Killer smog continues to hover over Donora, Pennsylvania, on October 29, 1948. Over a five-day period, the smog killed about 20 people and made thousands more seriously ill.
Donora was a town of 14,000 people on the Monongahela River in a valley surrounded by hills. The town was home to steel mills and a zinc smelting plant that had released excessive amounts of sulphuric acid, carbon monoxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere for years prior to the disaster. During the 1920s, the owner of the zinc plant, Zinc Works, paid off local residents for damages caused by the pollution. Still, there was little or no regulation of the air pollution caused by the industries of Donora.
Beginning sometime on October 26, weather conditions in the valley brought a heavy fog into Donora. This fog appears to have trapped the airborne pollutants emitted from the zinc smelting plant and steel mills close to the ground, where they were inhaled by the local residents. Soon, a wave of calls came in to area hospitals and physicians. Dr. William Rongaus, the head of the local Board of Health, suggested that all residents with pre-existing respiratory problems leave town immediately. However, 11 people, all elderly and with heart problems or asthma, were already dead.
Most residents then attempted to evacuate, but the heavy smog and increased traffic made leaving difficult. Thousands flooded the hospitals when they experienced difficulty breathing. It was not until October 31 that Zinc Works shut down operations. Later that day, rain fell on Donora and dispersed the pollutants. By that time, another nine people had already perished.
The Donora smog disaster received national attention when it was reported by Walter Winchell on his radio show. In the aftermath, air pollution finally became a matter of public concern; the incident led to the passage of 1955 Clean Air Act. The Donora Zinc Works shuttered operations in 1957. Although the types of heavy visible pollutants responsible for the deaths in Donora have now been mostly outlawed and eliminated, invisible pollutants such as ozone remain a threat to people with chronic respiratory ailments.
Years later, a local high-school student’s research and activism led the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to place a commemorative plaque in Donora honoring the victims of the killer smog.
The Untold Truth Of The Cheshire Double Murders
Over the course of 24 years, between 1996 and 2020, at least five couples in the Cheshire region of England died in what police initially determined were murder-suicides. In all the cases, the couples were advanced in age, and while it's extremely unfortunate, the truth of the matter is that it's not particularly uncommon for elderly couples to die in this way. Perhaps despondent over the ravages of age on their bodies, or facing long and painful deaths from terminal illnesses, or perhaps in fits of mental illness, sometimes aged couples die through the combination of one partner murdering the other and then taking their own life.
In Cheshire, those five cases were, initially, considered open-and-shut examples of tragic murder-suicides. However, a steadfast coroner refused to believe that there wasn't foul play involved, and eventually uncovered evidence that suggests the five cases are not only related, but that they may all point to the work of a serial killer who is still on the loose in the region.
This is the untold truth of the Cheshire double murders.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
He claims he’s America’s deadliest serial killer with 90 victims. Police believe him.
This undated photo provided by the Ector County Texas Sheriff's Office shows Samuel Little. A Texas prosecutor says Little, convicted in three California murders but long suspected in dozens of deaths, now claims he was involved in about 90 killings nationwide. Ector County Texas Sheriff's Office via AP
A group of friends slashing their dirt bikes through the woods outside Saucier, Mississippi, found Julia Critchfield. It was January 1978. The 36-year-old mother of four was naked, her body sprawled on a roadside. She had been strangled. Her killer had draped a black dress over her frame.
Nearly 500 miles away and four years later, Rosie Hill’s body was discovered near a hog pen in Marion County, Florida. The 21-year-old was last seen four nights earlier leaving a bar with a stranger in August 1982. She also had been strangled.
Nearly 700 miles east, Melissa Thomas turned up in a church cemetery in Opelousas, Louisiana. It was January 1996. Again, strangled.
The Six Most Terrifying Serial Killer Families In History
Couples who kill together — Fred and Rosemary West , Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo , David and Catherine Birnie — get plenty of ink. But what about siblings and larger family groups whose shared viciousness leads them into committing horrifying crimes? Read on for six especially nasty examples.
1) “The Bloody Benders”
A gang of four so ferocious they have the catchy nickname to prove it, the Benders settled in isolated Labette County, Kansas, in the early 1870s. They were followers of the newfangled Spiritualism movement, and the family superstar was its most comely member (and also the one who was most fluent in English , since everyone else had major German accents), Kate, who was in her early 20s. Though the main Bender business was running a small store and inn for travelers , Kate was also renowned for performing seances that showed off her psychic abilities . Between the hotel’s convenient location just off the Osage Trail , and Kate’s mysterious allure , there were no shortage of strangers that happened to pass by.
But all was not what it seemed in this windswept corner of southeastern Kansas. Though the Benders lived together in a family-like configuration of husband, wife, and young-adult son and daughter, historians suspect that not only were they not actually related, they weren’t even named Bender . Which, normally, who really cares, right? It’s just that so many people who happened to pass through Labette County never made it to their final destinations , including a well-known local doctor , William York. After a community meeting (attended by both male Benders) resulted in a search party’s formation, it was soon noted that the Bender homestead appeared recently abandoned .
The Benders were gone, but they left behind plenty of evidence revealing what had gone on at their farm:
Near the table where guests were served was a trap door and the foul smelling hole beneath the door was clotted with blood. The ground in an orchard near the house had been carefully plowed but one small section was noticeably indented. The ground was dug up revealing the decomposed body of Dr. York. His skull had been crushed and his throat had been cut. Before nightfall seven more bodies were extracted and another was found the next day.
The victims included two children, including an infant that died after being buried alive . But most of the travelers suffered bloodier ends :
Guests at the inn were urged to sit in the place of honor, which was against [a curtain dividing the house’s rooms]. While dining, the guest of honor would be hit in the head with a hammer from behind the curtain, his throat would be slit, and then his body dropped into the trap door to the cellar. One man, Mr. Wetzell, heard the story and remembered when he was at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot. His decision caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the curtain, he and his companion decided to leave.
Their motive? Robbery . or just the thrill of it . Despite a reward and several unsubstantiated claims of their capture at the hands of various posses, the Benders appear to have gotten away with murder, and their grim story continues to intrigue . From 1961-1978, the town nearest their Kansas killing grounds, Cherryvale, operated a museum constructed to be an exact copy of their house (check out photos of the eerie installation here ).
In 2012, it was rumored that Guillermo del Toro would be involved in bringing the Benders’ real-life tale of horror to the big screen. Though it never came to be, the killer family has been featured in literature and pop culture over the years, not to mention the recipient of their very own state historical marker:
2) Delfina and María de Jesús González
These sisters hold the Guinness World Record for “ Most Prolific Murder Partnership ,” a dubious honor they earned due to their estimated 91 kills. Their victims were plucked from the brothel they ran together in Mexico, the Rancho El Angel. (Two additional sisters, Carmen and Maria Luisa , were also implicated in the deaths, though for whatever reason they didn’t make the cut for a Guinness shout-out.)
