We usually think of serial killing as a solitary vocation, practiced by loners driven by unspeakable personal demons, but sometimes groups of people come together to kill — and when they do, their motivations are fascinating.
Whether they killed for pure profit, love, or some weird group madness, the five death-squads below are among the spookiest serial murderers in history.
Gwendolyn Graham and Cathy Wood: Lesbians, Nurses, Thrill-Killers
The stylin’ couple pictured above are Gwendolyn Graham and Cathy Wood — medical caregivers, star-crossed lovers, and serial murderers. They met as nurses at Alpine Manor, a Grand Rapids, Michigan nursing home, and the two co-workers quickly became lovers. Then they became killers.
According to Woods’ testimony, Gwendolyn Graham smothered an Alzheimer’s patient while Woods watched, as a way of cementing their relationship; now that they shared a secret, they’d have to stay together. At first, the couple chose their victims so their initials would spell out “M-U-R-D-E-R,” but grew bored of that game, so they just started offing old people. Eventually, the couple broke up and stopped smothering geriatrics.
Because the patients were elderly, their deaths weren’t regarded as suspicious, so Graham and Woods would probably have gotten away with the murders… but Woods talked. She ended up implicating Graham in five murders, portraying her as a domineering mastermind who forced Woods to act as lookout while she killed people. Graham told basically the opposite story — saying that Woods forced her to go along with the scheme as part of some weird game. Either way, both women went to prison — Graham on five consecutive life sentences, and Woods on a 40-year bid that ends in 2021.
The Ripper Crew: Satanic, Cannibalistic Serial Murder Gang
If you were a woman in Chicago in the early 1980s, you did not want to run across The Ripper Crew. The ringleader of the gang of four young men, Robin Gecht, was a self-styled Satanist who once worked for John Wayne Gacy. Gecht built a “Satanic Temple” in a spare bedroom of the house he shared with his wife, painting upside-down crosses on the wall and building a makeshift altar. Friend Edward Spreitzer and teenaged brothers Andrew and Thomas Kokoraleis joined him in his unholy cult/gang.
The crew would cruise Chicago’s mean streets in a panel van, looking for sex workers. Gecht was looking for women with large breasts — that was very important to him. Once they’d found a victim, she’d be kidnapped, driven to Gecht’s temple, raped, murdered, and mutilated. The death orgies would culminate in each member of the crew eating part of the victim’s breasts, while Gecht read aloud from The Satanic Bible. Gecht would keep one of his victims’ breasts as a trophy.
Gecht reportedly had a supernatural hold over his friends, who reported that they were terrified of his mystical power. When asked why he did it, Thomas Kokoraleis said that Gecht could make them do whatever he wanted: “You just had to do it,” he explained.
The Ripper Crew was suspected in as many as 18 deaths and disappearances around Chicago, and were caught when one of their victims escaped. Andrew Kokoraleis was executed in 1999; Edward Spreitzer is serving a life sentence for his crimes; Gecht is serving a 120-year prison sentence. Thomas Kokoraleis, though, had his life sentence commuted; he’s scheduled to be released from the Illinois River Correctional Center a few months from now — on September 30, 2017.
The Philadelphia Poison Ring: Arsenic, Occultism, And Organized Crime
Life was tough in Philadelphia during the Great Depression. Even traditional criminal rackets like numbers-running and extortion were ruined by the nation’s broken economy. But Cousins Herman and Paul Petrillo were hustlers to the core, and hit on a recession-proof criminal scheme: Take out insurance policies on old men and then poison them with arsenic.
The Petrillos and sham occultist Morris “The Rabbi” Bolber were heads of a loosely-knit ring that targeted Italian immigrants across Philadephia. Typically, an unhappy wife would visit Bolber’s matrimonial agency looking for a fix for her busted marriage. Bolber would prescribe a “love potion” that was heavy on arsenic. Sometimes the women knew what was going on and happily murdered their husbands. Sometimes they had no idea why their husband suddenly became ill. Either way: Their unlucky mates died, and Bolber and company collected the insurance money.
The scam eventually grew to include crooked insurance agents, a network of doctors, undertakers, and poison procurers, all profiting off murder and insurance fraud. Once the authorities were tipped off, there was a media frenzy, with much of the breathless coverage centering on the “black widows” who killed their husbands. After a lengthy and sensational trial, Herman and Paul Petrillo were sentenced to death; Morris Bolber was sentenced to life imprisonment. Thirteen other men and women were also convicted of a total of 70 murders.
“Michael Bear” and “Suzan Bear”: The San Francisco Hippy Witch-Killers
Regular hippies are bad enough — but serial-murdering hippies are the absolute worst. James Carson was an uber-burnout — he had a master’s degree in Chinese studies; he was a strict vegan; he did yoga; he lived in San Francisco’s Haight-Asbury district, where his hobbies included drugs and mysticism. (I’m sure he listened to the Grateful Dead too.) Around 1980, he met Suzanne Barnes. Then they went nuts together.
After changing their names to “Michael Bear” and “Suzan Bear,” they took the self-righteousness that makes normal hippies so repellent and turned it up past 11, murdering people they suspected of being witches. The couple’s first victim was Karen Barnes, a roommate at their San Francisco pad who had to die because — according to the couple — she was draining Suzan Bear of her “health and yogic powers.” The drug-addled Bonnie and Clyde fled to Oregon, then to Humboldt County, California where they found work on a marijuana farm (big surprise there). Some kind of impossible-to-discern junkie confrontation over proper marijuana cultivation techniques led to Michael Bear shooting a co-worker… and the couple fled again.
They turned up a couple years later, hitchhiking outside of Los Angeles. Unlucky good Samaritan Jon Charles Hellyar picked up the couple by the side of the road, and they quickly determined he was a witch and shot him dead. The cops caught them soon afterwards, and the investigation led to the couple being connected to as many as a dozen murders across the U.S. and Europe. The Bears even kept a hit-list of “celebrity witches” that included Ronald Reagan and Johnny Carson… but apparently not Jerry Garcia.
The Skin Hunters of Łódź
Back in 2002, Poland was stunned by the story of the Skin Hunters. At the time, it was apparently a fairly common (if shadowy) practice for ambulance drivers and hospital workers to accept bribes from funeral homes in exchange for bringing them the recently dead. The funeral homes would bury the dead, and the state would provide the funeral home with a payment of around $800. ‘‘The bodies are a kind of goods here that funeral homes want to buy,” Boguslaw Tyka, head of the Łódź provincial ambulance service, told the BBC.
The “Skin Hunters” took the scheme one step further: These four employees of the casualty department of a hospital in Łódź would either provide substandard care leading to death, or just outright murder elderly patients in order to collect the kickbacks.
In 2007, two doctors and two paramedics were convicted of killing or endangering their patients. The inquiry is ongoing, with a total of forty other members of the casualty department under investigation. The Polish authorities are looking into the funeral homes as well — who were apparently callous enough to list the bribes as expenses on invoices for victims’ families!