We love crime dramas and fictions – horrifying tales of death, mutilation and thievery even – for one good reason, they always get the bad guys. That gives us closure and makes us feel that all is right with the world, the guys in the white hats will always beat the guys in the black hats and we can sleep safe in our beds.
Most of the time that’s how it happens in real life too. Isn’t it? Well, maybe not. Crime statistics are complex and controversial things, but the murder clear-up rate is probably around 70%, that means three out of 10 killers get away with it – and those are the ones we know about.
1 – Jack the Ripper
Undoubtedly the most famous unsolved crimes in modern history are the terrifying Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. They have spawned a whole industry of conspiracy theories, movies and even musicals – Prostitute Mutilation: the musical… that’s nice – and as they will almost certainly never be solved the cash registers won’t stop ringing for a while yet.
The Whitechapel Murders, as they were known until a nutter called Jack the Ripper started writing to the police, shocked and horrified the nation. Five women, at least, were killed by the Ripper, or Rippers.
One of the reasons for the nation’s revulsion was the light the murders shone on the horrifying conditions in the slums of the richest city of the greatest empire the world had ever seen.
There was a series of terrifying murders in Whitechapel in 1888. Eleven have been linked to the Ripper case, but only five are considered definitely his work.
The case is a fascinating glimpse at the birth of modern police work. The Ripper was the subject of the first known use of ‘profiling’ as the police desperately sought to find a killer who was in danger of causing the Whitechapel area to erupt.
It was also the first murder to spark such a media frenzy in the nascent popular press. Letters sent to the police helped fuel the fire. Many were hoaxes, but the ‘Dear Boss’ letters and the ‘From Hell’ letters, which inspired Alan Moore’s graphic novel on the case, were considered seriously by the police.
Dear Boss Letters:
Hundreds of books have been written on the case and all sorts of conspiracy theories have been built around the murders, which stopped as suddenly as they started. The Queen’s surgeon William Gull and the artist Walter Sickert are two of the more popular suspects. More plausible Jacks included a barber who was later found guilty of killing three of his wives. Another killer, Thomas Cream, is said to have uttered, ‘I am Jack the…’ as he was hanged for a series of poisonings – unfortunately for Thomas’s bid for immortality, he had been locked up in Chicago while Jack went about his grizzly work.
The Jack the Ripper case continues to exercise a strong hold over our imaginations. Experts in serial killing reckon that the sudden end of the killing spree suggests that the killer died, was somehow locked up or left Britain to carry on his killing elsewhere.
We will never know. We will probably never stop speculating.
2 – The Zodiac Killer
In 2007 the Zodiac Killer was the subject of a Hollywood film, it’s perfectly possible that its main subject – surely an old man – watched and enjoyed it.
The killer terrified the San Francisco Bay area for most of 1969, killing at least five people and possibly more. What has caught the imagination though is the killer’s series of letters – ‘you can’t catch me’ – sent to newspapers, featuring a code which has yet to be cracked. The case remains open.
The letter writer claimed to have killed 37 people, but only five victims are confirmed by the cops. Two more people were attacked but survived.
The letters included facts only the genuine killer could have known and included a code with 408 symbols, which he said contained his identity. He threatened to carry out further killings, including blowing up a school bus, and claimed to have killed many more.
The final letter from the killer was received in 1974, although many more communications have poured into Californian law enforcement agencies since.
There were several suspects considered seriously by the police, but over the years many amateurs have claimed they know who the killer was – strangely, it’s usually a relative, and one woman’s claim followed her public announcement that she was JFK’s illegitimate daughter.
He may still be out there, the man who wrote, “I like killing people because it is so much fun”.
3 – The Black Dahlia Murder
Elizabeth Short was the Black Dahlia, this time the victim gets the sexy nickname, and her murder in Los Angeles in January 1947 drove the city wild at the time and continues to mystify us now.
Elizabeth was probably not a very happy girl. She seems to have been badly affected by losing a probable fiancée in the Second World War and been something of a drifter, probably trying to get into the movies.
It was the horrifying nature of her death that made her famous. She had been tortured terribly and her body cut in half before it was dumped in a disused lot in LA. The newspapers sensed a good story and did Elizabeth’s memory no service with their invention of the Black Dahlia – a slinky ‘adventurous’, with some newspapers coming close to suggesting that she was ‘asking for it’.
As in many celebrated murder cases, there are anonymous letters. The first was sent to a newspaper because the killer was upset that the case was slipping down the news agenda. It contained Elizabeth birth certificate and an address book.