There’s not as much information on the González family as the Bloody Benders, despite the fact that the sisters were actually caught, and their crimes were committed much more recently. (Both received 40-year sentences in 1964 ). According to Murderpedia , however:
The police picked up a woman named Josefina Gutiérrez, a procuress, on suspicion of kidnapping young girls in the Guanajuato area, and during questioning, she implicated the two sisters. Police officers searched the sisters’ property and found the bodies of 11 men, 80 women and several fetuses, a total of over 91.
Investigations revealed the scheme was that they would recruit prostitutes through help-wanted ads though the ads would state the girls would become maids for the two sisters. Many of the girls were force fed heroin or cocaine. The sisters killed the prostitutes when they became too ill, damaged by repeated sexual activity, lost their looks or stopped pleasing the customers.
They would also kill customers who showed up with large amounts of cash. When asked for an explanation for the deaths, one of the sisters reportedly said, “The food didn’t agree with them.”
3) Sawney Bean Clan
If you thought The Hills Have Eyes’ charming family of cannibalistic cave-dwellers who preyed on vulnerable travelers were a figment of filmmaker Wes Craven’s prodigious imagination, think again. Papa Jupiter and company had some historical inspiration . Though the story may have been invented as political propaganda during the 18th century , the legend’s been around for centuries, and some think (or hope) it’s at least partly based on fact . At any rate, the sensational tale is even more terrifying than any horror-movie homage.
Sawney Bean (or Beane), the story goes , was the patriarch of a large clan which increased its population via incest and enjoyed dining on human flesh, procured via unfortunate travelers who happened to pass by their lair: a sea cave on the western edge of Scotland.
Eventually, it’s said, the sheer number of missing people (and repeated incidences of body parts that washed up on local beaches ) spurred an investigation. According to the narrative, no less than King James IV took up the cause, deploying 400 men and a pack of bloodhounds to track down Sawney’s inbred fun bunch and expose their repulsive crimes. What they found was indeed stomach-turning:
The men entered the cave and found a horrible scene: dried parts of human bodies were hanging all from the roof, pickled limbs lay in barrels, and all around piles of money and trinkets from the pockets of the dead lay in piles.
Again, this one’s probably not true, but it’s included here for its deliciously gruesome details, and the fact that the story is so long-standing. It’s still being passed on into contemporary lore via tourist attractions like the Edinburgh Dungeon .
Image of Sawney Bean (and woman in background carrying some to-be-pickled limbs!) licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
4) The Briley Brothers
The Bean brigade may never have existed, but the three brothers who rampaged around Richmond, Virginia in the late 1970s most certainly did. “ Briley Is Scheduled To Die Late Tonight ,” a somber 1985 Washington Post headline reads atop a story detailing the last chapter in the reign of terror wrought by James (or “J.B.”), Linwood, and Anthony Briley. James and Linwood met their ends within months of each other in Virginia’s electric chair.
Linwood, the oldest brother, was 30 when he died. His first kill was at age 16, when he shot an elderly neighbor who happened to be outdoors and within range of his bedroom window. He only served one year for the crime. A few years later, he and his two brothers, plus a fourth accomplice, began their brutal robbery, rape, and killing spree, dispatching random victims with exceptionally cruel methods (including crushing a teenager’s skull with a cinderblock ). It lasted seven months and claimed 10 lives , including several elderly people, a pregnant woman, and her five-year-old son. Two more victims who were doused in gas and set ablaze managed to survive.
After their murder convictions, Linwood and J.B. made further headlines in 1984 when they led a group of six inmates in a dramatic escape from death row. (They were re-captured 19 days later. The Brileys’ childhood home became a news item late last year when a developer, who’d purchased the fixer-upper from the brothers’ father, quickly put it on the market for a bargain price after realizing the notoriety of the address .
5) “Big” and “Little” Harpe
Though history can’t quite confirm whether “ America’s first serial killers ” were actually brothers or cousins, North Carolina-born Micajah (the taller one, hence the nickname distribution) and Wiley Harpe made for a most grim duo. Operating before, during, and after the Revolutionary War, the pair detoured from their original career plan (to be plantation overseers) to fight on the side of the British, committing abundant rapes and acts of arson along the way . They were also horse thieves, a crime that put them on the radar of the law . and spurred them into their true calling, that of murderous outlaws.
According to a wonderfully descriptive Nashville Scene story:
Their trail of slaughter begins in late 1798 at Hughes Tavern, a watering hole west of Knoxville. An 18th century tavern could serve as a town hall or center of early governance, but not this “rowdy groggery” known to the Harpes and other roughnecks. Little Harpe even manages to get into a scrape that ends with a knife wound in his chest, courtesy of one John Bowman, which doesn’t mean much at the time. It would take more than a cat scratch to lay out a Harpe.
Among the drinkers on hand is a man named Johnson. Whether he had snitched on the Harpes at some point is a matter of speculation. Regardless, a few days later, a traveler spots something floating in the nearby Holston River. It is a man’s body, disposed of in a hideous way.
The man’s guts have been ripped out. The cavity is stuffed with stones, intended to sink the carcass to the bottom. They must have dislodged, or the man known as Johnson wouldn’t have his sole claim to posterity — as the first of what would become many more victims.
The pair, accompanied by a group of “ wives ” who may or may not have been willing accomplices, would go on to commit more than 40 murders (read enough about the Harpes and you’ll notice certain words start to repeat, including “beheaded” and “disembowled”). They also dabbled in river piracy .
Eventually, they were captured and met their ends in a manner that befitted the way they’d lived. “Big” Harpe was captured in 1800, while “Little” met his end in 1804, writes Legends of America . Both were beheaded and their heads put on display as a deterrent to anyone who thought about emulating their lifestyle see the Kentucky roadside marker commemorating Big Harpe’s downfall here .
6) Inessa Tarverdiyeva and Family
Included so that nobody thinks that serial-killing families are a thing of the distant past, this colorful Russian family was nabbed in September 2013. According to a breathless Daily Mail report, nursery-school teacher Inessa Tarverdiyeva and her husband, dentist Roman Podkopayev, were behind “a six-year reign of terror including at least 30 murders and countless robberies.” Among the dead: six cops and multiple children, including Inessa’s teenage goddaughter, whose eyes were gouged out.
