Unsolved Crime: Dalton Mesarchik

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Sixteen years ago, Dalton Mesarchik waited on his front porch in Streator, Illinois, for a church van to pick him up for Bible school. The church van never arrived, and seven year old Dalton never came home.

The next day, Dalton’s body was found floating in the Vermilion River, less than three miles from his home.

When Dalton’s sister left that evening, Dalton was still waiting on the porch. When she returned, she asked, “Where’s Dalton?” Their mother contacted church officials, only to discover that the van had not made its usual rounds that night–their normal driver was gone due to an illness in the family. Dalton had not been picked up for Bible school.

K-9 units indicated that someone picked up Dalton that night. But who?

Early the next morning, people went out searching neighborhood after neighborhood. There were no sightings until a fisherman found Dalton’s body in the Vermilion River. He notified police immediately, and upon investigation, they determined it was a homicide. Shortly after the body’s discovery, the murder weapon was found: a Benchtop Pro three-pound hammer.

Dalton’s immediate family members were cleared, as was the fisherman who discovered the body. Church members were cleared, even the 30-some registered sex offenders in the town were cleared.

Local police, state police, and the county sheriff’s office were stymied. The state police even set up a headquarters at Streator’s National Guard Armory. Who would want to kill a seven year old boy–and why?

For a few years, Dalton’s mother said that police were getting closer to making an arrest and that they knew who the killer was. However, no arrests have ever been made nor any pronouncements of who the killer was.

Unsolved Crime: Robert Bee

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When kids run away from home, they often return shortly after: they realize that it’s not as fun on their own. However, when a child has a great deal of freedom, few rules, and a questionable home life, returning may not be a huge deal.
Such was the case with 13 year old Robert Bee.
One warm November day in 2016, Bee ran away from home–allegedly to avoid a truancy officer. Running away was not unusual for him (nor was avoiding the truancy officer), but this time, Bee did not return home.
In fact, he didn’t return home a week later or a month later. Instead, his remains were found eight months later, already decomposed after a long winter, already disturbed by animals in the rural area his bones were found.
So what happened to Robert Bee? We still don’t know.
Bee, from the small town of Pekin in central Illinois, had some behavioral issues. His mom readily admitted that she may have been too lax with him, allowing him too much freedom for his age. Others in the community said that while he was high energy, he was a kind-hearted boy.
When he went missing, multiple stories cropped up. Did he spend the night at a friend’s house? If so, why didn’t he take his bike? Why didn’t he take his cell phone? Both were left at home, and it didn’t appear he took any clothing to run away for an extended amount of time, either.
Of course, the first place the police must look is within the home, and that’s where the case became muddied. Lisa Bee, Robert’s mother, was not exactly mother of the year. Her social media alone made that clear. She was also involved with a man who was violent–and against whom she took out an order of protection a month before Bee’s disappearance. Then, not even a month after her son went missing, she moved out of her home and to a town about an hour south.
While Bee’s extended family was prominent in the search for the boy, his mother was noticeably absent. Multiple state agencies searched for him as well as a missing-persons search group, but no one had any luck.
About eight months after Bee went missing, his remains were found two miles from his home. By remains, I mean just that. The elements had helped decomposition along as well as animals roaming the wooded area where he was found.
The remains elicited no further leads on the case, aside from this: the property on which his remains were found belonged to a woman who lives nearby. She is related to someone “who is involved in the investigation,” according to Pekin police detective Seth Ranney.
Over two years later, the case remains unsolved and no one has been charged with any crime.

True Crime: Aileen Wuornos

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Fifth in a series on serial killers!

I have to admit, watching Charlize Theron play Aileen Wuornos in the movie Monster made me feel a strange sympathy for the serial killer. I felt something similar after reading about Henry Lee Lucas too. Maybe it’s a teacher’s job hazard to always see the hurt, traumatized child in the adult, for, as Dr. Phil would say, I don’t ask why Wuornos and Lucas killed, I ask why wouldn’t they, given their formative years? Wuornos was convicted of killing seven men between 1988 and 1989 at point-blank range. She claimed self-defense: the men she killed either attempted to rape her or did rape her while she was working as a prostitute.

