The reason we don’t hear more about Black serial killers is not because they don’t exist. It’s because their victims are rarely newsworthy enough to get the same amount of coverage as white victims.
This essay contains discussion of serial murder and r/pe. Please use discretion.
Even the most depraved and gruesome of the white serial killers who dominated headlines once upon a time continue to be intimately and sometimes even fondly explored through television, film, podcasts, and other forms of entertainment. The most prominent of these killers, who continues to dwell in the social imagination long after his execution, is Ted Bundy—idealized in a way that frames his crimes as more sophisticated than they really were and his acumen as more impressive than it really was.
Our culture’s framing of white serial killers like Bundy as tortured geniuses only serves to memorialize them while allowing their celebrity to overshadow the lives they stole. It’s irresponsible. As is this same culture’s neglect for the crimes committed by Black serial killers, so much so that many people continue to say they’ve “never heard of a Black serial killer” and the myth they don’t exist is regularly perpetuated. I bring these two things into conversation with one another because I believe their connection is significant. These two phenomena—both the glamorizing of white serial killers and the obscurity of Black serial killers—are so prevalent because white men are continually afforded humanity and individualism while Black men are pathologized as inherently violent and animalistic, and because society devalues the victims that Black serial killers primarily target.
The documentary “Unseen” (2016) focuses on the crimes of Anthony Sowell, a man who served fifteen years for a rape he committed in 1989. In early 2009, a woman named Gladys Wade filed a police report against him, stating that he had sexually assaulted her and tried to kill her. Despite there being visible bruises and blood on her neck, police called her claim “unfounded” and determined that there was “insufficient evidence” to make an arrest. In their report, Wade was described as “not credible” as a victim. That same year, Vanessa Gay was held hostage and raped by Sowell. She also found a decapitated body decomposing in his home. Gay managed to convince Sowell that she wouldn’t tell anyone about what he’d done if he let her go. She called the police to inform them about what had happened and what she had seen, but because she never filed an official police report, the incident was never investigated.
Months later, Latundra Billups went to the hospital after being strangled and sexually assault by Sowell. A report was filed, but there was no attempt to contact her for another three weeks. When police finally arrived at Sowell’s residence to arrest him for the rape and attempted murder of Billups in late October, a horrific discovery was made—the consequence of their incompetence and apathy over the years. The bodies of eleven Black women were discovered decomposing in his home and backyard. This came after at least three years of poor, drug-addicted, Black women who often did sex work to support their addiction being reported missing in the small Cleveland neighborhood. At the time of discovering their bodies, police had not investigated a single one of their disappearances.
“I wish we had one million Anthony Sowell,” says Assad Tayeh, a convenience store owner whose business stood directly across the street from Sowell’s home. He speaks unabashedly in the documentary. “He clean up the garbage… The one he killed. Those garbage.” After Vanessa Gay was let go by Sowell following a night of terror, she walked down the street, limping, bleeding, and in horrible pain. She remembers that many people saw her, “church people” on Sunday morning, but no one did anything to help her. Some even laughed. “I was on crack. People already thought I was crazy… They don’t wanna believe an addict anyway. So, I just stayed high.” She was well-aware of how people in her community and society at large viewed her. She knew that her life and her safety were not valued. That’s why she, and many other rape survivors, especially societal outcasts living on the margins, never filed an official police report.
“Unseen” directly addresses this bias. So few people know about Anthony Sowell because of who his crimes impacted the most: poor, drug-addled, Black women. Rather than trying to establish Sowell as a celebrity in the True Crime world, “Unseen” instead wants us to remember the names of his victims—Amelda Hunter, Diane Turner, Crystal Dozier, LeShanda Long, Michelle Mason, Nancy Cobbs, Janice Webb, Tishana Culver, Telacia Fortson, Tonya Carmichael, and Kim Smith. It works to intentionally humanize them and make them and their lives more visible than their murderer.
I keep thinking about “Unseen” as I witness reactions to the newly-released “Confessions with a Serial Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes”, Netflix’s documentary series about “America’s Most Notorious Serial Killer” and director Joe Berlinger’s companion to his new film starring Zac Efron as Bundy, “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile”. The first episode of the series, “Handsome Devil”, introduces Bundy as a “diabolical genius” before delving into the details of his crimes. Abduction, assault, rape, mutilation, necrophilia, and more. Bundy is certainly among one of the worst people to have ever lived, and his presence in the social memory is not only due to the heinousness of his murders of at least 36 people, but also because he has been romanticized in the media since the moment he was first arrested and revealed to the public in the 1970s.
Throughout the series, headlines describing him as seeming like “one of us”, “charming”, “handsome”, and “brilliant and articulate” flash across the screen, juxtaposed with imagery of a picturesque white American life. The two reporters who visit Bundy on death row to record interviews with him seem eager to get access to such a “good story”. They talk about how well-spoken Bundy was, how regular and commonplace he seemed to them, “cautious” and “business-like”. Even the judge presiding over Bundy’s murder trial tells him, “Take care of yourself… You’re a bright young man. You’d have made a good lawyer. I would’ve loved to have you practice in front of me, but you went another way, partner. Take care of yourself. I don’t have any animosity towards you. I want you to know that.” It’s nauseating.