Tarverdiyeva’s daughter from her first marriage Viktoria Tarverdiyeva, 25 and her 13-year-old daughter Anastasiya ‘actively took part in all crimes’, say police in the Rostov region.
The Mail notes that the family would plan camping trips to provide cover for their robbery and murder sprees. Motivated by greed and an apparent hatred of police , they operated under the radar for years.
Vladimir Markin, chief of Russia’s equivalent of the FBI, said: ‘They looked like a totally good, nice family. Imagine them - a mother, a father, two children, including an underage girl.
‘I am sure that when they were together one could hardly imagine that they could even plan a crime.’
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From around where I grew up in north-central Louisiana: http://www.thepineywoods.com/westKimb.htm
This is a story that has yet to be told in full. As recently as the 1990’s I have firsthand knowledge of verbal threats by the descendants of the West/Kimbrell clan. While in graduate school, I started a research project during the summer of 1994 hoping to write a thesis on this little known piece of Louisiana history with the hopes of one day writing a novel or series of novels fictionalizing the story. While asking questions at a cemetery work day I was approached by two older gentlemen and ordered to leave the cemetery or be thrown out. I found out sometime later that one of the two men was the great-great-great nephew of Lawson Kimbrell. Three years ago we made contact with a family in Detroit who are the direct descendant’s of Pad West or Patch West, a once slave of the West Clan who, upon being freed after the Civil War, chose to continue to serve his former master. A local legend claims that Uncle Pad died the caretaker of a considerable sum of plundered gold and silver, none of which was ever found, said to be buried somewhere in the pine forest near his home place. He is buried in a slave cemetery adjacent to my families property. Several members his extended family, still bearing the name West, came down to conduct their own research and, I am told, were met with what might call unspoken or subtle threats and were told something to the effect of leave well enough alone. Hard to imagine it, but some 140 years later, bad blood still runs through that part of Louisiana.
The Historically Hazy Story of Donora’s Deadly Smog
The effects of the Zinc Works on Webster Hill. Courtesy Donora Historical Society
The residents of Donora, Pennsylvania, knew their riverside factories were dirty long before 1948. They could tell which sector of the American Steel and Wire complex was producing the bulk of the day’s pollution from the air’s tint—the open hearth produced reddish-brown exhaust, the blast furnace’s was black, and the zinc works, possibly the worst of them, emitted a noxious yellow smoke, a result of the sulfur dioxide with which it was laced.
Pollution was one thing, but American Steel and Wire employees faced even more acute dangers. Workers often “retired” by age 30. Local historian David Lonich’s father, a crane operator in the zinc works, lost his sense of smell when a chain hit him across the face. A more common condition was “zinc jitters,” which was treated with a concoction of water, ice, milk, oatmeal, and whiskey—the water and ice for hydration, the milk and oatmeal to leech the metal from their bodies, and according to Brian Charlton, who runs the Donora Historical Society and the Donora Smog Museum, the whiskey so they’d actually drink the stuff.
This day-to-day pollution alone would make the town an unlikely epicenter for a burgeoning environmental movement. But after Donora became the site of a fog that would kill dozens and sicken thousands more—one of the worst environmental disasters in the history of the United States—the town’s very name became a recognized shorthand for the dangers of unregulated industry and the need for federal clean air laws. First, though, the story of the disaster would be told and retold in a modern-seeming back-and-forth of misinterpretations and counternarratives. The Donora Smog became an ideological morass of subjective memory, the protective half-truths of insiders, the distortions of outsiders, conspiracy theories, and the obfuscating legalese of those responsible, all competing for the right to tell what really happened in the fog.
Donora in 1910. Library of Congress/ LC-USZ62-131258
Tales of gruesome Donora hazards went back decades before the event. One story goes that in 1919, a 22-year-old World War I veteran named Andrew Posey was working as a ladle checker on the blast furnace when 60 tons of molten iron was dropped on him, incinerating him within seconds. American Steel and Wire erected a memorial on the property, and supposedly interred the whole block of metal in place of a body. Some claim that the ore was dug up during the material shortages in World War II. Not everyone in town believes this story. The memorial itself is still there.
Still, many older Donorans remember the mills for the thriving, diverse community that the factories supported. “It was a dirty town,” Donora resident Charles Stacey says, “but it was a prosperous town.” That began to change on Wednesday, October 27, 1948, when an unusual temperature inversion moved across the Monongahela Valley. In a temperature inversion, a cold air front acts as a cap, preventing warm air—and, in this case, the exhaust from the factories—from rising. By late morning, by which time the smog had usually burned off, a stagnant haze of pollution from the zinc works still filled the valley. Streetlamps stayed lit at midday. A senior in high school at the time, Stacey remembers having to be extra cautious walking home because he couldn’t see his feet to gauge where the sidewalk became the curb.
Aerial view of Donora and the American Steel and Wire complex, 1941. Courtesy Donora Historical Society
Many Donorans still carried on over the next few days as if the smog was of a piece with the town’s usual pollution, even while they held handkerchiefs over their faces and emergency responders carried 60-pound oxygen tanks door-to-door to treat elderly residents and asthmatics. “A Banner Event In Spite of Weather,” Donora’s Herald-American claimed of the local Halloween parade, directly below a headline about smog-related deaths, adding, “Participants Have Merry Time Vieing [sic] For Many Prizes.” Donora High’s Dragons (the nickname intended to evoke the town’s belching smokestacks) lost a football game, 27-7 to rival Monongahela. Charles Stacey says he didn’t know the extent of the disaster until he turned on Walter Winchell’s radio show and realized the nationally syndicated journalist was talking about his town.
The smog didn’t lift for one day, then two. By Saturday, when the town’s funeral homes were full, the Donora Hotel’s basement was put into service as a morgue. The smog still didn’t lift. The mill finally ceased operations on Sunday, by which time rain showers had broken the inversion and forced the smog to dissipate anyway. David Lonich says his father described the fog as rising “like a curtain” and revealing a line of boats backed up on the river, waiting to deliver their loads to the mills. Officially, the zinc works shut down for the next two weeks, but Lonich says his father was back at work on Monday, which would mean that the mill was idle for less than a day. An estimated 4,000 of the town’s 14,000 residents were sickened with respiratory difficulty, headaches, vomiting, and stomach pains. The number of fatalities is still in dispute. “They stopped counting on Sunday,” Lonich says.
A zinc worker opens an air vent above the retorts. Courtesy Donora Historical Society
The specifics of the Donora incident are similar to a few roughly contemporaneous disasters—Liege, Belgium had a similar fatal air inversion in the 1930s, and the Great Smog of London would kill over 4,000 and sicken 100,000 more in 1952. But what differentiates Donora is that it marks a turning point in the then-fledgling environmental movement, and one that centers on an odd paradoxical conflict: how do you tell the story of a fog after it lifts?
