as it was with Lucas and the yellow press in USA, the love affair between Pękalski and the tabloids in Poland did not last long. Inconsistencies in many of his claims became apparent quickly: in some of the unsolved homicides to which he admitted, there had been strong suspects; in others, there were detailed composites, which could never pass for Pękalski's likeness. Some deaths were considered suicides or accidents; still others occurred on the same dates, but in opposite corners of Poland, separated by hundreds of miles. The prosecutors who worked on verifying his words shot down his claims to 17 suspected homicides. In the end, Pękalski was only sentenced for a single murder - the very one for which he had been arrested. Predictably, he recanted his confessions, and thus the final parallel between Henry Lee Lucas and Leszek Pękalski was completed.

The waters of Lucas's and Pękalski's cases have been muddied so much that the true number of their crimes and possible victims will never be known. With Lucas, there are even doubts as to his guilt in the one murder that had sent him to prison; with Pękalski, there is no doubt that he had committed at least one rape, and that he had killed his sole confirmed victim - a young shop assistant who took pity on him and brought food to his forest hideout, a kindness for which he repaid her with a savage attack.

However, in one significant difference between Lucas and himself, Pękalski kept toying with his admissions and recantments. Imprisoned, he penned his diaries - a collection of handwritten notes stating where, how and whom he had killed. The idea to write the diaries had most likely come from other inmates; the hardened, recidivist cons had spent their lives playing the system and advised Pękalski how he could do that as well, and with maximum effect. The stilted, barely readable prose of the half-literate Pękalski was a jarring mixture of his natural, primitive argot and vulgarities, combined with stiff, formal phrases and words lifted from court files and biology lessons, which he still remembered from elementary school. In this bizarre mish-mash, Pękalski repeated his recanted confessions, now admitting to 60-odd murders. Questioned about this readmission, he recanted again - which did not stop him from admitting to the crimes yet again, when interviewed by journalists several years later.

The mark of the shrewd serial confessor is the skillful mixing of truths and fabrications, until they form one solid miasma, where the lie will seem inseparable from the fact.

South Carolina’s Donald Henry Gaskins had doubtlessly killed several people – possibly more than ten – which not only guaranteed him a death sentence, but also provided him with enough base information to start spinning many a tall tale in prison, where he actually managed to kill another death row convict, by blowing him up with a crude bomb. The stunning murder, and its outrageous details – it turned out that Gaskins had been contracted to kill the prisoner by the son of his victims, after the grief-consumed man could no longer stand the idea of his parents’ tormentor staying alive and in relative comfort years after the crime – made Gaskins’s name a household item.

He seized the opportunity by narrating pages of ghastly memoirs, in which he combined the facts of his life of crime with tales of supposed decades of hideous murders and torture committed all over America. The latter stories were as lurid as they were implausible, rich in gory details, but deficient in actuality and evidence.

There were as many holes in Gaskins’s tales as there were errors in his language, but his infamy gave him credence in the eyes of the public – albeit less so in the view of the investigators – and as a result, his notoriety shot up even further, towards the stratosphere. Before the knee-high killer could make any further use of his prominence, however, the state of South Carolina finally put him in the electric chair.

Sometimes caged killers will even compete with one another over their “scores.” Florida’s Gerard John Schaefer – one of the few serial killers who actually managed to become a police officer (due to the level of control that it allows, it is a position desired by many psychopaths, yet rarely achieved by them, and almost never held for long – Schaefer himself had only been a sheriff’s deputy for a month before he was kicked off the force and arrested for a double kidnapping) – claimed to have argued with Ted Bundy on death row over their victim counts. In media interviews, Schaefer would later state that he had emerged as the “champion” of that morbid competition, which did not prevent him from constantly claiming that he was innocent and had been framed.

Robert Browne, who murdered several women between the 1970s and 1980s, and was eventually captured after abducting and killing a 13-year old girl, decided to upstage other killers by claiming 48 homicides, soon after that precise number of victims had been attributed to Gary Ridgway, the freshly imprisoned Green River Killer. As speculation grew that Ridgway may actually have killed more than 48 women, Browne would keep expanding his own claimed number as well. He found a way to manipulate and control investigators from behind bars by mixing some of his actual crimes with other murders, both unrelated and fabricated.