A few snippets from Wuornos’ early life:

  • Her mom was 14 when she married her dad, who was 16. They had a boy a year later, and then Aileen, a year after that.
  • Her mom, aged 16, filed for divorce when Aileen was barely 2 months old.
  • She never met her father, as he was jailed when she was born and committed suicide in prison.
  • Her father was diagnosed with schizophrenia and charged with sex crimes against children.
  • Her mother abandoned Aileen and her brother when Aileen was just 4. Their maternal grandparents took them in.
  • Her grandfather was an alcoholic who beat and sexually abused Aileen. He made her take her clothes off before a beating.
  • She engaged in sexual behavior with her brother.
  • By age 11, she was performing sexual acts at school in exchange for food, drugs, and cigarettes. Age 11. Age 11!
  • At 14, she became pregnant and gave the child up for adoption. The father? One of her grandfather’s friends.
  • Shortly after the birth of the child, her grandmother died and Aileen dropped out of school.
  • At 15, her grandfather kicked her out of the house. She began prostituting and living in the woods.

Mix together and bake for 20 years. What would we expect from her?

Wuornos appealed her conviction, but stopped all attempts in 2001, saying, “I killed those men…robbed them as cold as ice. And I’d do it again, too.”

Well, then. At least she’s honest. She continued:

“I have hate crawling through my system…I am so sick of hearing this ‘she’s crazy’ stuff. I’ve been evaluated so many times. I’m competent, sane, and…one who seriously hates human life.”

Can you blame her, considering what her first fifteen years of life were like?

She was found sane, but over the course of the next year, became increasingly erratic in her behavior. She was executed in 2002. Her last words were “I would just like to say I’m sailing with the rock, and I’ll be back, like Independence Day, with Jesus. June 6, like the movie. Big mothership and all, I’ll be back. I’ll be back.”

I’m no psychiatrist, but that would make me question her sanity.

Why is it that some people can be exposed to horrific early-life trauma and come out on the other side, but others, like Wuornos and Lucas, can not? Let me know your thoughts after you read up on Ed Gein, Henry Lee Lucas, Belle Gunness, and Robert Hansen.

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True Crime: Robert Hansen

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Fourth in a series on serial killers! Did you miss number one on Ed Gein? How about number two on Henry Lee Lucas? Belle Gunness was number three.

In 1924, Richard Connell wrote “The Most Dangerous Game,” a short story that has spawned numerous movie versions about human beings hunting other human beings. I don’t know if Robert Hansen read or saw a version of Connell’s creepy concept, but it sure would appear he was inspired by it. So inspired he packed his bags, moved to Alaska, and, in the 1970s and 80s, began hunting quarried women in a remote part of the Alaskan landscape accessible only by boat or plane.

Robert Hansen is the perfectly stereotypical serial killer. You’d never suspect him, for he was the shy, introverted type. He was a baker by trade, passed down to him from his Danish father. Married with two children, Hansen lived a quiet life. So when a woman went to police indicating Hansen had attempted to kidnap her, no one could believe it.

And no one did.

Hansen was questioned by police and admitted to meeting the woman, but he said she was trying to extort him. He also had an alibi courtesy of a good friend. And Hansen went free.

However, police began finding bodies strewn about the Alaskan wilderness. They turned to the FBI for help with profiling the killer, even though profiling was in its infancy. The criminologists suggested a white male who was an experienced hunter, had low self-esteem, and a history of rejection. Oh, and probably a stutter.

Robert Hansen ticked off all the marks–plus, he had a plane that could get him to the remote areas of the deadly Alaskan wilderness.

People still could not believe it was Hansen, and if it weren’t for a map hidden in his bedroom–a map where “x” quite literally marked the spots–who knows if they’d have found him guilty of the crimes so incredible that they seem ripped from the pages of, say, a short story.

Hansen would kidnap a woman, fly her to the wilderness, then release her. That was when his “game” began. He’d track and hunt the woman down, often violating her before killing her.

His map correlated with the bodies police found and gave them direction for finding even more bodies.

Over the course of ten years, Hansen “hunted” at least 17 women. Some estimates are upwards of 30. So why did he do it?

Growing up, it seems Hansen had a normal home life, though his father was somewhat domineering. Schoolchildren, on the other hand, can be cruel. Hansen was a small, slight, shy boy who stuttered. Raging acne appeared with puberty, and you can just imagine. Think Stephen King’s Carrie without the telekinesis. Boys taunted him, girls shunned him, and he began plotting his revenge early on. Was his overbearing father the extra ingredient that pushed Hansen over the edge? Or was it simply the overload of bullying for too many years? We’ll likely never know, as Hansen died in 2014 without any explanation of why he created his own most dangerous game.