Lots of publications tried. Within a week, the event was headline news in national publications from The New York Times to Life, in articles that led with horrific, visceral descriptions of the fog. A New Yorker article by Berton Roueché recounted the route of Dr. Ralph Koehler through 24 hours of house calls to patients who couldn’t breathe, often too late to save them. A consensus, based on all available evidence and common sense, quickly formed that pollution was to blame: Die Here As Result of Killer Smog,” blared a November 1 headline in Donora’s Herald-American.
As a recent Quartz article points out, there were no national laws at the time regulating air pollution, but The Pittsburgh Press was already using Donora as an example of how the city’s recently enacted smoke control laws, which mandated the industrial use of fuels that burned cleaner than bituminous coal, had “proved its worth.” American Steel and Wire tried to minimize its culpability, taking out a newspaper ad within a couple of weeks, extending their sympathy “with deep sincerity” to smog victims, while simultaneously denying culpability, noting that a representative from the U.S. Public Health Service claimed there was no evidence to “incriminate any one particular plant or mill in this area.”
A nurse administers oxygen to a smog victim at an unidentified emergency triage location. Courtesy Donora Historical Society
Most Donorans, their livelihoods at stake and without illusions regarding the danger of their jobs, chose to go along with U.S. Steel’s narrative. Devra Davis, in When Smoke Ran Like Water, quotes a zinc worker and member of the Donora Borough Council telling a longtime opponent of the mill’s pollution from nearby Webster, “I’ve got a darn good job and I’m going to keep it. I don’t care what it kills.” Dave Lonich said his father joked about the dangers, saying that the zinc in his system was why he never got colds. “These were tough guys,” he says. “They came back from storming the beach at Normandy and at 21, 22 years old, went right into the mills to support their families.”
When a national Public Health Service commission was established in 1949, the Herald-American reported that none of 8,000 people surveyed by mid-December admitted on the record to having been treated for respiratory distress. Their level of caution was probably excessive—the commission, filled with researchers with industry ties, took soil and air samples, attempting, in a sense, to quantify the fog, then placed the blame entirely on the air inversion, calling the entire event “an act of God.”
With objective measures in dispute, conflicting accounts of the smog’s severity added a layer of unreliability to many first-person reports. Many accounts of the football game claimed that players couldn’t see the ball and that Donora’s Stanley Sawa was called home because his father, a mill worker, had died from respiratory distress, yet box scores show an unusually pass-happy game (Charles Stacey points out that the football field was situated high on a hill, above the line of the smog), and records show that Sawa’s father didn’t die until a few days later. The Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph printed a photograph of a darkened Donora street, claiming it was taken at noon, while Brian Charlton points to statements by the fireman who had taken the photo, who said it was 7 or 8 at night. And many Donorans saw the national reaction as overwrought or demeaning. Add an exclamation point and headlines covering the smog start to read like B-movie poster copy, touting a “Killer Smog,” “Death Over Donora,” and a “Scene of Desolation.” At least one hatmaker began manufacturing “designer millinery smog masks.” The National Enquirer claimed 13,000 people had died.
A smog victim recovers in an oxygen tent at Charleroi-Monessen Hospital. Courtesy Donora Historical Society
In the end, the smog never had much direct effect on U.S. Steel’s bottom line, aside from a class-action lawsuit settled for $250,000, with no admission of responsibility for the fog or the deaths caused by it. As for Donora, for all its citizens’ efforts to keep the zinc works open, it closed in 1957. The reason wasn’t federal overregulation, it was because their horizontal retort furnace system was outdated and too costly to upgrade. The rest of the mills closed soon after. Some of the old buildings have been repurposed (perhaps most fittingly, one is a depot for Mid Mon Valley Transit Authority public buses, which run on compressed natural gas), but most of them are gone.
Recent census figures put Donora’s population at around 5,000 people, about a third of what it was at the time of the smog. A sign in the Smog Museum traces the lineage of the 1970 Clean Air Act, the strongest (and currently endangered) federal air pollution regulation ever enacted, back to the 1955 Air Pollution Control Act, which was passed in response to the Donora Smog. It reads, with equal parts pride and knowing irony, “Clean Air Started Here.”
Donora today. Liam Baranauskas
This mild exaggeration is fitting for an event in which printed casualty tolls varied from as low as 11 deaths to as many as 60. The Donora Historical Society uses a total of 27, with the caveat that there’s no way of knowing how deaths from lingering respiratory illnesses over the years can be tied to the smog. But tragedies are about more than simply quantifying death totals, and this one, centered on a cloud, that archetypical symbol of ephemerality, maybe more than most. Many of the originally reported inaccuracies—the invisible football game, for example, or the day-for-night photo—are still repeated, as time solidifies the “print the legend” version of history.
As horrific as the facts were, it may have been those legends, from Berton Roueché’s evocative prose to the sensationalistic journalism of less reputable outlets, that captured imaginations and spurred legislative action. As ever, stories reflect the world the teller wants to see. To that point, David Lonich said that some older Donora residents, perhaps trying to salvage the town’s past reputation for prosperity, to this day consider the smog a non-event, or even a conspiracy akin to “the man on the moon.” Smog deniers claim that the weather that week was basically the same as usual, and that the deaths were nothing but a statistical blip, a mere coincidence.
As the killer's epithet implies, the victims usually were attacked with an axe, which often belonged to the victims themselves.  In most cases, a panel on a back door of a home was removed by a chisel, which along with the panel was left on the floor near the door. The intruder then attacked one or more of the residents with either an axe or straight razor. The crimes were not motivated by robbery, and the perpetrator never removed items from his victims' homes. 
The majority of the Axeman's victims were Italian immigrants or Italian-Americans, leading many to believe that the crimes were ethnically motivated. Many media outlets sensationalized this aspect of the crimes, even suggesting Mafia involvement despite lack of evidence. Some crime analysts have suggested that the killings were related to sex, and that the murderer was perhaps a sadist specifically seeking female victims. Criminologists Colin and Damon Wilson hypothesize that the Axeman killed male victims only when they obstructed his attempts to murder women, supported by cases in which the woman of the household was murdered but not the man. A less plausible theory is that the killer committed the murders in an attempt to promote jazz music, suggested by a letter attributed to the killer in which he stated that he would spare the lives of those who played jazz in their homes. 