People who focus so much on this killer’s respectability, his perceived charm, good looks, and professionalism, refuse to admit the truth about him: he wasn’t exceptionally smart, or handsome, or charming, or remarkable in any way. He was a narcissistic, arrogant, manipulative, thin-lipped, dead-eyed menace and an absolute terror, and everyone around him enabled his behavior and inflated sense of self, even after the details of his brutal assaults, murders, and necrophilia were known. Those who remain in awe of him will always try to frame him as the picture of normalcy, because white men and boys always get the benefit of the doubt in a society that privileges them over everyone else, even when they have proven that they don’t deserve it. Their mediocrity is always overblown. Their intellect over estimated. Their demeanor and social skills interpreted as normal and rational, because white men and boys consider themselves the default, the baseline for human behavior, personality, and emotionality.
Their innocence is readily presumed because, even though white men commit an overwhelming amount of violent crime, whiteness and white masculinity are not pathologized in the way that others are. Black people are “thugs”, Mexican immigrants are “animals”, Muslims are “terrorists”, but white men are just misguided, consistently able to retain their humanity and individualism regardless of how many acts of terror they commit. This is the bias that allowed Bundy to evade capture, control the narrative about himself, and project his “innocence” for so long, and it’s the same bias that works try to convince us that every white mass shooter or domestic terrorist was just “misunderstood”, a “lone wolf”, a “troubled individual”. And it is this same system of ideas which allows society to ignore crimes against its most marginalized members, those who don’t meet societal standards of respectability.
I grew up in a small town in eastern North Carolina, about half an hour away from a city called Rocky Mount, where a serial killer was arrested the same year Anthony Sowell’s crimes were exposed. Over the course of six years, Antwan Pittman claimed the lives of at least 9 Black women—poor drug addicts and sex workers, mothers, daughters, and friends to many. They were people whose lives mattered, but there was very little urgency in solving their murders.
GQ’s coverage of the story reads: “By the early summer of 2009, three poor black women of the Rocky Mount streets were missing and another six were dead—with three of the bodies found along or near Seven Bridges Road—and the authorities had not deemed it important to notify the community that a serial killer was likely in their midst… Destitute black women in a hopeless pocket of America meeting violence and rape and murder with no one to stop it—it is an infuriating constant… Someone was apparently taking drug-addicted black women from the drab streets of Rocky Mount—women who were not well connected or captivating to the media—and ending their sad lives and gambling that it would not matter.”
Most victims of serial murder are known as “the less dead” with Black women like the victims of Sowell and Pittman being considered the absolute least dead. Already subjected to a social death, they can hardly be killed. They can hardly be any more dead than they already were before. This is how they are viewed by our society and by their murderers, and are often regarded this way by the police who are supposed to investigate their murders, but often simply ignore them. The “less dead” is what these people are thought of as. It is not what they are. Their humanity gets erased by their murderers as justification for why they should be allowed to kill them, take them, keep them, own them, by law enforcement as justification for why they don’t have to investigate their murders thoroughly or at all, and by society as justification for why the world shouldn’t care what happens to them.
It was important for me to open this piece with the victims of Anthony Sowell. The pathologization and criminalization of Black people, and the dehumanization of the people Sowell assaulted and killed, work so that his crimes are seen as too common and unremarkable to be regarded as truly horrific. Most crime is intraracial, but especially murder. Black serial killers tend to have Black victims, as white killers tend to have white victims. The reason we don’t hear more about Black serial killers is not because they don’t exist. It’s because their victims are rarely newsworthy enough to get the same amount of coverage as white victims. The reality is that white victims get more attention, there is an obsession with respectable white women and girls in peril. There is proven bias in news coverage of missing people of color, and Missing White Woman Syndrome is real and apparent. It’s evident in the creepy fixation with JonBenet Ramsey all these years later while that same level of shock is not granted to missing and murdered Black children, in part because Black children are always-already seen as less innocent than white children.
Wayne Williams likely killed 28 people, mostly Black children, though he was only charged and convicted for the deaths of two men. These crimes are known as the Atlanta Child Murders, which will reportedly play a significant part in the second season of the Netflix hit, “Mindhunter”, finally bringing them into the mainstream social consciousness. But there are so many more who go unexamined: Henry Louis Wallace brutally ripped 10 women from this world, Chester Turner is suspected to have ended the lives of over 100 women, Shelley Andre Brooks killed at least 7 sex workers, Maury Travis tortured and killed as many as 20, The Grim Sleeper had at least 11 victims. There are many more and the vast majority of their crimes include sexual violence, and in every case the investigations were stalled because of lack of care for their victims, who were mostly poor Black women and sex workers. Those who know of these killers tend to be either True Crime junkies or from the areas where these attacks occurred and able to remember the terror these men caused, or at least its aftermath.
As someone with a long-held sociological interest in True Crime, I believe there is great value in the study of crime, the criminals who commit them, the people who fall victim to them, and the criminal justice system that is supposed to protect the public from their violence, but often fails to do so. There is value in studying these things with intent to use the knowledge gained to make ourselves safer and better prepared. There’s value in understanding how our societal fears and anxieties and normalized abuses contribute to how serial killers are born. How our biases make certain people more susceptible to their violence. How widespread racism, classism, misogyny, whorephobia, and more influence how these victims are viewed, why and how they are targeted, and how law enforcement respond to their assault or murder.
This is, by no means, a call for Black serial killers to be heralded in the same light and celebrity as Ted Bundy. Quite the opposite. I want us to stop romanticizing serial killers altogether and continue to interrogate why our culture has done so in the first place while also acknowledging the disparities in the crimes and victims we obsess over. This is a plea for us to recognize the devastation they cause for the families and others surrounding their victims. We cannot ignore the fact that the pain that they inflict is almost always on the most marginalized, and least valued. I want us to mourn these stolen lives the way they deserve to be mourned.
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