At least 50 people have confessed to the killing – or blamed their relatives – and even today LAPD dreads a documentary or film on the case as they will be inundated with theories and confessions all over again.
The LAPD did their best – and many who have studied the case blame the press for their interference in what they saw as a great story – and threw men and money at the case. They came up with 25 suspects, and modern followers of the case tend to focus on 10 of those.
The case has been linked with a number of other notorious cases, and alleged conspiracies abound.
James Ellroy, whose own mother was murdered in Los Angeles, wrote the novel, The Black Dahlia in 1987, which was later filmed and introduced Elizabeth Short to a whole new generation.
4 – Daniel Morgan
Daniel Morgan was killed in 1987, but no-one has yet paid for the brutal killing of the private detective who was said to be close to revealing major police corruption.
Morgan was killed with an axe in the car park of the Golden Lion pub in South London. A watch had been stolen, but a wadge of cash left in his pockets while notes he had been making had been literally ripped out of his pockets.
The man who first investigated the killing ended up being arrested on suspicion of carrying it out. Morgan’s partner in his PI business was also a suspect.
Five times – twice in secret – police have tried to solve this brutal killing, and five times they have failed.
The theory is that the police themselves, possibly Freemasons, were involved in the killing to stop Morgan revealing what he knew about their collusion with drug dealers.
There has been a trial. It started in 2009 and dragged on until 2011 when it was finally abandoned by the prosecution. Even the police themselves have admitted that police corruption – one of the problems with the trial was the disappearance and appearance of whole crates full of documents – has helped to stymy the quest for justice.
The case was dragged into the phone hacking scandal when it transpired that Morgan’s’ business partner Jonathan Rees (and a suspect for the killing) had been involved with the News of the World, using dodgy police contacts to get information to sell to the now-closed paper.
In May 2013, the case was made the subject of an independent inquiry, but even the Home Secretary says there is very little chance that anyone will be tried for killing Daniel Morgan.
Read more about Daniel Morgan:
5 – Jill Dando
The killing of a much-loved TV presenter on the doorstep of her London home is still baffling and shocking today. Although one man has served time for the killing, he was the victim of a serious miscarriage of justice.
Jill Dando was a popular BBC news reader and presenter, whose appearances on Crimewatch have provided plenty of ammunition for theorists.
Dando was shot outside her home in Fulham in 1999. To say that the crime shocked the nation would be an understatement. Dando’s work on the BBC’s Crimewatch gave her some small connection to the criminal world, but she was a genuine family favourite, who also appeared on Antiques Roadshow and Songs of Praise. How could she be assassinated in broad daylight?
The police were equally baffled, and eventually charged Barry George, an attention-seeking minor criminal. George was convicted, but after three appeals his conviction was quashed and he was acquitted at a second trial.
The killing remains mysterious. Stalkers have been considered, someone who had been convicted as a result of a Crimewatch programme and even the Serbian warlord Arkan, who some have speculated may have been seeking revenge for the killing of Serbian TV presenters in a Nato bombing raid. The Serbian connection has had many serious supporters.
It seems unlikely that this shocking crime will ever be solved or its motive revealed.
6 – The Feminicidio of Ciudad Juarez
Hundreds of women have been killed in the Mexican-American border region of Ciudad Juarez since 1993, and no-one has been brought to justice.
The killings bear all the hallmarks of serial crimes. The victims are often raped, tortured and mutilated and generally look alike. Most are poor, working on the fringes of the legitimate economy, and the authorities’ failure to solve the crimes are notorious.
Mexico is a state parts of which are on the verge of collapse, as vicious narco gangs have essentially taken over large parts of the country. Killings often go unpunished and the murder rate is appalling, but something different seems to be going on here – nowhere in Mexico are women so sought out for horrifying violence.
This has led to a number of theories. Unemployed men who resent the women’s jobs, a highly transient population of people who are seen as essentially disposable, Mexico’s culture of machismo, all have been suggested.
And, of course, the city of Juarez is home to one of Mexico’s drug cartels. Gang violence is endemic.
There have been some convictions. Three in fact. These have been of multiple murderers, all of whom have claimed they were tortured into giving false confessions.
Women in the province have campaigned for justice and protection and the Mexican government’s inaction has led to international condemnation, but the killings continue.
7 – The Feet of the Salish Sea
There may be no crime associated with the discovery of the feet of nine people on the Salish Sea coast in British Columbia in Canada and the United States. However, it’s certainly captured attention and sparked speculation.