The Axeman was not caught or identified, and his crime spree stopped as mysteriously as it had started. The murderer's identity remains unknown to this day, although various possible identifications of varying plausibility have been proposed. On March 13, 1919, a letter purporting to be from the Axeman was published in newspapers, saying that he would kill again at 15 minutes past midnight on the night of March 19 but would spare the occupants of any place where a jazz band was playing. That night all of New Orleans' dance halls were filled to capacity, and professional and amateur bands played jazz at parties at hundreds of houses around town. There were no murders that night. 
The Axeman's letter Edit
Hottest Hell, March 13, 1919
Esteemed Mortal of New Orleans: The Axeman
They have never caught me and they never will. They have never seen me, for I am invisible, even as the ether that surrounds your earth. I am not a human being, but a spirit and a demon from the hottest hell. I am what you Orleanians and your foolish police call the Axeman.
When I see fit, I shall come and claim other victims. I alone know whom they shall be. I shall leave no clue except my bloody axe, besmeared with blood and brains of he whom I have sent below to keep me company.
If you wish you may tell the police to be careful not to rile me. Of course, I am a reasonable spirit. I take no offense at the way they have conducted their investigations in the past. In fact, they have been so utterly stupid as to not only amuse me, but His Satanic Majesty, Francis Josef, etc. But tell them to beware. Let them not try to discover what I am, for it were better that they were never born than to incur the wrath of the Axeman. I don't think there is any need of such a warning, for I feel sure the police will always dodge me, as they have in the past. They are wise and know how to keep away from all harm.
Undoubtedly, you Orleanians think of me as a most horrible murderer, which I am, but I could be much worse if I wanted to. If I wished, I could pay a visit to your city every night. At will I could slay thousands of your best citizens (and the worst), for I am in close relationship with the Angel of Death.
Now, to be exact, at 12:15 (earthly time) on next Tuesday night, I am going to pass over New Orleans. In my infinite mercy, I am going to make a little proposition to you people. Here it is: I am very fond of jazz music, and I swear by all the devils in the nether regions that every person shall be spared in whose home a jazz band is in full swing at the time I have just mentioned. If everyone has a jazz band going, well, then, so much the better for you people. One thing is certain and that is that some of your people who do not jazz it out on that specific Tuesday night (if there be any) will get the axe.
Well, as I am cold and crave the warmth of my native Tartarus, and it is about time I leave your earthly home, I will cease my discourse. Hoping that thou wilt publish this, that it may go well with thee, I have been, am and will be the worst spirit that ever existed either in fact or realm of fancy.
--The Axeman 
Crime writer Colin Wilson speculates the Axeman could have been Joseph Momfre, a man shot to death in Los Angeles in December 1920 by the widow of Mike Pepitone, the Axeman's last known victim. Wilson's theory has been widely repeated in other true crime books and websites. However, true crime writer Michael Newton searched New Orleans and Los Angeles public, police and court records as well as newspaper archives, and failed to find any evidence of a man with the name "Joseph Momfre" (or a similar name) having been assaulted or killed in Los Angeles. 
Newton was also not able to find any information that Mrs. Pepitone (identified in some sources as Esther Albano, and in others simply as a "woman who claimed to be Pepitone's widow") was arrested, tried or convicted for such a crime, or indeed had been in California. Newton notes that "Momfre" was not an unusual surname in New Orleans at the time of the crimes. It appears that there actually may have been an individual named Joseph Momfre or Mumfre in New Orleans who had a criminal history, and who may have been connected with organized crime however, local records for the period are not extensive enough to allow confirmation of this, or to positively identify the individual. Wilson's explanation is an urban legend, and there is no more evidence now on the identity of the killer than there was at the time of the crimes. 
Two of the alleged "early" victims of the Axeman, an Italian couple named Schiambra, were shot by an intruder in their Lower Ninth Ward home in the early morning hours of May 16, 1912. The male Schiambra survived while his wife died. In newspaper accounts, the prime suspect is referred to by the name of "Momfre" more than once. While radically different than the Axeman's usual modus operandi, if Joseph Momfre was indeed the Axeman, the Schiambras may well have been early victims of the future serial killer. 
According to scholar Richard Warner,  the chief suspect in the crimes was Frank "Doc" Mumphrey (1875–1921), who used the alias Leon Joseph Monfre/Manfre.
The stock market before the 1929 crash
Black Tuesday hits Wall Street as investors trade 16,, shares on the New York Stock Exchange in a single day.
Brief History of The Crash of - TIME
Billions of dollars were lost, wiping out thousands of investors, and stock tickers ran hours behind because the machinery could not handle the tremendous volume of trading. In the aftermath of Black Tuesday, America and the rest of the industrialized world spiraled downward into the Great Depression.
During the s, the U. By then, production had already declined and unemployment had risen, leaving stocks in great excess of their real value. Among the other causes of the eventual market collapse were low wages, the proliferation of debt, a weak agriculture, and an excess of large bank loans that could not be liquidated. Stock prices began to decline in September and early October , and on October 18 the fall began.
Panic set in, and on October 24—Black Thursday—a record 12,, shares were traded. Investment companies and leading bankers attempted to stabilize the market by buying up great blocks of stock, producing a moderate rally on Friday. On Monday, however, the storm broke anew, and the market went into free fall. Black Monday was followed by Black Tuesday, in which stock prices collapsed completely.
After October 29, , stock prices had nowhere to go but up, so there was considerable recovery during succeeding weeks. Overall, however, prices continued to drop as the United States slumped into the Great Depression, and by stocks were worth only about 20 percent of their value in the summer of The stock market crash of was not the sole cause of the Great Depression, but it did act to accelerate the global economic collapse of which it was also a symptom.
It would take World War II , and the massive level of armaments production taken on by the United States, to finally bring the country out of the Depression after a decade of suffering. Nearly four decades after he became the first American to orbit the Earth, Senator John Hershel Glenn, Jr. At 77 years of age, Glenn was the oldest human ever to travel in space.
Wall Street Crash of - Wikipedia
John Hancock resigns his position as president of the Continental Congress, due to a prolonged illness, on this day in Hancock was the first member of the Continental Congress to sign the Declaration of Independence and is perhaps best known for his bold signature on the ground-breaking document.
Duane Allman, a slide guitarist and the leader of the Allman Brothers Band, is killed on this day in when he loses control of his motorcycle and drives into the side of a flatbed truck in Macon, Georgia.
He was 24 years old. Although the Confederates still held the high ground above Israeli armed forces push into Egypt toward the Suez Canal, initiating the Suez Crisis.
They would soon be joined by French and British forces, creating a serious Cold War problem in the Middle East. The catalyst for the joint Israeli-British-French attack on Egypt was the nationalization of the Suez Canal On this day in , Dominick Dunne, a best-selling author, journalist and TV personality who often covered high-profile murder cases, is born in Hartford, Connecticut.
