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The Perfect Victim

Samuel Little says he killed 93 people, preying on women from the margins of society. Again and again, police across the country failed to stop him.

The Washington Post

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illustration of menacing things surrouning a figure

Illustration by Mike McQuade for The Washington Post

Samuel Little guided his car to a stop in a secluded area off Route 27 near Miami and cut the engine. Before long, Mary Brosley had straddled his lap. He started playing with her necklace.

He’d met her at a nearby bar, drinking away the final hours of 1970. She was a frail, vulnerable woman, about 5-foot-4 and anorexic, barely 80 pounds. The tip of her left pinkie finger was missing, sliced off in a kitchen accident, and she walked with a limp from hip surgery.

Brosley said she had left a series of lovers and two children in Massachusetts after endless confrontations about her drinking. Estranged from her family, struggling to survive, she was the kind of woman who might disappear from the face of the Earth without attracting much notice.

Little admired the way the moonlight illuminated her pale throat.

“I had desires. Strong desires to … choke her,” he would later tell police. “I just went out of control, I guess.”

By New Year’s Day 1971, Mary Brosley, 33, had become the first known victim of a man since recognized as the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history. Over more than 700 hours of videotaped interviews with police that began in May 2018, Little, now 80 [at the time of this writing in 2020], has confessed to killing 93 people, virtually all of them women, in a murderous rampage that spanned 19 states and more than 30 years.

A gifted artist with an unnervingly accurate memory, Little has produced lifelike drawings of dozens of his victims. And, with the fervor of an old man recalling the exploits of his youth, he has provided police with precise details about their murders, invariably effected by strangulation.

Across the nation, police have spent more than two years using that information to reopen cold-case investigations and attempt to bring closure to families who have waited decades to learn what happened to the mother who vanished, the sister whose suspicious death was never explained.

“If Little hadn’t confessed … then none of this would have been solved,” said Angela Williamson, a Justice Department official who worked on the case. Federal investigators believe his confessions are “100 percent credible,” she said.

As of November 2020, officials say they have identified more than 50 victims. Other cases remain in limbo, either because police have been unable to find a killing with circumstances to match Little’s description, or because the victim is an unclaimed “Jane Doe.”

The FBI has pleaded with the public for assistance but has declined to release Little’s case file, saying each murder investigation is being led by local authorities. To fill in the gaps, The Washington Post obtained and analyzed thousands of pages of law enforcement and court records — including a complete criminal history assembled in the early 2000s — and conducted interviews with dozens of police officials, prosecutors, defense attorneys and relatives of Little’s victims. The Post also reviewed video and audio recordings of a number of Little’s confessions.

What emerges is a portrait of a fragmented and indifferent criminal justice system that allowed a man to murder without fear of retribution by deliberately targeting those on the margins of society — drug users, sex workers and runaways whose deaths either went unnoticed or stirred little outrage. In many cases, authorities failed to identify them as murder victims, or conducted only cursory investigations.

Though Brosley was White, at least 68 of Little’s victims were Black, according to officials, news reports and Little’s confessions. At least three were Hispanic and one was Native American. Several had mental disabilities. At least one was a transgender woman.

During an interview with investigators in Ohio, obtained by The Post, Little disturbingly referred to his victims as succulent fruits he could enjoy without penalty.

“I’d go back to the same city sometimes and pluck me another grape. How many grapes do you all got on the vine here?” he said. He boasted of avoiding “people who would be immediately missed.” For example, he said, “I’m not going to go over there into the White neighborhood and pick out a little teenage girl.”

That strategy, coupled with tactics that left little physical evidence, was highly effective. Police officials acknowledge that the vast majority of murders attributed to Little would never have been solved without his voluntary confession.

“If these women had been wealthy, White, female socialites, this would have been the biggest story in the history of the United States. But that’s not who he preyed upon,” said criminologist Scott Bonn, who has written extensively about serial killers.

Little, who also went by the name Samuel McDowell, did not respond to letters from The Post requesting an interview. He is locked up in a California state prison, serving multiple life sentences. Advances in DNA technology and the rise of cold-case units eventually led to his arrest and conviction in 2014. By then, the killing was long over; he has said his final victim died in Tupelo, Miss., in 2005.

But Little’s decades of impunity underscore a troubling truth about the U.S. criminal justice system: It is possible to get away with murder if you kill people whose lives are already devalued by society.

“Could it happen again today?” said Brad Garrett, a former FBI agent who has worked on some of the bureau’s highest-profile cases. “The answer, of course, is yes.”

An early start

Born on June 7, 1940, in Reynolds, Ga., a small town about 100 miles south of Atlanta, Samuel Little has told police he was 7 or 8 years old the first time he got the urge to choke someone. By the fifth grade, he was obsessed with a teacher who rubbed her neck in class, and was fantasizing about killing a little freckled girl he knew.

At the time, Little was living with relatives in northeast Ohio. He told journalist Jillian Lauren that his teenage mother abandoned him as an infant. Georgia officials declined to release Little’s birth certificate, so details of his birth could not be confirmed.