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True Crime: Belle Gunness

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Third in a series on serial killers! Did you miss number one on Ed Gein? How about number two on Henry Lee Lucas?

It used to surprise me that serial killers existed in the 1800s. H. H. Holmes, for example, shocked me with his continual insurance fraud. Apparently, it was all the rage. One of his contemporaries in Chicago, Belle Gunness, also discovered the lucrative business of insurance fraud, and used it repeatedly–on her husbands and even her own children. Read on, and you, too, will start thinking that Holmes and Gunness would have made a perfect pair.

In the 1800s, Norwegian immigrant Belle found her way to the Windy City. In 1893 (the year of the World’s Fair in Chicago), she and her husband, Mads Sorenson, opened a candy store. It would seem as though Belle and Mads had a run of bad luck, with a business and their home burning down and two children dying. It was luck, alright, devised by Belle to cash in on insurance policies. Yes, conventional wisdom says she administered strychnine to her own children.

Later on, Mads died. Surely the fact that he died on the day two insurance policies overlapped was mere coincidence. Surely.

Now a woman of some means, Belle took her remaining children to the small town of LaPorte, Indiana. There, she bought a 42 acre farm. Part of it burned down. I don’t need to tell you it was insured…

By 1902, she found a new beau, Peter Gunness. Gunness, who had two children already, sent one to live with relatives after the other mysteriously died in Belle’s care. It wasn’t long before Peter, too, was dead. There was some concern that Peter showed signs of strychnine poisoning, but the doctor ruled it heart failure.

Belle’s life was like that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: her greed overtook her ambition. Rather than being content with the cash she already had, she continued on her murder-for-money spree. Now, however, she unknowingly borrowed from H. H. Holmes’ playbook: set up potential lovers. Belle’s version was to get men to “buy” shares of her farm. Once she had the money, the men disappeared. Rumor has it she burned them, buried them, and fed them to her pigs. Handy, those hog farms.

Belle’s fast-track train came to an end in 1908. A relative of one of her “investors” was suspicious and told Belle he was going to come check things out. Soon, the entire farm burned down. In it, Belle’s remaining three children perished, as did Belle.

Or so it seemed.

The missing man’s relative insisted they do a complete search. Eleven bodies were discovered on the farm property. The adult female body discovered in the fire? It likely wasn’t Belle.

Her farmhand, Ray Lamphere, was a prime suspect for arson and murder–that is, until he confessed that she faked her death. The woman’s body in the fire did not match up to Belle’s size.

Twenty years later, in 1931, a woman named Esther Carlson in California was tried for poisoning a man. In her possessions were photographs of children–children who looked very similar to Belle’s.

We know very little about Belle’s childhood. She grew up in a very poor town in Norway, but as to what trauma may have caused her willingness to kill, we’re left to our own devices to make suppositions. Or, perhaps worse, there was no trauma. Perhaps she, like Holmes, was likely born that way.

True Crime: Henry Lee Lucas

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Second in a series on serial killers! Did you miss number one on Ed Gein? Click here!

Henry Lee Lucas is often billed as the most prolific serial killer in the United States, but there is a reason he’s also known as the “Confession Killer.” Investigators have little doubt he killed, but they do doubt he was the prolific killer the media made him out to be. They also don’t doubt that Lucas contributed to that media frenzy.

Henry Lee Lucas killed for the first time at either 14 or 15 years old. His victim was a girl who fought back while he was trying to rape her–he says. For the next several years, he was in and out of prison on burglary charges. He then killed his own mother in an argument. Later, Lucas confessed to killing Becky Powell, a girl who had been his lover (allegedly consensual, but she was barely a teenager when they met). While people were still looking for Becky Powell, Lucas convinced another woman, Kate Rich, to help him search, and he killed her too. Both of the bodies were found with his help, so we know these two, coupled with his mother, are the three deaths we can attribute with certainty to Lucas.

However, to make things more difficult, Henry Lee Lucas hung out with, worked with, and lived with another killer, Ottis Toole (the uncle of Becky Powell). Whether or not they were in on these deeds together is unknown. Both confessed to numerous murders alone and together. (I’m not going to go into some of the things that Lucas did–just like with Ed Gein, if you really want to know, Google him, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

A television program interviewed Lucas years after he was imprisoned and retracted his confessions. He said that all of the media attention was “like being a movie star…they make you out that you’re the worst serial killer in the history of the United States, and that’s what I did.” Did Lucas confess simply for the attention and adoration (yes, adoration) he received?