Dunne, whose father was a heart surgeon, was the second of six children. He served in the Army during World War II, and received a Bronze Killer smog continues to hover over Donora, Pennsylvania, on this day in Over a five-day period, the smog killed about 20 people and made thousands more seriously ill. Donora was a town of 14, people on the Monongahela River in a valley surrounded by hills.
The town was home to Sir Walter Raleigh, English adventurer, writer, and favorite courtier of Queen Elizabeth I, is beheaded in London, under a sentence brought against him 15 years earlier for conspiracy against King James I.
On this day in , the actor Richard Dreyfuss, who will rise to fame in Hollywood in the s with starring roles in such movies as American Graffiti, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Goodbye Girl, is born in Brooklyn, New York. Dreyfuss, who registered as a conscientious James Boswell is born on this day in Edinburgh to an ancient Scottish family. His father was a judge, the Lord of Auchinleck, and Boswell was heir to the title and a large fortune.
He studied at the University of Edinburgh but ran away to London and was brought back To this day, no one can say with absolute certainty who the leader of? Question Mark and the Mysterians really is. Is he—as literalists would have us believe—the former Rudy Martinez, a Mexican-born and Michigan-raised earthling who legally changed his name to a punctuation mark?
Or is he truly the On this day in , the first store opens in a small frontier town in Colorado Territory that a month later will take the name of Denver in a shameless ploy to curry favor with Kansas Territorial Gover nor James W. The brainchild of a town promoter and Czolgosz had shot McKinley on September 6, the president succumbed to his wounds eight days later.
McKinley was shaking hands in a long reception line at the On October 29, , featherweight boxers Sandy Saddler and Willie Pep meet for the first time in the ring at Madison Square Garden. Saddler, a strong puncher, knocked out the diminutive Pep in the fourth round. The two fought four times in all—Saddler won three—and the matchups were increasingly bitter Seale and his seven fellow defendants David Dellinger, Rennie Davis, Thomas Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner, and John Froines had been charged with conspiracy to cross state lines with intent to cause a The total number of U.
This was a result of the Vietnamization program announced by President Richard Nixon at the June Midway Conference.
On October 29, , Jane Addams, a leading American social activist, writes to United States President Woodrow Wilson, warning him of the potential dangers of readying the country to enter the First World War. When World War I broke out in the summer of , President Wilson accurately reflected the isolationist On this day in , leading British clergymen and political figures hold a public meeting to register their outrage over the persecution of Jews by Nazi Germany.
In a message sent to the meeting, Prime Minister Winston Churchill summed up the sentiments of all present: Oct 29 View Calendar. This Day in HIstory: You can opt out at any time.
Stock Market Crash of 1929 - Decades TV Network
A Voice of Hope. Dust Storms Strike America. Roosevelt Creates Social Security. A Warm Roosevelt Welcome. More on This Topic news 6 Disastrous Economic Bubbles. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Stock Market Crash of Bernie Madoff Arrested in December Herbert Hoover Accepts Nomination. FDR's Fireside Chat on the Drought and the Dust Bowl. Get This Day In History every morning in your inbox! Sign Up no thanks. Also on this day Play video. John Glenn returns to space. Hancock resigns as president of Congress.
Guitarist Duane Allman dies in motorcycle accident. Israel invades Egypt Suez Crisis begins.
Stock Market Crash of October - Social Welfare History Project
Dominick Dunne, chronicler of high-profile crimes, is born. Killer smog claims elderly victims. Sir Walter Raleigh executed. The first store opens in the frontier town of Denver, Colorado. McKinley assassin is executed. Sandy Saddler beats Willie Pep for the first time.
The True HP of the 10 Most Powerful Classic Era Muscle Cars
No longer rumor, it’s been established that 60s Muscle Car HP was under-rated. We explain how and why and how much horsepower these motors actually produced.
There have been two reasons given for the motivation of the factory to under-report the horsepower of their muscle cars: insurance and NHRA classifications.
Certainly insurers were getting nervous when they started to see cars being introduced, starting with the Pontiac Tempest GTO, with high horsepower in a relatively small car. And as all insurance is based on risk, the insurance companies apportioned higher premiums on these big horsepower cars. To what degree the insurance companies saw through this rouse is unknown. The under-rating rumors were all over the car magazines at the time, and insurance companies aren’t dumb, so in the end it may not have made much difference.
The other reason is much more tangible. The NHRA placed new cars into Stock categories based on weight and stated horsepower. And in the 1960s, drag racing was as important to car sales as NASCAR is today. At that time, Indy was a one-time a year event, ther other events not receiving much coverage, and NASCAR was a regional series in the Southeastern US. Drag racing was where it was at – just a quick survey of music (409, Little Deuce Coupe, Little Old Lady from Pasadena, etc.) and TV shows – Grandpa Munster had a dragster and a drag-style custom car even appeared on Star Trek. As just a wild guess, it was probably 75% NHRA, 25% insurance as motivation for under-rating an engine.
So did the carmakers just lie? Not, probably not. One of the easiest ways to underrate an engine is to specific a maximum RPM below peak horsepower. As you’ll see in the analysis below, several of the most powerful engines had horsepower ratings published at an engine speed below maximum.
The other way to do was was via the testing process itself. If you’re not familiar with the old style of Gross engine power ratings, the engines were measured on a dynamometer in what could be described as full-race trim. Intake air temperature, density, and volume were all controlled to provide maximum power, no restrictive air cleaner was required, carburetor and ignition were adjusted with watchmaker precision, and an open exhaust was used. Not really a good replication of the conditions in which the consumer will drive, which brought about the change to NET ratings in the early 1970s.
So, if you want to have your engine produce less horsepower than its capable of, you need only adjust one or two of the variables mentioned about and there’s an instant drop of horsepower.
That said, we’re relying here on the excellent research of author and automotive historian Roger Huntington who researched these classic muscle engines to determine, scientifically rather than hearsay and rumor, as to whether these monster motors were underrated, and if so by how much. By taking samples from many different areas – dyno tests of exact rebuilds of classic motors, drag race results, 0-60 times, and other test results and developed an algorithm by which he could compare claims to reality. For all his hard work, we thank him (and if you’re interested in this stuff, check out his books).
Scroll down to view the top 10 horsepower makers from the Classic Muscle Car era:
Number Ten: Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396
Huntington’s analysis identified the Chevrolet L-78 big block as installed in the Chevelle 396 SS as being under-reported by 25 hp, 375 hp at 5600 rpm in the sale literature versus 400 hp at 5600 rpm in his evaluations.