At 13, Little was caught stealing — a bicycle, he has said — and sent to the Boys’ Industrial School, an Ohio reform school, according to a record released by the nonprofit Ohio History Connection. Two years later, he was arrested in Omaha for burglary, according to a copy of his criminal history. A year after that, he was charged with breaking into a furniture store in Lorain, Ohio, and shipped to a juvenile detention center for two years.

Thus began a lifetime of crime that ultimately would include dozens of arrests in cities across the country: Assault in Denver. Soliciting a prostitute in Bakersfield, Calif. Theft in Philadelphia, DUI in Los Angeles and shoplifting in Phoenix.

Sometimes he was locked up for months, or even years. Sometimes he beat the charges, winning acquittals on assault with a gun in Miami and armed robbery in suburban Cleveland. But he always went back to a life of murder and aimless drifting, supported by shoplifting and the occasional odd job.

By 1976, Little was being held in the Dade County, Fla., jail on charges including grand larceny and resisting arrest. Given permission to paint a massive mural on the jailhouse wall featuring such historical figures as Betsy Ross, Sitting Bull and Benjamin Banneker, he was profiled by a reporter for the now-defunct Miami News.

Then 35, Little told the reporter he had taken up drawing while jailed in Baltimore. There, he said, he painted portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and then-Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel.

“I’m looking forward to the day I can get out and open a studio on the beach,” he said. “The next time I’m out, it’s do or die.”

Little told the reporter he had been jailed 16 times, though records suggest it was more like 34 at the time; the article appeared under the headline “16-time loser finds himself.”

By then, according to his recent confessions, Little had already killed more than a dozen women.

Missed signs

Mary Brosley had been dead for three weeks when a man and his 15-year-old son, out hunting one Sunday afternoon, stumbled across a body in a shallow grave. Clad in a multicolored dress, underwear and a metal necklace, the dead woman was decayed beyond recognition and carried no ID. Police ran what remained of her fingerprints but found no matches.

Authorities were stuck, unsure who the woman was or how she had died. The medical examiner incorrectly estimated that she had been between 50 and 60 years old and in the ground for about two months.

Strangulation almost always leaves physical signs such as bruising, pinpricks of under-the-skin bleeding in the face, or fractures of the hyoid bone in the neck, said Gary Watts, president of the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners. But Watts and other experts noted that this physical evidence decays with time and that Little killed his victims under circumstances likely to leave fewer telltale marks.

A person impaired by drugs or alcohol is easier to suffocate without a struggle, for example; younger people tend to have more-flexible hyoid bones and thyroid cartilage, making a fracture less likely.

In Brosley’s case, her body lay decomposing for weeks before it was discovered, allowing physical clues to degrade. By the time they found her, Miami police weren’t even sure their Jane Doe had been murdered. The woman’s blood alcohol level was so high — between 0.29 and 0.37 — it was possible she had simply dropped dead. Police deemed the death suspicious, but did not label it a homicide despite the fact that someone had buried the body.

That was a pattern among Little’s confirmed and likely victims. In some cases, the failure to recognize that a murder had been committed led to abbreviated criminal probes.

“In a case like this, you’ve got detectives dealing with a whole load of cases, and this woman is a sex worker, or homeless. There’s nothing to tie her to anybody in particular,” said Garrett, the former FBI agent. “You do the preliminary stuff, fingerprints and DNA. And there are detectives who do more than that. … But you sort of have to get lucky.”

In 1974, Martha Cunningham, a 34-year-old Black woman, disappeared in Knoxville, Tenn., on her way to a New Year’s Eve church service, according to her sister, Jessie Lane Downs. When they found her body, police told local reporters, it was covered in bruises; an autopsy noted that her purse and jewelry were missing, that her stockings and underwear had been pulled down to her thighs, and that her dress and slip had been pulled up.

Still, the autopsy found “no obvious cause of death.” Noting Cunningham’s history of seizures, local authorities told the Knoxville News-Sentinel that the death appeared to be from natural causes.

In 1977, Mary Ann Jenkins, a 22-year-old Black woman, was found naked but for her jewelry; officials in Illinois incorrectly concluded that she had been killed in a lightning strike.

And in 1994, authorities in Pine Bluff, Ark., found the naked body of Jolanda Jones, 26, a Black mother of two, in a vacant house with a crack pipe under her thigh. Medical examiners found no obvious signs of trauma but did find cocaine in her blood. Her death was ruled an overdose.

Years later, the FBI notified local police that Little had confessed to killing a woman in Pine Bluff. Police said he produced a painting of a woman that resembled Jones and offered details that seemed to match Jones’s case.

“It was like he was there with us” when Jones’s body was found, said Terry Hopson, a retired deputy police chief who was on the scene.

A quarter-century after her death, Pine Bluff police forwarded Jones’s case to local prosecutors.

A cold case

Brosley was still a Jane Doe when she officially became a murder victim in 1982. Joseph Davis, the chief medical examiner in Miami, opened her file during a routine review of unsolved cases. The way she had been partially buried prompted him to reconsider the manner of death, police said; it was changed from “undetermined” to “homicide.”