Browne gave the detectives “clues” by penning inept, miserably rhymed “poems,” which described increasingly ludicrous stories of “murky depths” that kept the bodies of “sacred virgins,” concealed there by Browne and his crowd of followers. In those tales, Browne, a lifelong loser who held a few menial jobs and could not cut it even as a thief, was a dark, mighty head of an underground Satanic cult, complete with a “High Priestess,” who obeyed his every command. If one were to take Brown’s gibberish as gospel, the “Priestess” and the members of the cult were not the only ones who readily walked in his footsteps: his victims acted in the same manner. The ugly, morose, flat-faced Browne described himself as a captivating Lothario, a seducer who only had to cast a single glance to have women a third his age follow him happily, smitten and unsuspecting that they would be walking to their deaths.

The investigators attempted to pump Browne for information and extracted several useful details about his real crimes, but once he ran out of facts, they eventually left him alone, with his half-literate fiction to keep him company in his Florida State Prison cell.

Muddying waters is par for the course for the psychopath, which may lead to doubt as to whether or not an imprisoned murderer who might theoretically be tied to multiple deaths ever was a serial killer at all. Convicted murderer Tommy Lynn Sells, arrested in 1999 for the murder of a young girl in Texas, was long-touted as a cross-country, coast-to-coast serial killer with scores of victims to his name.

Sells, the perennial drifter, readily admitted to dozens of murders, which, he claimed, he had been committing for three decades all over the US. However, as time went by, holes and improbabilities began showing up in his vague “confessions,” and it became apparent that – like Lucas before him – Sells had been admitting to crimes which had nothing to do with him. He seemed to both enjoy the attention and look forward to the perks and free journeys to “his” crime scenes; he also found satisfaction in playing people around him, and perhaps in joining the ride with some opportunists who seemed to be looking for fame and a quick buck by attempting to narrate his tall tales in their own words.

Sells was certainly a manipulative psychopath, responsible for a number of crimes (for which he was keen to blame everything and everyone but himself, from his "screwed-up childhood", that number-one excuse of the violent mind, to city ordnance.

When he claimed to have killed a child he had randomly encountered during one of his numerous aimless rambles around the US, he blamed the mayor of the town for her death. The mayor, Sells, reasoned, should not have allowed bushes and weeds to grow in the park where the victim was walking. It was the presence of the weeds that allowed Sells to surprise the girl and then conceal the attack and murder; thus, in the twisted, upside-down non-logic of his mind, the mayor was responsible for the act.) 

However, even though it is likely that he had committed several homicides, there were certainly not dozens of them, and most of the admissions that he had made were not only worthless, but almost definitely resulted in the real killers escaping the investigators' attention, once Sells took the credit for their crimes.

(One particularly notorious crime to which Sells had confessed was eventually solved: the 1999 massacre of the Freeman family in Oklahoma and the disappearance of the family's teenage daughter Ashley and her friend Lauria Bible remained a cold case for decades, until 2018, when the renewed investigation finally uncovered the truth. The murders - which certain opportunistic works had long been attributing to Sells - were revealed as, predictably, a strictly local incident, as is probably the case with the vast majority of Sells's "admissions." The Freeman family was attacked and murdered by a drug gang, led by two violent psychopaths, Phillip Welch and David Pennington. Welch and Pennington then torched the family trailer, and kidnapped the pair of teenagers, to abuse and torment them for days, before finally killing them and disposing of their bodies somewhere in the impenetrable, acidic pits of Picher - a long-abandoned ghost town in Oklahoma, which began its life as a prosperous mining community and ended it as a dead, uninhabitable place, filled with mounds of toxic chemicals and contaminated bodies of stagnant, poisonous water. Welch and Pennington died before the mystery was finally cracked, but with their deaths, witnesses gradually began opening up, providing evidence that eventually led the investigators to the solution.)

Shortly before his execution in 2014, Sells freely admitted to fabricating his infamous confessions. He made specific references to several notorious cases which had been attributed to him by various sources, such as the brutal 1987 massacre of the Dardeen family in Illinois.

He explained some of his correct guesses ("[The investigators] said: What did you see in the house? (...) I'm like: Well... there was some watermelon ceramic stuff, right? (...) How many houses [have] got some watermelon ceramics!"), as well as some of the means of gaining information that he sold to the investigators. He nostalgically described the trips to the scenes of "his" crimes as "an adventure", and fondly spoke of receiving free cigarettes any time he wanted, of being "treated like a king" and of getting constant breaks in the monotonous life on death row.

Like so many other cases where mundane facts beat sensationalism, Sell's last words went largely ignored. Nevertheless, it appears that Sells may indeed have been little more than another Henry Lee Lucas – a serial confessor rather than a serial killer, ready to admit to anything under the sun, but actually guilty definitely of just the one murder for which he had been convicted, with perhaps one or two additional homicides to be added to his true tally.


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