Number Nine: Mustang 428 Cobra-Jet
Here’s the most underrated engine in the group. Ford claim 335 hp at 5200 rpm for the 428 Cobra Jet versus Huntington’s analysis which determined output closer to 410 hp at 5600 rpm. Note the difference in engine speed between the two specs. Another clue this engine was underrated was the smaller 390 V8 with a four-barrel carb was also rated at 335 HP.
Number Eight: Dodge & Plymouth 440 Magnum
It appears that Chrysler engineers may have used the trick of underrating this engine by using a lower maximum speed. The result here is that the 440 Magnum was tested only to 4600 rpm, which produced 375 HP. When Huntington’s research found the engine to produce power reliability to 5400 rpm, he revised maximum power to 410 horsepower.
Number Seven: Pontiac Ram Air 400
The big Pontiac Ram Air 400 was also a victim of underrating, advertised at 366 HP at 5100 when in fact maximum power is 410hp @5600.
Number Six: Buick GSX 455 Stage 1
The Buick GSX 455 Stage 1 has recently been recognized as one of the great muscle car engines of the 1960s and early 1970s and is enjoying a revival of sorts. Back in the day, despite strong dragstrip performances, it was overlooked because of its lowish published horsepower of 360 hp at 5000 rpm. In reality the big Buick produced 420 hp at 5400 rpm, according to Huntington, explaining the difference between sales brochure perception and drag strip reality.
Number Five: Ford Mustang Boss 429
The Ford Mustang Boss 429 is considered by many to be the ultimate Muscle Car of the classic era, not just because of its engine output, but also its brakes and handling, was sold to the public as producing 375 hp at 5200 rpm while in fact the 429 produced closer to 420 hp at 5600 rpm.
Number Four: Dodge 440 Six-Pack
The formula was the 440 Six-Pack was simple, take a Chrysler big block, and top it was three two barrel carburetors with a total capacity of 1200 CFM. The beauty for enthusiasts was all this performance was available at a price of about 50% of the Hemi engine. At the time Chrysler told the public the motor was making 390 hp at 4700 rpm while in reality its actual capability was 430 hp at 5600 rpm.
Number Three: Oldsmobile 455 W-30
Who would have figured that out of the three B-O-P (Buick-Olsmobile-Pontiac) group that it would be mostly overlooked Oldsmobile who would have the most powerful engine of the group. While all three brands had 455 engines, there were literally completely different motors – no parts interchange except for some tiny parts and those were most likely by chance). At the time Olds told the public the 455 W-30 produced just 370 hp @ 5300 rpm, in reality the output at 5600 rpm was closer to 440 horsepower.
Number Two: Dodge and Plymouth 426 Hemi
The Elephant Motor that Chrysler created for NASCAR racing that it was forced to sell to the public to remain eligible for competition became a legend on street and the strip. The Hemi engines powered Top Fuel and Funny Car dragsters, and even today, where there are ZERO Chrysler parts in these top-level NHRA motor, the architecture remains that of the 426 Hemi. The Hemi breathed extremely well, so more horsepower was easily gained with increasing engine speed. The spec sheet from Chrysler said 425 hp @ 5000 rpm but in reality the power keeps producing reliable power to 6000 rpm where the output is a whopping 470 horsepower.
Number One: Chevrolet Corvette 427 L-88
You probably saw this one coming. The L88 Corvette was really developed for racing use and even came delivered with a warning sticker on the center console that emphasized only racing fuel was adequate for the large valves and radical timing. The L88 became the ultimate example of the iron big-block: Can-Am spec aluminum heads with massive valves, a hardened crankshaft, 12.5:1 pistons, solid lifters, cold air induction, and an 850 CFM dual feed Holley carburetor (without a choke!).
Chevrolet most definitely wanted to keep the L88 out of the hands of street drivers and on the race track, so power was rated at just 430 hp @ 5200 rpm. Huntington calculated 480 hp at 6400 rpm, however when compared to the equivalent modern version of the ZL1, the Chevy ZZ427 crate motor produces 480 hp with a lower 10.1:1 compression ratio and pump gas. Based on that comparison, I’m going to suggest that Huntington’s numbers for the ZL-1 are too conservative and it actually produced something over 500 horsepower.
Suspected Serial Killer Allegedly Exploited His Senior Caregiver Job To Target Elderly Victims
Ever since Billy Kipkorir Chemirmir was allegedly caught trying to kill a 91-year-old, police have been linking him to deaths previously thought to be related to natural causes.
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A suspected Texan serial killer, who has now officially been charged with the murder of seven elderly women and is expected to be charged with 12, is accused of targeting the victims by posing as a maintenance worker.
Billy Kipkorir Chemirmir was first eyed as a possible attacker last March when he was accused of trying to smother a 91-year-old woman to death, The Star-Telegram in Fort Worth reported. But before police could even arrest him in connection with that alleged incident, “they observed him walk to a dumpster and toss unknown items in the dumpster. [. ] In the dumpster officers found a jewelry box containing jewelry and a name. Officers were able to associate the name found in the jewelry box to an address in the city of Dallas,” according to a press release posted on the Dallas Police Department’s website.
That jewelry box led them to the body of an entirely different woman than the 91-year-old Chemirmir was accused of trying to kill: Lu Thi Harris, 81. She had been murdered, according to police.
Chemirmir was charged with Harris’ murder last year.
After his 2018 arrest, police announced that they would start combing through 750 unattended deaths of elderly women in four North Texas cities to see if Chemirmir can possibly be linked to any of them, according to The Star-Telegram.
Authorities linked him to six more cases. This week Chemirmir was indicted on capital murder charges for the deaths of Norma French, Phoebe Perry, Phyllis Payne, Rosemary Curtis, Mary Brooks and Doris Gleason, KXAS-TV in Fort Worth reports. All the women died in 2016 and 2018 and like Harris, Chemirmir is accused of killing them to take their jewelry or money. He’s accused of killing them through smothering or strangling and gaining access to them by posing as both a maintenance man and by exploiting his former senior aide job.
“Suspect Chemirmir has worked as a healthcare worker and has a history of impersonating maintenance personnel at a retirement community in Dallas,” Plano Chief of Police Gregory Rushin said a press conference held last March. “Chemirmir uses his healthcare experience to his advantage in targeting and exploiting seniors.”
It's not clear where Chemirmir worked as a healthcare worker.
Initially, the victims are believed to have died of natural causes. Investigators allegedly found jewelry, cell phones and other victims’ belongings in Chemirmir’s apartment when it was searched last year, WFAA in Dallas reports.
There may be more victims too. Police reportedly anticipate five additional capital murder charges on top of the other seven, KXAS-TV reports. If charged with the additional anticipated charges, that would up Chemirmir’s alleged body count up to 12.