The foot total currently stands at 14. The modern sports shoe industry means a fair amount can be discovered about these deceased trainer wearers – for example, the first foot, discovered in 2007, was clad in a sneaker most commonly sold in India.
Three of the feet have been identified, and several are believed to have been linked to a plane crash. Some joker even released a hoax foot onto the Canadian beaches. Very funny.
There really is no explanation as to this strange conglomeration of feet. In water, the feet often detach from the body first as it starts to decay.
Studying the ocean currents which wash up on Canada’s west coast has led one journalist to suggest that the feet belong to victims of the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004. The fact that one of the feet has been traced to a suicide jumper from an American bridge has led that unhappy place to be suggested as another source of all these feet.
Whether or not there’s a crime or a series of crimes attached to these feet, they remain one of the most compelling and terrifying mysteries in the world.
8 – The Lead Mask Killings
Most unsolved crimes are horrifying, the lead mask killings of Brazil are beyond bizarre.
A boy, out with his kite, had the unfortunate experience of discovering two bodies one day in 1966.
The two dead men turned out to be engineers. They were well dressed and there was an empty water bottle near their bodies. There was no visible reason for their deaths.
And, they were wearing lead masks.
All the police were able to discover was that the dead men worked in the electricity industry, had recently bought the water at a bar and one had appeared jittery at the bar where they bought it.
Then the police found a notebook, which had a short itinerary in it, including, “18:30 swallow capsules, after effect protect metals wait for the mask sign”.
Sadly, the Brazilian police left it too long to properly test for poisons that may have been contained in the capsules it must be assumed they had swallowed. But it would appear that neither man was expecting to die – they kept the receipt to return their empty bottle to the bar – and what were they expecting to happen? Why the lead masks, which are usually used in the nuclear industry?
Someone must know, but no-one has spoken up yet.
9 – The Monster with 21 Faces
It had to be Japan. The Monster with 21 Faces was a criminal gang who took it upon themselves to launch a sustained attack on Ezaki Glico, a giant food corporation, before stopping because they had other stuff to be getting on with thank you very much.
The Monster went in at the deep end, kidnapping the Glico boss and demanding an enormous ransom, including 100kgs of gold, from his company. The lucky man managed to escape before any money was handed over or he was harmed.
Their next attack was a little less subtle. They burned a whole host of cars in the company’s car park. Then they sent a letter to Glico – packed with hydrochloric acid – saying it was all to do with global warming.
Then they sent another letter saying they’d poisoned the company’s sweets, which had to be withdrawn from sale at the cost of $21 million.
The police were also contacted with details of how the Monster had carried out the crime.
Finally, they sent a nice letter to Glico saying, ‘we forgive you’. Which is nice.
But that wasn’t the end of the Monster, who moved on to Morinaga, another food manufacturer, which was sent 21 poisoned packages, politely labelled ‘contains toxins’.
A couple of times the police got close to the Monster, but all they got was the description that the man they had nearly captured had ‘eyes like a fox’, and that he had the equipment to listen in to police radio.
They carried on their successful and lucrative reign of moderate terror for several years, driving one disgraced police officer to commit suicide by fire.
Then it all ended with a lovely letter from the Monster, saying: “We are bad guys. That means we’ve got more to do other than bullying companies. It’s fun to lead a bad man’s life.”
10 – The Chicago Tylenol Murders
The fact that drugs all come in tamper-proof packaging is all down to this unexplained killing spree in 1982. The Unabomber has been linked with the crimes, but he denies it, and a man was prosecuted for extortion against the drug’s manufacturer, but no-one knows who poisoned seven people in September and October 1982.
Tylenol is a popular pain killer, and someone managed to get cyanide into a batch of it. Killing in this way is terrifyingly random, and the first victim was a 12-year-old girl. The next victims were a brother and sister-in-law who took pills from the same bottle.
The police went as far as driving round the streets with loudspeakers warning people not to take the pain killer. They worked out that the bottles had been tampered with on the shelves of local stores rather than during production.
Nonetheless Johnson & Johnson withdrew millions of bottles of one of America’s favourite drugs.
A man called James William Lewis who sent a letter demanding money from the drug company was convicted of extortion but not of the killings, which he has since denied. Another suspect was so freaked out by the media attention that he shot and killed a completely innocent man who he mistook for the man who he blamed for putting him in the spotlight.
With advances in technology, DNA has now come into play, and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski has been tested, but as yet not linked to the crime which he denies.
The case remains open.