Potentially.

The nature versus nurture argument is never more significant than when discussing mentally disturbed and traumatized individuals, and Henry Lee Lucas is a stellar example. He grew up with an alcoholic father who couldn’t work and made moonshine instead. They lived in a one room cabin with no heat and no running water. His mother, also an alcoholic, prostituted herself and made a young Henry watch, and at least one older sibling forced him into an incestuous relationship. His mother also made him dress up as a girl and send him to school with his hair curled.

But that was just the beginning.

While Lucas had to endure abuse from his father, his mother was much, much worse. He was beaten so badly on the head that he was comatose for three days. He also had an injured eye that went untreated. It became infected and had to be removed. His mother shot and killed a mule that an uncle gave to Lucas, and, once, when he accepted a teddy bear from a teacher at school, he was beaten for it upon his return home. All of this while Lucas was still in grade school.

That fight he got in with his mother before he killed her? It was because she was demanding he return home (as an adult) to care for her in her old age.

Given what kind of life he had as a child, I’m not surprised at all he became a killer, but he did recognize he had an issue. In fact, he even said this: “I have tried to get help for so long and no one will believe me. I have killed for the past ten years and no one will believe me. I cannot go on doing this. I also killed the only girl I ever loved.”

To suffer the physical, mental, and sexual abuse he did as a young child, well, that’s going to impact brain development. But why would he confess to crimes he didn’t commit? For once in his life, he was getting attention. Attention that didn’t hurt him physically or sexually. Attention that came while he was in a warm environment with adequate clothing, food, and water. Attention that meant he could travel from state to state with police to show him where he may have disposed of bodies, eating cheeseburgers and drinking milkshakes along the way. In short, Henry Lee Lucas’ life in prison was a thousand times better than it was on the outside.

Want to learn more about Henry Lee Lucas? Take a look at The Confessions of Henry Lee Lucas by Mike Cox and Henry Lee Lucas: The Shocking True Story of America’s Most Notorious Serial Killer by J. Norris.

Stay tuned for part three in the series: Belle Gunness.

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True Crime: Ed Gein

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First in a series about serial killers!

Stranger than fiction: there are definitely some true crime stories that are just so outlandish they’re barely believable. Such is the story of Ed Gein.

A student taught me all about Ed Gein after the culmination of American Horror Story. We were talking about H. H. Holmes’ portrayal as Mr. March in the Hotel series, and he said, “kind of like Ed Gein and Psycho.” 

“Like who?” I asked.

“Ed Gein.” He stared at me expectantly.

“Who?” I asked again.

“You don’t know who Ed Gein is?”

Nope. Sure didn’t. (Just one of many examples where my students teach me.)

Ed Gein, born in the early 1900s, lived in Plainfield, Wisconsin, and is the basis for Psycho’s Norman Bates. Norman, eerily brought back to life as of late by Freddie Highmore in Bates Motelhad a, shall we say, fixation, on his mother, just like Gein. When she died, Gein began robbing the graves of women who he thought resembled his mother. He created seat covers from their skin and bowls from their skulls–and those are not the most gruesome items he kept or manufactured. (Google if you are so inclined, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.) He committed numerous crimes before he was caught. He was found guilty of murdering Bernice Worden and was sentenced to life in a mental institution. Gein was also the “inspiration” behind Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dr. Thredson from American Horror Story, and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.

My morbid fascination with serial killers is not because of the death and destruction, but the why behind it all. I fully acknowledge that some people are just born damaged. For some, no matter what interventions took place, they would be the psycho- or sociopaths they are. However, the psychology of the early years, the imprint caregivers have on an infant, the indelible marks parents leave on children, those have always been of never-ending interest to me.

Ed Gein, well, I believe he falls into the latter category. Raised on a remote farm by an alcoholic father who was a poor provider, and indoctrinated by a mother who taught him all women were evil and prostitutes (and punished him when he tried to make friends), Ed Gein’s upbringing was a perfect storm of isolationism and conditioning with a dash of mommy and daddy issues.

Want to learn more about Ed Gein? Take a look at Harold Schlecter’s book Deviant and Paul Anthony Woods’ Psycho!

Stay tuned for part two in the series: Henry Lee Lucas.

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