Chemirmir’s bail is now set at more than $9 million. It’s not clear if he has a lawyer who can speak on his behalf at this time.
3 Aileen Wuornos
Aileen Wuornos gets a fair bit more sympathy than even she believes she deserves. Wuornos, who murdered seven men, is perhaps best known as the subject of the movie Monster, in which Charlize Theron portrayed her as a woman plagued by her own hard life and mental illness.
Wuornos herself, though, insists that she is not insane. &ldquoI&rsquom one who seriously hates human life and would kill again,&rdquo she wrote in a letter to the Florida Supreme Court. She pleaded no contest in the court case, offering no defense for herself except to claim that her first victim had violently raped her. She ended her tirade by turning on the Assistant State Attorney and yelling, &ldquoI hope your wife and children get raped in the ass!&rdquo
Before her execution, she went into a mad, rambling rant that was caught on film. &ldquoI killed those men, robbed them as cold as ice. And I&rsquod do it again, too,&rdquo she said. &ldquoThere&rsquos no chance in keeping me alive or anything, because I&rsquod kill again. I have hate crawling through my system.&rdquo
The untold story of how the Golden State Killer was found: A covert operation and private DNA
The dramatic arrest in 2018 of Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. was all the more astounding because of how detectives said they caught the elusive Golden State Killer — by harnessing genetic technology already in use by millions of consumers to trace their family trees.
But the DNA-matching effort that caught one of America’s most notorious serial killers was more extensive than previously disclosed and involved covert searches of private DNA housed by two for-profit companies despite privacy policies, according to interviews and court discovery records accessed by The Times.
The revelations are likely to heighten debate about genetic privacy and the self-policing models of testing companies, as well as law enforcement access.
The original version of events omitted not only the involvement of private databases but also the access to sensitive information the companies had told users law enforcement could see only if “required” or presented with a “lawful request.”
One prosecutor described the public understanding of DeAngelo’s arrest as a “false impression,” according to a letter the prosecutor wrote to the FBI.
Listen to the latest episode to find out what really happened in the interrogation room.
When DeAngelo was arrested, prosecutors would say only that they had used family tree searches to find relatives of the killer and, from there, identified DeAngelo. Shortly after, a detective confirmed the investigative team had uploaded semen from a rape kit to develop a fresh DNA profile that was then uploaded to GEDmatch, an open-source platform frequently used by members of the public to trace their heritage.
What prosecutors did not disclose is that genetic material from the rape kit was first sent to FamilyTreeDNA, which created a DNA profile and allowed law enforcement to set up a fake account to search for matching customers. When that produced only distant leads, a civilian geneticist working with investigators uploaded the forensic profile to MyHeritage. It was the MyHeritage search that identified the close relative who helped break the case.
Both companies denied involvement at the time.
But in late 2019, FamilyTreeDNA’s chief executive acknowledged giving the FBI access in 2017 without knowing the case being investigated. He said he did not believe it violated the company’s terms of service, which warned that it “may be required” to release personal information in response to a “lawful request by public authorities.”
Those terms were later changed to alert customers that law enforcement had access to the database.
Nevertheless, the search was not sanctioned, and MyHeritage has since revised its policies to make it clear that “such investigations are prohibited,” Godfrey said.
Not disclosing that private consumer data were used in the investigation “perpetuates a fraudulent impression of all the methods implemented to identify Joseph DeAngelo,” Cheryl Temple, chief assistant district attorney for Ventura County, wrote in a January 2019 letter to the FBI. Even DeAngelo’s defense lawyers stood to be kept in the dark about how he was identified, she wrote.
In an interview last week, Temple said she was confident that the case against DeAngelo — who pleaded guilty to 26 counts of murder and kidnapping and admitted to violent crimes against 61 other people — was handled ethically and properly. The issue she raised with the FBI dealt instead with the need for transparency heading into trial.
“I have no concern whatsoever about the legality of anything that was done in the case,” Temple said. “I don’t think anybody has any question whatsoever about how the case was solved.”
Even before these new revelations, the use of consumer databases to catch this serial killer sparked ethical debates as it unleashed a wave of efforts by other cold-case teams across the U.S. to use similar means to identify violent criminals. As a result, most major consumer genealogical database companies created barriers against law enforcement access, the U.S. Justice Department adopted interim restrictions for the use of such databases, and Maryland considered legislation to limit law enforcement’s use of them.
DeAngelo, 75, pleaded guilty before going to trial. He is serving 26 life sentences in a California prison. And the legality of investigative genealogy, still relatively new, has not faced serious legal challenges. It is perceived in law enforcement circles as a vital tool for solving even current crimes, but regulations and legislation have not yet caught up.
In most DNA-derived cases going to trial, prosecutors contend that the databases police use are like street informants whose identity can remain hidden. Meanwhile, some companies, such as Ancestry.com, say they have successfully fought efforts by law enforcement to obtain court orders to access their databases.
But FamilyTreeDNA says it will work with law enforcement if an investigation involves a violent crime, denying access to data only if a private subscriber to its database has specifically opted out.
Some legal and privacy experts are concerned that the race to use genealogical databases will have serious consequences, including eroding privacy protections and broadening police power. There have also been instances of the wrong people being arrested and taken to jail — including a twin in California. In Texas, police met GEDmatch’s new search guidelines by classifying a case as a sexual assault but filed only burglary charges after an arrest.
The technology has also led to the conviction of other violent criminals, including the NorCal Rapist, who sexually assaulted more than 10 women in the 1990s.
Those involved in the DeAngelo investigation said the use of the databases was invaluable. They argued against the need for oversight, such as a warrant or subpoena.
The use of family genes in the DeAngelo case was begun by an investigator working with DNA fragments left from a subset of his crimes, the rapes in Northern California.
Paul Holes was chief of forensics for the district attorney’s office in Contra Costa County, one of half a dozen Northern California counties where the East Area Rapist struck from 1976 to 1979, assaulting nearly 50 women and girls. In 2017, Holes used DNA from one of the few surviving rape kits to develop a Y-chromosome profile, found a partial match on a free website called Ysearch.org, and with the FBI obtained a federal grand jury subpoena to require Ysearch’s parent company, Gene by Gene, which also owns FamilyTreeDNA, to release information on that account holder.
The search led Holes and agents from Orange County to an elderly man in a nursing home in Oregon, but he turned out to be an exceedingly distant relation — with no shared ancestor for 900 years. After that, Holes said, federal agents in Northern California lost interest, and funding for more DNA ventures dried up. But an FBI lawyer in Los Angeles was “all in.”
“He said, ‘Paul, I believe in the DNA, and that the DNA is going to solve this case,’” Holes said.