Police still knew almost nothing about the victim. She appeared to be “an alcoholic female, with two old injuries, strangled, killed, and buried,” Davis wrote in a memo to police. “A saloon ‘hanger-on’ type might be considered.”

Thirty-five more years passed before an investigator with the medical examiner’s office, a specialist in unidentified remains, picked up the file.

The investigator, Brittney McLaurin, plugged a description of the body into a national database of missing persons launched about a decade earlier. McLaurin quickly turned up a report of a missing Massachusetts woman who had lost part of a pinkie and had a medical implant in her hip — just like the unidentified body. The woman, Mary Brosley, also was said to have naturally auburn hair that she occasionally dyed blond — another match.

McLaurin contacted a dental expert, who compared the body’s teeth with Brosley’s dental records. Then McLaurin called police to say she had identified their Jane Doe.

It would take another year to find Brosley’s killer.

In May 2018, Miami-Dade Detective David Denmark got a call from James Holland, a Texas Ranger investigating a serial killer who had confessed to strangling women in South Florida. Miami detectives scoured their archives for unsolved drownings and strangulations, settling on two that seemed to fit Little’s profile: One was a White, mentally disabled sex worker named Angela Chapman who died in 1976. The other was Brosley.

Little, then being held in a county jail in North Texas, agreed to meet Denmark in exchange for a pledge not to use his confessions to seek a death sentence. Denmark finally interviewed Little in October 2018.

It was a disorienting experience, he said. Instead of aggressive interrogation, Little required patience. Denmark learned to listen to his stories without interrupting, “to laugh at all of his little jokes,” to let his memories slowly unspool.

Little began with Chapman, who was 25 when he said he had sex with her, drove her out to the Everglades and tried to drown her.

“He took her out of the water after she passed out, and brought her back to the shore,” Denmark said. “When she woke back up, he choked her [again] and killed her.”

Then Little mentioned another murder: his very first. He said he’d met the woman at a bar in North Miami Beach, a blonde who walked with a limp. He said she told him she was from Massachusetts, and that she had run away. He said he drove her to a secluded area, strangled her and buried her in a shallow grave.

The detectives showed Little a photo of Mary Brosley.

Yes, he said. That’s her.

Unanswered question

Darryl Brosley had long wondered about the mother who vanished when he was a child. Once a bright student, she had endured a long line of violent men. One picked her up during a fight and threw her down so hard she needed hip surgery. Another was Darryl’s father. He remembers watching his dad throw a drinking glass at his mother’s head.

His mother wound up a divorced alcoholic, forced to give up Darryl and his younger sister to foster care. Eventually, a great aunt took them in. The last photo Darryl has of his mother was taken at his first Communion: She showed up with a new man in tow, then disappeared from her son’s life for good.

Eventually, Darryl started telling people his mother died in a car crash. But he liked to imagine that she had just run off to a new life, had maybe married a millionaire.

Last year, he got the chance to find out for sure. His aunt called, saying she had news.

Darryl couldn’t decide at first if he wanted to hear it. In the end, he called back.

The aunt said his mother had been killed in Florida, that her body was found by hunters. The aunt said police believed the killer was a man she’d met in a bar. His mother really had been dead all these years.

Darryl hung up the phone and cried.

A few months later, a local reporter told him his mother might have been the victim of a serial killer. For the first time, Darryl heard the name Samuel Little.

Soon, the story was everywhere. Dozens of police departments were interviewing Little, saying his confessions had helped solve decades-old murder cases. In October 2019, the FBI identified Little as the most prolific serial killer in U.S. history with 93 confessed victims, more than Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer combined. An ex-girlfriend texted Darryl to say she had seen his mother’s killer on TV.

Now 59 and still living near Boston, Darryl knows police had fewer tools at their disposal when his mother was killed. He also knows his mother was easy prey. But he said he still struggles to understand how Little was permitted to kill vulnerable people again and again — 92 more times, by Little’s account.

“It’s hard to fathom. I mean, how does someone get away with that? Transient or otherwise?”

“Jesus,” he said, “I can’t even come to terms with that number.”

Wesley Lowery was a national correspondent covering law enforcement, justice and their intersection with politics and policy for The Washington Post. He previously covered Congress and national politics. In 2015, he was a lead reporter on the "Fatal Force" project awarded the Pulitzer Prize and George Polk award. He left The Post in February 2020.

Hannah Knowles is a reporter on the General Assignment team. Before joining The Washington Post in June 2019 as an intern, she worked at CBS News, the Sacramento Bee and her hometown paper, the Mercury News.

Mark Berman is a national reporter for The Washington Post who covers law enforcement and criminal justice issues. He has been with The Post since 2007.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

About this story: Story editing by Lori Montgomery. Copy editing by Mike Cirelli. Design and development by Lucio Villa. Photo editing by Nick Kirkpatrick. Project management by Julie Vitkovskaya.

To contact the authors with information about Samuel Little, send us an email at indifferentjustice@washpost.com.

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This post originally appeared on The Washington Post and was published November 30, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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